DHAKA, June 7 (Xinhua) -- For most of their lives during the past seven decades, they lived like strangers in a land where they were born but could not claim that they were part of India or Bangladesh.
On one side of the border, people live in little stretches of land that belonged to India but are completely surrounded by Bangladesh. This anomaly is also true on the other side of the border.
Because they are neither citizens of India nor Bangladesh, these so-called"enclave dwellers" are not entitled to basic amenities such as education, medical care, free legal services and government jobs.
The explanation is simple: Indians who live on the Bangladesh enclaves are not entitled to privileges granted to Bangladeshi citizens and the Bangladesh citizens who live in the Indian enclaves are not entitled to privileges enjoyed by Indians.
In 1974, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her counterpart Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed the historic Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) which Bangladesh ratified immediately.
But in India, there was a strong opposition to the deal with groups saying that India would lose land if the enclave exchange deal was enacted. Thus India never ratified the land swap.
But all that has changed now.
On Saturday, during the two-day state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's to Bangladesh, the historic land boundary agreement (LBA) was finally signed to the great relief of enclave dwellers who can now live normal lives as free people.
Bangladesh and India have exchanged the documents of the ratification of LBA in the presence of Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina.
The signing of the LBA signals the start of the process of implementing the 41-year old deal, ending stateless status of more than 50,000 people in 161 enclaves on both sides of the border.
Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar signed the protocol on Saturday to exchange ratification of the LBA. They also exchanged the modalities of implementing the deal after the signing.
Under the agreement, territories in the Indian states of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and West Bengal will be exchanged with enclaves on Bangladesh's side located in Rangpur Division and Cooch Behar District. "From now, we are no longer chhit (enclave) people. We are now free. We have gained liberty. From now on, we can breathe a free air,"said Asfar Ali, a resident of the Balapukuri enclave in Lalmonirhat District.
Ali, 65, said that the sufferings of enclave residents would now be over."For generations, we have had to overcome big hurdles. Most of us are illiterate and could get proper treatment when we are ill and we have been deprived of the basic rights. Now we will get our identity. I can now die in peace,"he said in an emotion- laden voice.
No matter on which side of the border they are, these people will be given the option to choose their domicile which means that they can either choose to continue living where they are or to cross the boundary.
A 2011 protocol between Sheikh Hasina and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that nobody will be forced to live in a place not of his or her choice. "Now that I will have my own identity, it would be easier for me to get a job. And enclave dwellers like me can now enjoy the privileges of a citizen either as Indian or Bangladesh,"said Kulsum Begum of Khengir enclave in Patgram Upazila, Lalmonirhat District.
There are more than 14,000 people living in Bangladeshi exclaves while Indian enclaves are home to over 37,000 people. "Both India and Bangladesh have allotted funds for the implementation of the land swap. We ask that there will be transparency in the implementation of the deal,"said Golam Matin, chairman of the Chhitmahal United Council.
Matin said their major concern is how the rehabilitation process can be undertaken. "Rehabilitation is a challenge as who will get what and at what cost. Rehabilitation means the issuance of national identification card, granting of basic rights, providing of job opportunities, in general, bringing the enclave people to mainstream development," he said.