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India seals self off from Bangladesh

- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

SUJATPUR, Bangladesh

Everyone knew it was out there somewhere, an invisible line that cut through a cow pasture and, at least in theory, divided one nation from another.

But no one saw it as a border. It was just a lumpy field of grass, uneven from the hooves of generations of cattle, and villagers crossed back and forth without even thinking about it.

Today, no one can ignore the line.

In a construction project that will eventually reach across 2,050 miles, hundreds of rivers and long stretches of forests and fields, India has been quietly sealing itself off from Bangladesh, its much poorer neighbor. Sections totaling about 1,550 miles have been built in the past seven years.

In Sujatpur, a poor farming village, the frontier is defined by two rows of 10-foot-high barbed-wire barriers, the posts studded with ugly spikes the size of a toddler's fingers. A smaller fence, and miles of barbed wire coils, fill the space in between. The expanse of steel, set into concrete, spills off toward the horizon in both directions.

"Before, it was like we were one country," said Mohammed Iqbal, a Bangladeshi farmer walking near the border on a windy afternoon. "I used to go over there just to pass the time."

As he spoke, a cow wandered past, brass bells jangling around its neck. "But now that's over," he said.

In the United States, the decision to fence 700 miles of the Mexican border triggered months of political debate ranging across issues from immigration reform to the environmental impact. When Israel announced it would build a 425-mile barrier around the West Bank, an international outcry erupted.

But there has been barely a ripple over India's far larger project, launched in earnest in 2000 amid growing fears in New Delhi about illegal immigration and cross-border terrorism.

The Bangladesh government made a few complaints — the fence felt like an insult, as if their country was a plague that needed to be quarantined — but soon gave up.

India has become enamored with fences in recent years.

First it started closing off much of its border with Pakistan, trying to stop incursions by Muslim extremists. Then it turned to its other Muslim neighbor, Bangladesh, and has been building the fence intermittently ever since.

There is no firm completion date for the $1.2 billion project, which when finished will nearly encircle Bangladesh — leaving open only its seacoast and its border of about 200 miles with Burma.

India thinks some Indian militant groups are based in Bangladesh, a charge the Bangladeshi government has denied.

But the larger fear in New Delhi is that illegal aliens will flood out of Bangladesh, one of the world's most crowded countries. Its 150 million people, about half the population of the United States, jam an area the size of Wisconsin, and the low-lying land is prone to devastating floods and typhoons. Scientists also warn rising sea levels from global warming could force millions of Bangladeshis from their homes.

India already has millions of its own citizens living in desperate poverty, despite an economy growing at more than 8 percent annually. Its population is approaching 1.2 billion and what little is left of its once-vast wilderness is being rapidly chewed up.

It is nearly impossible to judge how many residents of India are actually Bangladeshi. Particularly among the poor, many people have no identification showing their nationality, and residents of the frontier region tend to be similar in language and ethnicity. But some analysts estimate as many as 20 million Bangladeshis are in India illegally, most crammed into large cities or shantytowns just over the border.

"You've got an increasing population [in Bangladesh] with a shrinking land mass," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, who worries the Indian government is not building the fence quickly enough. "India has enough nightmares of its own without adding to them."

In villages like Sujatpur, India's fears have changed everything.

It began about a year ago, when Indian soldiers and construction workers arrived on their side of the border without warning and announced the frontier was closed.

Until then, people from this village of thatch-roofed huts, barely 200 yards from India, crossed the border daily to graze cattle, see friends or — since this part of India is one of the few that remains heavily forested — cut firewood and bamboo. Indians came to shop in Bangladeshi markets.

For Bangladeshis, particularly, the open border was a lifeline. India's $730-per-capita income looks painfully low by Western standards, but it's a decent income to many in Bangladesh, where some 60 million people live on less than $1 a day.

In a place like Sujatpur, the cheap Indian grazing land and extra income from harvesting bamboo were economic godsends.

"Look at this place, we are poor," said Mr. Iqbal, gesturing around him. "Selling that wood earned us money that we needed."

The fence is being built on Indian soil, though, and there's nothing that can be done about it on this side.

"They're big and we're small and so they can do this to us," said Sulaiman, a Bangladeshi border guard with only one name. "It's insulting."

But it's also easy to see why India is nervous.

Sujatpur may reflect a picturesque side of poverty, with its Technicolor-green fields and gentle-spoken farmers, but a glance at the border makes a stark statement.

On the Bangladesh side are huts and roads, rice paddies and cattle. There are families whose sons have fled to the cities, or to India, because there is no land left to farm. It's a rural area, but people are everywhere.

On the Indian side, sealed off behind the barbed wire, there is nothing but silent forest.

c Staff writer Andrew Zieminski contributed to this report.