LBA, India, Bangladesh, Meghalaya

Meghalaya-Bangladesh Border

Source: Nihal Parashar/CC BY 2.0

In South Asia in the present century, the most important bilateral initiative between India and Bangladesh has been the attempt to resolve the long-standing border dispute that arose after Partition of 1947 –the Land Border Agreement (LBA) and the exchange of enclaves (Chhitmahals), in other words fragments of land between these two countries. However, even after more than one year of implementation of the Agreement, the question still remains how far this exchange of enclaves and its population can pave the way to resolve other unsettled issues, which are very crucial to deal with in post-LBA period.

Despite being a positive step in initiating exchange of territories and population, there are certain hiccups. In India, the focus has now been shifted from identity crisis faced by erstwhile enclave dwellers in the pre-LBA situation to issues of mal-governance on the one hand and conflict of interest between the Centre and the State of West Bengal in the post-LBA years on the other. The political tussle between the Centre and the State has apparently transformed the enclaves into sites of contestation for power.

Recognition as new citizens

The visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh in 2015 witnessed the endorsement of the momentous LBA (1974) which has, at long last, conferred a legal identity to people living in enclaves within the geographical territories of both India and Bangladesh. This historic agreement facilitates the transfer of 111 enclaves measuring 17,160.63 acres from India to Bangladesh. India at the same time received 51 enclaves measuring 7,110.02 acres which were in Bangladesh. Prior to this historic agreement, the 2011 Protocol as signed between Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina agreed to maintain the status quo in addressing the issue of adverse possessions of land, where by India will receive 2777.038 acres of land and will transfer 2267.682 acres of land to Bangladesh. The 2011 Protocol was made in accord with the state governments of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal but could not be implemented due to lack of congenial political atmosphere. Thus, the unresolved issues pertaining to the un-demarcated land boundary of approximately 6.1 km in three sectors viz. Daikhata-56 (West Bengal), Muhuri River-Belonia (Tripura) and Lathitila-Dumabari (Assam); exchange of enclaves; and adverse possessions addressed in 2011 Protocol are thus implemented by LBA 2015.

As a consequence, the office of the Registrar-General of India, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and District Magistrate, Cooch Behar, India along with Deputy Commissioners of Lalmonirhat, Panchagarh, Kurigram and Nilphamari, Bangladesh worked systematically and in a coordinated manner to collect the ‘choice of nationality’ from the residents of the enclaves. The implementation process was designed in three phases: The agreement and protocol came into effect from midnight of 31 July 2015. The transfer of territorial jurisdiction, exchange of strip maps and ground demarcation of the boundary were completed by 30 June 2016 and the entire movement of people took place from mid November 2015 till the end of November 2015. The assumed number of people opting for Indian citizenships from Indian enclaves in Bangladesh was estimated to be around 13, 000. Nevertheless only 987 people chose Indian citizenship. On the other hand, 14,221residents in Bangladeshi enclaves in India opted for Indian citizenship making the total number 15,208. These people who were de facto stateless, for all intents and purposes became new citizens of India.

Make-shift camps as sites of contestation

Temporary rehabilitation camps were set up at three places, namely, Mekhliganj, Haldibari and Dinhata in Coochbehar district in close proximity of the villages in the surrounding areas in order to facilitate social integration of the camp dwellers with their respective mainlanders.  The new entrants were welcomed with much enthusiasm. The campmates were provided with clothes, utensils, tarpaulin, stove, blankets, mattress, and pillows for survival. More so, each family was provided with the house allotment letter along with the house keys. Yet feelings of marginalization gradually have come on surface as time passed by since their migration from Bangladesh. These feelings are the outcome of unsatisfactory measures by government.

After a month, the canteen which was built up at the initial phase to help the campmates was discontinued. Dry dole in form of ration was distributed among the new citizens comprising 30 kg rice, 5 kg lentil, 1 kg salt, 1 kg powder milk and 5 litres each of mustered oil and kerosene oil on the first week of every month. However, the items provided in the form of dry dole fail to meet the everyday requirements of the camp dwellers. Having faced resentments within the camps 5 kg extra rice is being provided to the households consisting more than 5 members.

Lack of employment and gradual depletion of personal resources the camp dwellers continue to face food shortage and are often compelled to buy everyday food items from the local markets with their limited amount of resources. Detachment from cultivable land for their livelihood has increased dissatisfaction of the campmates. Despite getting access to local hospitals and to government schools for their children the camp dwellers are disillusioned with the health and education facilities being provided to them by the State government.

The State government has offered 100-day work cards to each family along with jobs in jute mills as temporary arrangement to provide the camp dwellers with a source of income. As these people had been engaged in a variety of professions such as teaching, business, farming, carpentry in Bangladesh they wish to be immediately placed in jobs that are commensurate with their skills and qualifications. In fact, the campmates have raised their voice against the State government’s policy of rehabilitating them in apartments.

Local political leaders of the opposition parties intend to utilise this situation to gain political support. Being inspired by these leaders the campmates have written a letter to the Prime Minister and planed to submit memorandums to the local district officials of Coochbehar district expressing their discontent against the state government’s rehabilitation measures. Moreover, camp dwellers’ right to vote has become an important issue for contestation between the ruling party and the opposition.

Land question emerged as a major concern for the enclave dwellers

While the ratification of the LBA is no doubt a welcome development in bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh, the implementation of the agreement needs a lot of consideration. It has been discovered meanwhile that land records of ownership have been misplaced or lost and the final decision may be based on word of mouth of the locals residing in the enclaves within Indian territory. The former enclaves are uncharted land: the land admitted to the official territory through surveys has to be distributed among individuals who have become new citizens. Though the process has been started by the State government the pace is not very satisfactory.

The right to vote has been issued to the new citizens, residents of enclaves under the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2016 with effect from 4 March 2016. In West Bengal State elections held on April – May 2016, for the first time voter identity cards have been issued to the enclave dwellers. Out of a total population of 15,208 only 9778 enclave-dwellers of Cooch Behar cast their votes for the first time. Under the circumstances, it is important to expedite the process of issuing voter identity cards to the enclave dwellers without which they are still considered as ‘illegal foreigners’.

Pro-active policies needed for hassle free rehabilitation of these new citizens

The lack of coordination between the Centre and the State creates a serious challenge to development projects in the enclaves and their surrounding villages. The delay in the infrastructural work has been due to the blame game between the two. It is noteworthy that the Central government is supposed to disburse the compensation package of INR 1005.99 crore to the state for the rehabilitation of the new citizens as well as the up gradation of the infrastructure of the enclaves in India and also for the development of the district of Coochbehar as a whole. But according to the State officials only INR 40 crore has been received as of now and the rest of the package is yet to be received from the Centre.

The State government may think of early implementation of already planned skill development programmes for the new citizens to strengthen their confidence while reducing demoralising effect. It may pave the way to open up employment opportunities. The State government may encourage local self help groups for promotion of their products. With the help of NGOs the State government may think of organising public awareness programmes on benefits of government packages among the people, once stateless, now are being recognised as new citizens of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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