Climate Apartheid? The India-Bangladesh Superfence

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 1/27/2011 12:02:00 AM
My friend came to me, with sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies

And so begin the lyrics to "Bangla Desh" from George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh held on 1 August 1971 in Madison Square Garden. Well before we had Sir Bono and Sir Bob Geldof, Live Aid and Live 8, we had the late, great Beatle setting the template for all there was to follow. This forerunner of all benefit concerts was held to support the victims of the 12 November 1970 Bhola cyclone in which an estimated 300,000 lost their lives in the region then called East Pakistan--today's Bangladesh. Just as Pakistan emerged from India, so did Bangladesh in turn emerge from Pakistan, declaring independence on 26 March 1971. It was a very difficult time for Bangladesh to say the least as it faced both the aftermath of a devastating natural calamity and the teething woes of becoming a nation--hence the lyrics above.

Now, politics on the Indian subcontinent are usually as contentious as they are interesting. Back then, Pakistan tried hard to keep Bangladesh from becoming a country, and India offered support. Among other things, India opened its border with East Pakistan to help refugees from the disaster cope. Unfortunately, environmental pressures on Bangladesh have hardly ebbed in the intervening years. Obviously, it hasn't gained any elevation while global warming has taken further effect. What more if sea levels continue to rise? With a population of over 160 million, Bangladesh is far from a tiny country population-wise.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has a new publication called Global: the international briefing that looks at global policy issues from the perspective of member states in the British Commonwealth. I highly recommend Robin Cohen's essay on why migration is a boon to globalization, though there are obviously strong interests opposed to it. In particular, the border between Bangladesh and India has become more fractious. To those following migration issues, such episodes are unsurprising given that about half of migration is, contrary to popular perception, South-South or between developing countries. I was thus struck by Cohen's description of a massive fence India is putting up:
As for South–South migration, there remain many tensions and important fault lines. The data are disputed, but there are probably about 3.5 million people born in Bangladesh living in India, with 1 million born in India and living in Bangladesh. With the Ganges Delta prone to periodic flooding, further population movements from Bangladesh to India are likely, but are inhibited by an Indian-built fence, stretching for nearly 4,100 km.
2011 is 40 years after 1971, and let's just say that the Indians are no longer as welcoming of Bangladeshis pouring over their borders. Moreover, even the effects of a major cyclone are time-bound, while permanently higher sea levels aren't. It's a security issue, they say. Aside from preventing those affected by flooding to seek refuge in neighbouring India, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch asserts that Indian border guards have been overzealous while this massive fenestration project has become underway:
Do good fences make good neighbours? Not along the India-Bangladesh border. Here, India has almost finished building a 2,000km fence. Where once people on both sides were part of a greater Bengal, now India has put up a "keep out" sign to stop illegal immigration, smuggling and infiltration by anti-government militants.

This might seem unexceptional in a world increasingly hostile to migration. But to police the border, India's Border Security Force (BSF), has carried out a shoot-to-kill policy – even on unarmed local villagers. The toll has been huge. Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into a south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings, in spite of evidence in many cases that makes it clear the killings were in cold blood against unarmed and defenceless local residents.

Shockingly, some Indian officials endorse shooting people who attempt to cross the border illegally, even if they are unarmed. Almost as shocking is the lack of interest in these killings by foreign governments who claim to be concerned with human rights. A single killing by US law enforcement along the Mexican border makes headlines. The killing of large numbers of villagers by Indian forces has been almost entirely ignored.
It gives one reason to pause about the consequences of global warming if the threats identified are real. Not being a climate change denier (or a deficit denier for that matter; these paleolithic tendencies tend to run together), the prospect is scary indeed. It pits higher-lying areas against adjacent lower-lying ones in a manner that seems not to build on the goodwill evident in past times, like say 1971. While the Guardian op-ed may overstate shootings on the border, the likelihood of rising sea levels and the continuing construction of this fence do not bode well for relations on the Indian subcontinent concerning borders. Also consider the economic effects of artificial separation.

Since George Harrison is no longer with us, perhaps it's up to his forebears to draw attention to a worthy cause. Is it climate apartheid, then? If migration restrictions increase further, I doubt whether this instance will be an isolated one, sadly.