Tag Archives: India

How my day in Wagah led me to rethink borders

This post continues the personal anecdote series on the site. The series includes pieces both by people who are active supporters of open borders and by people who aren’t directly involved but have formed opinions on the issue informed by their personal experience. This blog post is of the latter kind. The author is a middle-aged female who has lived all her life in India, and the post is being published anonymously at her request.

As a young schoolgirl growing up in India, I assumed borders were fixed and necessary. In geography classes I drew them on maps as dark lines and then shaded and labeled the two sides in different ways. I considered foreign countries as the “other,” especially Pakistan, because I had lived through two Indo-Pak wars. Soon after the 1965 war, when my father was transferred to a military station not far from the border, neighbors showed us a bombed church and the cellars they had used during air raids to stay safe. During the dramatic 1971 war that split Pakistan, I was older and living in Delhi. I remember rushing around putting off lights when the siren sounded. And huddling over a small transistor radio all day to get updates. Later, I was one of the school kids who lined the road to welcome the leader of the newly formed Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when he arrived in Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Even otherwise, life was full of comparisons with Pakistan, and quarrelling kids would be told not to fight like “India-Pakistan.”

It took a trip to Punjab with my parents to get me thinking about what borders mean.

I was in my teens and visiting Amritsar with my parents when my father suggested going to Wagah (on the border with Pakistan) because he had some work there. This was just a few years after the 1971 Indo-Pak war and I asked my father whether it would be safe. He laughed.

By Kamran Ali
The evening flag lowering ceremony at the India-Pakistan International Border near Wagah. Taken from the Pakistani side. By Kamran Ali. Source. Licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0

My mental image of what a border should be like was vague and uninformed—something impenetrable, something clearly separating two countries that had fought wars. The border I saw the next day was so commonplace that I can’t remember any details. What remains in my memory is my utter disbelief that the land on the other side of the gate, so nearby and similar, was Pakistan. Men from the two sides were exchanging mail bags in a normal, everyday manner.

My mother noticed my surprise. Half-exasperated, half-amused, she asked, “What did you expect?”

I felt downright foolish. What difference had I expected to manifest itself suddenly across a border? But surely a border should be more secure. I asked her why we didn’t have tall walls with barbed wire and broken glass and with the army guarding the entire length of the border. She asked me if I had thought about how very long the border was and whether that would be practical (It’s 2900 km, according to Wikipedia).

On the way back, and for the weeks that followed, my mind kept slipping back to that glimpse of the Wagah border.

All our relatives and friends were from North India and had been affected, in small or big ways, by the 1947 Partition of India but they rarely talked about their tragedies and losses except in hushed tones when they thought the children were not listening. My mother, for example, had spent part of her childhood in a city now in Pakistan. I knew many families that had hurriedly migrated to India during the Partition. I tried imagining a village getting split into two because a border now ran through it, families either divided across countries, or forced to leave their homes, abandoning most of their belongings and objects gathered over generations. The tragedies depicted in fiction based on the Partition moved out of the pages of story books and into my heart.

Back then, in the 1970s, we had no Google search or Wikipedia pages to satisfy our fleeting curiosity. We had to scout around for relevant books and articles, or pester elders, and our curiosity had to cross a threshold to make such perseverance worthwhile. Yet, even though I moved on to other areas of interest, there was a shift in how I thought, not just about Pakistan, but about countries, borders, immigration, and patriotism in general.

I began realizing that nations may be created overnight based on emphasizing some aspects of identity (such as language spoken, religion, borders of older kingdoms, geographical features like mountains, rivers, and seas) through hastily re-arranged populations and enforced borders but the emotions of people are not so easy to change and that a lot of the silence or rhetoric around that division is based on frustration, bewilderment, pain, and loss. Citizenship began seeming more like chance, a combination of history and time and space, rather than a person’s intrinsic characteristic, and while I appreciated that countries needed borders and laws around them, I started thinking of the rigidity and emotional fervor around the sanctity, shape and impenetrability of borders as excessive.

I had changed in small ways. For example, while watching a match of cricket, a sport passionately followed both in India and Pakistan, I cheered more often based on the quality of the game rather than the country playing. India’s performance in a match did not seem tied to my core identity. I no longer felt either “proud” or “ashamed” of being an Indian. My being Indian was just a fact of my life. There seemed no logical reason to believe that my country was better than others merely because I was born here. Paradoxically, I was more open-hearted in my appreciation of significant Indian milestones because that was based on genuine evaluation rather than pre-scripted loyalty.

Many of my peers had started going abroad for higher education and jobs driven by practical factors like available opportunities and quality of life. They were opting for resident status outside India, things like green cards or citizenship. I wondered how they felt while taking the oath of citizenship of another country and how they emotionally reconciled it with a childhood spent singing the Indian national anthem, and expressing pride in India’s culture and heritage.

Much has changed in the four decades since I saw the Wagah border. Information is more easily available. Borders seem superfluous when surfing the Internet, except when countries ban certain sites, a rude reminder of reality. We know far more about life in other countries than we did a few decades ago, and many prominent products and brands are available in all countries. International travel is easier and more common, and many families are scattered across the globe. When my peers express fears that their children may not return to India, I tell them that our children’s generation does not view moving between countries and settling in one country as against another as a major emotional decision. They choose their location based on multiple factors that include quality of life, type of jobs, convenience, and so on. That they were born or brought up in a country is just one of the several criteria.

The hitches in mobility across borders jar more in this interconnected world. Time and again I hear of persons working outside India being tense because their stay abroad depends on that country’s rules and quotas rather than on their productivity and contribution to its society.  That seems a suboptimal way for the world to run, maybe suboptimal even for the country enforcing the rules.

To me, borders seem somewhat arbitrary, whether of countries or smaller geographic units. Once, on a visit to a small and beautiful hill station (in North India) I saw large notices declaring that “outsiders” could not buy land and build in that town because that would involve chopping trees and clearing land, thus spoiling the natural beauty. Interestingly, the officials in the town’s governing body had moved to that town just a few decades ago, and had bought and cleared land there to build their elaborate houses. It seems self-serving when current residents of a place label future migrants as outsiders, although they, too, are migrants.

Borders don’t just demarcate and divide and keep people out, they are the cause of simmering or outright conflict. Reminders of their existence pop up at unexpected times, even for persons like me who rarely cross borders.

Recently, when preparing a presentation for an international conference, I was looking for a map to illustrate country-wise data. I had often read of some issues of international magazines getting banned in India because they depicted the Indian map wrongly. On surfing the Internet I realized that this (‘wrong’) depiction was the one used all over the world. If I selected a map consistent with what my fellow-countrymen expected, the map would not match what persons from other countries expected, especially those from neighboring countries. And if I used the one that the international audience was familiar with, the Indians would be uncomfortable.

On a somewhat philosophical note, it puzzles me that people assume that borders are a given, that they must exist, and that the only debate is on who can cross them and when and how. My attempts to discuss issues around borders with peers have resulted in my being stared at as though I were weird, maybe even (gulp) unpatriotic and thus a bad person.

Many countries, especially democracies, have legislations prohibiting discrimination based on race, age, religion, and gender. Discussions on topics like gender-discrimination, racism, ageism, and communalism can be openly found–some emotional and even confrontational, and others well-reasoned and insightful.

