Work permits for Bangladeshi immigrants in India March 8, 2011Posted by southasiamasala in : Bangladesh, India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback
Bangladesh is not only one of the most densely populated countries but also among the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters. Gautam Ghosh’s award winning movie Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of River Padma, 1993) beautifully captures the dilemma of people locked in a grim existential struggle against nature. The movie opens with the birth of a child and a chunk of river bank falling into water and ends with people compelled to go to a tiger and reptile-infested island. Ghosh’s characters cannot be stopped by any manmade boundary. They would also be prepared to work at unbelievably low wages, which ensures a steady demand for their labour in neighbouring India. In the foreseeable future, climate change is likely to accentuate their existential crisis and by implication, the problem of “illegal” Bangladeshis in India. Hidden in the midst of this sea of humanity are drug-traffickers, arms smugglers, and Islamic terrorists. The Indian government obviously finds it impossible to screen the immigrants.
To address this problem, the Indian government has already fenced as much as half of the 4053 km long Indo-Bangladesh border. However, complete fencing will be hampered by riverine landscape and incomplete demarcation of the international boundary. Also, even if it is feasible, complete fencing will block the easiest escape route for the targets of Islamic extremism including not only non-Muslims but also syncretic Muslim Bauls, Ahmediyas, etc. People such as Taslima Nasreen are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The share of minority religions in Bangladesh’s population has, in fact, halved since its independence. The struggle for scarce resources is routinely, and conveniently, provided a communal cover, which allows Islamic extremists to fish in a troubled delta. A major atrocity against fenced-out minorities of Bangladesh will translate into greater support for Hindu majoritarian parties in India, which will endanger Indian minorities as well as existing Bangladeshi immigrants and provide an ex-post justification for attacks on minorities in Bangladesh. So, complete fencing will strengthen religious extremists on both sides of the border. Faith-based screening of immigrants at designated points along a completely fenced border will permit the vulnerable to escape. But it will allow the Islamic extremists to portray India as a Hindu majoritarian country with which Bangladesh cannot be friendly. In any case, faith-based screening will be struck down by the Supreme Court as repugnant to the basic structure of the Indian constitution. It will also be opposed by Indian politicians who depend on immigrant votes or have links with human traffickers.
In short, illegal immigration cannot be completely checked due to a combination of geographical, historical, political, and legal factors. The second best solution is to regulate the influx by issuing work permits. The existing employment visa scheme is based on the assumption that India is a capital scarce economy, which has limited space for skilled immigrant labour in a few sectors. So, a work permit scheme specially designed to handle large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled Bangladeshi workers is required. However, such a scheme will face stiff resistance from those who fear an Islamic demographic invasion. They will argue that work permits will encourage Bangladeshi immigrants, which is misleading because not issuing work permits has not discouraged them. They would insist that all the existing illegal immigrants, many of whom have already acquired the insignia of Indian citizenship, must be identified and given permits before immigrants-in-waiting could be given permits. This approach will not only not stop illegal immigration but also leave the genuine security concerns unaddressed.
However, once a legal option is made available in the form of work permits those presently paying bribes to acquire and retain the insignia will find it cheaper to acquire permits as long as work permit fees are reasonable. After taking the Bangladeshi government in confidence, the Indian government should declare that Bangladeshis found without a visa or work permit after the introduction of work permit scheme will be deported. The proposed combination of carrots and sticks will not hurt genuine economic migrants.
A work permit scheme has a number of other benefits. It will reduce the captive labour available to the underworld since a person who enters illegally is likely to end up in illegal economic activities and even otherwise tends to look to the underworld for protection in the absence of legal remedies. In fact, after the introduction of the scheme, Bangladesh should be invited to open more consulates to meet the requirements of Bangladeshis working in India. Further, it will help immigrants obtain better wages and reduce travel costs, which will encourage seasonal rather than permanent migration and also result in greater remittances invested back into the development of Bangladesh. It will also drastically reduce confrontation between the border security forces of India and Bangladesh, which will help in launching better anti-terrorism and anti-narcotics smuggling operations. The above developments will substantially reduce negative attention on Bangladesh in the Indian media and reduce the scope for knee-jerk reaction in the Bangladeshi media.
In short, a work permit scheme will contribute to the overall improvement of the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship. However, India’s north eastern and eastern provinces might fear that they would end up receiving most of the work permit holders, which will aggravate the anti-Bangladeshi sentiment due to intensification of competition in the labour market. To address their genuine concerns, work permit holders should be distributed across provinces according to a federally negotiated formula based on economic (productivity, labour scarcity, nature of industries, per capita provincial domestic product, etc) and demographic (population density, working age population, etc) factors. The work permit scheme should ultimately cover all South Asia, in line with the Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed’s suggestion that India ought to make its neighbours stakeholders in its growing economy.