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2,400-Mile Project Aimed at Illegal Aliens : Borderline Job: Fencing Off Bangladesh

Times Staff Writer

His title is simple enough: commissioner of the border. His job is a bit more complicated.

“My job,” J.K. Barthakur said, “is to make a fence and road between India and Bangladesh,” and he went on to explain that the border extends for 2,400 miles and that for 360 miles it follows a river.

“The whole thing,” he said, “shouldn’t cost us more than 7 billion rupees (about $700 million).”

Barthakur talked with a reporter in his office here in the northeast state of Assam, where protests against illegal immigration from Bangladesh have brought five years of conflict and violence.

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Indira Gandhi’s Pledge

In an attempt to placate the student-led “anti-foreigner” movement, the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi pledged three years ago to build an eight-foot-high fence the length of the border. Barthakur was installed as border commissioner.

Leaders in Bangladesh, including President Hussain Mohammed Ershad, are bitterly opposed to the fence, describing it as an insult to Bangladesh. Ershad denies that his people have crossed the border into India seeking a relatively better way of life.

Yet it is estimated here that at least 10 million people have crossed into India since 1950, most of them at the time of the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Since 1951, the population of Assam, about the size of Idaho, has increased from 8 million to more than 20 million, and much of this is explained by the out-migration from Bangladesh.

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Barthakur admits that not much progress has been made on the fence project. In three years, only two reinforced concrete pillars have been set in place, and that undertaking cost two lives. Indian and Bangladeshi border forces exchanged gunfire, killing one man on each side.

“After that we didn’t have the heart to put our men at risk,” Barthakur said. “Apparently, Bangladesh is not convinced we should have a fence.”

Impact on Illegal Aliens

He said he is sure that a border fence would be effective in stemming the tide of illegal aliens.

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“It would not stop smugglers, saboteurs and black marketers,” he said, “but as far as an ordinary cultivating family is concerned, they can certainly be discouraged. They come across as agricultural adventurers. They do not come to make trouble for India. We only want that the people of Bangladesh not think India is wide open.”

There is almost no sign of activity in Barthakur’s office. A water glass stands atop an empty cabinet. More empty cabinets line the walls. All the furniture is carefully labeled: Commissioner of Border. Unused keys dangle from never-opened locks.

“Actually, the fence could pay for itself,” Barthakur said.

He said it costs India about 43,000 rupees (roughly $3,500) to rehabilitate an immigrant family. At that rate, he explained, if only 5,500 families are stopped from coming across, the fence “pays itself off.”

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“India is a poor country,” he said, “but we can afford it.”


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