But discrimination based on place of birth and citizenship is accepted as reasonable, moral, and good. Each country wants to guard its resources and therefore promotes patriotism and pride in one’s country through the education system, laws, and other mechanisms. Society promotes this. As a result, we consider the welfare of our country more important than that of the world as a whole.

I am now in my fifties and I have not been outside India except for a few, very short trips. My current day-to-day life is not particularly affected by the existence of borders or the rules around them. I do not know enough about “open borders” to take a position on their desirability or wisdom. This is not one of the causes that I am active in. But I consider this area important enough for serious discussions, and not just confined to activists or people directly affected by immigration. Such discussions could be part of developing systems that work for what is better for the world as a whole.

Related reading

This section was added by the Open Borders editorial staff to provide more background for readers interested in the material,
See more posts in our personal anecdote series.

Other posts related to themes touched on in the piece:

Some related site background pages:

  • We use the term citizenism (coined by immigration critic Steve Sailer) to describe the idea that government policy, particularly immigration policy, should favor the interests of current citizens.

For more on how the Indo-Pak border was actually drawn, check out Wikipedia’s page on the Radcliffe Line.

Here’s an advertisement by Google Search intended to highlight the power of technology to help people reunite across borders:

Note: The author has requested that the article not be republished without consent, and be published under standard copyright rather than using a Creative Commons license. Due to technical limitations of our software, the piece may show up as marked with a CC-by-NC-ND license.

Bangladesh and India: move towards open borders

As I’ve previously written, South-South migration — migration within and between poor countries — deserves attention in our understanding of global migration, and we can be inspired by scholars of migration and development who have worked hard on this. India is an important example: it is a large, fast-growing, but quite poor country (in per capita terms) surrounded by neighbors who are somewhat poorer in per capita terms and much smaller in size. I previously wrote part 1 of a two-part series on open borders within India and also looked at the existence of open borders between India and Nepal.

The topic of this post is more difficult: policy options for migration between Bangladesh and India. The lack of easily available public material on the subject, combined with my relative ignorance, make me an inappropriate candidate to delve into the relevant empirics and historical details. I’ve asked some others to do guest posts for the site on the subject, and these will hopefully materialize later this year. But, given that I consider the case for open borders to be universal, I should be able to provide an approximate contour of how I believe the case applies to India and Bangladesh. That’s what I try to do here.

“Chickensneckindia” by Ankur; Additions to original map by uploader. Licensed under CC-BY-SA from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chickensneckindia.jpg, used in the Wikipedia page Bangladesh–India border

Population and income differences

India’s population is about 1.21 billion and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $4000 to $6000. Bangladesh has a population of about 157 million and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $2100 to $3300. The estimates co-vary, i.e., the sources that estimate higher GDP (PPP) per capita for India estimate proportionately higher GDP (PPP) per capita for Bangladesh. You can see a few lists at this page.

Essentially, Bangladesh has about 13% the population and 60% the per capita GDP that India does.

The population ratio seems huge but not terribly so: even if all Bangladeshis migrated to India over a period of a decade, the effect on the Indian population as a whole would not be huge. On the other hand, current patterns of Bangladeshi migration, whereby they settle primarily in border states, may not be scalable to very large migration levels. I believe it is likely that, if borders were more formally opened, migrants from Bangladesh would move out farther to other parts of India, rather than primarily landing up in the nearby states of West Bengal and Assam. Also, I don’t think Bangladesh would empty out. Rather, the situation would probably be similar to that of Nepal and India: no immediate large-scale exodus, but over a longer timeframe, the “Bangladeshi diaspora” in India would grow to a size comparable with the population that is left in Bangladesh. Note that GDP (PPP) per capita in Nepal is lower than in Bangladesh, so if anything, pure economic pressure to migrate should be lower from Bangladesh. But there are some other differences, that we turn to next.

India-Bangladesh border map, source India’s second most dangerous border? by Martin W. Lewis, May 26, 2011 GeoCurrents

The GDP per capita differences with the bordering states are not so severe. According to a list of gross state domestic products for Indian states, West Bengal is close to the national average and does reasonably better than Bangladesh. Assam does only slightly better than Bangladesh, and the other North-Eastern states do about the same or worse. Ironically, part of the reason for the relative underdevelopment of these states is their relatively poor land connectivity with the rest of India, and that poor land connectivity is because of the geographical location of Bangladesh. As I mention later in the post, allowing freedom of movement through Bangladesh can facilitate greater economic integration of these states.

Why do Bangladeshis migrate to nearby states despite small income differences? I suspect there are many reasons, including long-term cultural connections, but there is also the advantage of being part of an economy that is on the whole larger, faster-growing, and more promising. Once they are in India, they can more easily move to other parts of India — even if most of them don’t avail of the opportunity. Another factor could be weather-related problems leading people to migrate temporarily or permanently out of where they live in Bangladesh.

Differences with Nepal

I’ll repeat some differences I listed in my post on open borders between India and Nepal:

  • Population: Bangladesh has a population of 150 million, about 5-6X the population of Nepal. So, having open borders with Bangladesh is (considered) less feasible, or at any rate, would be a bigger and more transformative change.
  • Greater cultural similarity propelling more migration: Bangladeshis share close cultural roots with West Bengal (indeed, Bangladesh and West Bengal were both part of the state of Bengal in British India). Thus, there is likely to be much greater migration of Bangladeshis since they may have more confidence they’ll be able to adjust to life in West Bengal. (In practice, due to reasons of geography and the strength of border security, many Bangladeshis migrate to Assam rather than West Bengal).
  • Religion: Bangladesh is an officially Muslim country with a Muslim majority. Although not as hostile to India as Pakistan, it still has some hostility. Nepal is a Hindu majority country with small amounts of Buddhism and Islam — religious demographics very similar to India.
  • Historical accident: Bangladesh and India actually started off somewhat well, because India supported Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in its struggle for independence against West Pakistan (~1971). But political changes in Bangladesh led to a worsening of relations.

Bangladeshi migration: raw numbers

As with most historical South-South migration, the current situation can be very open in practice for migrants. Or at least it has been until recent changes. An estimate of somewhere between 3 million and 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India is a similar magnitude to the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the United States (about 7 million) and even comparable to the total illegal immigrant population of the United States (about 11-13 million being the median estimate, though there is again uncertainty). The number is smaller as a proportion of the population of India, which is more than 3.5 times the US population. This might explain the lower national salience in India of Bangladeshi immigration. On the other hand, the geographical concentration of Bangladeshi immigrants in West Bengal and Assam means greater regional salience of the issue.

Cultural camouflage

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

As per 2001 census there are 3,084,826 people in India who came from Bangladesh[1] No reliable numbers on illegal immigrants are currently available. Extrapolating the census data for the state of Assam alone gives a figure of 2 million.[3][4] Figures as high as 20 million are also reported in the government and media.[5][6] Samir Guha Roy of the Indian Statistical Institute called these estimates “motivatedly exaggerated”. After examining the population growth and demographic statistics, Roy instead states that a significant numbers of internal migration is sometimes falsely thought to be immigrants. An analysis of the numbers by Roy revealed that on average around 91000 Bangladeshis nationals might have crossed over to India every year during the years 1981-1991 but how many of them were identified and pushed back is not known. It is possible that a large portion of these immigrants returned on their own to their place of origin.[7]

According to one commentator, the trip to India from Bangladesh is one of the cheapest in the world, with a trip costing around Rs.2000 (around $30 US), which includes the fee for the “Tour Operator”. As Bangladeshi are cultural similar to the Bengali people in India, they are able to pass off as Indian citizens and settle down in any part of India to establish a future.,[8] for a very small price. This false identity can be bolstered with false documentation available for as little as Rs.200 ($3 US) can even make them part of the vote bank.

