Everyone knew it was out there somewhere, an invisible line that cut through a cow pasture and, at least in theory, divided one nation from another. But no one saw it as a border. It was just a lumpy field of grass, uneven from the hooves of generations of cattle, and villagers crossed back and forth without even thinking about it. Today, no one can ignore the line.
In a construction project that will eventually reach across 3,300km, hundreds of rivers and long stretches of forests and fields, India has been quietly sealing itself off from Bangladesh, its much poorer neighbour. Sections totalling about 2,500km have been built over the past seven years.
In Sujatpur, a poor farming village, the frontier is now defined by two rows of barbwire barriers three metres, or 10ft, high, the posts studded with ugly spikes the size of a toddler’s fingers. A smaller fence, and miles of barbed wire coils, fill the space in between. The expanse of steel, set into concrete, spills off towards the horizon in both directions.
“Before, it was like we were one country,” said Mohammed Iqbal, a Bangladeshi farmer walking near the border on a windy afternoon. “I used to go over there just to pass the time. But now that’s over,” he said.
In the US, the decision to fence 1,100km of the Mexican border triggered months of political debate ranging across issues from immigration policy to the environmental impact. When Israel announced it would build a 680km barrier around the West Bank, an international outcry erupted.
But there has been barely a ripple over India’s far larger project, begun in earnest in 2000 amid growing fears in Delhi about illegal immigration and cross-border terrorism. The Bangladesh government made a few complaints—the fence felt like an insult, as if their country was a plague that needed to be quarantined—but soon gave up.
There is no clear completion date for the $1.2 billion project, which when finished will nearly encircle Bangladesh, leaving open only its coast and its border of a bout 320km with Myanmar. India maintains that some Indian militant groups are based in Bangladesh, a charge the Bangladeshi government denies.
But the larger fear in Delhi is that illegal immigrants will flood out of Bangladesh, one of the most crowded countries, with 150 million people and low-lying land that is prone to devastating floods and typhoons. Scientists also warn that rising sea levels from global warming could force millions of Bangladeshis from their homes.
India already has millions of its own citizens living in desperate poverty, despite an economy growing at more than 8% annually. Its population is approaching 1.2 billion and what little is left of its once-vast wilderness is being chewed up rapidly.
It is nearly impossible to judge how many residents of India are actually Bangladeshi. Particularly among the poor, many people have no identification showing their nationality, and residents of the frontier region tend to be similar in language and ethnicity. But some experts estimate as many as 20 million Bangladeshis are in India illegally, most crammed into large cities or in shanty towns.
“You’ve got an increasing population with a shrinking land mass” in Bangladesh, said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, who worries that the Indian government is not building the fence quickly enough. “India has enough nightmares of its own without adding to them.”
For Bangladeshis, particularly, the open border was a lifeline. India’s $730 (Rs29,930) per capita income looks pitifully low by the standards of the developed world, but it is a decent income to many in Bangladesh, where about 60 million people live on less than $1 a day. Sujatpur may reflect a picturesque side of poverty, with its technicolour-green fields and gentle-spoken farmers, but a glance at the border makes a stark statement.
On the Bangladesh side are huts and roads, rice paddies and cattle. There are families whose sons have fled to the cities, or to India, because there is no land left to farm. It is a rural area, but people are everywhere. On the Indian side, sealed off behind the barbed wire, there is nothing but silent forest.