The Food Security Act 2013 is fraught with danger for its propensity to invite large-scale illegal infiltration of poor labourers from Bangladesh. The track record of its elder sibling MGNREGA only reaffirms the thinking.
M Rajaque Rahman
In this era of competitive populism and blind polarisation, it will be hawkish to call Congress' tauted game-changer for 2014 anti-national. It's cruel to pick holes in a scheme whose stated objective is to mitigate hunger among the poorest of the poor. The possibility of fiscal deficit going awry or of India becoming lethargic is too small a price for ensuring that no Indian sleeps hungry. Yet the National Food Security Act 2013 is fraught with major risks for its propensity to abet large-scale infiltration from Bangladesh.
The fear isn't totally unfounded. The experience of its elder sibling proves the points. It's no more a secret that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has resulted in an alarming squeeze in India's labour scenario. Sharad Pawar's run-ins with Jairam Ramesh is out in the open. The shortages are being made up by importing labourers from neighbouring areas. Unfortunately, in the case of Assam, more often than not that neighbouring place becomes some village somewhere across India's porous international border with Bangladesh.
And that has been the genesis of the continuing infiltration from Bangladesh. Historically, Assamese people had an easygoing approach to life to the extent that Assam earned the sobriquet of the land of lahe lahe (slow pace). Even today, Adivasis from Orissa and Jharkhand (earlier Bihar) plant its thriving tea industry. Outside the tea sector, the rising demand for labourers was serviced by migrants from across the border. It was a win-win situation then with poor labourers charming their employers with their enterprising and hard-working nature.
Not only this cross-border labour movement continued unabated but it also assumed social and communal dimensions. By the time actual impact of this seemingly harmless labour supply mechanism was recognised, migrants have infiltrated into every sphere of Assam's society, including the polity. It's no exaggeration to say that today they have enough clout to hold Assam to ransom politically, socially and economically. It's no joke that people joke around how Assam's vegetable supply line will be choked if Bangladeshis are driven out. Ditto for states like Arunachal Pradesh which depend on outside labour for menial work.
MGNREGA has only increased their indispensability. With a guaranteed income of Rs 100 a day for at least 100 days a year, the unemployed local populations don’t need to leave their home and work in farms and factories anymore. Talk to any entrepreneur, be it tea garden owners or prompters of hospitals or small garage owners, they all agree that finding labourers has become their biggest business challenge. The rampant corruption in the system has only escalated the shortage. In many places, MGNREGA beneficiaries get paid 60 days' wage without doing any work if they part with the remaining 40 days' wage with scrupulous officials.
Ironically, UPA's ambitious scheme to ensure rural employment has killed the need to work for a living. The Food Security Act will kill the need to work for food. If the Act is sincerely implemented, one will need to earn just Rs 75 a month to get 25 kg of rice. That's like just half a day's labour. The combined impact of the twin largesse will kill the need to work for a living, thus creating a huge shortage of labourers which in case of Assam will mean a red-carpet welcome to Bangladeshi labourers.
As labour supply becomes tight and expensive, desperate employers will not have the luxury to check and verify the nationality of job seekers. Even if they do, that's not going to be of much use. Again the corrupt system has made it so easy to obtain "genuine" documents to prove one's citizenship that such requirements are no longer a barrier or a deterrent.
This is where the equation turns anti-national. Many South Asian and West Asian countries import cheap labour from Bangladesh to great advantage. The problem here is that in Assam they come never to go back. They only multiply. Typically once a member of a family gets in, it's almost a natural progression for the entire family tree to follow. In no time, a new settlement of migrants would have come up on some wasteland. Aided by the corrupt system and sympathetic Muslim neighbourhood, they easily acquire land pattas, voter ID cards, ration cards and even Indian passports and “become” Indian citizens.
This nexus is dangerously altering Assam's demography, culture, polity and many other things. The spectre of being reduced to minority stares at the indigenous population of Assam. The Supreme Court of India gone on to term the influx an aggression on Assam. In 2005, it observed the presence of such a large number of illegal migrants from Bangaldesh has contributed significantly in causing serious "internal disturbances" making the life of people of Assam wholly insecure.
This “invasion” is also at the root of the rising ethnic and communal undercurrents in Assam. From the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983 to the recent riots in Bodoland, the provocation has been the simmering anger against unchecked infiltration from Bangladesh and the pinch the indigenous Asamese people are facing irrespective of their religions. Take the case of the last year's ethnic clashes in Bodoland. On the ground, there was no enmity between indigenous Muslims and Bodos. Even during the peak of the clashes when I was present for a month overseeing the Art of Living's relief operations, there was no communal overtones. It was vested elements who turned the riot, which began more like a petty fight between extremist elements, into a communal conflict between Bodos and Muslims, exploiting the undercurrent of mistrust arising out of the fast changing demographics and economic equations.
Hawkish elements often succeed in their agenda of polarising the population along communal lines and the real danger of growing illegal migrants gets sidetracked. The polarisation becomes so deep that even relief operations are not untouched by it. As a matter of fact, barring the Art of Living there was no other organisation which provided relief to the victims from both sides during the Bodoland riot last year. That our team which included both Bodo and Muslim volunteers could freely move into both Muslim and Bodo relief camps was a conclusive proof that there was no communal polarisation.
Unfortunately, polarisation seems to suit all political parties. The right-wing and nationalist groups too have played into the game of vote-banks. They too see the lingering resentment as their road to power and don't want to do anything to check the danger of infiltration.
The point is that Bangladeshi migrants has become a golden goose for the political parties. It will be too naive to expect them to kill it soon. They also form the crux of Assam's labour supply chain. The expected impact of the National Food Security Act will only make them more “wanted”. But their unchecked infiltration is a big threat to the nation. National interest calls for an unbiased insight into the problem. Assam desperately and urgently needs that vision. Are we expecting too much?