The cultural camouflage that Bangladeshi migrants can engage in reflects two truths: first, the absence of an all-knowing state that has documentation and records for all existing citizens (this might be changing, though, with new identification and documentation schemes being implemented). Second, the genuine historical and cultural connection between West Bengal and Bangladesh, that were one Indian state under British Rule prior to the Partition of India in 1947 (in fact, an attempted partition back in 1905 by the British had to ultimately be reversed after significant opposition). To the extent that there are no obvious differences between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, it would seem that this should point in the direction of officially recognizing the freedom of movement, since it seems to obviate concerns regarding assimilation. But political commentators, who are keen to enforce the sanctity of borders and the formal concept of citizenship, often bemoan rather than celebrate the difficulty of distinguishing Bangladeshis from genuine Indian Bengalis:

Commonality of language, culture and religion between the two countries emerged as a major challenge in identifying immigrants, making deportation extremely difficult. The immigrants speak the same language as many Indians, and often have familial connections that make it easy to assimilate with the local population. Bangladesh’s consistent denial that its citizens are illegally crossing the border also complicates matters. Even when Indian authorities have identified illegal immigrants, deporting them becomes almost impossible given the reluctance of Bangladeshi authorities to cooperate.

An underdeveloped deportation machinery

As I wrote in my South-South migration post:

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

Indeed, we can see this in India’s case today. There have been occasional bursts of effort to round up and deport illegal immigrants, often by governments that are prepared to basically “deport them all” — at least in principle. But if you’re used to US deportation numbers, you might laugh at passages like this:

Yet deportation under the Foreigners Act is also problematic. In 2003, the then Home Minister L. K. Advani ordered all states to deport illegal immigrants. A few weeks later 265 people were sent to the border, but authorities in Bangladesh declined to accept them. In fact India’s Border Security Forces (BSF), and its counterpart the Bangladesh Border Guards (then called the Bangladesh Rifles), came to the point of violence over the issue.

The deportation rates do seem to be increasing over time:

At the end of 2012, for instance, 16,530 Bangladeshi citizens with valid travel documents were found to be overstaying in India—while 6,537 and 5,234 Bangladeshi nationals were deported in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

And while the move towards newer, more effective forms of identification will probably mean that previous migrants get effectively amnestied, it may well make things harder for future migrants.

Overall, the level of preparedness and competence of the interior enforcement and deportation machinery at present seems to be comparable to what the US had for Chinese immigrants around the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, natives are very unsympathetic, and many of them are openly virulent, to the immigrants. But the enforcement machinery is sporadic and erratic, and its throughput is minimal. Contrast this with “pro-immigrant” Barack Obama, who deported over 30,000 people a month, not so much because he personally hated immigrants, but because the deportation machinery was so well-established and functional that trying to slow it down it would be an expenditure of political capital — one that Obama didn’t consider necessary.

The terrorism problem

In the wake of the October 2014 Burdwan blast, close to the border with Bangladesh, carried out by an Islamic terrorist (or, in their view, revolutionary) group called the Indian Mujahideen, concerns about border security and terrorism were revived. The blasts revived concerns about Muslim madrassas (training institutes) as breeding grounds for terrorism Interestingly, Indian Muslim religious leaders (who do not necessarily represent the views of all or even most Indian Muslims, but are considered widely influential) sought to deflect this by stating that the problem wasn’t Indian Muslims, it was Muslims coming from across the border (i.e., Bangladesh). For instance, NDTV reports:

“No madrasa in India is anti-national. No Muslim in India is anti-national,” said Jamiat’s Sidiqullah Chowdhury. “The ones who come from outside are anti-nationals. Indian Muslims or madrasas are not terrorists.”

I believe that the threat of terrorism is in general greatly exaggerated because of its greater political salience and visibility, but it is still a threat that deserves to be taken somewhat seriously. Would an open border between India and Bangladesh lead to a dramatic increase in terrorist activity? I don’t know enough to offer a clear answer, though I’m hoping that posts later this year will explore the question more closely. But going by what we generally know about terrorism and its relation to migration policy, it seems that, to the extent that the threat of terrorism can be reasonably contained, it can be done through better targeted policy, and closing the border to economic migrants can in some ways complicate it. Consider, for instance, this discussion in the Daily Mail:

“The advantages they enjoy here are innumerable: immigrant-pockets which have proved to be excellent hideouts; a big metropolitan, Kolkata offers them concealment and its railway stations, namely Howrah and Sealdah, easy connectivity with the rest of the country,” the official added.

In other words, those with terrorist ambitions can conceal themselves among economic migrants, who are also undocumented and seek to evade detection. What would happen if the border were officially opened? Things could move in either direction: terrorists would be hiding within a larger population, so would be harder to detect. On the other hand, if peaceful migrants did not need to hide from the law, a documentation or identity scheme could be more effectively enforced, so that one could more reasonably presuppose that those who did not seek to get appropriate documentation had nefarious intentions. Also, the cooperation of the Bangladeshi government in combating terrorist activities could be enlisted more effectively if the Indian government weren’t getting in the way of peaceful migrants from Bangladesh. How do these competing considerations balance out? It’s hard to know a priori, and it’s possible that there will be an increase in terrorist activity, but I don’t think that it will be a significant increase.

This is similar to the point that my co-blogger John Lee made about the US-Mexico border, where he drew on statements by officials who actually work in law enforcement at border towns:

Simply put, if you want a secure US-Mexico border, one where law enforcement can focus on rooting out murderers and smugglers, you need open borders. You need a visa regime that lets those looking to feed their families and looking for a better life to enter legally, with a minimum of muss and fuss. When only those who cross the border unlawfully are those who have no good business being in the US, then you can have a secure border.

Co-blogger Joel Newman made some related points when discussing open borders, terrorism, and Islam:

So one argument notes that, unlike our current restrictionist policy which devotes considerable resources and focus on keeping out unauthorized immigrants seeking to work in the U.S., resources under an open borders policy could be focused on screening out terrorists. Another argument is that the free movement of people between countries could lead to the spreading of ideas contrary to those which inspire terrorism; immigrants who move between the U.S. or other western countries and their native countries would share values such as individual rights, tolerance, and democracy with their compatriots who remain in the native countries. A third argument is that if terrorism grows out of weak economies in native countries, the free movement of people from those countries and the resulting economic benefit to those countries (through remittances and immigrants returning to their native country to establish new businesses) could help prevent terrorism.

There is another reason open borders could help combat terrorism. Kevin Johnson, author of Opening the Floodgates, notes that “carefully crafted immigration enforcement is less likely to frighten immigrant communities—the very communities whose assistance is essential if the United States truly seeks to successfully fight terrorism.” (page 35) Without the fear of being the targets of immigration enforcement, immigrants would be more likely to cooperate with authorities in identifying individuals who are potential terrorists in the U.S. and assist with efforts against terrorist groups abroad.

