Saturday, April 15, 2006

Illegal Immigration and the Commons

By Niranjan Ramakrishnan

The Eiffel Tower has been sold a couple of times. So too have Platform #1 of the Patna Railway Station, and the Taj Mahal. We are struck by the audacity of a seller parlaying a public landmark into a private transaction. We laugh at the suckers who were so gullible to buy them. As usual, we laugh loudest at those who resemble us most.

A couple of days ago, there appeared an article about the privatization of water in India. Privatization of the commons is always cause for alarm, because its social consequences are always disastrous. Some time ago, I wrote that the single major differentiator between the First and Third Worlds was the faith in the Commons. The First world had huge investments in the public sphere. No less a luminary than John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy's ambassador to Nehru, wrote in his memoirs how he would find himself chuckling at the Indian government's boasts of socialism, gently reminding them that there was much more social investment in America than they could ever imagine in India (I paraphrase).

What does this all mean in terms of consciousness? When I was growing up in India, a family celebrating a wedding would think nothing of erecting a wedding tent in the middle of a public street. Blocking a major road meant that you had real clout. A religious bhajan would be blared out on loudspeakers, with no concern for those in the neighborhood. Ditto for the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. People would complain when it was someone else doing it, but they would do the same in their turn. Now things have changed, as people are more conscious of the boundary between private and public.

Put differently, first world thinking means we do not presume upon public resources for private ends. When we begin to misuse public resources, the inevitable result is (a) greater layers of bureaucracy and (b) the deterioration all such public resources and (c) increased social tension and strife. Even the person who perpetrates this, if he continues to live in the same society, will eventually feel the ill-effects of this process.

One enduring contribution of the Reagan era has been the legitimization of the grab of the commons for private profit. Twenty five years after it commenced, we are still in Reagan's thrall, so much so that this mindset is no longer even questioned, although some stirrings may have commenced -- the latest evidence being a complaint by Field and Stream magazine that Bush and Cheney are terrible stewards of the wild.

Societies break down in strange ways when the commons is used for personal profit, or even perverse private fulfilment. Graffiti is shocking when it first appears on the stop sign near your home. A week later it shocks a lot less. A month later you're practically used to it. Respect for the law, too, is part of the commons. It works because everyone does it. Weird as it might seem, the simple expedient of standing in line is by no means universal. It is a tribute to American society that people do so. That so many people drive, and have a fair understanding of traffic rules, is nothing short of an American social engineering miracle.

What about illegal immigration? When I read impassioned speeches and writings about the rights of illegal immigrants, I wish I could ask these opponents of punishment for illegal immigration a simple question -- would you allow any illegal immigrant to stay in your home and support them 100%? Remember, 100% -- which means you have to pay for private schooling for their children, their health care, etc. -- forever (You cannot, after all, seek to benefit from a breaking of the law). I doubt there would be many takers. And this, it seems to me, is the basic infirmity of their position. They want to be charitable, and claim to be settling ancient scores, but all on the back of the Commons.

Call their attention to this, and there are angry responses about how America had done this or that atrocity, or how immigrants have built this country. That last is particularly unctious. Let us suppose I helped build a public park. Let us even ignore the fact that I was paid for it (as did any immigrant). Does that mean that I can, without permission, usurp it to throw a party? As with the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower, I cannot dispose of something I do not own outright. If there are others involved, they must sign on too. In the case of the commons, those involved are the American people, most immediately those living along the Mexican border. Who has obtained their assent to allow foreigners to arbitrary cross into their towns, because some wise folk in Wall Street or Washington have concluded that immigration is a 'net plus'? And when their governments fail to protect them despite repeated pleas, why should anyone be surprised at the rise of bodies like the Minutemen?

