Neither here, nor there
"They call us names and randomly pick us up," 42 year-old Mohammad Alam tells me.
"Sometimes, they even drop us off at deserted areas or threaten to put us in prison. If we pay them money, we’re free to go.”
Five years ago, Mohammad crossed the border from Bangladesh into India, dreaming of a better life. Yet, it is no better than the one he left behind.
Mohammad is a rag picker; he sifts through plastic bottles, newspapers, and used syringes - anything he can sell to get a good deal. But it’s not his work that peeves him; he is proud of what he does. Instead, it’s the constant harassment he faces from the local police, who threaten him, demand money and even beat him up if he pleads with them.
Why? Because Mohammad is among an estimated 3 million illegal Bangladeshi workers in India.
Anybody suspected of being one is routinely rounded up and detained. Many prefer to simply hide their real identities.
They are a nameless, faceless population, invisible among the crowds. Their children cannot get admission into schools; they do not have clean drinking water, any electricity supply, or healthcare. More often than not, they are reduced to living among the squalor they spend their days sifting through.
This is a complicated, multi layered problem, which has its roots in domestic vote bank politics. Soon after the 1971 war where Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan, the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam were flooded with refugees. At the time, the local population looked at them with suspicion.
Then, local politicians realised these refugees could be harvested as a lucrative vote bank - a set of people who would vote any which way as long as they got identity papers and a steady income. This was an exploitative system, which worked for the powerful, but not for these people.
"Perhaps it’s because of those domestic compulsions that India has never really discussed this issue in detail," says Veena Sikri, India’s former ambassador to Bangladesh.
Once elections are over and forgotten, these people are too. They then become ammunition for opposition parties with a strong anti-immigrant stance. But Sikri says, “There are solutions. If there is a demand for workers from Bangladesh to India, the government can issue work permits. They can regularise their legal standing”.
While India and Bangladesh are inching closer together on the diplomatic front (the two Prime Ministers are expected to announce a host of land and water sharing agreements in the next two days), this human tragedy is not being addressed.
The last time it was discussed was back in 1992 when Khaleda Zia was the Prime Minister of Bangaldesh. And during the meeting this week, the issue does not seem to be a talking point at all.
Neither here, nor there
A sense of dislocation is what one feels when speaking to Tohseema Begum. She is 45-years-old but looks 60 and has 4 children. She was married in India and had her children here. She feels Indian but longs for Bangladesh, ironically, belonging to neither.
While Tohseema picks out waste, with her 13-month-old baby on her lap, she is edgy. She has been evicted from her home three times already. Now, all she wants is an identity.
"I’ve built my entire life here. I met my husband here, gave birth to my children. And I’m still not seen as an Indian. My children deserve to be seen as anyone else [is seen]".
And this is a yearning felt by many who just want a place to call their home.