Narendra Modi’s election rhetoric

On February 5, 2014, Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi gives a Hindi speech in Assam from citizenist premises. He argues that Indian citizens should be given preference in jobs, and Bangladeshi immigrants to West Bengal and Assam have been stealing jobs from natives

Narendra Modi assumed office as the Prime Minister of India in May 2014. While campaigning for the election, Modi emphasized repeatedly that, once elected, he would aim to solve the problem of Bangladeshi illegal immigration. It wasn’t clear at the time whether his words, like most political manifestos, were mere promises, or whether he intended to follow through on them. Modi did make these pronouncements only when campaigning in Bengal and Assam, rather than using a national platform, suggesting that it might be more of a device to connect with and win over voters in the affected regions than a key component of his actual agenda.

Modi’s views on immigrants had some interesting twists. For instance, in February 2014, Modi made remarks to the effect that India’s borders would and should remain open for Hindus worldwide, but not for Bangladeshi Muslims. The “open for Hindus worldwide” idea would be similar to Israel’s Law of Return.

“As soon as we come to power at the Centre, detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with,” Mr Modi told a public rally at Ramnagar in Assam.

“We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here,” he said.

Stating that this did not mean that Assam has to bear the entire burden, he said “it will be unfair on them and they will be settled across the country with facilities to begin a new life.”

Earlier, Hindus from Pakistan had arrived in Gujarat and Rajasthan, but Atal Behari Vajpayee during his prime ministership evolved schemes to accommodate them in different states, he said.

However, Modi has threatened deportation for the majority of Bangladeshi migrants, who identify as Muslim:

Narendra Modi has said that “Bangladeshis” will be deported if he comes to power, in his sharpest comments yet on illegal immigrants. They have been given the red carpet welcome by politicians just for votes, he said at a rally on Sunday.

“You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed,” Modi said in Serampore in West Bengal, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh.

Modi accuses other political parties in West Bengal and Assam of encouraging such migration and helping the migrants obtain false documents so that they can vote — a variant of the electing a new people argument, a particularly extreme form of the general political externalities argument. I don’t know enough about the extent of actual voter fraud in West Bengal and Assam (although voter fraud in the US seems to be greatly exaggerated, the situation is likely to be quite different in India). I do think, though, that to the extent the problem is real, it is created to quite an extent by the illegal status that these people have. If one political party keeps announcing its agenda to deport you (even if it rarely executes on that agenda), and another political party, openly or tacitly, allows you to stay, who will you swear allegiance to?

Interestingly, even while disagreeing with specifics, most commentators have tacitly endorsed Modi’s overall frame of needing to restrict immigration from Bangladesh. For instance, the answers to a Quora question about Modi’s speech (YouTube video earlier in the post) defend a nation’s right to arbitrary selection of immigration policy, appealing to intuitive versions of the idea we here call citizenism and collective property rights. For instance, Syed Fuad, who identifies as Bangladeshi, writes:

I’m not an Indian, so it’s not for me to decide. But in my opinion, Narendra Modi shouldn’t take it easy. He, being the Indian Prime Minister, is accountable to Indian citizens. Addressing their issues should always come before anything else, even if it means taking strong and often unpopular stands on sensitive issues.

Narendra Modi’s proposed solution

For the first few months after being elected, Modi seemed to be quiet on the subject of Bangladeshi migration. I assumed that, like most campaign trail rhetoric, this too would not actually be executed.

However, around the end of November, Narendra Modi’s proposed solution was released. Quartz has a detailed review. Here are the highlights:

Prime minister Narendra Modi has indicated that his government is open to executing a land swap with Bangladesh that will iron out long-standing border disputes and help thousands of people who live along the 4,096.7 kilometer-long common land boundary.

The deal, once ratified by the Indian parliament (PDF) will redraw India’s boundary with Bangladesh, where New Delhi will cede 17160 acres of land, in return for 7110 acres and swap enclaves. Enclaves are areas which are surrounded from all sides by foreign territories. India currently has 111 enclaves belonging to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh has 51 such areas.

Modi, in a speech in Assam on Dec. 01, also assured that the land swap—which his own party had previously vehemently opposed—would stop illegal Bangladeshi migrants from entering into India.

“The government will utilise the India-Bangla land transfer agreement to seal all routes across the international border through which illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been entering Assam and creating havoc in the state,” the prime minister said.

Quartz notes many problems with Modi’s solution in terms of the stated aim of reducing the illegal immigrant population, but does not question the goals themselves.

What would I suggest?

For good or bad, Narendra Modi, thanks to his generally hardline reputation, has more leeway to make genuine progress with migration liberalization than most other prime ministers. Given his past record of rhetoric and action, he is relatively insulated from the charge of being soft on Bangladeshis or on Muslims. This gives him a Nixon goes to China opportunity.

Modi has made some surprise moves in that direction. I don’t know about the wisdom of the land swap per se, but insofar as it contradicts his own rhetoric and at least apparently concedes land to the other country, it shows how, as somebody with a hardliner image, he is able to take actions that people with a softer image might be afraid to take as it would make them look weak.

But the land swap does not solve the fundamental need for free movement: even after all these years, the villages of Bangladesh and West Bengal are intertwined. People have extended families across the border. People seek economic opportunity across the border (my co-blogger John Lee made a related point about the borders of South-East Asia and the Nusantara a while back).

Modi can take a bold step forward by proposing a free migration zone with Bangladesh of the same sort that India has with Nepal. If Bangladeshis can come and go as they please, they have few incentives to pretend to be Indian citizens or to vote for parties using fraudulent documentation. Most people from Nepal who come to India are secure in the knowledge that they are free to go back and forth, and feel little need to become Indian citizens because it makes very little material difference to them (of course, there will be some who want Indian citizenship after living in India for a long time, or if they want to travel to third countries). Bangladeshis could get to the same point.

Modi could combine the creation of legal channels for migration with user fees that are slightly greater, but not much greater, than the cost of migrating illegally and getting false documentation. He could also come up with creative ways of encouraging greater geographical spread of Bangladeshi migrants. He’s already given the matter some thought with regards to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees. I don’t know offhand what the ideal solutions would be, or even if the problems faced by the states adjacent to Bangladesh are serious enough to warrant action, but it might still be politically expedient for Modi to show he is doing something in that regard. For instance, there could be special trains for immigrants that, at a relatively low cost, transport the immigrants to specific states, and where the immigrants formally enter the country after getting off the train at the new state. (Incidentally, concerns that immigrants who land at a particular part of the country may just stay there rather than migrating to other parts of the country were also voiced by some officers at Ellis Island).

There is also the question of whether the Bangladeshi government will agree to a free migration agreement with India. If it doesn’t, the Indian government can still do something similar unilaterally, but perhaps with fewer bells and whistles, so as to encourage the Bangladeshi government to reciprocate. Overall, I believe that the case for free migration doesn’t depend on reciprocity, but it may still be politically expedient to negotiate the deal that way, to placate voters that India is getting something from the deal. Independently, there is probably some value in making it easier for Indians to move to and from Bangladesh. There are also trade and transportation advantages: reducing border tensions with Bangladesh can allow for easier transportation of goods and people between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India. Currently, due to the way the borders are structured, the North-Eastern states are connected to the rest of India via a very narrow region of land, making economic integration harder. The free migration agreement can accompany greater ease of movement of goods and people through Bangladesh between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India.

Why does this matter?

The place premium between Bangladesh and India is probably not large (it would approximately equal the GDP per capita ratio, which is less than 2). And the absolute gains per migrant aren’t large either. Why, then, is this important?

