The residents of Khalwa Sirisia are a disgruntled lot. The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), one of the central armed police forces that guards India’s border areas, has become an inconvenience for this tiny Nepalese hamlet that subsists on trade with India.
“They stop our tractors. Even if you show them the documents, they still abuse us. They call us Maoists, terrorists, ‘China ka admi’ [China sympathiser],” says Shahbabu Patel, a tractor owner while Jagdish Shah Turaha, another resident, adds: “The first thing they do is start using abusive words and beating us. If we are crossing the camp we have to get off from our motorcycle and walk.”
Khalwa Sirisia is on the margins of just not the map but also the imagination of Nepal. In 2009, India and Nepal signed the revised ‘India-Nepal Treaty of Trade and Agreement of Cooperation to Control Unauthorised Trade’, and ever since it has brought a different set of problems for these neglected people, as it has on the India border town of Raxaul.
A lull has descended on the wholesale markets of Raxaul. “Border tight hai. Sab maal ek number se hi jaa raha hai [The borders have been tightened and all the goods go through the authorised route]. Our business has been nearly halved,” says Sanjeev Kumar Teli, a rice dealer. Dealers in oil, spice, and other essential goods similarly quoted huge business losses. “Earlier, a lot of goods would go to Nepal. This used to be a thriving market for sugar, dal, rice, flour and packed items. Under the pretext of weddings, people would take away sacks of these goods. Now with the crackdown, naturally people are upset,” adds Shambhu ji, a retailer.
As per the official data, between January and November,the SSB alone seized illegally traded goods — medicines and narcotics, arms and ammunition, forest products, fake Indian currency notes — worth Rs. 70 crore. In the same period, the agency also rescued 71 children from being trafficked.
While goods can be freely purchased across the border for personal consumption, the absence of minimum criteria leads to frequent run-ins with Customs and SSB officials. “Our customers have dropped because Indian Customs harasses them a lot,” says Dinesh Kumar Dhanotia, a cloth trader. “We have even met officials over this issue. Even if a customer takes, say, four pieces of cloth, they face harassment and threats. This is a major problem. India and Nepal have open borders, so the criteria for how much you can purchase should be clearly defined.”
“We have to go to India to buy the things we need as pretty much everything is relatively expensive in Nepal, but the Indian administration does not allow us. How do we conduct our weddings at this rate,” asks Suresh Prasad, a resident of Siwan tola, which is located along the border.
Some customs officials The Hindu spoke to concede that there are no specific criteria to determine the quantity of ‘prohibited items’ such as sugar, dal, oil, rice, people could take across the border for personal consumption. While small consumers are not targeted, “we discourage them,” they say.
SSB Inspector General Aditya Mishra says a range of items are being smuggled between the two countries. “But we are not going for the smaller smuggling, in which very poor people are involved. Our priority is organised smuggling. We allow essential food items. Bilateral trade has gone up because of the SSB since security has improved.” He concedes that complaints of harassment by the SSB are bound to be there, but assures that they will be dealt with “promptly and effectively.”
While, according to locals black marketing and smuggling have been curtailed to a considerable extent, the open borders criss-crossing several little Indian and Nepalese hamlets constitute the back channels of the trade, where local cartels operate either surreptitiously or with official complicity.
“Parti tola, Pantoka, Sahadeva and Mahadeva are the alternative border routes where smuggling thrives. After clearance from the Indian Customs, they transport goods via these routes to avoid the ‘Bhansar’ [Nepal Customs],” says Bhola Patel, a farmer in Hajma tola in the Pantoka panchayat of Raxaul. “Making several trips on motorbikes or cycles carrying boras [sacks] of items is a common sight. Sometimes, in complicity with the offenders, concerned officials purposely remain absent on duty, letting the goods pass. In Pantoka village, Indian retail shops purchase goods from the Indian market, which is in turn sold to Nepalese black marketers. Two years ago, the rice that went from these routes was five times the quantity exported through the authorised channel [Shankaracharya gate between Raxaul and Birganj]. A syndicate was formed at each of the borders, which has not been broken. But narcotics smuggling continues,” Bhola adds.
Manoj Kumar, a farmer, recalls the sight of Nepalese women actually wearing several saris on top of one another in a unique attempt to smuggle them to Nepal. “They would arrive in groups to buy saris from the cloth markets and wear nearly 20 of them. This is how they would take clothes to Nepal. It was amusing to see their bloated figures due to the saris. Everything is expensive in Nepal, since there is no production there.”
On the other hand, Chinese goods, mostly electronics, are an exception. Loaded at Haldia in West Bengal, they reach Nepal directly. Locals on both sides say Chinese goods are cheaper in Nepal, although they come from India. Retailers in Raxaul also spoke of Australian goods such as wheat and peas reaching the Nepal markets.
However, it is the Madhesi people of Kahlwa Sirisia and other such villages, who depend heavily on India for their daily bread, that the crackdown has hit the hardest. Jagdish Shah Turaha sums it all up: “In India they call us Maoists and in Nepal, when we go out of the Tarai region, they call us Biharis.”
Correction: The heading, “Locals suffer as India, Nepal crack down on illegal cross-border trade” (Dec. 8, 2013, some editions), was misleading. The crackdown is by India and not Nepal. Nowhere does the report suggest that Nepal has cracked down on illegal trade. The data provided is also from an Indian agency (the Sashastra Seema Bal).