The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh has been a landmark achievement in the realm of India’s diplomatic relations with SAARC neighbours. A successful completion of the implementation process is a sine qua non for the expected benefits to ensue and positively affect domestic politics in both countries. This will be possible if the impact on the lives of the 51,000-plus residents visibly improve within a reasonable time-frame and the political elements and civil society groups in the districts concerned (Cooch Behar in India and Panchagarh, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat and Kurigram in Bangladesh) are broadly satisfied and do not fall prey to the machinations of individualistic, inimical forces and group interests having some influence over the enclaves and adjoining areas.
After ratification of the LBA by Parliament on June 6, 2015, the legal exchange process involving 162 enclaves (111 Bangladeshi enclaves with a total area of 17,160 acres and 51 Indian enclaves covering a gross area of 7,110 acres) has been completed by August 1, 2015. The enclaves within enclaves (popularly known as counter-enclaves) and also a counter-counter-enclave have been automatically subsumed within the largest enclave entity and exchanged with the swapping of the outermost enclave entity. The nearly 14,000 residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves in India (since integrated territory-wise into India) have decided to stay on and become citizens as per the option given to them under the LBA. So far, however, 971 residents of the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh (since assimilated into that country) out of the nearly 37,000 staying there have chosen to repatriate to India and slightly more than 920 such persons have already arrived in India. As per the agreement, the transfer of residents was to be completed by November 30, 2015, but this timeline may have to be extended for a short period owing to local exigencies.
The Government of West Bengal, through its Cooch Behar district administration and with some interim Central financial assistance, has undertaken a reasonable set of relief measures to rehabilitate the Indian residents of its erstwhile enclaves in Bangladesh. For example, semi-permanent houses of 380 square feet carpet area with concrete foundation consisting of two rooms and a kitchen have been provided to all the residents who have come over from the Indian enclaves. They have been enrolled as citizens and provided Aadhar cards for availing government benefits towards their basic minimum needs. The State Government is also putting in place village road networks, electricity and water supply arrangements, and primary healthcare facilities for these persons, and many of the facilities are already in place. However, the total rehabilitation package in financial terms is still to be firmed up by the central government. This needs to be done without further delay. According to Cooch Behar district authorities, at least Rs. 1,000 crore would be needed in the initial spell.
As regards the land which the repatriating people owned in the former enclaves now in Bangladesh, the Cooch Behar District Magistrate, with the help of the Indian diplomatic mission in Dhaka, has been able to prevail upon the Bangladesh district authorities concerned to prevent distress sale. In fact, most of the affected people have been able to sell their land at three to four times the normal market rate. These people have come over to Indian territory with the land sale proceeds in Bangladeshi Taka, and have authorisedly converted these to Indian Rupees through banking facilities set up at short notice in their new settlement area. This only indicates the degree of responsiveness on the part of the West Bengal government authorities near the enclaves as well as mutual trust and a high level of cooperation between the grassroots-level officials of the two countries. It is incumbent on the highest authorities of India and Bangladesh to maintain and promote further the present level of understanding at different echelons.
As far as NGOs are concerned, their role till now has been minimal in the enclave exchange process, and rightly so, except for the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC), which is a civil society-based NGO. Since its formation in 1994, the BBEECC has played a significant role in projecting the problems of the enclaves and the pitiful condition of the enclave-dwellers in the public domain and before the government authorities. The Indian part of BBEECC led by Diptiman Sengupta, son of a former Forward Bloc party MLA, may be mentioned in this respect. The Bangladeshi part of BBEECC has also acted as a similar pressure group within that country, with coordination with its Indian counterpart. Till now, Sengupta has denied pursuing any political ambition and has gone to the extent of publicly indicating that BBEECC will cease to exist when the situation normalises. There are, however, reports from the environment that the BBEECC is more interested in optics, is trying to pressure the local administration on the means and manner of relief and rehabilitation activities, and that Sengupta harbours political ambitions. Such tendencies of the BBEECC need to be curbed through sensitive handling and greater proactiveness on the part of the district administration at those places where the repatriates are being settled in order to obviate any negative political fallout. Such action on the administrative front would paradoxically be in line with the public protestation of Sengupta to the effect that no private NGO should work in the region till settlement of the repatriates is over.
The central government has assured the Government of West Bengal that it would provide adequate financial support for settlement of the people repatriating from the former Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. A token quantum has already been transferred to the State Government. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had publicly claimed, before her government came on board vis-à-vis the LBA, that she had no issue in principle against the Agreement, but that the burden of the rehabilitation of those interested in returning could not be borne by her debt-stressed government alone. The BBEECC has, however, gone on record to claim that Rs. 30 lakh on an average would be provided by the State Government for development purposes, for each acre of land foregone consequent to the LBA. But this is still to be officially substantiated. Such claims may only raise public expectations in the short-term and have political ramifications that may not be desirable.
It is therefore essential in the interest of economic development and smooth rehabilitation of the affected people, i.e., those who have returned from the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh as well as those in the erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves now subsumed in India, that funds as part of a comprehensive financial package be devolved to the West Bengal Government at the earliest. The package should be of a clearly defined amount and with a specified time-line of execution. Some work on rehabilitation would also be undertaken through Central agencies. It is also essential that an empowered oversight mechanism under the Divisional Commissioner of North Bengal and Secretary, Department of North Bengal Development (Cooch Behar is one of the districts in his purview), in whose jurisdiction all the erstwhile Indian enclaves lay, be also put in place.1
The author is a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts and presently Adviser to a former Chief Minister of Nagaland & sitting MP (Lok Sabha).
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
Note: The article has been amended with respect to the actual designation of one of the officials of the state government of West Bengal. The original reference was to the "North Bengal Revenue Divisional Commissioner", which has now been amended to "Divisional Commissioner of North Bengal and Secretary, Department of North Bengal Development"