  • The absolute population sizes in question are big enough. Allowing the 150 million Bangladeshis to move to India, seasonally or permanently, is a big deal even if the per capita gains aren’t huge. It creates a larger, more flexible, integrated labor market.
  • There may also be a peace dividend: with less border tensions, the residents of the countries have more opportunity to collaborate, and the governments can better negotiate on other issues.
  • The Indian government saves on some border and interior enforcement costs, though there may be some costs to setting up an efficient free movement system. But I suspect that those costs are less than the costs of setting up a border and enforcement process that actually works at the level that the US system does.
  • The free movement zone can create a precedent for a larger free movement zone. Other countries like Sri Lanka and Burma could be encouraged to join at a later stage. And in the longer run, perhaps Pakistan could be part of the zone as well. Open borders between India and Pakistan are unlikely to happen in the near future, because of the usual problems facing open borders between hostile nations. I think a free migration zone offers the best bet.
  • This is somewhat niche, but allowing free movement creates an insurance of sorts against adverse weather events, something that Bangladesh in particular is susceptible to because much of its land is low-lying and flood-prone. It is believed that climate change will exacerbate the problems that Bangladesh is facing. Free migration can possibly help avoid disaster striking suddenly. Similar points has been made by co-bloggers Joel and Nathan.
  • From the open borders perspective, I believe that this is a critical time in the history of India’s immigration enforcement. This is a time when Indian record-keeping is finally getting good enough that the country can start building a systematic enforcement and deportation apparatus. If we start traveling down this road, it can be quite hard (though not impossible) to reverse or change course. I believe that the years immediately before and after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act had considerable importance in terms of the development of the basic immigration enforcement apparatus, as well as the legal precendents they created. India could be going through a similar phase. Putting a brake on the process could yield larger-than-meets-the-eye dividends in terms of an undesirable road not taken.

Related reading

Some of the links in this section are also present in the body of the article.

South-South migration and the “natural state”

This blog post builds upon an Open Borders Action Group post of mine and the comments on it.

In an earlier post on what open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can learn from each other, one of the things I had said open borders advocates can learn from scholars of migration and development was the importance to give to forms of migration that currently exist, as opposed to what might exist in a hypothetical open borders world:

More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: […] [I]t might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

World Press 2014 Signals from DjiboutiWorld Press 2014 photo: Signal from Djibouti, source National Geographic. The photo shows people from Somalia living in Ethiopia trying to catch Somali cellphone networks at the border of the country so as to talk cheaply with their families.

This post can be considered a partial attempt to put that learning in practice. Here are some examples of “South-South migration” that I have in mind when listing my general observations. Each of these should deserve its own post. For those that don’t already have posts I link to a relevant news article or paper:

Some of the salient features of much of this South-South migration:

  1. In most of the cases, the destination countries of migration are large and somewhat heterogeneous economically. The average GDP per capita in the destination may be somewhere between 2 and 5 times that in the source country (with the exception of the somewhat special case of migration from North Korea to China, the range is more like 2 to 3 times). However, this hides a large degree of intranational variation in the destination country. The destination countries, despite their poverty and Third World status, generally have greater scope for people to become rich and successful. They have bigger cities with more opportunities. Compare, for instance, Afghanistan with Pakistan. Pakistan scores pretty poorly in terms of GDP per capita or HDI. But it has cities like Karachi and Lahore, that are (relatively speaking) thriving centers of commerce. Similarly, Indian cities offer opportunities that most Bangladeshis can’t access in their home countries. Even if the migrants don’t initially move to cities, the promise is there.
  2. Large parts of the destination country are rural, and the rural-urban gap on many development indicators is huge. Moreover, the rural areas may not really have much affiliation with or integration into the national identity. Many people in rural areas may not even have any form of documentation establishing citizenship or national membership. Thus, many natives are also “undocumented” and in some ways indistinguishable from migrants. The role of ethnicity as betrayed by appearance and accent is therefore greater than the role of formal citizenship.
  3. Migrants tend to move to border towns and to some large cities, generally those with pre-existing diasporas (cf. diaspora dynamics). These are the places where the issue of migration has the greatest salience, and anti-migration sentiment may be more common, and expressed more openly and virulently than in most developed countries.
  4. There is usually no pro-migration or pro-migrant movement per se, though there may be NGOs focused on providing services for migrants.
  5. If anything, intranational migration might be more salient in many parts of the country. In fact, intranational migration may also quantitatively swamp international migration, as is the case in China and India (here’s a blog post on intranational migration within India and a blog post discussing large-scale migration within India and China). But insofar as there are no real constitutional ways of restricting intranational migration, it might never become a politically important issue at the national level. In many regions, on the other hand, intranational migration may take on more significance than international migration in political rhetoric, even if politicians have little power or little interest in actually curbing such migration.
  6. At the national level, the importance of migration is minimal. This is partly because the destination countries have many more pressing problems. Anti-migration movements are relatively localized, and pro-migration movements are negligible.
  7. For many people in such countries, the issue of open borders and migration restrictions is a largely theoretical one, and their answers to it might represent generic ideas of human fairness untainted by personal interest, so to speak. This might explain why India, despite not being known for having a high degree of tolerance and welcome for foreigners of different races and ethnicities, had a roughly 25-25-25-25 split in the World Values Survey question of how open migration policy should be.

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

In many ways, both current South-South migration and historical migration are closer to the “natural state” of migration and the responses it engenders. All is not hunky-dory with this natural state. The occasional outbreak of riots against immigrants, while quantitatively negligible, as well as the more frequent displays of overt private prejudice, are disconcerting. But for all that, the system is still a bigger win-win for migrants and natives than the strict border controls that much of the developed world has successfully implemented, and that the developing world is rapidly building out.

What will the rapid economic growth under open borders look like?

Open borders will lead to rapid economic growth in some countries, particularly the countries that receive migrants. This will be true even if the per capita income of natives doesn’t rise much (or even if it falls). The total size of the economy will grow. The situation with countries sending migrants is more complicated: the decline in population means that the size of the economy could shrink, even if per capita income rises. On the other hand, very high remittances or reverse migration and joint multinational businesses could offset the huge population loss. This blog post explores the sorts of things that could happen under open borders.

A few historical and current examples worth considering:

