Border Haats between India and Bangladesh
The reopening of the border haat connecting Kalaichar in South West Garo Hills in Meghalaya and Baliamari of the Kurigram district in Bangladesh is good news.
The reopening of the border haat connecting Kalaichar in South West Garo Hills in Meghalaya and Baliamari of the Kurigram district in Bangladesh is good news. This traditional border haats shut down during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 was revived in 2011, and subsequently India and Bangladesh opened three more – one along the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border and two along the Tripura-Bangladesh border but trade along these were disrupted over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Border haats have been playing a crucial role in deepening bilateral relations by facilitating direct trade of local produce between borderland people of the two neighbouring countries. Smooth running of trade on the zero line through existing haats is crucial for boosting confidence of both the countries to expedite opening of more border haats along India-Bangladesh border. The trade at these border haats is allowed to be carried out in Indian rupee/Bangladesh taka on barter basis due to which local people on both sides find it easier to trade. Commodities traded in these haats include vegetables, fruits, spices, bamboo products, handicraft and handloom items, small household agricultural implements, melamine products, processed foods, cosmetics, garment etc., which generate livelihood opportunities for borderland communities and strengthen local economies. Only residents of the area within five km radius from the location of Border Haats are allowed to sell their products in the border haats and lists of vendors are exchanged by the respective Haat Management Committees and any change in the list is required to be notified to the Haat Management Committee of the other side which protect the trade interest of actual borderland people. The number of vendors is also limited to prevent overcrowding. Facilitating more vendors to take part by increasing the length of the radius from the zero line is possible by way of expansion of the market area and improvement in market infrastructure provided an adequate number of Border Security Force personnel are available for deployment to ensure foolproof security. The designated border haats area is exempted from passport and visa regulations but only vendors and vendees holding identity cards are to be allowed due to which strict vigil by border guarding forces outside the haats is necessary to prohibit anyone from entering into the territory of the other country. Cash trade equivalent to Rs 16 crore was carried out in the four border haats till end of 2015-16. India and Bangladesh have agreed to open six more border haats - four in Meghalaya and two in Tripura and operationalization of all ten border haats is expected to increase the trade volume significantly. Bangladesh is India's largest trade partner in South Asia and sixth largest trade partner in the world. While the volume of trade along border haats is less than one per cent to total bilateral trade, vibrancy in trade on the zero line in these haats boosts confidence, deepens people-to-people relations between the two countries to further deepen the bilateral engagement for mutual benefit. The limit of commodities a buyer can get in these haats has been increased from local currency equivalent of 50 dollars a day in 2011 to 200 dollars now which is reflective of enthusiasm and high demand for commodities brought by vendors among local populations. India and Bangladesh share 4096 km of borders of which 3145 km has been covered with barbed wire fence while 951 km is still to be covered with physical and non-physical barriers. Border haats are important mechanism of cross-border trade to channelize informal trade into legal trade and thereby prevent smuggling. Intensified patrolling and surveillance besides the arrest of smuggler by BSF have resulted in decline in cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh though it is still continuing. Secured livelihood opportunities to be created with the opening of more border haats will wean away more people involved in cross-border smuggling, but both the countries must be vigilant against any attempt by smugglers to sabotage functioning of border haats by fomenting trouble in borderland areas. These border haats have played another crucial role of empowerment of women in border areas by generating livelihood and income opportunities and augmenting household income. Increase in household income and generation of income and livelihood opportunities reduce outmigration of people in border areas to urban areas within their respective country in search of greener pastures. India's Neighbouhood First Policy has led to fast tracking of road and waterway connectivity projects through Bangladesh for alternative and shorter routes between northeast region and rest of India. Viewed from the larger perspective of India-Bangladesh relations, border haats have opened a new window for foreign policy and defence strategists look at geopolitics of the region from close quarters as these have become platforms of direct engagement of people living along a long and shared border. The increasing interdependence of people on both sides also helps maintaining peace and stability along the border.