India is fencing off its border with Bangladesh. What will that mean for millions of potential climate refugees?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 20 2010 10:03 AM

The Great Wall of India

India is fencing off its border with Bangladesh. What will that mean for millions of potential climate refugees?

Barbed-wire fence. Click image to expand.
A barbed-wire fence on the India-Bangladesh border

An 8-foot-high, double-walled, barbed-wire fence draped with laundry menaces the border between Sutia, India, and Dhannokulla, Bangladesh. But if I wanted to cross from Sutia to Dhannokulla last week, I wouldn't have needed to jump the fence—I could have just walked through a friendly neighbor's garden. As I watched, a border-infiltrating chicken did just that, bypassing what the press has dubbed the Great Wall of India. In fits and starts since the mid-1980s, New Delhi has raised a fence along roughly 70 percent of India's 2,544-mile border with Bangladesh. (Another 621 miles, running across the delta's shifting rivers, are unfenceable but patrolled.  ) But while both governments have agreed to a 150-yard "no-man's-land" on either side of the border, many houses have a front door in one country and a back door in the other.

This meandering, partly open, partly militarized border mirrors India's relationship with Bangladesh. Until partition turned the eastern Bengal delta (what is now Bangladesh) into East Pakistan in 1947, the region had never contained an international border. Pakistan's first prime minister called the new country, which was separated in two by India, "moth-eaten."

With 80 percent of its densely populated landmass lying near sea level, Bangladesh is often hailed as "ground zero" for climate change. A 1 meter rise in sea level, which seems likely by the end of the century, could flood almost one-fifth of the country. Some of the most vulnerable coastal districts in Bangladesh—Khulna, Satkhira, and Bagerhat—lie along India's border.

India says its fence is meant to prevent terrorism, smuggling, and "infiltration" into the country. But as climate change forces what could be millions of Bangladeshis from their homes, the fence will also prevent many of them from finding refuge in India. For this reason, the Great Wall of India may reveal itself to be just as moth-eaten, arbitrary, and traumatic as the partition itself. And as climate change accelerates, the fence will only increase cross-border tension. Rather than increase its length, India would do better to abandon its Great Wall—both as a matter of symbolism and pragmatism.

Historically, the Bengal delta's volatile environment created a rich tradition of migration. Between 1950 and 2001, perhaps 12 million to 17 million Bangladeshis crossed the border into West Bengal. But it has become redundant to talk of illegal migration: Since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, the only way to migrate legally from Bangladesh to India is to marry an Indian.

At the border, I met Maznu Rahman Mandal, a Muslim law clerk whose village, Bhira, is split by the fence. Maznu is Indian and lives with his Bangaldeshi wife, Ahmeda Khatun, on the Indian side of Bhira. When Ahmeda's father died a few years ago, the couple needed to travel to Bangladesh sooner than they could get passports from the state capital. So instead they went through a middleman who bribed a border agent to let them through for $80. Maznu emphasizes that paying the bribe was overkill. "Near my village, the fence is built on high ground over a wetland. People duck under all the time, especially at night, when the BSF [Border Security Forces] aren't looking," he told me scornfully.

Maznu and Ahmeda's story speaks to the long-standing cultural affinities between the two sections of the delta. In acknowledgement of such ties, the Indian state of West Bengal resisted the idea of building a fence for decades. But last century's migrations helped spark prolonged armed conflicts on both sides of the border. And while immigrant Bangladeshis provide India with a cheap labor force, their presence has also exacerbated underlying tensions. 

South Asia is one of the few areas in the world without regional migration policies in place. Efforts to create climate-sensitive policies would raise some hard conceptual questions. First, for many Bangladeshi and Indian elites, climate change is a suspicious term, smacking of Western injustice and the politicized vagaries of foreign aid. Second, even the choice between climate refugee, which places blame on some greenhouse-gas emitter, and a softer term like environmental migrant is significant. This isn't just semantic hand-wringing—the debate reflects different legal frameworks that could determine whether a Bangladeshi receives an expedited visa or is forced into a surreptitious border crossing.

If the Asian monsoon becomes harsher and sea levels continue to rise, the fence in its current form won't be enough to keep Bangladeshis from fleeing to India. But the anti-immigrant mindset behind the fence might make matters worse. Rather than resist climate refugees, India should take steps to handle such an influx smoothly. In a sense, climate refugees are easier to plan for than political refugees, since we can roughly predict which areas will be worst hit. India could start by offering work permits to Bangladeshi migrants, with at least some preference given to migrants from affected areas. India could also support Bangladesh in calling for a new legal regime for climate migrants.

There are some promising signs that India will collaborate with Bangladesh to address climate migration. Earlier this year, both nations announced that they would work together to protect a shared treasure threatened by climate change—the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which buffers the vulnerable southern coast from sea-level rise and cyclones. But India has also agreed to study the feasibility of building two coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh—a retrograde move.

Underscoring their shared interests, one estimate has ranked Bangladesh and India as the two major countries most vulnerable to climate change. You don't have to look far to observe their tightly intertwined futures. India's Farakka dam across the Ganges, for example, has failed to flush sediment away from Kolkata—its stated goal—while heightening Bangladesh's susceptibility to climate-change disasters, displacing at least 450,000 Indians and causing at least one catastrophic flood in the region.

Making the best of these linked ecologies will require unprecedented cooperation, not barbed-wire fences. To this end, prominent Bangladeshi academic Imtiaz Ahmed has argued that borderlanders from both India and Bangladesh should be able to vote in both countries. The proposal rings of utopianism, but rising sea levels could make the alternatives seem equally absurd. The Indo-Bangladesh fence "won't stop climate refugees," Ahmed says. "The Great Wall of China could not withstand Mongol invaders and was eventually abandoned. The Berlin Wall collapsed." The fate of the Great Wall of India seems even more tenuous. After all, as Ahmed notes, this "wall" is a billion-dollar fence that children can snip through with 20-cent scissors.

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