Political rhetoric against Bangladesh on the issue of illegal migrants may strain relations between Dhaka and New Delhi.
Latarkhal, India – Barely two kilometres from the India-Bangladesh border in this tiny village sits Jurun Sarkar under the azure skies.
He shades his eyes with his hand from the sun that beats down over his half-hectare paddy field in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal state, about 80km from the bustling city of Kolkata.
Sarkar, 55, a Bangladeshi national, moved to India five years ago with his entire family – three of his brothers and their families, 15 people in all. They had about a hectare of property in Rudrapur village in Bangladesh.
“The land was always waterlogged, it was impossible to farm. We went without food for many days every year. Everyone around us was moving to India, so we too decided to come here,” he explained.
Sarkar sold his land for $15,000, packed up his pigeons, four goats, and a few household items and crossed the border illegally into India.
“A dalal [agent] helped us cross over,” he explained. “We gave him one quintal [48.95 kg] of rice and 4,000 takas [$51] per family for that.”
Despite the fact he is a national of Bangladesh, a foreigner not permitted to own land in India, Sarkar still managed to buy his field using forged documents.
Sarkar’s story is telling of life along the India-Bangladesh border. Ethnic strife and grinding poverty drive thousands of Bangladeshis to India in pursuit of peace, money, and happiness. A porous 4,100km long border has made these movements easy.
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Illegal entry flourishes at the border, with both Indians and Bangladeshis enthusiastically profiting from it.
A border zigzagging through hilly terrain provides perfect cover for the smuggling of people, goods and livestock. It is a border nearly impossible to patrol or control.
“We need smart fencing,” said RP Singh, from India’s Border Security Force (BSF), who is in charge of security along the eastern border.
“We need cameras at the border day and night, motion sensors, and tamper-proof alarm systems. Many villages lie right on the border. We have to shift these villages behind the fence,” said Singh.
About 85,000 BSF troops guard India’s border with Bangladesh, but the smuggling continues.
Barely 5kms from Sarkar’s home, Kabirul Shaddar, 33, is building a new house near Dattapara village in North 24 Parganas.
Initially stating he is a farmer, Shaddar slowly reveals his main vocation: cattle smuggling from India into Bangladesh.
“I was born in India but during partition my family moved to Bangladesh,” said Shaddar.
“We came back three years ago when my dad died. There is hardly any income here in agriculture, only around Rs1,500 [$25] a month. But the cattle business is good. We move 1,000 to 2,000 cattle every night across the border. My boss buys cattle for Rs20,000 ($416) per head. The cows are sold in Bangladesh for double the price since they have a huge beef export market,” he said with a grin.
Gold, silver, drugs, bicycles, and betel nuts are smuggled with ease across the border in broad daylight.
Young girls, many of them minors, are lured to India by agents and pimps in Bangladesh.
The people trade
Crippling poverty in Bangladesh and lack of job opportunities push young women into the brothels of New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
Smarajit Jana is chief adviser of Durbar, an NGO working to improve the lives of sex workers in Kolkata’s notorious Sonagachi red light district.
He said young Bangladeshi women have three options to earn money once they cross the border: construction, domestic help, or sex work.
Shonali, a 25-year-old woman from Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera she wants to be a sex worker. She ran away from her husband who beat her mercilessly.
“It is easy,” she said. “I used to sleep with one man, my husband. Now I have to sleep with many men.”
With a mother suffering from a heart ailment, a dead father, and two young brothers in school, Shonali has to take on the burden of being the family breadwinner.
Hunger and poverty are strong motivators, she said.
“My mother doesn’t know what kind of work I will do,” she said. “I can do domestic work, but there is little money in that. This job will fetch me more. My dream is to own a beauty parlour someday,” Shonali said smiling.
Kiriti Roy is the secretary of Masum, an NGO that works with migrants.
“Young girls, many of them minors, are lured to India by agents and pimps in Bangladesh,” Roy said.
“They are told that jobs are waiting for them at factories in India and in Gulf countries. Fake papers are prepared and once the girls reach the destination, they are forced into the sex trade with no way of returning.”
Politics though rages over the Bangladeshis, despite long standing friendly relations between the governments of both countries.
In the run-up to the 2014 general elections in India, then candidate and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised he would send undocumented migrants back to Bangladesh.
“Two types of people have come from Bangladesh – the refugees who have been thrown out in the name of religion and the infiltrators,” he said in May 2014.
“Those who are Bangladeshi infiltrators will have to go back.”
Ayaz Khan, 26, works 14-hour days as a construction labourer in Kolkata. A Bangladeshi immigrant without documents, he said he watches his back constantly to avoid any contact with Indian police.
“Back home I used to work in the fields and get around 1,500 Bangladeshi takas [$19] per month. How is that enough for even one person?” asked Khan.
“So I came to India. Now I get about Rs10,000 to Rs12,000 [$158 to $317] per month. I will not go back to Bangladesh, I will work quietly here. There is nothing there in Bangladesh for me any more.”
Khan’s sentiment is echoed by Jurun Sarkar at Latarkhal village as he ploughs his paddy field.
“Bangladeshi?” he asked. “Yes, I am Bangladeshi officially, but Bangladeshis and Indians are brothers, we are all bondhu [relatives]. I may not be Indian but India is my home now, and I shall die in this land,” said Sarkar.