With a Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre and the party gaining in strength in West Bengal, the state is witnessing a slump in the illegal business of cow smuggling through the long and porous India-Bangladesh border in the state. Cattle smuggling is rampant in Bengal, with an estimated 60,000 heads of cattle being smuggled out of India into Bangladesh, every day, even two years ago. However, the illegal business seems to have been hit by almost 80% in the past couple of years, thanks to the strict vigil by the Border Security Force (BSF) along the 2,217 km border that West Bengal shares with Bangladesh.
The district of North 24 Parganas, which shares around 70 km of border with Bangladesh, is among the worst affected due to the porous nature of the border. Of the 70 km, 55 km is riverine in nature, with Ichhamati River acting as the border between the two countries. Only 10 km of this 70 km is fenced. So smugglers use the river to smuggle cattle to the other side. The maximum number of cows is sent to the other side at night from border points such as Angrail, Taki, Tetulia, Basirhat and Bongaon. Once in Bangladesh, the animals are sent to Jessore and Satkhira districts.
The cows are brought to West Bengal primarily from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Jharkhand. They are then sold at two major haats (markets)—at Pandua and Mograhaat in the Chinsurah subdivision; and at Mayapur in the Arambagh subdivision. After this they are loaded onto trucks. The trucks move along the Nadia Iswar Gupta Setu to the Kalyani Barrackpore Expressway, to reach Nilgunj. After this the trucks enter Jessore Road to reach the border areas of Bongaon, Angrail, Taki, Tetulia and Basirhat.
The Sunday Guardian spoke to several residents along Jessore Road on the matter. Guma and Bira are two small towns located along Jessore Road at a distance of 40 km from Kolkata. These act as major transit points for the cattle. Residents here spoke about how cows were cramped into trucks to be transported to Bangladesh. They also alleged that the entire administration and local politicians were involved in the illegal trade. Shyamal Das (name changed) said, “Just two years ago, the entire Jessore Road stretch from Barasat to Bongaon was filled with trucks carrying cows meant to be smuggled to Bangladesh. However, since mid-2015, there has been a huge drop in that. We suddenly saw that the number of trucks had reduced and heard news that many had been arrested. In fact the number of trucks has reduced by 80%-90%.”
Rajib Mondal, another resident and a local leader near Guma, alleged, “Earlier, everyone was involved—from the police to the district administration and local politicians. But now, the Central government has asked the BSF to deal with the smugglers harshly. As a result the situation has improved.”
Biswajit Mondal, a Bongaon resident, told this newspaper, “Bongaon is around 70 km from Kolkata. While coming back from Kolkata at night, one would spot at least 30 to 35 trucks carrying cows along the entire stretch of Jessore Road. However, now I do not find a single one along the route. This proves that smuggling has come down.”
A resident near Angrail border point, who is privy to the smuggling business, told The Sunday Guardian, “This border is among the most porous in the district, as three sides of the land here are surrounded by water and are without any fencing. Therefore, it is easy for cow smugglers to send their cattle to the other side by boat at night.”
“Earlier, it was difficult for the villagers to sleep at night, because of the activities of the cow smugglers. In fact, almost everybody in the village had their share in the business. It works on the basis of hafta (share), which is collected from the smugglers based on the number of cows going through our village. But now the situation is different. The BSF has become very strict and has stopped turning a blind eye unlike two years ago,” he added.
NEW WAYS OF SMUGGLING
However, the smuggling of cows has not stopped completely. According to locals and sources that this correspondent spoke to in towns like Bongaon, Taki and Basirhat, smugglers have started coming up with newer ways to hoodwink the administration and the BSF. As a senior police officer at the Bongaon subdivision said, “We still have reports of several cases of cattle smuggling from Petrapole and Angrail in Bongaon subdivision. The smugglers are now transporting cattle in vegetable vans. Calves are pushed into small containers and are made to sit in an uncomfortable position. Some even transport them in small Maruti vans. Others use ambulances.”
Avijit Ghosh (name changed), a resident of Bongaon town, told this correspondent, “The cows are made to fit inside small cars and sometimes inside vegetable boxes, which are then covered with fresh vegetables and leaves to fool the BSF and the local police. The cows are muzzled so that they do not make any noise. Once the cows reach the riverine border, the ones that survive the journey are transported on boats.” He added that even young unemployed boys get into smuggling for money. A “healthy” cow fetches Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per head. While a “regular” cow fetches around Rs14,000 to Rs 15,000. “This business involves a lot of risk, but the returns are very high, so people get into it. Moreover, since business is down now, the price of a cow has risen manifold,” he said.
After a visit by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to the Bongaon border in April 2015, BSF officers were asked to come down heavily on the smugglers. A senior BSF officer told this correspondent that the real problem is the lack of fencing: “Here we have only 10% of the border fenced; the rest of the area is open border. This creates a major problem. We even have houses that are situated on the ‘zero line’. This causes an added problem. It is difficult to weed out smuggling completely unless such issues are addressed.”
Another BSF officer at Angrail border point claimed, “We are keeping an eye on this entire area. We have increased our manpower and patrolling at night. The force has been asked not to show any mercy towards smugglers. Cow smuggling has reduced to 3%-4% from earlier. The situation is much better than what it was some years ago.”
His colleague said that since Bangladesh is a friendly neighbour, “We cannot use force. We have to deal with restraint and this encourages the smugglers.”
The BSF has also increased patrolling in the river at night. The North 24 Parganas unit of the BSF has got new boats to maintain extra vigil at night.