By: Ashis Biswas
Frustrated beyond relief by powerful politically-backed West Bengal-based road transport mafia, Bangladesh business authorities have switched over using Railway services to continue their increasing import-export trade with India. Presently efforts are underway to build immediately at least two railway yards at the Benapole land customs station on the Bangladesh side to enable the growing volume of traffic in the near future.
In Indian as well as Dhaka-based mass media, there have been occasional reports about the repeated disruptions in the movement of goods sent by road to and from Bangladesh to India. The most notorious stretch runs between Bongaon town to the greater Kolkata region within West Bengal, where gangs of youths hold up convoys of passing vehicles as well as goods carrying trucks at different points and ask for donations. The menace occurs round the year, but the festive times are the worst. Truck drivers/operators are pestered at five or six points by groups of armed youths.
The minimum donations extorted from Bangladeshi truck drivers and crew, as reported in the Dhaka-based media would be around 10000-15000 Taka (Bangladeshi Taka and the Indian rupee are almost at par these days). ‘Such illegal fines imposed by anti-social gangs on Bangladesh items led to high losses for Bangladesh traders and businessmen at times’, according to one published account.
Repeated complaints made by Bangladeshi authorities to the local police, and later to the Bengal Chief and Home Secretary, the various IGs and DGs of the state police several times did not make any difference. The state Chief Minister’s attention was also drawn to the continuing extortion. At times, trucks would be held up for 2/3 days at a stretch along the road/highways, until payment was made. Often perishable goods and other items went to waste.
Officials of the Union Home department, as well as the External Affairs Ministry, wrote several times to state Government officials and Ministers. This year alone, they had written toNabanna (Bengal Secretariat) on three occasions, all in vain. Both Indian and Bangladeshi businessmen, who depend heavily on the Land Customs Station at Penrapole-Benapole, the biggest LCS in operation between the two countries, were upset that such rampant lawlessness carried out in broad daylight by local Mafia elements supported by their political bosses, went unchecked by the police. So were economists on both sides of the border, who had predicted a major increase in bilateral Indo-Bangla trade following the recent opening up of major land and inland river transit routes between both countries.
Beanpole Railways station authorities report that whereas only 4/5 wagon trains were used every month to carry goods to the LCS earlier, the traffic has increased dramatically of late. In June of this year, Bangladesh trade circles decided to switch over to the railways for moving their goods and cargo. The outcome even in the short term has been spectacular.
According to the latest stats, in 2020-21, Bangladesh imported 5.30 lakh tonnes of goods and items from India, using the Rail route, local transport authorities earning overtake 30 crore. This is a big quantum leap over 2019-20, when corresponding figures officially recorded were 1.8 lakh tonnes and taka 8 crores. Naturally, officials are discussing the further extension of broad gauge services and the construction of new yards to organize better storage/operational efficiency. Whereas earlier, mainly rocks, stones gypsum etc were being imported, currently garments, chemicals, and other stuff were also being procured. Plans are on to arrange for more exports to India by rail in the weeks ahead.
According to information on the Indian side of the border, local goons led by ruling party leaders and helped by a section of complicit policemen had been actively protecting in their lucrative extortion trade. However, it needs stressing that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) cannot be held solely accountable. Partly, such organised criminal activity has long been an indispensable element of Bengal’s (so-called) political culture. In Bengal, let alone the political parties in power in recent years, even the mass media and self-proclaimed opinion-makers have never analysed or commented at length upon such negative trends, for fear of offending the high and mighty. Bangladesh trade circles allege that they have been subjected to such penalisation for over two decades, so clearly political parties other than the TMC, too cannot be held blameless.
As reported at other times, the annual illegal income generated by different types of Bengal-based mafia groups that dominate the smuggling of coal, sand, drugs, cattle, and livestock, according to experts estimates runs well over Rs 34,000 crore! Clearly, the rich, risk-free pickings from the extortion of cut money from trucks operating on different roads/highways at Rs 10 to 15,000 per unit are also considerable, even after feeding bent cops and corrupt politicos their assigned scraps. However, the niggling question — was it REALLY impossible for the state and central Governments in India to curb out such crimes and reign in lawless mafias? – remains unanswered. (IPA Service)