Much pious noise is being made in New Delhi about the difficulties India is facing in getting other World Trade Organisation members to give it a permanent exemption from the 10% farm subsidy cap under the WTO’s existing agreement on agriculture. Read more
Among the hundred or so books on China in my home, there is a hardback red volume titled “The 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and India.” The book is outwardly a boring set of largely black and white photographs of official visits and events held between India and China obviously taken by the government-hired photographer of the day. Read more
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hoped to go to China next week with a new visa regime that would have at least given businessmen, workers and academics an easier time travelling back and forth. It won’t happen this trip as the cabinet reportedly didn’t have time to clear it.
But it says something about the difficulties of India’s visa regime in general that this should go all the way to the cabinet for clearance. It also says something that India is so reluctant to provide Chinese visas despite the Middle Kingdom being the country’s largest trading partner and generally a big wheel around the world.
I would estimate about a third of the correspondence I receive from people is about visa problems. Much of it from Indians complaining about other countries. But a fair share about foreigners trying to get Indian visas.
The Indian system, especially the home ministry, don’t get visas. They are treated as the paper equivalent of minefields and watchtowers. Actually, they do little more than provide basic statistical evidence about movements in and out of the country – and movements by middle class people who function inside the law and travel by regular means of transport.
An Israeli study actually concluded that visas provide zero additional security to a country – which is why this security-conscious people began allowing visas on arrival.
India’s visa policy, as senior Indian foreign policy officials admit, is a product of knee jerk responses to crises and embarrassments: terrorist attacks like Mumbai 26/11, illegal migrant scares and so on. Barriers are raised and layers of bureaucratic requirements are made like the birth certificates of your parents or that you have to put a two month interval in between visits to India (I have yet to work out why that helps prevent anything).
Then a backlash sets in, criticism builds up and the system then carves out exceptions to the rules to satisfy various groups or people. India also has a remarkable multiplicity of visas. And, as this oldish blog noted, it also has ever-changing visa regulations:
“The whole policy is filled with exemptions for old people, then women with children, and so on,” said an official. The result is an incoherent policy that resembles a piece of Swiss cheese, filled with holes.
Also, within a month, everyone works out ways to get around these barriers. Foreigners, faced with the two month idling period, often jet into Kathmandu and then travel by road into India. As the Indo-Nepalese border is little more than a string with tin cans hanging from it, they pass right through.
The costs to India in economic terms are high. India gets a pittance of foreign tourists for its size and will continue to do so as long getting a visa is so cumbersome. It costs India, as well, in terms of goodwill in foreign countries. And it makes India’s upper and middle classes look hypocritical given how much they raise a hue and cry whenever a Western nation puts up the slightest obstacle to their getting a visa for their children. Note the continuing furore over the UK demanding a money bond for some Indian travellers. This would actually facilitate Indians travelling to the UK, but just the idea has triggered protests by most Indians.
Being an attractive place to visit, a non-complicated place in terms of getting in and out, and otherwise seeming to be friendly and efficient would massively improve India’s image and create jobs. It would also be a huge multiplier in terms of “soft power” besides being more in line with India’s democratic polity.
How revolutionary for the rest of the world is the United States shale gas revolution? Michael Levi of the Council for Foreign Relations, in India recently, gave an assessment that should reassure New Delhi that shale won’t turn geopolitics (and the Persian Gulf in particular) inside out. Read more
It didn’t really take Rahul Gandhi to wreck Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tour of the United States. It was already a farewell visit. The US President Barack Obama had been reluctant to meet him, even trying to avoid having to give Singh a lunch. Read more
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently said 3.2 million Bangladeshi migrants had settled in India. India, it noted in its report on international migration, has the “single largest bilateral stock of international migrants in the developing world.”
This number won’t be taken too seriously in India as it does not really take into account the bulk of illegal migrants. The S.K. Sinha report, which is commonly cited, came up with about 5 million Bangladeshi migrants each in Assam and West Bengal alone. It came up with about 15-16 million migrants in all.
While India and Bangladesh look set to miss signing a land border agreement in the last few months of the Manmohan Singh government, it seems likely it will be concluded at some point in the coming year or two. At this point, with a border that at least no longer looks like Swiss cheese, the issue of migration should be taken up at some point.
It costs a Bangladeshi about Rs 1000 to 1500 to get someone to get him across the Indian border, with a good bit of that money probably going to the Indian Border Security Force. Nothing will change the fact it costs a pittance to get across the border. And for the foreseeable future, the pull factors on the Indian side of jobs, a slightly higher income and so on will also remain. Combine this with the fact that, unlike the US-Mexican border, the people on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border are identical in appearance, language, culture and are both often bereft of any major identity documents.
This is, for all practical purposes, a nearly open border.
The issue therefore is not to attempt to stop migration. That simply cannot be done and everything that has happened since 1971 — or even 1947 — can stop this.
What should really be done is the introduction of a temporary work visa for Bangladeshis. In other words, a legal channel that would regularise the illegal traffic. What would be the benefits?
1. Migrants would be socialised into coming to working in India and then returning. Contrary to popular belief, a fairly large number of migrants go back and forth along the Indo-Bangladesh border. It is a joke in the home ministry that Bangladeshis who wanted to go back would surrender to the Indian police, be carted back home at New Delhi’s expense and then return, via a smuggler, after their business at home had been done. More than a few Bangladeshi migrants end up staying in India longer or forever because they find it difficult to go home given their illegal status.
2. If such a visa is linked to an Indian employer, it would make it easier for India’s police or security forces to track down legal workers who go AWOL. And there would, no doubt, be quite a few. But if an easy enough path is created for them to go back and forth legally, the incentive to become a fugitive would that much lower. If the Indian employer faces fines or other punishment if the Bangladeshi disappears into the wild green yonder, there would be an additional set of eyes on the migrant.
3. A legal channel would help de-criminalise the border. People trafficking has a whole host of complementary sins from prostitutions, organised crime and a corrupting influence on security forces that could be eliminated or at least diluted.
This would not necessarily stop illegal migration. But it would divert a large number of the Bangladeshis who cross into a legal channel. That would be a start.
The normal political way to sell this is to combine a tougher policy against illegals with a sunny open door for the legal migrants. The Northeast, which is especially sensitive about Bangladeshis of any hue and colour, might find the idea of legal migration more palatable if it is merged with sustained drives against illegal migrants.
Ultimately, what will stop migration are the economic fortunes of Bangladesh. Dhaka has been a remarkable economic and social success the past decade. But it still remains poorer per capita than India even if its human development index is better. However, thanks to India’s free trade agreement, Bangladesh now exports some billion dollars’ worth of textiles and other things to India, creating both wealth and a pro-India business group inside both major political parties in Bangladesh. One can see this in Mexico, with the US economy tanking and the Mexican economy looking pretty good, there has been net migration of Mexicans out of the US.
When the Indian media interacts with the Western press, there isn’t much talk about journalism per se. It’s about the kind of stories being pursued, anecdotes and, increasingly, about the parlous state of Western print journalism. Read more
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has joined others in his government by claiming, at the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg, that the decline in the values of most emerging economy currencies is partly to be blamed on the West.
In the priority list of Indian foreign policy, Latin America comes relatively low down. This is not an accident, it reflects the problem of geography and broader ignorance about each other. A sense of this came through when I recently moderated a panel of Latin American ambassadors in New Delhi. Read more
Medical tourism in India was a recent topic of a PHD Chamber of Commerce conference. The chamber and Yes Bank produced a report on the industry and various speakers held forth on the issue. Read more