Mushtaq Khan, who hails from Basirhat near the Indo-Bangladesh border, was working as a laborer in New Delhi, before the lockdown forced him out of work. The 27-year-old tried desperately for another job, but was forced to come back to his native when he exhausted all options. He remained unemployed for three months since returning home in March.
Unable to meet the financial needs of his family, he got involved in illegal smuggling across the border. “I used to earn Rs 500 every day by working as a laborer in Delhi but the lockdown stopped my income,” said Mushtaq Khan.
“I have the responsibility of running my family of five that includes my two minor children. On my return, I looked for work here but in vain,” he told VillageSquare.in. With no alternative, he started smuggling Phensedyl, a cough syrup, across the border. He earns Rs 1,000, and sometimes more in one consignment.
With no avenues of income, many youth who returned from various places across the country to their villages near the Bangladesh border, have resorted to smuggling of goods to the neighboring country, to keep their home fires burning.
Over a million people have returned to West Bengal during the pandemic, according to the state government. Most of them were working as laborers and doing odd jobs, mostly in the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, Telangana, and other parts of the country.
On August 23, the Border Security Force (BSF) nabbed Ahsan Ali from Malda district of West Bengal when he was allegedly trying to smuggle cattle to Bangladesh. The 25-year-old was unemployed after returning from Kerala, where he was working as a laborer. A local smuggler allegedly coerced him into the trade.
Four days later, the BSF apprehended one Nitai Mondol (42) from Nadia district. He was allegedly trying to smuggle Phensedyl to Bangladesh, where it is used as an intoxicant. Mondol revealed that he used to work as a vendor at the railway station in Howrah, the twin city of Kolkata, and earned around Rs 8,000 per month. Every smuggling consignment fetched him around Rs 300.
According to statistics, Border Security Force (BSF) had apprehended 104 people allegedly involved in smuggling cases in June and July this year. The number of people apprehended in two months this year is more than that caught last year.
In 2019, 80 people were nabbed, as against the arrest of 39 people in 2018 during the same tenure for similar offence. The paramilitary force has arrested 21 human traffickers between June and August while none was arrested last year.
The case of these three smugglers is just the tip of an iceberg. Several villagers who lost their livelihood during the lockdown and who are residing close to the border areas have resorted to the lucrative trade of smuggling across the border.
The Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal is the longest international border in any state in the country. Out of the 4,096 km long border in India, West Bengal alone shares 2,216 km with the neighboring country. In south Bengal, the border is more than 900 km long, out which nearly 60% is riverine. Several hundreds of kilometers are porous, helping the illicit trade.
Villagers residing at a stone’s throw from the border claim of massive increase in activity for the past few months. “We have been watching several men and women frequenting the border areas unlike before when the movement was not so much,” said Prasenjit Sarkar (30), who lives barely 200 m from Indo-Bangladesh border at Ghojadanga in North 24 Parganas.
“The paramilitary force has caught people trying to smuggle cough syrups, shoes and other items,” said Sarkar. “But it is not possible for them to frisk everybody as the border is porous and smugglers manage to evade the personnel in the dead of the night.”
According to Prasenjit Sarkar, cattle smuggling has come down substantially because of the increased vigil by BSF. The smuggling of smaller gadgets, ganja (marijuana), Phensedyl and jewelry continues nonetheless.
“The smugglers simply throw the gadgets in pouches over the boundary fence,” Prasenjit Sarkar told VillageSquare.in.” They even use methods like hiding smuggled gadgets inside cattle carcasses floating down the trans-boundary Ichamati River.”
Those who have been closely monitoring the activities concede of increase in the influx of outsiders. “We have also been noticing several outsiders close to the border which were not seen earlier. A youth smuggling cough syrup was caught a few days ago in our area,” said Sajid Sardar (73), who has been an auto driver close to the border for the past four decades.
“It is an unholy union between BSF, customs department officials and politicians – irrespective of their political affiliation, as smuggling offers huge money. The demand for cattle and other items is so high that traders do no mind buying them even after auction,” said Babul Baral, a social activist, who lives around 20 km from the border in North 24 Parganas.
“For example, a bovine that costs here around Rs 50,000 is sold for Rs 1.5 lakh in Bangladesh. Phensedyl which is available for Rs 20 can be sold at Rs 200 for its addictive quality,” Babul Baral told VillageSquare.in. “Lack of employment coupled with hollow promises of politicians have been leaving people with no options but to join the illicit trade for livelihood.”
In 2016, Indian government had even banned the production of Phensedyl on the request of its Bangladesh counterpart but the Delhi High Court granted an interim injunction to drug makers against the government action.
The role of BSF personnel in aiding the illegal activities is under scanner as Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) booked a BSF commandant and three traders for their alleged role in smuggling of cattle to Bangladesh via West Bengal last month. The role of custom officials is also being probed.
The BSF commandant had allegedly amassed wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income during his posting in Malda, a border area between 2015 and 2017. The sleuths from CBI, the apex investigative agency, also conducted raids at 15 places in several cities including Delhi, Kolkata, Siliguri, Murshidabad, Ghaziabad, Amritsar and Raipur.
The first information report (FIR) states that seized cattle were recorded mostly as small in size and a common breed, in BSF’s seizure memo, to reduce the auction price of such cattle. The traders bought the cattle at a considerably low price due to their nexus with government officials.
In the records, the auctioned cattle were shown to have been disposed of at the local market. However, the same were illegally smuggled across the international border.
Senior BSF officials admit to increased illegal activities after the lockdown. “Some jobless migrants are being targeted and lured into criminal activities including cross-border smuggling of cattle and narcotics with the promise of easy money,” said SS Guleria, deputy inspector general (South Bengal Frontier) of BSF.
“We have already apprehended some people involved in smuggling. They have spilled the names of those who recruited them. The BSF is alert and keeping a close watch,” Guleria told VillageSquare.in. Some names have been changed on request.
Gurvinder Singh is a journalist based in Kolkata. Views are personal.