The 150 km-long porous border with Bangladesh is notoriously crime-prone: smuggling, human trafficking and prostitution thrive, often abetted by the ‘law-enforcing' agencies of both the sides. At the receiving end are mostly women and children. Will having a women's battalion of the BSF in the area be a start to solving some of the problems here, asks USHA RAI.

The landscape along the 150 km-long Indian border with Bangladesh, from Jalangi to Farrakha in Murshidabad district is lush green with large stretches of water bodies and the rivers Jalangi and Ganga waxing and waning with the seasons…but life here has been blotted by smuggling, in which minors and women are involved, and sex trade.

On both sides of the road leading to the Farrakha Barrage and along the ghats are shanties where a roaring business of sex work operates with impunity — the police and the Border Security Force looking away if not taking full advantage of it. The poverty, unemployment and social issues along this porous border, leading to smuggling and trafficking, have not stirred the conscience of the nation. Unlike Kashmir, this is a border which does not make the headlines because terrorism and insurgency are not issues.

The border problems have been exacerbated with shifting rivers and large tracts of Indian and Bangladeshi land and people living behind the man-made fences. In fact, in many cases, families split by the fencing live in harmony and join hands for smuggling. As against half a dozen legal entry points between the two countries on this stretch of the border, there are 17 illegal ones, called ghats. Like liquor vends, these ghats are auctioned and the ghat maliks set their own rates of commission for permitting the illegal activity. There is also a loose network of line-men, agents and carriers who facilitate the smuggling of cattle, rice, shimmering nylon saris and phensedyl (a cough syrup that serves as a narcotic drug) across the barrier. Few NGOs operate in these border districts and funds are inadequate.

Help at hand

However, Sanjog, set up in 2005 in Kolkata to check the growing violence against children, is now networking with NGOs working in the border districts and the rural hinterland in both countries to check cross border trafficking and protect children. Sanjog's interventions are based on the key findings of four cross-border researches they commissioned between 2006 and 2010.

Traveling across the border district of Murshidabad and interacting with the sex workers, pimps, NGOs and representatives of Bengal's State AIDS Control Society ‘drop in centre', it was evident that sex trade was a thriving business. Women who were initially into smuggling are now in sex work. Many of them interviewed said they were literally pushed into sex work because those guarding the borders demanded sexual gratification.

At Biswas para in Jalangi, Leila Bibi, 45, hailed as a guru in the business, said she worked for five years as a rice smuggler but found that the sentries would not allow her to cross the border unless she provided sex. Then others from the Border Security Force would join in for ‘free fun'. Having been seduced several times, she decided to move into sex work, which was more lucrative than smuggling rice. She has under her 10 young girls from Bangladesh and the villages around Jalangi, who she supplies to the BSF. “If the demand increases, I can get more girls”, she says. Thirty to 40 per cent of the men in the security force, she says, want oral and anal sex for which they pay more. Older woman, like Leila Bibi provide this service.

The demand for sex trade is so high and the returns so lucrative that women who were in farming are now into sex work. In addition to women who take to the trade because they have been abandoned by their husbands and have to bring up children, there are young girls who have left homes with relatives or agents who promised them jobs in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai and then sold them into prostitution. The third category are young girls who have been married by their parents to men posing as businessmen or workers from India and then sold to the brothels.

Both Salma and Jayati, in their early thirties, who work with Leila, were deserted by their husbands. Salma with her red and white nylon sari, dangling gold earrings, necklace and bangles worn with her shakha (the symbol of married women in Bengal), is attractive and could well be on the cover of a women's magazine, but she looks disturbed. Problems made her leave her marital home and since her parents were poor she did not want to be a burden on them. So when her friends told her about sex trade she left to fend for herself. She had injuries in her mouth and internal organs and was on medication provided by an NGO. She says “I cannot afford to take a break from work for full recovery. I need the money and others would displace me. If I had someone to love me and take care of me, I would not be in this trade.”

