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How lucrative is the trade? Baffling numbers emerge!

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The Sugar Story: Part 2

From Biplab Kr Dey

BAGHMARA, April 25: Over the past year or so, the menace of smuggling activities between the countries of India and Bangladesh has seen a phenomenal increase. While on the one hand, betel nuts have continued to undermine the local markets through its low price and sheer volume, sugar, massive loads of which are being sent through various border routes, has become even bigger due to the sheer volume of the product making its way through at least three districts that border Bangladesh in just the Garo Hills region.
To recollect what was stated earlier, at least 200 trucks of sugar have been making its way through the districts of South Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills and West Garo Hills to the borders from where the product is smuggled through the night from almost all possible villages and border towns of the three districts.
Every day, trucks, mini trucks and even LP trucks — all carrying sugar into the three districts — can be seen on the various entry routes. These routes include the NH-62 through Dainadubi, the NH-51 through Bajengdoba as well as the AMPT road through Phulbari.
What has been making residents scratch their heads is the fact that while everything is completely out in the open, no attempt has been made by anyone from the state or central agencies to look into what is taking place or even questioning those involved to put an end to these smuggling activities. This, they feel, points to an unholy collusion between those in power and those running the unholy trade.
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.
So what really is driving the trade despite the risks of being branded international smugglers and how does it operate?
Modus Operandi
The flowering of sugar smuggling began about 9-10 months ago. This was just before the country of Bangladesh went to elections. With border checking becoming vigilant, the now-noted smuggling of Burmese betel nuts reduced to a trickle. However, this also presented another avenue which Bangladesh needed in huge quantities — sugar. With sugar being plentifully available in our country, a little being sent clandestinely to our neighbours could not hurt.
So began the first of what has now become the biggest open smuggling racket, possibly in the entire country, and the price differential has ensured that despite the risks, the trade is so profitable that everyone just wants a piece of the pie.
To give a little background: Essentially, sugar in India costs about Rs 35-40 at wholesale while it costs over Rs 110 per kg in Indian rupees. The country too does not have local production of sugar and imports its requirements from other countries. This price difference along with the demand for sugar in Bangladesh has made the trade so lucrative that everyone just wants a piece of the pie.
From what has been gathered from sources over the past six months, here is how the trade works.
Sugar comes from parts of the country into the state of Assam. This is brought through either massive trucks or through rakes in trains. Given the volume of trade that is currently taking place, rakes upon rakes are reaching Assam, the state from which the entire operation then starts.
Businessmen from near the bordering areas of SGH, WGH and SWGH contact sugar wholesalers who, upon receiving money, load the sugar into trucks and then send to the various border towns and villages. Setting is done through the entire route with all those that could pose a hindrance to the trade before the truck moves into Meghalaya – with all taxes paid.
The malaise is not limited to only the districts of SGH, WGH and SWGH but continues on to WKH, SWKH, EKH as well as the districts of Jaintia Hills. Reports of sugar being confiscated by BSF officials have become so common that people have stopped being alarmed at such news.
Videos of sugar being carried in broad daylight along the border in both Bangladesh and India have begun to do the rounds, pointing to the absolute lack of checks being undertaken at the border and prior. Sugar, as per locals, is transported through the day as well as night — whenever the moment is opportune.
“How can you stop these trucks when they have all the requisite papers? We have no authority to catch them when they aren’t doing anything illegal. They can only be caught while in the act, not when transporting goods that they have paid taxes for,” stated a police official from SGH on condition of anonymity.
Six months ago, only a few trucks of sugar were being ordered every week for the various districts. That demand has jumped a hundred fold with more than 2-300 trucks of sugar now being brought into the three districts, on a daily basis. While this should have alarmed everyone, no one, either in authority or otherwise, has flagged a red sign to what is taking place. Further, no one from the heartland has questioned the additional requirement of sugar and where it is ultimately landing up.
Not only are trucks employed into service, even buses and mini trucks are also used.
A visit to the town of Dudhnoi in Assam, from where most sugar trucks and buses are loaded, showed documents were not only valid but carried GST invoices. However, in many cases, sugar was being ordered in massive volumes in the names of housewives in Baghmara, Rongara and even Maheskola. One invoice showed the sugar to be coming from Kolkata in West Bengal with the date of sending and receiving being just a day apart. Whether the truck was brought through a helicopter or not was not mentioned.
Profit anyone?
Whilst one part of the trade has now been cleared, what exactly is driving the trade? As has been the case with trade, profits, lots of profits, have been the main business driver.
The various traders, who have been ordering the sugar on their tax bills, later sell the sugar to the end operators in bulk, mostly without taxes being paid by the buyer. Their bargain from the entire trade stands at about Rs 75,000 per truck. With each trader bringing in about 3-4 trucks on a daily basis, each trader stands to gain about Rs 2.5-3 lakhs on a daily basis. If that is not incentive enough to continue the trade, then nothing will ever be.
Traders from Dalu, Tura, Baghmara, Purakhasia, Mahendraganj, Mankachar, Rongara, Sibbari among others are all involved in bringing sugar into the state from Assam and then selling these to people who then smuggle the product into Bangladesh.
The sugar is then taken towards various godowns near the border with Bangladesh and stored for further transport. The entire smuggling then begins in the night where men are posted in various locations to check on the movement of BSF personnel. Once the route is clear, labourers from both sides of the border get into the act of handing these packets to each other. The volume of what is taking place can be understood by the fact that demand has not stopped as yet.
For the labourers who take the perilous task of end supply, the work is worth the risk. If a source is to be believed, labour rates per bag sent to Bangladesh go as high as Rs 300. For a night’s work of supply, each labourer earns upwards of Rs 15,000 per night.
The trade takes places along the entire border – from Purakhasia, Mahendraganj, Dalu, Gasuapara, Sibbari, Baghmara, Rongara, Maheskola to name a few places.
One resident joked that getting labour in these places for normal work was now next to impossible as they sleep through the day to preserve their energy for the work they need to do at night.
“Many traders, who had nothing to do with smuggling, have joined in due to the volumes and money involved. There is literally no risk and you get paid immediately upon delivery, so cash flow is never hampered. In fact, many new storage spaces are being built near the border just to accommodate the volumes,” informed a source on condition of anonymity.
This continued drain of sugar into Bangladesh from Assam has now not only hampered availability of sugar in Assam but raised prices.
A trader from Dudhnoi in Assam informed them that they had to order sugar from Siliguri as Guwahati was low on stock. “Just 6 months ago, the wholesale price of sugar was about Rs 36 and we sold it at Rs 40-41 per kg. Now, the price has increased to Rs 45 and even then we aren’t able to get sugar. We are selling it to consumers at Rs 48. When consumers in Meghalaya buy the product, it will likely go north of Rs 50 per kg,” informed the shop owner.
Some Rongjeng residents in East Garo Hills, a route through which sugar trucks move in the border town of SGH, also raised alarm over what was taking place. “While it is still early days and prices are in check, the cascading effect of such wanton smuggling will be felt in another year at least. We are buying sugar now at Rs 50 but it will not take time for the prices to escalate to over Rs 60 in the coming days. In a few years, we may even be able to match the price of Bangladesh,” joked a resident of the village.
(Concluding part soon)

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