The Assam government has taken a tough stand against cattle smuggling, but the dimensions of this illegal trade and loopholes in the law make it an uphill battle. On Sunday night, there were media reports about yet another seizure of trucks clandestinely loaded with cattle, this time near Sopur on the outskirts of Guwahati. The drivers claimed they did not know the fil destition of their consignment, as they were being instructed from point to point en route over mobile phone by their handlers. The suspicion is that cattle smugglers of late are shifting their routes to Meghalaya, mainly through South West Garo Hills and onwards to the cattle markets near Bangladesh border. Most of the cattle being smuggled from Assam are stolen, and the network of cattle thieves and smugglers are known to have powerful connections in the State. Cattle theft in villages remains a serious matter — early this month, two suspected cattle thieves were lynched by enraged villagers near Kasamari grazing reserve in gaon district. The incident was dubbed the first instance of ‘cow vigilantism’ in Assam resulting in deaths, but there could be more such occurrences in future as cattle thieves get bolder. The reason is that smugglers across India-Bangladesh border are paying high prices for cattle heads, reportedly shelling out sums like Rs 60,000 and more for full grown cattle and around Rs 40,000 for a mid-size male calf. Under Bangladesh law, these smugglers are bofide traders and their activities in bringing cattle from India are not considered illegal. Furthermore, these smugglers exploit gaps in Indian law, particularly the absence of any ban on movement of cattle from one state to another. Smuggling networks spread across India collect cattle from various States, load these on trains or trucks, then smuggle these into Bangladesh through the borders of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.
In Assam, the border with Bangladesh along Dhubri has a riverine section and remains unfenced — most cattle heads are smuggled along chars in this sector. The BSF now has a new battalion to patrol this stretch of the Brahmaputra on boats, and cattle seizures have gone up as a result. But when BSF personnel mage to seize smuggled cattle, they have no place to keep the animals — so the district administration has to organise auctions, where smugglers turn up to buy the cattle back! New Delhi has also a ‘no fire’ policy at the Bangladesh border in its bid to firm up relations with Dhaka. Clearly, law enforcers and border guards in India have their hands tied when dealing with cattle smugglers, apart from having rogue personnel amongst their ranks in this mafia’s payroll. Taking cognisance of this issue, the Supreme Court last year ordered committees to be set up to recommend measures on curbing cattle smuggling across India-Nepal and India-Bangladesh borders. Broadly, these panels, the Animal Welfare Board, Animal Husbandry departments of border States and other stakeholders have identified free movement of cattle as the primary problem, while recommending that cattle pens be set up at the village level itself, that cattle markets be shifted away from intertiol borders —along with the need for rules to impose fair trade in livestock animals and maintaining animals that become state property. In December last year, the Centre framed two sets of rules to implement these recommendations; the Supreme Court last month asked the Centre to extend to India-Bangladesh border areas the same rules framed for the India-Nepal border. The Centre in turn assured the apex court that the new rules will eble district administrations and paramilitary forces to take effective action to curb cattle-smuggling, while tamper-proof ‘unique identification number’ tags will be attached on cows and their progeny to maintain a data-bank. The Environment Ministry too has notified more stringent rules under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, to give more teeth for action against cattle smugglers. What needs be kept in mind is that protecting the country’s cattle wealth has sound economic reasons, as the animals are used for farming and dairy activities. Clubbing the mece of cattle smuggling with the strident debate kicked up over cow slaughter ban — is the handiwork of mischievous quarters to give a commul colour to the entire issue. Cattle smuggling is an illegal trade, pure and simple, and must be stopped.