The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The notion of a borderless India is a multifaceted concept, ripe with opportunities and fraught with challenges.

The concept of free movement, advocated by progressive voices around the globe, calls for the unimpeded transit of people and goods across borders. In parallel to this liberal ideal, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently suggested transforming the BIMSTEC region, which encompasses seven countries including India, into a singular “borderless” tourism zone. While the concept is intriguing and has potential, it comes with a spectrum of implications, both beneficial and detrimental.

As it stands, Indian nationals can travel visa-free to only a select few neighboring nations—specifically, Nepal and Bhutan—and are granted similar privileges in a mere 17 countries globally, this figure excluding e-visas and Visa on Arrival provisions, as per the Ministry of External Affairs. India’s global passport ranking places it at 80th, indicating gradual progress over the years, though it still trails behind many smaller African and Middle Eastern states.

The importance of such rankings lies in their assessment of how freely a nation’s citizens can explore the world, a metric indicative not only of tourism potential but also of integration within the global economy. Japan, which leads this index, has unfettered economic access, while at the other extreme, Afghanistan is allotted access to a scant 1% of the global economy.

The principle of borderless tourism is pivotal for economic expansion, catalyzing local enterprise and cultural exchange. Historically, India has engaged in limited borderless tourism initiatives, typically with one or two countries. A comprehensive, multi-nation partnership has yet to materialize. Internationally, various blocs offer visa-free travel among their member states, with the Schengen Area standing as the most prominent example—a collective of twenty-seven European and non-European countries that have chosen to eradicate internal borders to permit free movement.

This zone enables over 400 million individuals to navigate freely, with daily border crossings exceeding 3.5 million. The Schengen Area underscores the success of European integration, facilitating not just mobility but also bolstering tourism and the economies of its members. It also promotes increased cooperation among customs and law enforcement, yielding benefits in the realm of combating transnational crime, such as terrorism and trafficking.

However, the Schengen model cannot be directly applied to India and its neighbors. Significant modifications are necessary, taking into account the unique geographic, demographic, and security challenges. India has made strides in streamlining visa processes, yet full-fledged borderless tourism remains a more complex endeavor, often restricted to specific visa categories like work and education.

A key concern for India in contemplating a borderless setup is security. Without stringent border controls, managing the potential surge of undocumented migrants from nearby nations becomes a complex issue. These countries vary significantly in their economic conditions and developmental stages.

Implementing this model could lead to an uneven distribution of people and resources, exacerbating India’s existing challenges with overpopulation and putting additional pressure on finite resources such as land, water, and housing, as well as increasing job competition.

A borderless approach could also engender economic and social disparities across regions. The migration of individuals to India in search of improved economic prospects might disadvantage local citizens. An increased populace could also impinge upon the lifestyles of indigenous communities, potentially resulting in cultural disequilibrium. The integration of a diverse populace from neighboring countries would necessitate concerted efforts toward social cohesion and inclusivity.

The current economic and political landscape of some neighboring countries, such as Sri Lanka’s severe economic downturn and Myanmar’s political instability, further complicate the prospect of seamless borders.

In this context, India might look to alternative models like ASEAN’s, which facilitates visa-free travel for up to fourteen days among member states, with the flexibility for extensions based on mutual agreements. Such a model not only reinforces regional cooperation but also strengthens economic, cultural, and diplomatic ties. A visa-free policy could enhance tourist influx from neighboring nations, thereby benefiting the tourism sector.

A borderless India would mean more interpersonal connections, fostering understanding and camaraderie among different nationalities. It would also streamline the movement of goods and services, potentially reducing production costs. With Pakistan and China outside of BIMSTEC, concerns regarding cross-border terrorism and economic competition are mitigated, allowing for a focus on inclusive regional collaboration.

The notion of a borderless India is a multifaceted concept, ripe with opportunities and fraught with challenges. Realizing such an arrangement requires thorough deliberation and negotiation to ensure its practicality and success. While it promises to enhance regional cooperation, economic growth, and trade, it also demands careful consideration of security, economic disparity, immigration pressures, and the political intricacies involved. Robust political commitment and inter-country cooperation are imperative to address each nation’s concerns and devise a viable solution. This could propel India not only towards economic and political advancement but also towards fulfilling its aspiration of becoming a ‘Jagadguru’—a global guide.

Neha Bhardwaj is currently a third-year law student pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. Her academic interests include Human Rights Law, International Relations and Political Philosophy.