Work permits to strengthen Indo-Bangladeshi ties

Author: Vikas Kumar, Bangalore

Bangladesh is not only one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but it is also among the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters.

In the foreseeable future, climate change is likely to accentuate these crises, and increasingly, Bangladeshis will attempt to make their way to India. Hidden among those escaping the havoc wreaked by natural disasters are drug-traffickers, arm smugglers, and Islamic terrorists.

To contain this ‘illegal’ immigration, the Indian government has already fenced half of the 4053 kilometre-long Indo-Bangladesh border. The fence’s completion has been hampered by the riverine landscape and incomplete demarcation of the international boundary. Even if it is feasible, completing the fence will block the easiest escape route for the targets of Islamic extremism — including not only non-Muslims but also syncretic Muslim Bauls, Ahmediyas, and many other interest groups and minorities.

The share of minority religions in Bangladesh’s population has halved since its independence. The struggle for scarce resources is routinely and conveniently provided a communal flavour that allows Islamic extremists to fish in a troubled delta. A major atrocity against fenced-out minorities of Bangladesh will translate into greater support for the Hindu majoritarian parties in India, which will endanger Indian minorities as well as existing Bangladeshi immigrants. It would also provide an ex-post justification for attacks on minorities in Bangladesh. So, completing  the fence between Bangladesh and India will strengthen religious extremists on both sides of the border.

Faith-based screening of immigrants at designated points along a completely fenced border would enable the vulnerable to escape, but it would also allow the Islamic extremists to portray India as a Hindu majoritarian country toward which Bangladesh should not be friendly.

In any case, this proposal would be struck down by the Supreme Court as repugnant to the basic structure of the Indian constitution. It would also be opposed by politicians who depend on immigrant votes or have links with human traffickers. In short, it is highly difficult to monitor illegal immigration due to a combination of geographical, historical, political, and legal factors. The second best solution would be to regulate the influx by issuing work permits. The existing employment visa scheme cannot serve this purpose because it assumes that India is a capital-scarce economy that has space only for skilled immigrant labour in a few sectors.

So, a work permit scheme capable of handling large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled Bangladeshi workers needs to be introduced. A scheme like this would face stiff resistance from those who fear an Islamic 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. Not only will the alarmist approach not stop immigration but it will also leave genuine security concerns unaddressed.

Once a legal option is made available, those presently paying bribes to acquire and retain the insignia will find it cheaper to acquire permits as long as the fees are reasonable. After taking the Bangladeshi government into confidence, Indian authorities should declare that Bangladeshis found without a visa or work permit after the introduction of the scheme will be deported. The proposed combination of carrots and sticks will not hurt genuine economic migrants.

This 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 tends to look to the underworld for protection in the absence of legal remedies. Bangladesh should in fact be invited to open more consulates to meet the requirements of Bangladeshis working in India. Further, a work permit scheme will help immigrants to obtain better wages and reduce travel costs, which will encourage seasonal, rather than permanent, immigration, and will result in greater remittances being invested into the development of Bangladesh. It will also drastically reduce confrontations between the border security forces of India and Bangladesh, which will help in facilitating better anti-terrorism and anti-narcotics smuggling operations. These developments will substantially reduce negative attention on Bangladesh among the Indian media and likewise reduce the scope for knee-jerk reactions from the Bangladeshi media.

In short, a work permit scheme will contribute to improvement of the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship. The scheme should ultimately cover other South Asian countries, in line with the Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed’s suggestion that India ought to make its neighbours stakeholders in its growing economy.

Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore.

A longer version of this article was first published here on South Asia Masala.