One of the foremost thinkers to academically elaborate on the formula (of work permits in Assam) was author–journalist–rights activist Sanjoy Hazarika in Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh in 2000. Treating the problem as an economic one, Hazarika proposed work permits for groups of 15–20 persons rather than individuals. The permits should be like passports with details of individuals, their employers and the length of stay of the group in India, the validity of which could be extended for a period of two years. The workers would not enjoy political rights, such as the right to vote, buy property or settle in India, but will have human rights and could approach courts and labour commissions in case their rights were violated….

However, the work permit formula has its inherent problems. One is of political consensus. While Congress has never backed the idea, the BJP always has. Speaking at an election rally in the Bengali dominated Silchar town of Assam in May 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that his government was considering such a formula for suspected foreigners who could not be evicted due to a host of legal and constitutional problems. Did he then refer to a need for India to formulate a migration policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh? How much thought did he intend to give for the interests of the smaller communities who would have to face migration? The idea was not taken forward by the Vajpayee government. Pushpita Das, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi, in her monograph, ‘Illegal Migration from Bangladesh: Deportation, Border Fences and Work Permits’, hinted at the Modi government working on Vajpayee’s idea: ‘Apparently, the proposal was first mooted a year earlier during the visit of the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka. Nothing has come out of it officially though. [Of the 40 lakh left out of the final draft NRC, 31 lakh filed claims forms till 31 December 2018.]’

Assam—The Accord, The Discord: By Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty; Penguin Random House India; 272 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Assam—The Accord, The Discord: By Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty; Penguin Random House India; 272 pages; 599.

The second problem is, since Assam is essentially trying to deal with the issue of unauthorized immigration, can such a formula fully stem it? Das didn’t think so. ‘Firstly, we don’t have any concrete data—official or unofficial—to understand the pattern of illegal migration from Bangladesh. The government has this refrain that we don’t have any data because they come surreptitiously. Since we don’t have any data, we can’t surely say that work permits will deter illegal migration. In fact, what has deterred illegal migration to some extent is [border] fencing,’ she pointed out to me then.

Das also flagged the point that though the guest worker programmes were adopted by USA, Germany and Spain, they were unsuccessful in stemming illegal migration. She felt that if the permit system is to work, one will have to identify first the sectors where India/North-east wants labourers and then enter into an agreement with Bangladesh. That country is likely to agree to it since it has been following a policy of pushing out their workers to other countries for employment. ‘But by doing so, we will be looking at only the benefit of Bangladeshi workers, not at our huge pool of domestic labourers which also need jobs. Also, these labourers are not skilled. Many of them slip into the Indian side as families which means not everyone who enters India is a worker. They are not looking at any specific sector to get jobs, but are fleeing the country mainly because of grinding poverty. They are coming here to stay, not to go back,’ she argued. Das was also categorical about Assam. ’Work permits will work if the aim is to temporarily disenfranchise such people, but allow them to continue staying and working there and apply for citizenship through naturalization. It will not work if looked at only from the point of stopping illegal migration. People will continue coming, also because it is not too difficult to acquire fake documents such as ration cards, PAN cards and Aadhaar cards [through which one can claim some amount of legitimacy as a resident of a place].’

I feel the permit system should particularly work in the case of seasonal agricultural labour from Bangladesh. They come in groups and, as of now, are surreptitiously brought over by handlers basically from border villages of that country during the harvest season. They don’t quite come over to settle down. One such labourer I met on Dhaka’s Shaheed Syed Nazarul Islam Sarani in 2018, who doubled up as a rickshaw puller for the rest of the year, told me that he along with several fellow villagers had been crossing over temporarily to Assam to earn an additional income for certain years. They wouldn’t venture out much from their place of work in the fear of being nabbed by the authorities. ‘Everything is provided by the malik, the land owner,’ he said.

Clearly, such workers are brought into Assam and also West Bengal as part of an organized cartel and they have developed a well-oiled mechanism of pushing them back into Bangladesh. When I met him, the NRC updating process was on. He told me, ‘The man who comes to our village to take us to Assam told us that this time we would not go as the Assamese people have done some kala jadu (black magic) on our people. Tell me, is it true?’ Perhaps ‘kala jadu’ was a more relatable term than the NRC updating process to emphasize the hazard of crossing the border at that time! As per unconfirmed sources, such labourers are transported through political patronage even to other parts of the country as they charge lesser wages than domestic workers.

Here, it is also important to understand why labourers cross the border in spite of the risk involved. The main reason, of course, is economic. But it is also of physical proximity; a certain kind of skill sets that can be made use of in those areas; and the familiarity of language and culture with the people residing close to the border on the Indian side. The border is new but the relations are old. India and Bangladesh are yet to recognize fully this traditional familiarity and kinship and work out a legal mechanism that can be beneficial to the people of both the sides. India and Myanmar, on the other hand, do have such an arrangement. Presently, the India government is fencing the border but also putting in place a legal mechanism to issue identity cards to border residents to continue their free movement across 16 km of the international line on either side.

To my mind, the crucial question regarding work permits is: Can they be a one-stop solution for all those applicants who would be left out of the final NRC in Assam and may go on to fail the tribunal trials? The answer can’t be yes. One reason for it is, if those persons who consider themselves genuine Indian citizens and have been living in Assam before 25 March 1971, but have failed to satisfy the authorities for some reason or another, would certainly not agree to be issued work permits, not to mention that it would also be grossly unfair to them. A system completely dependent on over three-decade-old papers, that too while dealing with a largely poor, uneducated set of people many of whom have lost their homes in floods, can produce disastrous results. It would likely lead to multiple litigations too. Whoever could financially afford it would certainly fight for restoration of citizenship in the higher courts.

Edited excerpt used with permission from Penguin Random House India. The book will be available from 17 August.

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