  • The United States in the second half of the 19th century: The example fits well in the following ways: immigrants were quite poor, the economy as a whole was backward but improving fast, and the immigrants were from many different cultures and spoke many different languages. The example fits badly in the following ways: the US was at the technological frontier, the place premium wasn’t huge (both sending and receiving countries were poor), and the whole event occurred in a time when many other aspects of global culture and technology were different. In particular, due to greater costs of transport and communication, and many other reasons, the total foreign-born proportion of the population was not too high: it peaked at 15% in 1910, compared to about 13% now under fairly closed borders in the US (more here).
  • China from after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 (we expect to write more about China later; for now, check out our blog posts tagged China): The very rapid “catch-up” economic growth in China is comparable to the sort of growth we’d expect to see in migrant-receiving countries under open borders. The scale of rural-urban migration over the preceding and coming decades is in the hundreds of millions, comparable to the levels we’d expect with a decade or more of open borders. The proliferation of cities in China in recent years provides a model for what might happen under open borders. On the flip side, migration in China is happening across a far more homogenous linguistic and cultural milieu than what we’d expect under open borders. Moreover, China has a single government that can (and to some extent does) coercively restrict and coordinate migration in ways that wouldn’t work for global open borders unless there is world government or some supranational body that exerts heavy control over the coordination of international migration. China is also unrepresentative of global open borders because the place premium isn’t that huge.
  • India since its economic liberalization beginning in the late 1980s and with the main big step around 1991 (more on India here; see also all blog posts tagged India): India offers an example that’s both better and worse than China in terms of predicting what will happen under open borders. On the “better” side, there’s the fact that India is linguistically more diverse, so that many of the global challenges faced by migrants are experienced on a smaller scale in India. Although India is also religiously diverse, the religious diversity isn’t too strongly linked to location (the major religions are dispersed over many locations). India also offers a better model of a situation where the government does not plan either to stop migration or to prepare to accommodate it, unlike China, where both national and local governments have taken a more proactive approach to regulating flows. As of 2001, India measured 191 million internal long-distance migrants, about 20% of the population then. This number is comparable with the sort of migration magnitude we’d see under open borders, though it’s somewhat less than the amount of rural-urban migration in China. As with China, the place premium isn’t big enough to test some of the concerns associated with open borders. On the “worse” side, India is an even poorer country than China, so the parts of India that receive immigrants serve as bad models of how the destination countries under open borders would look.
  • The European Union today (see this related post by Hansjoerg and all our posts tagged the EU): This example is better suited in the respect that the target countries of migration are wealthy First World countries, which we expect will see a lot of immigration under open borders. But none of the source countries is too poor: the poorest countries in the EU are Romania and Bulgaria, which are middle-income countries (things will become more interesting once Albania joins). Quantitatively, migration between EU states on the whole is much lower than intranational migration in India and China, and much lower than what we’d predict under global open borders. About 3.2% of EU residents were born in another EU country, compared to 6.3% who were born outside the EU (see here and here).

The following table provides a comparative summary of the four cases considered above in terms of how good they are in their similarity to how we expect open borders to unfold (so “good” here means “good as a model for figuring out how things will be under open borders”, not “normatively good” or “desirable”):

Attribute 19th century US China India EU
Scale of migration Moderate Good Good Bad
Absolute poverty in source countries Good Good Good Bad
Absolute wealth in target countries Moderate Moderate Bad Good
Place premium Moderate Moderate Moderate Moderate
Cultural heterogeneity Moderate Bad Moderate Moderate

A few other examples that aren’t quite as good because the scale involved is too small, but are still interesting in some respects:

  • Open borders between Puerto Rico and the United States (see this blog post by Bryan Caplan): The place premium was moderate, the cultures were different (English versus Spanish). The scale of migration, over the long term, was huge relative to the sending country, but small relative to the receiving country. This example isn’t so helpful for our purpose because the US is too huge relative to the Puerto Rico for the migration to have had huge effect; however, some parts of the US (such as New York and Florida) have been influenced by Puerto Rican migration.
  • Israel has had open borders of sorts for Jews from around the world. A large number of East European and Russian Jews have migrated to Israel. Joel Newman crunched the numbers in this blog post. Although this is open borders of sorts, the small absolute size of the experiment makes it uninteresting in terms of figuring out how migration works at scale and can lead to rapid economic growth.
  • South Africa’s end of internal apartheid (discussed by Grieve Chelwa here) is also interesting, but again the scale of migration is insufficient to provide a clear sense of how things will proceed under open borders. The South Africa example is more interesting in that it involves a significant policy change in the open borders direction, but the focus of this blog post is more on the economic growth facilitated by mass migration than on the suddenness of the change.

The mix of labor and capital

Economic growth has been classified as intensive growth and extensive growth. Intensive growth involves changes in the mix of inputs and/or changes in the production technologies, i.e., the introduction of new ideas or new methods to produce more from the same inputs. Extensive growth involves an increase in inputs.

Now, to some extent, the change under open borders is extensive: a lot more labor is being added to the world economy. But in another respect, the change is intensive: the ratio of labor to capital shifts drastically worlwide, and even more so in countries that are migrant destinations. For more on this point, see Nathan Smith’s blog post on John Kennan’s paper on open borders. I quote a part of Kennan’s original paper that Nathan quoted; Nathan’s elaboration is worth reading at the link:

These gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital-labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

I see two sorts of trajectories that could unfold:

  • The planned trajectory is one where borders are opened gradually and labor regulations are modified to better use the new labor mix. In this case, people have more time to accumulate more capital stock. I would expect that in this case, industry will play a big role in migrant-receiving countries: entrepreneurs and industrialists will set up large factories in anticipation of the huge migrant workforce they can have access to. They will undertake huge construction projects or expand agribusinesses.
  • The unplanned trajectory, where migration barriers are removed quickly with little coordination and planning, would probably see more of a shift to the services sector, which is less capital-intensive and where new people can join quickly.

Indeed, of the examples of China and India, the more planned and controlled case (China) has had more reliance on industry whereas the more chaotic case (India) has had more reliance on services (see more here). Note that in the longer run, I’d expect everything to move in the direction of services, when industry becomes so efficient that adding more people isn’t worthwhile at all (even at zero wages). But we’re far from there yet.

What about growth due to technological progress at the frontier? It’s possible that the progress of the frontier will not be affected much by open borders, but I personally expect that frontier progress will happen somewhat faster under open borders than under the counterfactual. This is the basis of the innovation case and the one world vision of open borders. I do expect that sending countries are likely to experience intensive growth and technological progress due to the circulation of people and ideas, though whether their economies as a whole grow or shrink would depend on how the magnitude of this effect compares with the decline in population. For arguments that open borders impede the progress of the technological frontier, see our page on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The creation of new cities

There’s evidence to suggest that migrants who travel long distances tend to move to cities, for a variety of reasons. While living in one’s own village or small town may be preferable for many, living in a small town that one does not have connections with is hard. Cities are more conducive to strangers from faraway lands. They offer a wider range of job opportunities as well as amenities. The existence of a larger population allows for restaurants and supermarket products offering ethnic cuisine that wouldn’t be economically feasible in a smaller town.

It’s likely that there will be a lot of migration to the existing top cities of the world, but these cities have sky-high rents and are unaffordable to many poor migrants who don’t have enough skills to find jobs that could pay those rents. What I expect to see is many new cities crop up. Most likely, these cities will grow from existing small towns, potentially disrupting the lifestyles of residents of those towns. Natives are likely to have a mixed reaction: those who wanted city life but didn’t have the money for the big cities can benefit from the greater urbanization of their small town, and those who didn’t like city life may experience a decline in their quality of life (some of them may migrate to other places in their own country to get away from the overcrowding). Recall also Nathan Smith’s land value windfall argument: the price of new housing of a given quality can remain the same or even decline, even as the price of existing housing can keep rising due to an increase in the demand for living in established cities and towns.

It’s also possible that entire new cities can be created from scratch. One can imagine, for instance, a few companies setting up large factories in an area, and a huge amount of cheap housing for the people working in those factories. Another possibility is that new cities will emerge in wasteland that is at the periphery of existing cities, or from suburban or exurban regions of existing cities.

A useful historical model is China, which is undergoing the world’s most rapid and large-scale urbanization. For more, see Wikipedia, the McKinsey Global Institute report, and this presentation for a Stanford University course. In 1976, about 18% of China’s population was urban, and now about 52% is. It is estimated that by 2025, China will add over 350 million more people to its urban population, of which 240 million will be migrants. That 240 million is more than the number of people who indicate the US as their first-choice migration destination. The following are some key features of growth in China:

  • The rate of migration itself has been accelerating and may be plateauing now, though it will eventually start decreasing once rural areas have depopulated. While part of the mechanism here is diaspora dynamics, the more likely explanation is simply the increasing rate at which the economy is restructuring to increase demand for labor in urban areas and decrease it in rural areas.
  • The creation of new cities is concentrated in the middle phase (city creation was most intense around 1990-2005) rather than very early (when migration is still just beginning, existing cities have enough room for the initial migrants, and it’s not clear where more people will want to settle) or very late (when the patterns of migration are already set).
  • New cities are generally created close to existing cities.

