The National Register for Citizens (NRC) has not just stirred the entire country but also driven political parties to take sides. For a change, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) — which chooses to maintain a safe distance from Congress, BJP, Left as well as all Third/Federal Front configurations — has made the right noises about the entire exercise. Anything which compromises national security must not be encouraged and by taking that stand, the party has shown that it can mark itself differently.
Not that the Opposition echoes similar sentiments in the State. Since BJP boss Amit Shah lauded BJD for backing the national security stand, Congress saw a tacit understanding between the regional party and the saffron outfit since the elections are not far. On the other hand, the State unit of BJP was cautious in its reaction.
The issue of illegal settlers or Bangladeshi immigrants is not a concern for Assam alone. Odisha has a reason for worry and by flagging the issue, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD has made its intentions clear.
Historically, the State has had to deal with refugees from Bangladesh over the last several decades. In 2005, the State government had served Quit India notice on 1,551 suspected Bangaldeshi immigrants in Kendrapara district, which triggered a huge row after which it was dropped. Three years ago, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had informed the State Assembly that there were over 3,900 illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the State.
Truth is, the actual number could be much higher than what is shown on official records. Illegal immigrants have good presence in sea-side villages of Kendrapara district but one cannot call them illegal anymore since they have established themselves over the years and possess valid ID proof. Districts like Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak, Balasore and Malkangiri too have illegal settlers. If one goes by Bharat Raksha Manch, the numbers are in lakhs. Even Bhubaneswar holds a sizable Bangladeshi population, according to the outfit, which has demanded NRC in Odisha.
Over the years, this sensitive topic has hardly attracted attention although it definitely merits one. Given the huge coastline, Odisha has reasons to worry about illegal settlers, not just because it is a security issue but because they form a sizeable vote bank and no political party would like to draw their ire by even suggesting their deportation from India.
While their sway over the local political class only grows stronger, the bigger problem is in the fact that their numbers could actually be increasing over the years since the coastal borders have virtually no eyes. Odisha, which acts as a major route for illegal cattle transportation to Bangladesh, has done precious little in the past to stop the unlawful trade. To even presume that the government could actually maintain surveillance on the sea routes to stop entry of illegal immigrants is ridiculous.
A glance at the existing coastal security system in the State would suffice. Of the 15 high-speed patrol boats Odisha received under Centre’s Coastal Security Scheme, only 13 are in working condition but don’t have enough manpower. The State government, currently, makes do with retired Navy personnel to operate these fuel guzzlers. Unable to fund the fuel, the Odisha government has been requesting the Centre to share the cost so that regular patrolling can be conducted. But to no avail.
That is not all. These high-speed boats have engines manufactured by Mercedes, which means there is no way they can be repaired or maintained in the State. To add to their woes, the State Police have found it difficult to draw up an annual maintenance contract. Officials in the know of things grudgingly admit the failure of the security set up as well as the poor infrastructure of marine police stations.
With the situation in Assam in a state of flux after the publication of the NRC final draft, there is widespread apprehension that families that have been struck off the list would find a safe haven in neighbouring states and Odisha could be one of them. The Naveen Patnaik government’s stand in support of NRC is praiseworthy but it would mean nothing if adequate measures are not taken to prevent illegal entry of immigrants keeping an eye on the future.
Deputy Resident Editor, Odisha