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Border Fencing Will Not Stop Illegal Migration

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 26, 2014

    While giving its December 17, 2014 verdict on writ petitions filed by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, All Assam Ahom Association and others on the issue of illegal migration, a two member bench of the Supreme Court not only asked the Central government why it has chosen to leave the border with Bangladesh porous but also directed it to erect fences and strengthen vigilance to prevent the illegal inflow of people through the border. In addition, the Supreme Court also directed the Central government to streamline the procedure for deportation of illegal migrants and begin parleys with Bangladesh on the issue. The Hon’ble Court further stated that it would monitor the efforts of the Central government and review the steps taken after three months.

    The judgment of the Supreme Court is praise worthy given that successive political dispensations have been wishy-washy about the problem of illegal migration. But can fencing prevent large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh? The answer is no. Fencing can at best be a physical obstruction for easy ingress into Indian territory. But it cannot stop a determined infiltrator. There is enough evidence to indicate that migrants have been devising ways to bypass this physical obstruction (see below).

    The idea of fencing the border with Bangladesh to stem the tide of illegal migrants has a long history. The proposal was first put forward by the Assam government in January 1965. Assam, as is well known, has been a destination for migrants from the densely populated neighbouring districts of Mymensingh, Rangpur, Bogra, etc. since the second half of the 19th century. Over the decades, large scale migration altered the demographic profile of Assam’s border districts, as has been evidenced by successive Census Reports since 1871. This trend of migration of “foreigners” continued even after independence, which was only amplified by the inflow of Hindu refugees from the erstwhile East Bengal/East Pakistan following communal riots in the wake of Partition.

    Concerned about the socio-economic and political repercussions of the unrelenting flow of people from across the border, the Assam government undertook several measures including the January 1965 proposal to erect barbed wire fences along some vulnerable patches of the International Border with the approval of the Centre. But a shortage of barbed wires and inability to clear a mile-deep area of habitation prevented it from implementing the fencing project and the plan itself was subsequently shelved. But the idea of fencing itself did not fade away and eventually found mention 20 years later in the Assam Accord of 1985.

    The Assam Accord brought to an end the six year agitation by the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) against illegal migration from Bangladesh. An agreement between the AASU, the AAGSP, the Centre and the Assam government, the Accord stipulated that “the international border shall be made secure against future infiltration by erection of physical barriers like walls, barbed wire fencing and other obstacle at appropriate places”. Accordingly, the project for constructing fences and roads along vulnerable stretches of the border in Assam was initiated in 1986. But the construction of border fences in Assam, West Bengal and Meghalaya was started only in 1989 because of the decision to construct roads first. It was initially decided that only vulnerable stretches, and not the entire border, will be fenced. But by 2001-02, increasing cases of illegal migration, cross-border movement of insurgents and smuggling forced the Central government to decide in favour of fencing the entire India-Bangladesh border.

    It is, however, important to note that the entire India-Bangladesh border cannot be fenced because the terrain – at places riverine or hilly or marshy – does not permit the construction of fences. Moreover, building fences is not an easy task and is fraught with major hurdles. One of the biggest hurdles is delays in the acquisition of land. In addition, vested political interests, the lackadaisical and uncooperative attitude of state governments, stringent environmental laws, paucity of funds and unwillingness of the local people to relocate have all contributed to stalling the process of fencing. Disputed and non-demarcated patches of the border and resistance from Bangladesh further complicate the fencing effort. Nonetheless, a substantial part of the border has indeed been fenced. According to an affidavit submitted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Supreme Court in 2014, out of the 3326 km of fences along the India-Bangladesh border (including reconstruction of damaged fences) that has been sanctioned, construction of 2828 km has been completed and another 78.8 km will be completed by May 2016.

    While fencing has been successful to some extent in preventing easy access, it has not altogether stopped people from illegally entering India. Migrants have devised means to surmount the fence or bypass it. There are numerous reports of migrants either cutting the fences or placing wooden ladders and planks to climb over. The unfortunate incident of Felani Khatun is a case in point in this regard. Migrants also exploit the poorly guarded Sundabans and the sea route to enter India. Fences have also proven ineffective in areas where they cut through villages and houses for well-known reasons. Thick forested tracts and marshy and low lying areas coupled with the faulty design and use of substandard material have further reduced the effectiveness of fences. Further, migrants desperate to find a better livelihood have started relying on the services of smugglers. Mafias involved in smuggling and trafficking of persons have proliferated and entrenched themselves along the border. Corrupt government personnel and political patrons operating hand-in-glove with the smugglers have ensured that migrants are able to not only cross the border easily but also procure the necessary documents to enable them to live in India as ‘citizens’. Furthermore, an increasing number of Bangladeshis who arrive on valid visas do not return and overstay in India.

    In short, fencing as a measure to stop illegal migration from Bangladesh is a suboptimal measure. Migration from Bangladesh occurs because demographic pressure, poverty, political and religious persecution, etc. are pushing people out of that country. At the same time, they are pulled into India because of the demand for cheap labour, the availability of land as well as other attractions such as better medical and educational facilities. Favourable conditions in terms of a porous and easily negotiable border, the availability of shelter from kith and kin, religious and political patronage, lax policing and judicial procedures for identification and deportation of illegal migrants have all facilitated large scale illegal migration. Unless these more fundamental factors – vested political interests, economic compulsions and non-cooperation from Bangladesh – are addressed effectively, illegal migration will continue to take place, fence or no fence.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India