Increase in international trade and foreign direct investment

Immigration and trade can be both complements and substitutes, but I expect that, unless tariffs are raised havily, more migration will facilitate more trade. Multinational small businesses run by family members around the world will become more common. Larger businesses will find it easier to set up shop in a greater range of countries. Diaspora will be eager to invest or get their associates in their new countries to invest in ventures in their source countries, so there will be more foreign direct investment. As people become better connected, there will be a reduction in the anti-foreign bias that motivates restrictions on trade and FDI. Another relevant point is that the move towards open borders is likely to be accompanied by a move towards free trade and FDI, because both proceed through the gradual expansion of free trade and free migration zones (such as the European Union).

A somewhat different vision

I’ll quote below Nathan’s detailed questionnaire answer (this is answer #4 in this very long blog post):

Some of the major problems of developed countries today would be solved by open borders. Government debt becomes less burdensome when population and total GDP rise, even if per capita GDP falls. As mentioned above, long-term demographic problems of shrinking and greying populations would be mitigated or eliminated by open borders (this does depend on the composition of immigrants, but given the relative youthfulness of the world population as a whole and the greater propensity of the young to move, the prediction that open borders would help can be made fairly confidently). Almost all homeowners and owners of real estate would enjoy a windfall benefit from rising population as demand and prices rise. This effect would not be offset by losses to renters, or to people unwilling to sell, from higher rents and property taxes. As cities expanded, renters could still live in comparably dense, interesting places, and homeowners who stayed put would get the windfall not in cash but in being through the midst of more economic activity (i.e., more shops, restaurants, entertainment, interesting streets, jobs and business opportunities, etc.– all the amenities of urban living for which people pay high urban rents).

Savers and owners of capital would tend to benefit as well, from an abundance of investment opportunities, but there would be downward pressure on wages. Crudely speaking, “unskilled” workers would see their wages fall, while some “skilled” workers would probably see their wages rise. But then, some of the basic skills Americans take for granted, like speaking native English, cultural fluency, and driving cars, would become “skills” for which premia could be earned. Immigrants would help poorer natives as customers, by creating a mass market for low-price goods, and giving companies a stronger incentive to pursue “frugal innovation.” There might be more business opportunities for entrepreneurially inclined natives even without a lot of education. Overall, it is extremely likely that natives as a whole would benefit, but without deliberate efforts to prevent it via fiscal policy, a substantial minority of natives would be likely to see their living standards fall due to open borders.

I would both advocate and anticipate that policy would do much to protect the least fortunate natives against a fall in living standards due to open borders. Moreover, this would be fiscally feasible, because open borders would greatly expand the tax base. Some natives might find jobs scarce and/or wages very low, yet receive transfer payments from the government which would enable them to live a “middle class,” house-and-car-in-the-suburbs, lifestyle. Others would see their wages fall but find themselves more than compensated by a rise in the price of their home and the value of their stockmarket portfolio– while also, perhaps, enjoying new transfers and/or tax cuts from a government flush with revenues from immigrant taxes. The hardest part of adjustment would be the moral impact of labor falling in value. One tenet of what I call “the macroeconomic social contract”– that anyone who is willing to work should be able to find a job that enables them to earn a decent living standard– would be further undermined.

Also discombobulating for natives would be the emergence of vibrant shantytowns and ethnic districts on an enormous scale. Pre-assimilation would mitigate the problem of absorbing immigrants into mainstream society, though on the other hand the number of immigrants would be larger than in the 19th century both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. But Americans would hear more languages spoken on the streets, see more holidays celebrated, see a wider variety of religious buildings and of clothing. There would be neighborhoods where native-born US citizens would have the experience, charming to some but frightening to others, of being on American soil yet feeling like they were abroad. European countries, I expect, would face a different problem, namely, that some immigrants would prefer to assimilate to an “Anglobalized” international bourgeoisie, rather than to Dutchness or Norwegianness or Italianness. They would have to cope with large populations of foreigners who seemed content to reside permanently in their countries, getting by with English. Sweden or the Netherlands might see their living standards rise under open borders, even as Swedish and Dutch faced displacement by English as the nation’s first language. (That might happen anyway, but open borders would accelerate it.)

While the native-born citizens of the rich world need not see their living standards fall and most to all would probably see them rise, likely by a lot, under open borders, there would be far more poor people in the rich world. Germans and Danes and Italians and Washingtonians and Californians would have to get used to seeing a lot more deep poverty on the streets, and content themselves with knowing that there was much less poverty in the world because there was a little more at home. The moral underpinnings of the national socialist models of society that prevailed in the 20th century would have to be abandoned. Territorialism as a meta-ethical prejudice would have to be refuted at the level of reason and then wrung out of people’s intuitions.

Open borders within India (part 1)

What are some examples of large multilingual zones with internal open borders? The EU (particularly the Schengen area) comes to mind, but it’s relatively recent, and most parts of the EU are quite well-developed. A perhaps more interesting example, particularly for those concerned about the Third World, is internal open borders and intranational migration within India.

I intend to cover India in a series of two blog posts, of which this is the first one. This post (part 1) discusses the size and diversity of India, whether India truly has open borders, relations with nearby countries, secesssionist movements, and overall migration statistics. In part 2, I’ll look more closely at local attitudes to migration, the economic data on migrant performance, as well as episodes with unusually high levels of immigration and emigration for specific regions, usually in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.

Size and diversity of India, compared with Europe and Africa

The population of India is a little over 1.2 billion. Compare this with the population of Europe (about 800 million), Africa (about 1.1 billion), and the European Union (about 500 million).

India is linguistically diverse. Hindi is the most widely used native language in India, and it is the main language of North India, though it comes in many dialects, many of which differ considerably from the version taught in schools. There are an estimated 180 million native speakers of Hindi, or about 15% of India’s total population, though probably a larger percentage of the population (perhaps up to 50%) has a working knowledge of Hindi sufficient for rudimentary oral communication (such as in shops or restaurants). Due to linguistic diversity, English is widely used as a language of official communication within the country, and English fluency is considered a marker of high status, opening access to a wide range of jobs. Wikipedia lists 22 major regional languages in India, each with its own well-developed script and grammar. Some of these languages, including Hindi, have well-developed literatures of their own, and some have movie industries (the biggest of these, Bollywood, is the world’s second largest movie industry after Hollywood, and might well overtake Hollywood on some metrics in the near future). The linguistic diversity of India is in the same ballpark as that of the European Union, which lists 24 official languages and 3 semi-official languages. India and the EU are also similar in that English plays an important role as a language for official communication. While English knowledge of the EU residents as a whole is greater than that of Indians, the most educated Indians probably have comparable English knowledge to the corresponding top slice of EU residents (outside the United Kingdom), because the bulk of higher education in India is in English.

