Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Sugar Story: A sweet ‘scam’


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From Biplab Kr Dey

BAGHMARA, April 17: This is one sugar story that will definitely not sound, taste or feel sweet to many. Welcome to the story of the smuggling of sugar from various depots of Assam and Meghalaya into neighbouring Bangladesh where the price differential of the commodity provides a readymade and lucrative market for all those clandestinely involved in this cross border smuggling.
The illegal sugar trade taking place has been blown wide open after 2 trucks carrying loads of over 30 metric tonne (MT) were involved in an accident on a bridge on the extension of the NH-62 near Karongre in South Garo Hills. The area where the bridge is located falls under West Garo Hills district under Dalu Police Station.
Firstly, sugar is a restricted product due to the high usage in the entire country. With Bangladesh not being sugar producer of note, prices have been high in the country. A kg of sugar costs only around Rs 40-45 in India but goes for premium at more than Rs 110 in neighbouring Bangladesh. However even Bangladesh does not require the quantities that are being supplied to it which means that what is taking place involves more than just one country.
Bangladesh has a population of 169 million. While it goes for about Rs 110 per kg in Bangladesh, it goes for about Rs 155 per kg in Pakistan, Rs 200 per kg in Sri Lanka, for Rs 100 per kg in Nepal as per data available online.
According to the latest data available, the population of South Garo Hills, West Garo Hills and South West Garo Hills is 1.42 lakh, 5.18 lakh and 1.79 lakh respectively. Sugar, as we all know, is not consumed in kilos but in grams. However, if one just checks the data of entry of sugar trucks that have made their way into the various districts of Garo Hills, one would think it was a war mission that is currently at play.
As per data and sources, at least 200 trucks and other smaller vehicles have been carrying sugar in these three districts from Assam from various towns and villages all due to the ‘demand’ for sugar from these districts. A total of over 32 lakh kilos reaches Garo Hills every day.
Logically, even if a single person from all these districts consumes 1 kg of sugar daily, it would still not explain the demand that is being catered to.
“There are just about 8.4 lakh people in these districts but the amount of sugar being brought in is over 32 lakh. It is not like these are being brought once a month but on a daily basis. There should have been red flags everywhere and the state government should have been alarmed. However if you look at what is happening, nothing has been reported to anyone despite the gargantuan nature of the situation,” said social activist Nilberth Sangma.
Most state that there is no accountability into what is happening and this sugar transport is not only being promoted by a few but is actively being supported by a consortium from both Assam and Meghalaya.
A recent visit from the village of Nongalbibra through the NH-62 until the town of Dudhnoi in Assam showed at least 35 trucks near Rongmil with a few more standing nearby, another 10 km away. Sources added that these trucks plied through the day and night with most carrying at least 18 MT of sugar all bound for the border areas of South Garo Hills.
When a stop was made near Gabil Bisa to check on the validity of the documents produced, a local from the area, apparently a part of the protection group, even threatened to call others and cause a ruckus and even beat those trying to question. Fortunately, photos of the e-way bills and challans were taken which showed that most of these vehicles were headed towards Rongara and Baghmara in South Garo Hills.
India and Bangladesh share a long border in many states of the Northeast and West Bengal with Meghalaya sharing over 443 km of shared border. This close proximity has seen trading, either through border haats or small-scale smuggling of essential items, taking place.
However, over the past 4-5 years, this small-scale, arguably ignorable, trade has suddenly gone large scale, tipping the prices of many goods that were either being brought into India or being clandestinely sent out of the country.
The case of Burmese betel nuts and how it has caused widespread mayhem for betel nut farmers in Meghalaya and Assam is well-known. This illegal trade is now being dwarfed by what is essentially the biggest ever operation to take place between the two countries – the illegal export of sugar.
To give a little background, essentially sugar in India costs about Rs 35-40 per kg at wholesale; with there being no local production in the state of Meghalaya, it is bought by traders to the state to be sold to customers in retail, with the cost settling between Rs 40-42 per kg. This has now increased by over 10% in many areas and is looking likely to increase further in the coming days if such illegalities are allowed protection and space.
“These trucks are being allowed a free hand to come to Meghalaya, especially to the border areas. Checkpoints that should have questioned such a huge quantity of sugar requirement are now collection centre for those that have been allowing the illegal trade to flourish,” felt another social activist, Greneth Sangma.
(To be continued)


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