Monday, 30 May 2011

Smuggling Everything From Cough Syrup to Sex

MURSHIDABAD, West Bengal, India, May 8, 2011 (IPS) - Sakina Bibi is a sex worker in the red light area of Kalabagan in Murshidabad, a border district in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal where everything from cattle to electronic goods, from rice and sugar to cough syrup, and women, are being smuggled.

Sakina Bibi (not her real name) is a Bangladeshi citizen who managed to cross over with the help of a "lineman", one of many who run a lucrative business smuggling people into India.

"I used to smuggle saris from India," said Sakina, who was abandoned by her husband and had to care for two children. She lost her earnings to sentries of the Border Security Force (BSF) who harassed her often, she said. To pay her debts, she turned to selling sexual favours.

Livelihood is a constant struggle in Murshidabad, a district that borders Bangladesh. The Indo- Bangladesh border runs over 4,000 kilometres, more than half of which lies with West Bengal.

In 1994, the Indian government started building the border fence - a decision reached in 1986 - to curb smuggling and human trafficking. But over many stretches, the river gets in the way, and only some concrete posts serve as border markers.

In reality, the fence is a mere geographical line that tries but fails to divide people who are culturally and socially alike, though politically separated after 1947 when the Indian sub-continent split into two, India and Pakistan. Bangladesh was later carved out of East Pakistan.

The matter gets more complex: some Indian farmers own land beyond the fence, practically creating an Indian enclave within Bangladesh; the same is true of Bangladeshi enclaves within India. According to a recent report in the Times of India, the two countries have broadly agreed to exchange each other’s enclaves by the end of this year. There are 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 106 Indian enclaves on the other side.

A porous border, a common language (Bengali) and easy access to both sides make smuggling rampant and keeping tabs on such activities a daunting task for Indian forces. Some allege that unscrupulous sections of the border force are sometimes hand-in-glove with smugglers.

"For example, cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh. How can it be possible to move such huge numbers of animals without the knowledge of soldiers at the border?" asked an activist who declined to be named.

Abdul Sheikh (not his real name), a 27-year-old Bangladeshi, confided to IPS, "I used to be a cattle smuggler, taking herds of cows to Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) from the Indian side."

Sheikh said he knows of others still smuggling cattle. "People on both sides of the border helped us. Many people in the border villages have corrals to keep the cows till a herd is formed. Now I’ve left this work as I was double-crossed by some people and live here in Bengal."

Cattle smuggling is big-time. Lower on the rung are commodities like rice, sugar, electronic goods, urea fertiliser, and a cough syrup called Phensedyl, very much in demand for its sedative properties. Women and children are widely used as carriers.

An officer at BSF told IPS on condition of anonymity that a "card" system is being introduced to identify people who live in Indian enclaves. The card will bear an approximate amount of rice that could be needed weekly so that extra rice does not go beyond the enclave.

The officer also said rice smuggling in places like Jalangi border at Murshidabad has drastically gone down. Still, women and children carrying rice continue to flock to the Taltali ferry port, riding bicycles or trudging over the sandbank created in the dry winter. Whether that rice is legitimate ration for people living in an Indian enclave or going to be sold illegally is anybody’s guess.

Local NGOs who work on child rights like Suprava Panchashila Mahila Uddyog Samity in Berhampore, its district headquarters, say smugglers often use women and children as conduits. Suprava director Shoma Bhowmick says, "While it’s a year-long activity, during monsoon it’s easier for smugglers. Hence you’ll see children being absent from class more during the monsoon months.

"A common excuse is, of course, inability to come to school due to the weather. The fact is that as the river water rises, the boatmen find it easier to come up to the banks and help women and children to take along the smuggled goods," she added.

Women are unlikely to be searched at the BSF gates because of the absence of women soldiers. Only in 2009 were women allowed into the force and deployed in Punjab along the border with Pakistan, and West Bengal. Still, few battalions in the border areas have women soldiers at the moment.

A woman hiding Phensedyl in the folds of a sari can pass off as pregnant. Children, when caught, are often let off. As a BSF officer told IPS, "If I throw this kid into a jail, even a shelter home, his life will be spoiled forever and his education stopped. So we let go."

Smuggling rackets often take advantage of such lenient views. An eyewitness told IPS, "When evening sets in they simply throw the bottles (of Phensedyl) across the fence which is not very high, around 2.5 metres. The contact person on the other side just has to collect them." 

An officer of a battalion manning the border said, "There’s huge pressure on us to stop smuggling. We wonder why something can’t be done at the source. For example, Phensedyl is supplied from Kolkata, nearby Karimpur, Nadia district, etc. which is well known. We are short staffed and this border is not like any other. Here a human element is involved." (END)

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