Saturday, April 13, 2024

Lid blows off illegal betel nut trade in state via Bangladesh


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From Biplab Kr Dey

TURA, March 3: It was just a matter of time before someone raised concerns over the influx of Burmese betel nuts smuggled through the Bangladesh border into India. However the fact that it took more than 4 years for the bubble to burst, points to a well-oiled machine working the background in the entire illicit trade.
However the lid seems to now have been blown wide open following complaints made from various quarters on the matter as well as a signature campaign currently being undertaken by former chief minister Mukul Sangma on the issue.
On February 26, farmers from North Garo Hills raised serious concerns over the illegal trade after it became apparent that the influx of the illegal variety and that too processed, impacted them so badly that they now do not have a market to sell their product.
In almost all parts of Garo Hills, betel nuts can be seen hanging from the tree tops at a time when its trade during this time would have seen jams in various markets. Rates that have been as high as Rs 6,000 per bag have now gone down to about Rs 3,000.
Even then there have been no takers for the local variety of the fruit leading farmers to wonder what can be done to stop the influx – something that has been working in the background to create a market for Burmese betel nuts over the past 4 years.
It is apparent from how the trade has been taking place that the process was extremely thought out and had blessings from the top echelons of the state.
If sources are to be believed, the trade initially began from the states along the Myanmar border with India. However as it had to travel the entire state of Assam, hiding such huge consignments became a major worry. There were regular reports of trucks carrying the Burmese variety of betel nuts being apprehended by security forces in Assam following their illicit entry. This, as per sources may have pushed for a new route to be sought so Meghalaya, especially Garo Hills and parts of Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills, became the new destination.
Logistically for those involved in the smuggling, the cost of transport of the illegal fruit was lesser,  with the nearby Assam markets providing ample space for dumping and sale of these products.
Here is how the system operates: Betel nut packed in gunny bags are kept close to the border in the houses of some residents in Bangladesh. When the moment is opportune, these bags are then thrown across to India where they are collected by helpers who are paid as high as Rs 500 per bag for their efforts.
These are then collected in one place from where vehicles either hired or owned by smugglers pick up the collected bags before it is loaded onto bigger trucks with more than 20 MT capacity. All these are done only when BSF and BGB personnel are elsewhere on duty to not arouse the border personnel’s suspicion.
The source added that the trade in the state may have begun from the border town of Baghmara in South Garo Hills with nearby Rongara joining in, just a few days after. The trade in itself was lucrative with rates of processed goods going as high as Rs 1,000 per kg in Assam markets through retail sale.
With each truck carrying more than 16 MT of the product, each consignment was worth more than Rs 50 lakh.
“It began with one or two trucks that were sent, sometimes in 3 days and sometimes in a week while the smugglers began to recce for potential problems that could come up. With support coming from a few higher ups, the trade began to increase in volumes. All check gates from the place of entry to the place of exit from the state were worked on with everyone being on the payroll,” said the source.
The source stated that a lot of money changed hands to provide a safe route for the importation of illegal betel nuts due to the nature of the operation. How well-oiled the entire operation has been can be gauged from the fact that despite the continued entry of the Burmese variety of betel nut through Meghalaya, not one truck was caught over 4 years of operation.
The entire operation would not be possible without the support of some bigwigs as without their support, the racket would have been busted in a day. As to why various social organisations did not step in and stop the trade still remains a mystery, with the source not wanting to name anyone of their involvement.
“Everyone understood the potential dangers it could do to tens of thousands of betel nut farmers from the state, some of whom had even dedicated their entire fortune in setting up plantations. They however chose to ignore it. 1-2 trucks soon became a daily affair of 20-30 trucks and in some days even 50-60 trucks were transported. Despite the scope of their operation getting bigger, there was no fear of any of them being caught,” added the source.
In fact, in all these 4 years and more, not one of these trucks was ever caught by any check gate despite the fact that what was coming was from Myanmar and without valid documents. Transport and DMR check gates turned a blind eye while police stations had no authority to stop these.
“Imagine the fact that one night, we detected 15 trucks carrying illegal Burmese betel nuts parked near a police outpost in North Garo Hills as if being protected by the police team there. No one could touch these vehicles because they came with blessings from the top. In fact, one day, one of these vehicles met with an accident during the night and the illegal betel nut that it carried was cleared within a few hours before anyone could notice. That is how well oiled the entire operation is,” said an activist again on condition of anonymity.
Achik Youth Council’s Maxbirth Momin too had raised the matter with the district administration through a complaint in the month of Jan this year. However barring a token investigation, the situation remained the same – nothing could be detected.
While the numbers entering India through South Garo Hills has gone down to an extent over the past few months, Shallang in West Khasi Hills is a different story altogether with added vigour in the transportation.
Betel nut continues to be smuggled from the borders in SWKH before it was brought and stocked in Shallang from where it continued to be transported through the Dainadubi route into Assam.
Incidentally most of the smuggling syndicate buyers belong to the district of Goalpara from where the product is then sent to other parts of the country. One source identified the town of Krishnai and the villages of Matia and Simlitala as being the nerve centre of the operation of storage. These are then sent to various parts of the country and in Assam, including some renowned companies.
“What they are doing is completely wrong for the thousands of people dependent on the betel nut trade. The low rates are pushing people into desperate times and this is only due to the greed of some in power. Can they really not think of their own people and the hurt they are causing to everyone? Can someone really be this greedy to put the lives of lakhs in jeopardy just to make chump change? This is ridiculous,” felt betel nut plantation owner, Panseng B Marak from Bajengdoba.
On Sunday morning, Panseng had been to the market in Rongsai in West Garo Hills, about 30 km from Tura, and one of the major markets for traders from Garo Hills. Upon meeting buyers, he was told (video available) that the Burmese variety of betel nut had completely flooded the market and now there was nothing for the local farmers.
The situation has become so dire for the plantation owners that they have no idea where the next rupee is going to come from.
“Most of us have invested time, effort and money into the business because this was one product that has been a resounding success in Garo Hills. Imagine now production is down which would mean that demand should go up but despite lower production, we have had to sell at lower rates and even then there are no buyers. At this rate and if this continues, we will have no option than to burn our plantations down,” felt Panseng.
The situation is the same in all parts of Garo Hills.
“Earlier there would be a beeline for our betel nuts as this is the main season but after the influx of the Burmese variety, we have nothing. Can those behind putting us in such a state actually sleep in peace, no matter how much power they wield? Can any one of them justify what they are doing as right for the people of the state? We live in a state where the pocket money of about 500 people means more than the entire livelihoods of lakhs that are dependent on this fruit,” felt a resident of South Garo Hills on condition of anonymity.


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