One does not have to lose sight of America's numerous acts of omission and commission in and outside the USA. But that is no excuse for anyone to defend sneaking around the law, soaking up public resources in a manner never intended. After all, even if the official figures of 12 million illegal immigrants (which should, realistically, be revised upwards, being official statistics -- that's third world thinking) are true, that is a 4% population of illegal immigrants, encroaching upon the commons. A large figure in any circumstances, in an era when investment in the Commons is considered akin to heresy, it is a straw more than capable of felling the camel.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at His blog is at

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Approaching Water Crisis

From Counterpunch (Apr 12, 2006)

Water as Commodity and Weapon

The Corporate Hijack of India's Water


2001: The old man shuffled his feet, acutely embarrassed. No matter which part of India you're in, the first thing you do is offer your guests a glass of water. And this was one part of Nallamada in Andhra Pradesh blessed with that element. Things had changed, though. "Please don't drink it," he said, finally. "See how it is?" he asked, showing us a tumbler. Tiny blobs of thingummy floated atop a liquid more brown than transparent. But then he brightened up. "Will you have Coca-Cola instead? That, this village has." And so it did. As in the Aamir Khan ad. The smaller bottle for Rs. 5.

It's also there in countless other villages where a glass of clean water is now hard to find. And Coca Cola's impact on both drinking and irrigation water sparks revolts across the country. From Plachimada in Kerala to Kaladera in Rajasthan. From Gangaikondan in Tamil Nadu to Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh. From Thane in Maharashtra to Khammam in Andhra Pradesh.

2002: M.P. Veerendrakumar, chairman of the Mathrubhumi group of publications, is startled to discover that the Malapuzha river and dam in his native Kerala are "for lease or sale to private parties. "I did not know you could sell and buy dams and rivers." He learns this from a tender he sees in an American daily while on a trip overseas. "This had not appeared in any of our local newspapers."

It had already begun in Andhra Pradesh There, two years earlier, farmers chased away the World Bank's James Wolfensohn. He had come to unveil the confederation of "Water Users Associations" in the state. "Water Users." Oh, what a lovely word! It denotes that special group of folks who use water. The rest of us are non-users, a type of dryland bacteria.

But non-users, being a touchy, irritable lot, showed up in large numbers at the Koelsagar dam in Mahbubnagar. Pitched battles were fought and hundreds arrested. The government shifted the plaque of the dam to a safe haven miles away so the Bank Boss could cut his ribbon in peace.

2003: Private theme and water parks in and around Mumbai are found to be using 50 billion litres of water daily. This, while countless women in the slums and chawls of the city wait hours in queues for 20 litres. Meanwhile, anti-Coke battles are hotting up again. Kerala's pollution control board confirms the toxic nature of the sludge spewed out by Coke's plant in Plachimada. The panchayat revokes the plant's licence.

2004: The polls to parliament -- and in some states -- see the rout of the biggest 'water reformers.' Of course, there are many reasons for their defeat. But water is on that list. Sadly for the World Bank, its puff job is already done. So its report "India's Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future" appears as it is -- a year later. It sings the praises of Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra. And it claims they gained politically from the reforms. It says the water users associations were particularly good for Naidu. Because "farmers perceived this to be a reform which moved in the right direction." That is in 2005, a year after farmers in both states hand out some of the worst electoral defeats ever seen to the Bank's heroes.

2005: Bazargaon is a scarcity-hit Vidharbha village that has one sarkari well and gets tanker water once in ten days. It is also host to the giant 'Fun & Food Village.' An elite park which offers 18 kinds of water slides and uses millions of litres as a matter of course. All Bazargaon's water flows towards this 'village.' It's a story repeated in different ways in many places, across many states. Water as a commodity, flows from poor to rich areas.

In Yavatmal, a Maharashtra minister asks farmers at a meeting to "diversify into dairying." The crowd jeers. (Vidharbha has seen over 425 farm suicides in ten months.) The problems of water and irrigation loom large here. "You want us to take up milk production?" scoffs a farmer, rising to his feet. 'When you pay us a price of Rs. 6 for a litre of milk, but pay Rs. 12 for a litre of your bottled water?" The meeting ends early.