Jayati, with her light brown eyes and dusky complexion, is not dressed to kill like Salma. Mother of three, she was abandoned by her husband and moved to her maternal home. Her parents don't know she is in ‘this business'. She has told them she works with a health centre. Two of her three children are in a school and she spends Rs. 2,000 a month for their education. She works both at night and during the day. Mobiles, used by sex workers as well as pimps, enable clients to access them easily.

Research commissioned by Sanjog shows the BSF as well as the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) in a negative light. One of the researchers, Swagoto Sarkar, a Bangalore-based academic, says “smuggling and sex are intertwined”. Smugglers regularly supply women to the BSF to facilitate passage of goods. When there is a group of women smugglers, one member offers herself to the BSF or the BDR. This is also done in rotation so that others can continue with the smuggling.

Soma Bhowmick, Director of Suprava Panchashila Mahila Uddyog Samity (SPMUS), Jalangi, who has been running since 1993 a child protection programme for children of women in prostitution, an intervention programme on HIV/ AIDS for women and a care centre for those infected, says Quest Asia, NACO's authorised agency for mapping high risk groups, shows there are 2,400 sex workers in Murshidabad District, 200 of them from Bangladesh. Soma fears three per cent of the sex workers are minors.

Children for smuggling

SPMUS' own study of 300 children involved in smuggling at six spots of the border — Jalangi, Sheikhpara, Sagarpara, Bhagwan Gola, Lal Gola and Shamsherganj — in 2007 showed children of 8 to 14 years taking across cattle, rice and phensedyl. This study too confirms that young girls were involved in the smuggling initially but due to the harassment suffered at the hands of the BSF, they gave up and went into sex trade. Children are involved in smuggling because parents feel the BSF and police will be less harsh with them if caught.

SPMUS also works for the rehabilitation of the girls who have been rescued from Mumbai, Delhi and other cities. But this again is an uphill task. There have been instances where the village pradhan, in league with a trafficker, actually tried to have the case against the trafficker dropped. In 2010, two 15-year-olds of Domkal, Murshidabad, who were taken to Delhi as domestic labour by an aunt, found themselves in a hotel being forced into prostitution. They immediately rang up the aunt and complained and she took them back to Domkal and lodged a criminal case against the trafficker. The girls' parents were approached by the village pradhan to drop the charges against the girls for Rs. 18,000.

Two other girls of 15 and 18 years, who disappeared after a wedding in Jalpaiguri when they were approached with promise of a job, called home from Mumbai saying they were being trafficked. Rescue Foundation and Oasis, a Mumbai-based NGO, were able to track them through the mobile number and photos of the girls given by their parents. Today one of the girls is married and the other works at a shelter home. The traffickers have been approaching the parents of the girls to drop the cases against them on payment of Rs. 1 lakh to each girl.

Since many of the rescued girls can weave, SPMUS links them with those making and marketing gamchhas (thin traditional cotton towels). The raw material is provided by the agent and for each gamchha sold for Rs. 50, the girl earns Rs. 30. In a month she can earn Rs. 300 to Rs. 500.

Ensuring humane behaviour

However, sustainable rehabilitation that would enable a woman to earn better, since many of them have children, is needed. So far the focus has been on rescue. Both the police and the BSF have to understand that their role is to protect and prevent crime, not to add to it. There is need for a women's battalion of the BSF — not just for the body search of women who may be smuggling but to ensure a more humane behaviour on the border. This is on the cards.

In 2010, a magazine quoted C.V. Muralidhar, IG, BSF, South Bengal headquarters, when questioned on BSF jawans being one of the biggest buyers of sex on the border. He said “there have been allegations but no complaints at any level regarding this matter. If there is a complaint we will take very serious cognizance….Trafficking is a matter of prime concern not only for the BSF but also between the BSF and BDR.” However, when this journalist called him, he denied making any comment to the media and said only the BSF DG could speak to the media.

Complaints are not easy to make unless there is a strong union or movement to support girls having the courage to speak up Girls trafficked have no voice and those making Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 10,000 in a month don't want to lose their bread.