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Tehelka Magazine, 06 Dec 2008
Ethnic Separation
Teresa Rehman
Meghalaya is cracking down on illegal workers with a system of work permits, reports TERESA REHMAN

Seeking to address local fears of being swamped by ‘illegal migrants’, Meghalaya’s ruling Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) has decided to make work permits mandatory by the end of the year for ‘outsiders’ employed in the state. The proposal is part of the coalition government’s Common Minimum Programme, drawn up on the basis of the Cabinet Committee on Influx report, which also calls for a three-tier identity card system with 1972, the year Meghalaya attained statehood, as the base year. The card system, which was introduced by the Central Government for states with international borders, will be for permanent, semi-permanent and temporary workers.

One of India’s smallest states, Christian-majority Meghalaya has a population of around 2.3 lakh, an overwhelming 85 percent of which is tribal. The state shares a 425 km border with Bangladesh and has previously witnessed several bloody rounds of ethnic strife which has been targeting Nepali and Bangla speakers.

Samuel Jyrwa, president of the Khasi Students Union (KSU), told TEHELKA that “illegal migration” was at the heart of the genesis of the KSU, which was formed in 1978. Taking credit for the KSU in the decision to implement the work permit system, he dismisses the idea of xenophobia becoming a serious issue. “Genuine citizens will certainly not be harassed. As most of the influx comes from labourers, we will start with them. There will also be a penalty clause for erring contractors.”

Under the work permit scheme, inter-state migrants will have to register themselves with the respective district councils. Their permits will have to be renewed every 179 days so they cannot claim the rights of permanent residence. This, it is hoped, will go a long way toward preventing labourers from outside the state from illegally getting voting rights in Meghalaya.

Many feel, however, that the scheme might create a fear psychosis among the unorganised sector labour force, already overburdened by poverty and illiteracy. There is also an apprehension that ethnic groups that have routinely tried to stir xenophobic passions among the local population might turn the system into a ploy. This might breed yet another level of corruption with unscrupulous contractors resorting to the use of unfair means to issue fake permits.

Sayeedullah Nongrum, a Congress MLA from Meghalaya, feels there should be a two-tier identity card system, one for locals and one for outsiders. “No non-Indian should get a permit,” he says. “All labourers must have proper identity cards from their place of origin. And no particular community should be targeted by the authorities.”

But locals are weary of the rhetoric of successive governments on the issue. Skeptics are keeping their fingers crossed against red-tapism in getting the system off the ground, which could result in a scarcity of labour. Meghalaya is primarily an agrarian economy and is also rich in natural resources and minerals. Lack of industrialisation and relatively poor connectivity acts as an obstacle to the exploitation of these resources.

However, there are a few cement manufacturing plants which have come up in the state and several more are in the offing. Columnist and writer Patricia Mukhim feels that it is important that the state should at least be seen doing something on the issue, “not dithering the way Assam has” on the issue of curbing illegal migrants.

If a dissenting voice to the policy arises, they should also be able to come up with some kind of a viable alternative. “Otherwise,” she says, “we will all be inundated by illegal migrants as they keep coming here chasing job opportunities. People will to have to abide by some kind of rule.”

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