People pay more for water than corporates do. The bottled water brigade got treated and cleaned water in Hyderabad for 25 paise a litre for years. This goes into that bottle costing Rs. 12. In many parts of the country soft-drink giants get it almost free. Whole communities lose out as heavyweights like Coke step in. That company used 283 billion litres of water worldwide in 2004. Enough, points out the India Resource Centre, to "meet the drinking needs of the entire world's population for ten days." And the billions of litres it guzzles in India could meet the needs of whole districts. in Orissa or Rajasthan for a year.

Yet Coca Cola was the leading sponsor of the "World Water Forum" in Mexico this year. But Coke is not alone in the devastation it inflicts in India. Meet the Real Thing. Central and state governments in this country are privatising water. Coke is just one of the beneficiaries. Oddly, those selling out India's water almost never use the word 'privatisation.' They know how discredited that is. So the buzzword is 'efficiency.' Or 'public-private partnerships.' The real questions are never raised. Should anyone own water? How must it be shared? Who gets to decide? Is water a commodity to profiteer in or is it a human right? Is it more than a 'human' right? Countless other species also need it to survive.

The bazaar is large. And top water corporations figure in the Fortune 500 Global list. As Maude Barlow, one of the world's leading water activists, points out, the business "is already considered to be worth U.S. $400 billion annually". And there is lots more to be made. In her stunning book, Blue Gold, Barlow cites the Bank's own estimate of the market size. "In 1998, the World Bank predicted that the global trade in water would soon be a U.S. $800 billion industry, and by 2001, this projection had been jacked up to one trillion dollars." And these revenues are "based on the fact that only five per cent of the world's population are now receiving their water supply from corporations". So as the corporate grip on water tightens, "water could become a multi-trillion-dollar industry in the future. What if city after city privatises its water services?"

Now you know why our planners, Ministers and bureaucrats are eager to privatise. There's big bucks in it. Major `studies' and contracts are being awarded to private groups. As this deepens, people and governments will suffer huge losses. But government officials and private corporations will make giant gains.

The corporate hijack of water is on worldwide and one of the most important processes of our time. The World Bank and the IMF help ram it through. Water privatisation has often been shoved into their loan conditionalities in the past decade.

In few nations will the damage be as terrible and complex as in India. Here water use is already very unequal. Most irrigation and drinking water in India, for instance, has a clear caste geography. Even the layout of our villages reflects that. The dalit basti is always on the outskirts, where there is least access to water. Barring dalits from the main water sources of the village are not just about the 'social' horror of untouchability. It is also about curbing their access to this vital resource.

It is also closely tied to the framework of class. About 118 million households -- 62 per cent of the total -- do not have drinking water at home. As census household survey data analysed by Dr. S. L. Rao show, 300 million Indians draw water from community taps or handpumps. (Many World Bank and Asian Development Bank projects, by the way, will end up doing away with those community taps.)

About five million Indian families (roughly the population of Canada) still draw water from ponds, tanks, rivers and springs. This is a stratified society. The big dams that have displaced millions of Indians in the past decades have also narrowed control and access to water. Atop this structured inequity, we now install hyper-inequality.

A huge share of India's public health problems are linked to water-borne or water-related diseases. Diarrhoea alone claims lakhs of lives each year. Further reducing the access of poor people to clean water will sharply worsen matters. In State after State, the laws are being rewritten. A prelude to handing over control of both drinking and irrigation water to corporations. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act simply prices farmers out of agriculture. If the rates implied in the act are actually imposed, irrigation costs could be in thousands of rupees per acre. It would in fact be more than what most farmers earn per acre.

At the same time as more and more fields run dry, golf courses dripping pesticides and guzzling over a million litres of water a day come up in regions of high stress. Even in Rajasthan. (In the Philippines, there have been shootouts between farmers affected by golf courses and the hired goons of the course owners.)

India is a nation of subsistence farmers. When you privatise the rivers and the streams, the canals and the dams, you privatise rainfall. And you ask for a social tsunami. This is also the swiftest route to corporatisation of agriculture. In that sector, we are already forcing out millions of small private owners called farmers. The task is to hand it all over to large corporations. This policy-engineered agrarian crisis wracking rural India is also about the greatest planned displacement ever in our history. Water will be a major weapon used against farmers in this process.

