How Meghalaya has seen surge in smuggling of sugar, onion into Bangladesh - Hindustan Times

How Meghalaya has seen surge in smuggling of sugar, onion into Bangladesh

ByDavid Laitphlang
Mar 18, 2024 11:21 AM IST

The daily smuggling of tonnes of sugar and onions to Bangladesh is leading to higher costs for domestic consumers

A shooting by Border Security Force (BSF) personnel of an alleged sugar trafficker in Dalia village near Shella in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills District on March 1 has brought attention to the smuggling of various essential commodities to Bangladesh. The man, identified as Asen M Marak, aged in his mid-forties, succumbed to his injuries in his village, after villagers quickly extricated him from the place of shooting. The incident occurred about 300 metres from the unfenced international boundary. His accomplice, believed to have been hit in the leg, is being sought by the police and BSF.

Meghalaya’s 443-km border with Bangladesh features a complex landscape, including rivers, hills, and jungles, making it prone to smuggling. (Representative Image)
Meghalaya’s 443-km border with Bangladesh features a complex landscape, including rivers, hills, and jungles, making it prone to smuggling. (Representative Image)

The incident brought to light how individuals are smuggling commodities for quick profits across the border. Cattle smuggling is not new in this hill state, and despite efforts by both police and BSF, contrabandists continue to find alternative routes. However, of particular concern is the daily smuggling of tonnes of sugar and onions to Bangladesh, leading to higher costs for domestic consumers.

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Dolly Khonglah, an exporter and secretary of the Meghalaya Importers & Exporters Chamber of Commerce (MIECC), said that such smuggling is openly happening under the watch of government agencies.

“Visit the Tamabil land port to witness long lines of trucks loaded with onions and sugar easily crossing the border, while being assisted by those tasked in manning the border,” Khonglah said over phone from Dawki.

Asked about the documentation for such shipments, she replied, “What documents? They’re openly smuggled. Smugglers use multiple routes, often damaging the terrain, including our water sources. Their passage with head load damages pipelines, leading to severe water scarcity for us in Dawki.”

An exporter with over four decades of experience primarily dealing in coal, Khonglah attributed the sudden surge in sugar and onion smuggling to sudden increase in duty of the commodities by Bangladesh.

“Previously, the duty for legally exporting sugar was 1 BD Taka. Suddenly, it has jumped to 35 BD Taka, making smuggling more appealing. The ‘China effect’ is evident in Bangladesh, connect the dots.” Khonglah said.

Former Meghalaya director general of police (DGP) W.R. Marbaniang, who played a key role in combating insurgency in the state, said, “This is a complex issue. Our state police mainly focus on insurgency and maintaining law and order, as border policing is handled by the BSF, Customs, and other border agencies. However, it is concerning when anything crosses the border at the expense of our domestic supply.” He added, “Our international border with Bangladesh remains very porous, I can’t say why. Look at West Bengal and Assam; in fact, there’s more happening from there than here.”

Meghalaya’s 443-km border with Bangladesh features a complex landscape, including rivers, hills, and jungles, making it prone to smuggling.

Between the last quarter of 2022 and February 2024, BSF seized 3,918 cattle heads worth 6,04,44,000. The Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) seized 3,546 cattle heads in 2023. BGB’s seizure data for January and February 2024 is not available.

Meghalaya, a beef-consuming state, considers beef a staple food among its local indigenous communities. Cattle are sourced legally or illegally from markets in Hajipur (Bihar) and Panji Para (West Bengal) to areas like Byrnihat in district Ri Bhoi of Meghalaya and the Barak Valley of Assam.

However, there’s been a recent surge in smuggling, notably of sugar and onions. Smugglers acquire sugar from locations like Shillong, Guwahati, and Dudhnai (Assam) at 40-50 per kg and sell it in Bangladesh for 135-140 per kg. Copious quantities of these commodities are transported unchecked from the hinterland to border areas until reaching BSF deployment zones.

According to data from BSF, in January 2023, 6,565 kg of sugar valued at 24,06,950 was seized, while in February the same year, 4,560 kg of sugar worth 18,92,475 were confiscated. In January 2024, a smaller quantity of sugar was seized at 2,586 kg valued at 10,34,516. However, in February 2024, there was a significant spike in seizures, with 41,956 kg of sugar valued at 18,02,567 being confiscated by the border sentinels.

Contrary to past trends, onions, typically not a commodity smuggled in copious quantities, saw a shift in 2024. In January of that year, BSF intercepted and seized 2,776 kg of onions valued at 10,19,120. The following month, this figure increased dramatically by over 288%, with 10,780 kg of onions worth 35,09,434 being seized and will decay till disposed of by the system.

A senior BSF official familiar with the matter said, “Most of the items like sugar, onion and other miscellaneous items including cattle are brought into the state on the pretext of local consumption but are further smuggled to Bangladesh because it yields double fold profit.”

Cattle smuggling declined during Covid-19 lockdown and after the introduction of the Assam cattle Preservation Bill 2021 on August 13, 2021, as Section 07 of the Bill, makes it mandatory for all cattle traders transporting cattle via Assam to obtain a valid permit from the state concerned. The suppliers are mostly from Assam/West Bengal and maintain direct contact with Bangladesh customers and kingpins.

“There are a few local kingpins who maintain contact with suppliers and Bangladesh customers whereas most of the locals are merely carriers or mediators. The mode of payment between local kingpins and dealers, and Bangladesh customers and kingpins is done either through cash, gold or hawala transaction,” added the official.

The surge in sugar and onion smuggling is due to stricter checks on cattle transportation and high demand in Bangladesh. The lure of double profits has led to an alarming increase in this illegal trade, posing a major concern at the international border. Vehicles carrying sugar and onions travel unchecked from the hinterland to the border, as these items are not considered contraband until they reach BSF deployment zones.

“These vehicles when checked by BSF troops often produce fake documents or sometimes confront troops on the ground that they are taking it for local consumption. These items are also taken to Border Haats for trade, way beyond the authorised limit in disproportionate quantity in the name of local produce and further sold to Bangladesh smugglers under the cover of legal trade,” another official overseeing ground operations said.

“It is very difficult to check smuggling of any item if brought near the vicinity of the IB or through border haats in the guise of local produce. Strict implementation of SOPs/guidelines for functioning of border haats need to be enforced by the haat management committee as well as all agencies responsible for functioning of the haats to keep a check on this illegal trade,” he added

The diligent border patrols have faced challenges, including violent skirmishes with smugglers, exacerbated by local support for illicit activities. In 2023, 18 BSF personnel were injured in such attacks, with an additional 9 injuries reported in January and February 2024. BSF apprehended 119 Indian and 48 Bangladeshi miscreants/smugglers in 2023, along with 2 Rohingyas, and 54 Indian and 7 Bangladeshi miscreants/smugglers in January and February 2024.

“This is because BSF has strictly followed the policy of use of non-lethal weapon to maintain zero casualty along the Indo-Bangladesh border while ensuring the security and sanctity of our nation’s border,” said BSF Meghalaya Frontier inspector general, Harbax Singh Dhillon, while commending the personnel for their performance under challenging conditions.

Underlining that operational jurisdiction conflict between BSF and local police in Meghalaya does not arise, as BSF is dedicated to maintaining peace and security along the international border, the IG said, “All operational planning, resources, and manpower are focused on the border.” He said that BSF seeks local police help for operational tasks in the hinterland or border areas despite having the power to operate throughout the state (as per Ministry of Home Affairs’ gazette notification dated October 11, 2021).

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