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Without a Place to Call Home, Will Work Permits Fix Woes of Stateless in Assam? Here's the Economics Behind Final NRC

Without a Place to Call Home, Will Work Permits Fix Woes of Stateless in Assam? Here's the Economics Behind Final NRC

Deporting millions of people to a country that does not accept them as their own may not be an option now. The work permit system in such an instance can be susceptible to serious design flaws and legal uncertainty.

What happens when unclaimed land in your neighbourhood for years, quietly starts getting populated? What happens when landless labourers who migrate to towns for daily work at construction sites begin to feel that they are being slowly crowded out by seemingly unfamiliar folks, speaking an unfamiliar language, willing to work at a lower wage? What happens when you feel that these people are slowly getting politically mobilised?

What happens when you feel that there appears to be a surge of unfamiliar people queuing up at polling stations to vote for elections? What happens when you feel that you and your community are slowly being rendered a linguistic and cultural minority in your own place?

This strain between suspected 'illegal' foreign migrants and sons of the soil has, over the years, created its own political grammar with deep fault lines, growing ethnic sub-nationalism amid competing claims on land and agrarian economic opportunities.

The National Register for Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam needs to be seen in this context. It was aimed at coming out with a credible list of bonafide citizens of India living in Assam. In the final list that was released on August 31, 2019, of 3.30 crore applicants, 3.11 crore people made it to the list, leaving out 19.06 lakh people.

Economics is at the core of the problem. If tens of thousands have left their country, it is because they feel they would be better off staying illegally in another country, rather than in their own country. The pressure is now showing in land — the principal economic resource.

A recent report by the former chief election commissioner HS Brahma puts this aspect in perspective. “Threats to security of land rights and the very identity of the indigenous people of Assam has come from the sustained immigration of Bengali Muslim peasants into mainland Assam from the neighbouring districts of pre-independent Assam/erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh.”

From 1979 to 1985, the 'Assam Agitation' spearheaded by All Assam Students Union (AASU) laid the basis for an updated NRC.

The AASU-led Assam Agitation and the 1985 Assam Accord with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had a four pronged objective, often described as the 4Ds: Detection (identification of illegal migrants), Disenfranchisement (from voters’ list), Deportation and Demarcation of the porous Indo-Bangladesh border. Without 'Detection', 'Disenfranchisement' and 'Deportation' cannot happen. NRC was aimed at achieving the first D — detection of illegal migrants.

It is not a linguistic/religious/caste/ethnicity-based population census. Its limited, but extremely important, focus was to find out residency status in Assam through legacy data like parents' and grandparents' names in voters' lists before March 24, 1971.

The key question now is what happens to those whose names do not feature in updated list? More specifically, what happens to those who eventually may not be able to make it to the list even after exhausting all legal options, including an appeal at the Supreme Court of India?

Bangladesh has all along maintained that that there has been no large-scale migration to Assam, or any other state to India for that matter, in the last 30 years. Interestingly, in bilateral engagements between the two countries, India has hardly hammered down the subject.

Deporting millions of people to a country that does not accept them as their own is an option that now looks off the table. An old proposal, therefore, of granting work permits to 'non-citizens' is slowly gaining currency yet again in Assam and the neighbouring north-eastern states.

The work permit system in such an instance, however, can be susceptible to serious design flaws and legal uncertainty. By definition, work permits function on the fundamental premise that the person is a legitimate citizen of another country.

This may not be the case with the identified illegal migrants in Assam. Bangladesh would not accept them as their citizens. The NRC would have identified them as illegal migrants. So, are they going to be a group of right-less people who can work but cannot claim any other rights in India or anywhere else? Will such a “neither fish nor fowl” approach be compatible with international law? Importantly, what would be the status of the children of these 'non-citizens'? Would they turn into legitimate Indian citizens through naturalisation, enjoying all economic and political rights? Would a 'work permit’ be transferable across all states in India?

These are questions that require serious thought. In the final analysis, it is about economic costs of 'illegal migrants' that Assam have been bearing, and will have to endure for generations.