Noble terms serve to whitewash the theft of water from the poor. In Angul in Orissa, the World Bank sought to hand over water to the rich. And called the process 'pani panchayats.' There, the 'rotation' of canal water use saw to it that poor farmers could have a rabi crop only once in two years. With people rebelling, this 'model' collapsed. But not before causing much misery. In Andhra Pradesh, too, the Water Users Associations were mostly headed by the biggest landlords and contractors of the region.

Just think of the trouble we're begging for. Almost every giant political headache in this country is linked to water. The single most explosive issue in South India is the Cauvery waters dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Then there is the Almatti problem vexing Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka relations. There is the fight over the Kabini waters between Karnataka and Kerala. Even the 'Khalistan problem' had a distinct link to the struggle over the Ravi-Beas waters. Water conflicts in India also affect regions of the same state. The Krishna-Godavari water disputes drive conflict within Andhra Pradesh. The list is endless. Further, across the country, water conflicts of many kinds seep right down to intra-village battles and bloodshed .

Some of our worst troubles with neighbours have also been about water. The Kosi barrage with Nepal. The Farakka Barrage with Bangladesh. Indus waters with Pakistan. Over decades, we've made things a lot worse. The unregulated spread of borewells was an early form of privatisation. The richer you are, the more wells you can sink, the deeper you can go. It has proved quite disastrous. Many poorer farmers have seen their dug wells sucked dry as neighbours collar all the groundwater. In the end, it can destroy the entire village. Mushampally village in Nalgonda in AP has more borewells than human beings. The damage done to the aquifer has been terrible. Even the richest farmers also went bankrupt as water stress peaked.

In his bid to privatise water when chief minister, Chandrababu. Naidu wound up the irrigation development corporation of Andhra Pradesh. Which meant it was now each farm for itself. That led to lakhs of new borewells being sunk across the state. With disastrous results. Water shortages in many states have also led to the emergence of 'water lords' who make a fortune by selling the liquid. In Anantapur, some of these are former farmers who find this more lucrative than agriculture ever was.

In the cities, millions dwell in slums where they might pay the same rates others do for water. But they get far less and spend far more time in getting it. Against this deadly backdrop comes water privatisation. If even the upper middle classes of Delhi loathe it, imagine the plight of poor people in Chandrapur.

And get this. India could be the first nation in the world to nationalise its rivers and privatise their waters. That is if we go ahead with the great river interlining project. Nationalise? And privatise? The linking scheme would demand the former. The latter we are already deep into. Of course you can, like in Chhattisgarh, sell or lease the river itself`Sheonath's sorrow'.

Those bringing it to you include some of the top corporations in the world. Some of the companies now making a beeline for India have been turfed out of Latin America. Suez, one of the Big Three of water, told the Guardian that "it was almost impossible for it to work in Latin America or Africa. And so, instead, it would "be concentrating on China, India and Eastern Europe." The company did not mention that it had been tossed out of Grenoble in its native France as well. As Maude Barlow points out, that city also jailed its own mayor and a senior Suez executive for bribery.

As she also shows, it's not just any racket. It's scale is stunning. "Bottled water costs up to 10,000 times more than tap water in local communities. For the same price as one bottle, 1,000 gallons of water could be delivered to a person's home."

In Bolivia, when the MNC Bechtel took control of the water supply in the city of Cochabamba, it raised prices by 200 per cent. In cities in Peru, Chile and other nations too, water was priced out of the reach of the poor. All of them saw widespread unrest and political turmoil. Tiny Uruguay has set an example for the rest of the world. It amended its constitution in 2004 to bar private control of water and to declare water "a fundamental human right." This followed a referendum where close to two-thirds of the voters rejected privatisation.

The U.S. Ambassador calls for 'Public-private partnerships' (read privatisation) in India. Yet, as a report cited by Public Citizen points out: "About 85 per cent of all the water that comes out of a tap in the U.S. is delivered by a publicly owned and publicly operated system." That was and is the norm. Though the drive for profit will change things there, too.

