“India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh,” or the absurdity of borders

N+1 has a great piece called Borderlands by Kai Friese. It is about the longest border fence in the world, constructed by Indian authorities.  The article notes that it is “still a work in progress” and given the fact that construction started in 1989, it may be an infinite work in progress.  It has cost taxpayers $600 million, which seems like a heck of a lot of money in India, where there are so many areas of desperate need.  So what is the purpose of this fence.  According to authorities, it is stop “illegal immigration and other anti-national activities from across the border.”  First, I never realized that so many people were dying to get into India.  and second, I love the addition of “anti-national” activities at the end there.  Very vague.

The article is relatively long but well worth reading in full.  I learned something on almost every page.  Here are some of my favorite bits:

1.  The relationship between Modi and the border is an interesting one.  For instance, last year when he was campaigning, he threatened to “send all illegal migrants “back to Bangladesh”—although, he reassured his audience, those who worshipped the Hindu goddess Durga would be “welcomed as sons of Mother India.”  What about illegal immigrants not from Bangladesh?  Do they still have to go there?

2. The city of Petrapole is known as “Asia’s largest customs station.” And while the government has tried to speed up the processing of goods, many are not impressed.  The author notes that “the clearing agents must still make the rounds to customs officials and border guards to lubricate their transactions. “It was actually faster without computers,” one of them tells me.”

3. The biggest business on the border (around $500 million every year) is the illegal cattle trade between Bangladesh and India.  The reason is simple economics: “India has a surplus of cows but relatively little demand for beef. In Bangladesh it’s the other way around. The price of a cow in India can range from Rs 500-3,000. In Bangladesh: Rs 20,000-40,000.”  The border patrol is often bought off in advance, but if they haven’t, then traders try to divert their attention by “releasing a couple of cows in one direction while the rest of the herd crosses on the other side.”

4. The border becomes really bizarre in places.  On the northern border with Bangladesh there are 200 tiny regions called chhit mahals which means something like “the droplets,” or “the crumbs of land.”  106 of them are little crumbs of India that are totally encircled by Bangladesh, 92 of them are exactly the opposite.  There is one called Dahala Khagrabari # 51, which is actually “India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh.”  Wow.

Living in these droplets is no picnic.  The author writes that “People here have lived their entire lives “in India,” but they aren’t entitled to ID cards, rations or any of the rights of citizenship: water, electricity, schools. And of course they have no contact with Bangladesh, which is a mile away. They have no way to register their property in Indian courts, so the value of land in the chhits is one tenth of the usual local rate. Some tell stories of people who linger in the jails of Calcutta long after they’ve served their term because neither India nor Bangladesh will acknowledge them as citizens. The local word for this purgatory of stateless incarceration is Jaan khalaas, or “Life Finished.”

Like I said, a great article with many examples of the absurdity of government border policies.

An OU student in Bangladesh

One of my former students, Rebecca Stevenson, is interning this summer in the Social Innovation Lab at BRAC. She’s been focusing mostly on slums and urban issues. This internship is her first foray into the world of development, and she is the author of the post below on scaling impact in development projects.

I didn’t realize until recently how big BRAC had become.  According to Wikipedia, it is the largest NGO in the world, with more than 100,000  employees (and 70% of them women).  It was created in 1972 and now serves “all 64 districts of Bangladesh as well as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti and The Philippines.”

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