Intranational disparities in income, wealth, and other indicators in India are comparable to those between EU countries, with the most extreme gaps being in the 2-3X range, except for a few very small and highly prosperous states (Sikkim in the case of India, Luxembourg in the case of the European Union). Compare the list of Indian states by GDP and list of European countries by GDP (PPP) per capita. (This post by my co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther might also be of interest). In the European Union, the most prosperous countries are in the northwest (UK, France, Germany) and the Nordic area (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark). In India, Punjab in the north is relatively prosperous due to agriculture, and the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the southern states are prosperous due to a mix of proximity to sea ports and a relatively more educated and modern population. The poorest states are the north-eastern states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and others in the central part of India.

I’m not aware of research that attempts to compute place premia within India, but my guess is that they’d be somewhat but not much narrower than the gaps in GDP per capita. In other words, I do think that skill differences account for part of the wage difference, but the huge scale of internal migration (discussed later in this post) suggests that people do see wage gains upon migrating.

It’s more truly open borders than China

The Chinese government has heavily restricted migration in a fairly systematic way for quite some time via the Hukou system, although they seem to be relaxing these controls. In India, the freedom of movement within the country is enshrined in the Constitution of India (see Fundamental Right #2 in the list of fundamental rights), and there are, to the best of my knowledge, no generic de jure or de facto legal barriers to migration. There do exist barriers to effective access to welfare state privileges associated with residency, and access to some government services and privately provided services is hindered due to a lack of knowledge of the regional language (particularly so for people who lack fluency in English and even more so for people who don’t know Hindi either) — more on this later in the post. But as far as the physical act of movement and relocation goes, “open borders” is certainly the right term. It’s not different in any meaningful way from freedom of movement between the member states of the United States.

Border relations with nearby countries

India has open borders with two of its land neighbors, Nepal (more here) and Bhutan. Relations with other neighbors are somewhat more hostile: Pakistan and India have tense relations largely due to disputes over Kashmir. India also shares a border with China, Bangladesh, and Burma (Myanmar) but does not have open borders with any of them. Tibet, which is close to India, has also sent many refugees to India.

India is physically close to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a short distance over water from the southern tip of India. Relations with Sri Lanka have been tense and have fluctuated over the years (long story).

Anyway, with the exception of Nepal and Bangladesh, none of the other countries have sent significant numbers of migrants to India, either in absolute terms or as a fraction of their populations, nor have Indians emigrated to these countries in great numbers. So for the most part, India is a closed system with internal open borders but little human interchange with the nearby world. There is emigration to faraway places (skilled emigration to the First World, plus some emigration to the Gulf States and other parts of the world) but a discussion of that gets us too far afield.

Secession movements in India

How has India managed to survive as a single country for so long? That’s a puzzle with perhaps no satisfactory answer. There have been a number of separatist movements. See this Wikipedia page for more information. None of the movements have continued for a very long time, and the grievances expressed in the movements have usually been either suppressed or accommodated through “keyhole solutions” (such as carving out a separate smaller state for the aggrieved parties, allowing for official recognition of their language, etc.). Some of the nationhood demands may well have been ambit claims, though I don’t have enough subject matter knowledge to be definitive.

The main exception is Kashmir, where a non-negligible fraction of the population has been interested in seceding from India for a considerable length of time, some of them desiring independence and others wanting Kashmir to join Pakistan. Pakistan too has had a vested interest in Kashmir. Kashmir’s accession to India was accomplished via the decisions of an unelected ruler and a popular political leader back in 1947, but the decision may not have had strong support on the ground, and Pakistan’s government has had a vested interest in helping foment dissatisfaction against the Indian government.

With the exception of Kashmir and smaller movements in the North-East, secession movements have not been active in India of late. I expect that if India’s economic growth continues apace, popular support for secession will continue to fall, as people prefer access to a wider economy over forming a nation better suited to their ethnic self-concept.

A single state with open borders versus the benefits of many different competing states

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the ideas of federalism and subsidiarity — rather than having a single government catering to a large population, it’s better to have many smaller governments catering to smaller populations. This allows for more experimentation (e.g., Tiebout competition). But, in the world as it stands today, the fragmentation into smaller governments comes at a huge cost: the states inevitably put migration restrictions and trade tariffs, leading to economic inefficiency. Whether the benefits of “letting a thousand nations bloom” outweigh the costs of restricted trade and migration is a difficult question. In the case of India, my guess is that:

  • India’s overall prosperity would be lower (perhaps comparable with Pakistan or Bangladesh, though probably a bit better) if it had split up into multiple nation-states that had peaceful relations but imposed restrictions on trade and migration with each other.
  • There would be more variation between the economic regions of India. I expect that the most prosperous states of India would probably do about as well as the most prosperous states of India do today, but the least prosperous would do considerably worse. It’s possible, though, that politics would have moved somewhat differently, and some states would have done better as independent states. There is more uncertainty at the level of individual states.
  • There would be a higher probability of a few impressive success stories, i.e., countries with income levels similar to Mexico or Malaysia, under a split. But I don’t think any particular region of India could predict with high probability that that particular region would take off as a success story, so in expectation, I still think most regions would be better off staying as part of India.

Of course, in principle, there is no conflict between having separate nation-states and having open borders and free trade, and my intuition is that this might well be optimal, but the option is currently not really on the table. One possible move in that direction, without sacrificing national unity, would be to move towards shifting more responsibilities to the states rather than the central (federal) government. This is unlikely to happen because the manner of separation of duties is specified in the Constitution, and currently heavily favors the central government, even giving it precedence on items that are in a joint list (the Concurrent List).

Migration within India

There is a fair amount of internal migration in India, though the data isn’t of sufficiently high quality to judge how well it fits with economic models. The Migration Policy Institute article titled Internal Labor Migration in India Raises Integration Challenges for Migrants by Rameez Abbas and Divya Varma offers an excellent overview of what’s known, and includes references to other online and offline material on the subject. The following are some highlights:

  • A huge amount of intranational migration is rural-to-urban migration. Unsurprisingly, the states with the most rural populations (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) are the states that send the most migrants to other states.
  • In general, migration flows seem to go from states with lower per capita income to states with higher per capita income, and the same phenomenon is observed for intra-state migration. But this is closely related to the phenomenon of migration being rural-to-urban.
  • The 2001 census recorded 191 million people who had migrated to a faraway district or different state. This was 20% of the population at the time. About 70% of internal migrants were women, and their main motive for migration was marriage. Males who migrated were largely motivated by economic reasons (looking for jobs). The total proportion of migrants is close to 30% but this also includes people who migrate short distances to nearby places. (This UNICEF report from 2012 also gives the 30% figure).
  • A large fraction of labor migration is short-term migration. The migrants are generally not highly skilled, but it’s unclear how their skill level compares with the population as a whole, given that the Indian population in general is not highly skilled. Most labor migrants are employed in a few key subsectors, including construction, domestic work, textile and brick manufacturing, transportation, mining and quarrying, and agriculture.

The article identifies the following challenges for migrants:

  • Documentation and identity: Migrants often lack appropriate documents to establish their identity and establish residency and therefore have trouble accessing both government-provided and privately provided services.
  • Housing: Migrants typically live in slums in conditions that are often more crowded than where they came from. The informal nature of their housing adds to the challenge of establishing residency necessary for accessing various services.
  • Limited access to formal financial services: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.
  • Political exclusion: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.
  • Rampant exploitation: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll look more closely at local attitudes to migration, the economic data on migrant performance, as well as episodes with unusually high levels of immigration and emigration for specific regions, usually in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.