Constant traffic

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

Large-scale immigration from Bangladesh to West Bengal raises fears of terrorist movement.


E.M. FORSTER, in Howards End, makes an interesting observation that there is no point in praising civilisation if it does not allow a person to die peacefully in the house where he was born. This brings in sharp focus the oft-forgotten fact that a person does not migrate from his village, let alone his country, unless compelled to do so: and, for the poor, this compelling reason is poverty, unemployment and the question of sheer survival.

In 1979, the economist J.K. Galbraith wrote: "Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?"

In a later work, he suggested that the mass poverty and unemployment in Third World countries could be solved easily if globalisation meant not only free movement of capital worldwide but also free international movement of labour. But this was not to be, because the "push" and "pull" factors that work for any significant migration have not been allowed free play by the advanced industrialised countries.

West Bengal, which already has the highest population density in India, has been a sufferer in this respect. The "push" factors prompting Bangladeshi migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, include poverty, unemployment, poor medical facilities, poor infrastructure, political instability, frequent natural disasters and religious fundamentalism.

The "pull" factors that make West Bengal an attractive destination, apart from being a convenient one because of the common border, include a demand for cheap labour in a thriving agricultural sector, the excellent growth rate of the Indian economy, similarity of language and physical features, availability of good medical facilities and a secular and liberal government committed to the rule of law.

Not all is negative about such migration. In line with Galbraith's observation, it has been seen that in most of the places where immigrants have settled in West Bengal, agricultural yield has generally been greater. According to a report brought out by the Population Studies Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, titled "Undocumented Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal", "household industry including bidi, pottery, mat, candle, kanthastitch, ganjee factory, and Shantipuri tant [woven saree] have improved since illegal migrants provide cheap labour."

The report also talks about the flip side of such mass migration: deforestation, land grab, trade grab, squatting on pavements and railway platforms, added pressure on natural resources, and expansion of existing slums.

Some studies of slums in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and Ludhiana show the rural poor from neighbouring countries, including large numbers of Bangladeshis, travel long distances in search of jobs and settle temporarily wherever their unskilled labour may be in demand. Interestingly, they are seldom found in the slums of South Indian cities such as Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kochi, presumably because of the difficulty of learning the local language.

A recent survey conducted by Sanlap, a Kolkata-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that does extensive work in the repatriation of Bangladeshi women rescued from exploitative situations, revealed that in Delhi's Tughlaqabad and Gurgaon areas, there is a sizable population of Bengali-speaking women working as domestics. "From their accents and names, we could ascertain that 75 per cent of them were from Bangladesh," said Indrani Sinha, director and founder-member of Sanlap.

In West Bengal, the problem is compounded by the fact that of the 4,095-km border that India shares with Bangladesh, the State alone covers 2,216 km. But it is along the 1,145-km border in the southern part of the State that most of the immigration from Bangladesh - both documented and illegal - takes place. The fencing that was started a few years ago barely covers 530 km of this crucial border. Though this may have stemmed the infiltration substantially, the porous nature of the border continues to defy permanent solution.

According to Somesh Goyal, Additional Director-General, Border Security Force (BSF), the reduced number of illegal immigrants caught at the border shows that the fencing has been effective. "Whereas earlier we would nab some 10,000 people trying to cross the border illegally, we now catch around 5,000," he told Frontline. "If 50 per cent of the border is fenced, then I can safely say that infiltration has also been reduced by 50 per cent. My focus is on the unfenced areas," he said.

However, he concedes that fencing is not a foolproof solution. The fence is expensive to maintain, and the funds and the technology are not always available. Just 18 battalions cover over 1,000 km of the border, and there is not even adequate lighting to maintain proper vigil. "I have been extremely vocal in demanding floodlighting along the border, but that is still in the experimental stage," he said. So far, only a length of 90 km has been illuminated.

The close, neighbourly relations shared by those living in areas close to the border on either side make it tough for the police and the BSF to tackle illegal immigration. Many people have relatives on the other side and own property in both countries. When it comes to smuggling, people on both sides have fingers in the pie. Besides, many householders on the West Bengal side of the border earn a reasonable income by providing food and shelter to immigrants. Though much illegal immigration takes place with the help of agents who are smart enough to maintain good relations with the BSF, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and the police, many immigrants come across with the help of friendly neighbours on this side of the border, or of friends and relatives who have already migrated.

People on both sides share the same physiological features and the same language (though the accent may be different). Once across the border, the immigrants simply melt away among the locals, sometimes taking on new names.

Until recently, a ration card was considered proof of residence, but this was not difficult to fake. Now, however, with the voter identity card considered a proof of identity, a ration card is no longer good enough to prove residence, which makes things a little more difficult for illegal immigrants.