Meanwhile, in India, the battles have begun. Protests across the country show that people will not take it lying down. Still, with so much money to be made, the privatisers will not just go away. The waters have just begun to get choppy. And we're in at the deep end.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece initially ran in the Indian weekly Frontline. He can be reached at:

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

History Lessons

The Partition of America

Niranjan Ramakrishnan

Coming from India, the only country in the world, as someone once observed ruefully, which would celebrate the loss of one fourth its territory and one third its people as 'Independence Day', I have often envied the United States for having been blessed with an Abraham Lincoln.

The loss of territory and population here is a reference to the partition of the nation. India had neither a sovereign state, nor (perhaps on account of not having a state) a leader of Lincoln's stature, at the time it was cut in two in 1947. The Muslim League, which was demanding a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, decided to show both the British rulers and their main opposition, the Congress Party, a glimpse of its growing clout -- calling for what it termed a day of Direct Action, to be observed on August 16, 1946. Within a year, India had been partitioned.

Flexing muscles, showing clout. Hearing terms like these in reference to the huge marches this weekend, I was further reminded of Direct Action Day when I heard one of the organizers of yesterday's marches talk of an upcoming Immigrant Power Day. That day, he said, immigrants would show, "Where would America be without us?". His TV interviewer asked, wryly, "And where do you think you would be without America?"

However unpersuaded one might be by the arguments and demands of the rallies that have convulsed America's major cities these past days, one may still admire their organizers and participants for how well they have mobilized and how peacefully they have expressed themselves. The illegal immigrants have shown themselves to be more aware of First Amendment Rights than the natives! (See also Liberty - Use it or Lose it).

They said they were sending a wake-up message to America, and they certainly succeeded in ringing the alarm bell loud and clear. Loud enough for Edward Kennedy to address their rally in Washington DC, Hillary Clinton (and Chuck Schumer too, if I recall) to grab the mike in New York and John Kerry to speak in their favor someplace else.

Note well, none of these Democrats could be caught dead near an anti-war or Impeach Bush rally in the past 3 years. But here they were, proud to participate in demonstrations where, only yesterday the crowds were waving the Mexican Flag (so much for that poor, ubiquitous, US lapel pin which all American politicians flaunt shamelessly after 9-11). One Hispanic newspaper even wrote the rally showed that LA had always belonged to Mexico! The word reconquista has by no means been retired from the Mexican Lexicon (pardon the pun). But focus for a second on the delicious irony here -- some of the nation's top lawmakers, speaking at rallies whose main demand, all said and done, is that lawbreaking be overlooked.

Is it any surprise that such leaders would also connive at changing the wiretapping law retroactively after the president began violating it three years ago? (See also Destination: Amnesty Nation).

But back to our history lesson. When the English first dropped anchor in India in 1607, and made their way to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir at Agra, it was the capital of one of the (if not The) most fabulous empires in the world, and certainly pre-eminent in India. No one could have suspected that this small band of men, supplicants begging for a few trading rights, would one day topple the Mughal Empire and rule the subcontinent from the Hindu Kush to the Indian Ocean. But the tipping point came soon enough (on a historical scale), on a small battlefield in Bengal called Plassey, in 1757.

Take another story, from another part of the world, one that Prof. Michael Neumann and others like him have written about extensively. When the first Jews arrived from Europe, which Palestinian would have suspected that, in half a century, many of his compatriots would be roaming about the world, exiled from their own lands? Sovereignty is everything, as any Palestinian can attest.

Or consider a story a little closer to the issue, the European conquest of the Americas. A few explorers came at first, uncertain of what they would find. In a century, they were running large parts of the continent, imposing their language and their customs. In three centuries they had captured it all. The lives of the Native Americans were altered forever.

This is the real history of conquest. No one lands on a foreign shore or crosses a border declaring that he wants to rule the country. It always happens over time, and with the uncomprehending cooperation of the natives. Gandhi, never shy to examine one's own faults, taxed his fellow Indians thus, "The English have not taken India; we have given it to them...They had not the slightest intention (when they first came) to establish a kingdom. Who assisted the (East India) Company's officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this. In order to become rich all at once we welcomed the Company's officers with open arms. If I am in the habit of drinking bhang and a seller thereof sells it to me, am I to blame him or myself? By blaming the seller, shall I be able to avoid the habit? And, if a particular retailer is driven away, will not another take his place?"

