Last week, the discussion on the ethnic strife in Assam generated a lot of debate in Parliament. While the debates focused on illegal migration from Bangladesh, what has been missed is an opportunity to situate the issue in the larger context of India-Bangladesh relations and the development of the region.
The linkage between the current conflict and migration has been questioned by some commentators who analysed census data to argue that the population growth in Assam and its Kokrajhar district has been less than the national average since 1991, ruling out any alarming levels of migration in the past two decades. How should India be responding to the challenge of managing this 4,100-km border between the two countries, made even more difficult by its zig-zag contours?
One of the suggestions has been for stricter and ruthless management of the border. But this will not solve the problem. Illegal migrations still take place across the land borders of the US, possibly among the best managed in the world. When it comes to ruthlessness shown to intruders, the India-Bangladesh border is the world's bloodiest - in the decade up to 2011, nearly 1,000 people were killed while attempting to cross it, in shootings by the Border Security Force, according to an estimate by Human Rights Watch. A 2.5-metre-high fencing is being constructed along this border. Still, people do attempt - and manage - to cross over, as they try to flee desperate poverty in Bangladesh. So while focusing on better management of the border, we will have to search for holistic solutions too.
The core of that approach must be in aiding Bangladesh's development. Attempts are being made by both countries to transform their relations and move to higher integration over the last three years. A series of measures has been initiated during the visits of the Bangladeshi prime minister to India in January 2010 and the Indian PM's visit to Bangladesh in 2011. India has opened more sectors of its market to Bangladesh and this will potentially reduce the trade imbalance. Bangladesh, too, has taken several measures to increase connectivity for India's North-east to the coastline and to the mainland. It has also demonstrated its willingness to address India's security concerns by coming down on insurgent groups and helping India nab several wanted terrorists.
But two key components of better bilateral relations are stuck in India's domestic politics - the Teesta water-sharing pact and the Land Border Agreement (LBA). West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has opposed the water treaty, saying it would affect the farmers of the state. The LBA that was signed during the prime minister's visit to Dhaka has not been implemented yet because of the BJP's stated and Banerjee's unstated objections to it.
The LBA seeks to settle the decades-old wrangle over enclaves in each other's territories by exchanging them. India has 111 enclaves in Bangladesh and Bangladesh has 51 in India; in the exchange, India will lose around 40 sq km of land, which many are unwilling to accept. The conclusion of the LBA, which requires parliamentary approval, would not only make the border clean, but also manageable. Nearly one year after the Teesta treaty and the LBA were signed, India has not been able to keep its part of the deal. India's failure has made the Bangladesh government vulnerable to criticism that it has conceded too much to India and gained too little - a perception that India should be concerned about.
The issue of unauthorised movement of people from Bangladesh to India must be addressed from a broader development perspective for lasting solutions. Otherwise the debate on it will degenerate into xenophobic rhetoric. China is losing no opportunity to increase its engagement with Bangladesh. India's moves are not swift enough despite the stated realisation of its significance. There is a golden window currently open with Bangladesh - to improve economic and transportation ties which can dramatically catalyse the development of India's east and North-east and that of Bangladesh.