Talking about the political and demographic impact of such migration from Bangladesh, the State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Tathagata Roy, referred to a report brought out by the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, which states that the Muslim population in West Bengal's Murshidabad district has increased from 55 per cent in 1951 to 61 per cent in 1991; in Malda district, it increased from 36 per cent to 47 per cent. This increase in the bordering districts seems to point to significant migration from across the border.

Roy, in keeping with his party's line, seeks to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim immigrants: the former, for him, are asylum-seeking refugees whereas the latter are illegal immigrants. "India does not have riches coming out of its ears that it can take the burden of supporting surplus Bangladeshi population, especially when Bangladesh receives a huge amount of aid from oil-rich Arab countries of West Asia," he said.

There was a time when most political parties in the State turned a Nelson's eye to illegal immigrants, keeping in view not only the need for maintaining good relations with Bangladesh but also the electoral calculus. That changed after terror attacks were found to have links with some illegal immigrants. The idea mooted by some politicians to issue temporary work permits for temporary job-seekers in border areas was never given a trial.

Cross-border activities include smuggling, and among the major items that change hands are cattle, pharmaceuticals, machinery parts, clothing, sugar, cereals and narcotics. According to BSF sources, around 100 brand new motorcycles made in India are recovered every year while being smuggled into Bangladesh.

For cattle smuggling, the 367-km riverine border area, starting from the Sunderban region, provides an effective, albeit dangerous, passage. Until 2005, approximately 60,000 heads of cattle were intercepted every year, against the million livestock animals that were smuggled out.

"In 2006, we managed to intercept 1,22,000 heads of cattle and, with strict vigilance, reduced the supply of cattle to Bangladesh to less than half a million," said Goyal. After that, beef prices in the border areas of Bangladesh shot up alarmingly, from Taka 65 a kg to Taka 200 a kg: such is the dependence of smuggled livestock in Bangladesh.

There are apparently "cattle corridors" along the border where the cost of turning a smuggled animal to a legal one is Taka 500. The BSF claims that it successfully broke the supply chain from West Bengal to Bangladesh last year. Until 2005, 225-250 smugglers were caught every year. In a drive launched last year, 2,680 smugglers, both Bangladeshi and Indian, were caught; a sum of Rs.1.5 crore in fake currency and three caches of live snakes were recovered from them. Reptiles apparently command a worldwide market of $5 billion and bring in higher profits than even smuggled drugs.

"We find that the BDR has been supporting smuggling activities, and though the present caretaker government has decided to address this issue, there is no reflection yet on the border," said Goyal. But according to the BSF, smuggling of cattle and other goods is a minor issue compared with the far bigger danger: the network that organises the cattle-smuggling can also be used for movement of terrorists and spies.

On August 14 last year, on the eve of Indian Independence Day, the BSF caught two militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad using the cattle route.

Inspector-General, Law and Order Raj Kanojia of the State police echoed this apprehension. "The frequency of arrests of people trying to cross the border is very high, but that is mostly for illegal migration. However, one cannot overlook the strong likelihood of militants using these very routes to enter India," he told Frontline. Between August 2006 and April 2007, as many as 10 militants belonging to the Lashkar, the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jama'atul Mujahideen of Bangladesh were caught trying to cross over into West Bengal.

According to intelligence sources, of the Bangladeshis who have entered India on valid documents, more than 200,000 have not returned home officially.

"We know who they are, and it might be theoretically possible to get them repatriated. But where do we even begin to search? In the last one year's records, Bangladesh has featured very prominently either as a transit point, or as a training centre or as an asylum for terrorists. This, coupled with the massive immigration from the country, has sent alarm bells ringing in States that share borders with Bangladesh," one of them told Frontline.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has stepped up efforts to prevent illegal immigration and the movement of terrorists into the State. The Central government believes that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) uses Bangladesh as a training ground and West Bengal as a transit route. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh comes hand-in-hand with cross-border trafficking.

A study brought out by Groupe Development, based on the research of three NGOs - Sanlap in India and the Dhaka Ahsania Mission and the Association for Community Development in Bangladesh - says: "The magnitude of trafficking in Bangladesh has increased over the years, but neither the extent nor the real expansion can be verified... . Kolkata is the junction and transit point for cross-border trafficking where women and girls from Bangladesh and Nepal are forced into prostitution."

In 80 per cent of the cases, the study reveals, poor women and children came to India on the false assurance of employment, but were instead sold in urban red-light areas.

For the poor job-seekers of Bangladesh, it is often too expensive and time-consuming to follow travel protocols. It is far more convenient to simply slip across the border. The money that has to be spent in bribes is far less than the expenses involved in travelling to Dhaka for the necessary papers, and there is no guarantee that a visa will be granted, anyway.

A lot of people are not even aware of the restrictions on travel across international boundaries. And when the choice is between starvation and illegal immigration, people choose to slip across.

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