Similarly might we ask ourselves, "Who encouraged illegal immigration? Who wanted cheap goods at any cost? Who wanted to eat Florida Oranges and California Peaches at bottom dollar? Who wanted his yard landscaped for a song? Etc. And that's part of the truth.

But there are a couple of other things noteworthy in Gandhi's statement. Notice that he talks about the problem of addiction to bhang (an poppy intoxicant). Whenever I hear someone saying, "...but, for our economy, we need these workers...Americans won't do these jobs, so we need a guest worker program...", I wonder whether these leaders even think before they open their mouths. This is exactly the addiction Gandhi is talking about. Just as we live beyond our means in the financial arena, with a mounting budget deficit and trade deficit, we also seem to be runnning a labor deficit. Why have an industry if you cannot have Americans do a job? It is reminiscent of the old joke, "We will live within our means, even if we have to borrow to do so". Perhaps it wasn't a joke after all.

Second, the fact that Gandhi recognized Indian complicity in the loss of their country's sovereignty didn't cause him to throw up his hands and accept the Raj as a fait accompli. He fought against it with determination. He knew what the loss of sovereignty meant. It was not an elastic concept for Gandhi, as it appears to be to many of our intellectuals.

The lessons of history are obvious. A vacuum of state, usually accompanied by a weak and corrupt leadership, leads inevitably to the eventual disempowerment, sometimes even subjugation, of a country.

There are no words to describe adequately the cheap and tawdry grandstanding by the senators and congressman who attended these rallies. And when a Mexican president publicly demands a hand in crafting America's immigration policy, following which an American president goes to Mexico to assure the former that his will be done, it is time to ask, "Where is the American State?"

Out of commission, is the short answer. With Ronald Reagan, business began superseding what little was left of the American state, a development promoted vigorously by Bill Clinton, and revved up several notches by George W Bush. Whatever the fate of the 12 million illegal immigrants, a dissolute state renders that of America bleak.

'Prevention is better than cure', goes the adage. How did we miss that gem of wisdom? Perhaps because the saying is English, and we are, above all things, multicultural these days.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at His blog is at

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bharati wept

Came across this extraordinary article on Aamby Valley, a monstrosity, not so much because it is a haven for the rich, but because it represents a private city largely outside the control of the Indian state. Read Randeep Ramesh's shocking piece in the Guardian, "A Tale of Two Indias", where he talks about the felling of 11000 acres of prime forest lands in the shadows of the Sahayadri hills for a gated city surrounded by an electric fence to keep out other Indians (if those living inside can be called Indians in any real sense).

Meanwhile, the article continues, there are Indian farmers selling their cattle, their lands, even their kidneys, to stay alive. See also P. Sainath's article about farmer suicides in Vidharba (in the same state as Aamby Valley) crossing 400 the same day the Sensex hit an all time high, "Where India's Brave New World is Headed".

Nor is this a phenomenon unique to Maharashtra. Read "Indian Villages for Sale" by Devinder Sharma. This is not about some parched outpost. It is about Punjab, the granary of India for fifty years. The villagers had exhausted other alternatives to raise money to live, and decided to sell their village.

The poet of Indian nationalism, Subramania Bharati, wrote that if a single person went without food we would destroy the world. That was in Brtitish times. Fifty years of freedom have robbed us of all sensibility, let alone sense.

Shame on all of us, and shame on Manmohan Singh and this false god of globalization.

Sovereignty, Rule of Law? What's all that?

Immigrants, Migrants, and Vagrants
Extricating the Issues in the Immigration Debate
by Niranjan Ramakrishnan

Every time I hear the words, "We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws", I am reminded of just how far along the road to idiocy we have traveled. That statement is as asinine a truism as ever left a politician's lips, almost akin to telling someone that just because they are wearing their shirt doesn't mean they should forget their pants. But, given our recent proclivity in tolerating official pap, this fresh accretion to the daily public discourse should occasion no surprise. In any case, enough emotion and vested interest are seeped into the immigration debate that one needs to make an effort to rescue the basic issues, which are, in fact, quite straightforward.

