|Many children from Bangladesh earn a dangerous living from running goods, legal and illegal, over the border from India [GALLO/GETTY]|
Thirteen-year-old Jamal is a Bangladeshi bootlegger who carries goods from Haridaspur town in the Indian state of West Bengal to the border district of Jessore in southwest Bangladesh, playing cat-and-mouse with Indian frontier guards every day.
But luck ran out for the otherwise nimble-footed Jamal when, one day a few months ago, his hand got caught in the barbed wire fence as he tried to flee a chasing Indian trooper.
As Jamal tried to free himself from the wire and cross over to Bangladesh, the burly North Indian sentry pulled him back to the Indian side. The barbs dug into Jamal’s skin, drawing blood and scooping out a shred of his flesh in the tug of war.
“The border guard then stomped over my palm with his heavy boot,” recalls Jamal (not his real name). Wounded and bleeding, he managed to return to the safety of his side of the border, Bangladesh, suffering no more than the physical pain. But he was worried about the day’s losses of about 300 taka (four dollars).
Life along the India-Bangladesh border has become a dangerous game for poverty-stricken children trying to make the most of their location by bootlegging. On either side, poverty has produced a large number of young local smugglers, transporting anything from cattle to fruit and narcotics to chocolates.
Abuse from border guards
But children pay a high price for earning a living. “Many children face abuse – physical or sexual – while women engaged in the trade often end up offering sexual favours to border guards to avoid legal hassles and prosecution,” says Tariqul Islam of Rights Jessore, a group working to protect the children and trafficked women of Bangladesh.
The abuses, said to be mainly perpetrated by Indian troops of the Border Security Force (BSF), continue despite criticisms from human rights groups.
Last December, an 81-page report titled Trigger Happy: Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border by the US-based Human Rights Watch found numerous cases of indiscriminate use of force, arbitrary detention, torture, and killings by the BSF. But very few of the cases were investigated and none of the perpetrators punished.
The BSF guards the Indian side of the border, is better armed and outnumbers its Bangladesh counterpart known as Border Guards Bangladesh (previously Bangladesh Rifles or the BDR).
These two forces are tasked with guarding the porous 4,096 km border, including more than 1,100 kms in the southern part of India’s West Bengal, which has its share of child smugglers.
One of them is Raju Barman, who lives near the border town of Hili in South Dinajpur district in West Bengal. “I have to avoid the eyes of four to five Indian border guards every day to take my consignment to the other side,” says Barman, a fifth grade dropout. “I earn 70 rupees (1.5 dollars).”
Barman explains he delivers Indian goods to his Bangladeshi counterpart, a boy named Selim, on the other side of the border, and makes as many as five trips on any given day. And then he would also take Bangladeshi goods from Selim to sell in India, although Indian goods are more in demand on the other side. “We are often caught and get beaten up, but we still go. We are poor,” says Barman.
While the BSF usually lets the younger boys go after roughing them up, the teenaged boys and young women in the trade are vulnerable to sexual assault too, rights activists say.
Authorities in Bangladesh acknowledge the abuses on the border but admit to helplessness. “We know of the trafficking and the child carriers, but our resources are limited,” says Mohammad Nurul Amin, the Jessore district magistrate and deputy commissioner.
“We are offering some monetary support for families to send their children to school and (also) offering free books,” he says.
On the Indian side, the BSF’s new South Bengal Inspector General Ashok Kumar says they are also encouraging children to go back to school.
“We are also adopting one school under every border outpost to bring the children back to school and provide them facilities,” Kumar says.
But asked about the abuses, Kumar, who had been commended for his humane approach to problems in previous postings, could only say, “I will try to find out the truth and see what can be done.”
A senior BSF official requesting anonymity says unless the governments of both countries take up the issue, nothing can be done to stop the violation of child rights.
“The big bosses are not paying serious attention to the problem. If they are not serious about stopping smuggling, they should make it an open border,” the official says. “It is a tragedy of the system.”
The volume of trade in the border areas is substantial. A Central Law Commission Report in India back in 2000 said illegal trade between India and Bangladesh was around five billion dollars. Official trade between the two countries amounts to less than three billion dollars.
Locals allege that border guards of the two countries are in cahoots with smuggling syndicates. Human rights activists say the border is dotted with illegal “ghats” (ports) through which smuggling takes place. Every ghat has an owner or group of owners called “ghat maliks” (port owners) controlling the trade. Ghat maliks, activists say, are shadowy figures that appear to be connected with powerful and influential people.
The goods smuggled from the Indian side are mostly cattle, fruits, fertilisers, pesticide, salt, spices, sugar, and “bidi” (hand rolled local cheap cigars). Then there are also medicines and narcotics, such as the popular intoxicant Phensedyl, a cough syrup Bangladeshis drink as liquor. Other goods include garments, electronic equipment (often those which reach India from China), DVDs, and motorcycle engines.
Smuggled from the Bangladesh side are usually fish, oil, mobile handsets and soaps besides gold, fake currency, metals and small arms.
A version of this article was first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.