That the US is a nation of immigrants is largely true, but not in the sense the argument is usually deployed. After all, the US is hardly unique for being peopled by men and women from other lands: the Sri Lankan Tamils came from South India, the majority Sinhalese themselves came from northern India. England was settled by people from what are now Germany and France. In America itself, the native Americans came from Asia. South East Asia is full of people of Chinese descent. Arabs, Afghans, Persians, Greeks, all settled in India over the centuries.

This simplistic formula, wielded often as a clinching argument for not worrying overly about immigration, ignores the difference between immigration and migration. We have to remember that 'Immigration', as different from 'migration', presupposes a process, and a set of laws. The days when you could migrate anywhere as you pleased are long gone. Once there are international boundaries, you can only migrate within your own borders.

This difference is what nation states are all about. It is the law that prescribes procedures according to which people may enter, stay, gain citizenship, etc. So, to say it correctly, we are a nation of immigrants because we are a nation of laws. The laws under gird, and are thus more basic than, immigration. And while it does happen that a person or two might unintentionally stray across a border every now and then, no one seriously argues that 12 million people were vagrants who absentmindedly found themselves on the other side of the border one morning.

There are three ways in which one can be inside a country legally -- as a guest, as an immigrant, or as a citizen. In all these cases the country (supposedly) knows you are there. Anyone who is in the country by some other means is by definition illegal (technically, at least). Whether the person is hard-working or lazy, thrifty or profligate, has family values or not, none of this is germane (Graham Greene was not allowed into this country, for heaven's sake, forbidden by some law!).

When the law is weak, argue the facts, when the facts are weak, argue the law, as every young attorney is told. The law being unambiguous (you cannot work in the USA without an authorization), the opponents of immigration reform seek refuge in that oldest of American pablum's -- pragmatism. We have to recognize the fact that 12 million people are here illegally, they say in awe. And they contribute to the economy, they are vital to so many industries, they add, reverently. This is like telling a traffic cop that he should ignore your driving without a license because you are on your way to an important meeting. America was known for its uniform respect for the law, but this is one more casualty of our decline.

But all of us are complicit, my friend protests, confessing frankly that he had never asked the guy who painted his home if his two helpers were, er, legal. Let us say we are. Well? I was once told that the pizza business in some states was controlled entirely by the mafia. Since I like pizza, should I now oppose the FBI going after the mafia? How far does this ridiculous line of argument go?

It is a tedious task. So was tackling the depression, or fighting the cold war, all daunting enterprises. So are activities like elections, courtroom trials and preserving the rights of the accused. Do we jettison these too? If the number of 12 million seems staggering, do remember that we have over 100 million automobile drivers in this country, all of whom are issued driving licenses, and conform to a traffic system whose logistical sophistication is the envy of the world. Let us not underestimate ourselves, nor overstate the problem. What is needed is political awareness, and a will to sovereignty.

For, have no doubt, a country that cannot enforce its borders is a country no longer. A blind acquiescence of the concept of immigration anytime, anywhere, without suitable forethought, is a far more pernicious threat than the downing of the World Trade Center. Illegal migration is a direct challenge to a nation's sovereignty, pure and simple. To throw epithets like racist, fascist, heartless, etc. at all those who hold this view, is no different than President Bush (representing the mother of all illegal squatting -- the vagrant in the White House) condemning those who protest his warrant less wiretapping felony as soft on terrorism. One cannot in good faith support the enforcement of some laws and not others, especially if one is doing so in the noble cause of reducing the cost of one's consumer instincts.

These basic premises should be form the basis upon which other considerations of pragmatism, personal stories, and compassion, may apply. To confuse the main issues of sovereignty and the rule of law with any subsidiary logic would be an act of imbecility as monumental as the many others we've committed in the past quarter century.

See also: Immigration Bill Stalls in Senate

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at His blog is at