India does not export cattle, but estimates suggest that cattle smuggling across the Indo-Bangladesh border is an industry with an annual turnover of Rs.5,000 crore, sources in the Border Security Force (BSF) told The Hindu on Thursday.

On being asked to comment on the issue, Additional Director General (East) of the BSF B. D. Sharma said that most of the violence on the Indo-Bangladesh border was connected with cattle smuggling.

“On a single night, in a joint-operation conducted by the BSF and the local police earlier this week, the security forces caught over 400 heads of cattle and arrested 67 people of which 40 are Bangladeshi citizens,” said Mr. Sharma pointing out that it was indicative of the scale of the problem.

The severe criticism over fatalities in firings by BSF personnel on those trying to cross the border illegally resulted in the “calibrated use of firepower” by the forces guarding the border, formalised in the Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) signed in the presence of the then Home Minister P. Chidambaram and his Bangladesh counterpart Shahara Khatoon in July 2011.

The use of illumination bombs, stun grenades and pump action guns has been followed by a decline in the number of civilian casualties (from 93 deaths in 2009 to 17 in 2011), but an escalation in attacks on BSF personnel. Not only did the number of BSF jawans injured in skirmishes shoot up to 147 in 2011 from 57 in 2010, but two jawans have also been killed in this period.

“It seems to have emboldened the cattle smugglers. They know now that the jawans have been given directions not to fire and use it to their advantage,” said Mr. Sharma.

The only statistic the changeover appears to have left undisturbed is the smuggling itself. According to the records of the BSF, over the past six years over one lakh heads of cattle have been seized every year.

Tip of iceberg

Until August this year, 79,018 heads of cattle valued at over Rs.33 crore have been seized by the BSF. But officials admit that the numbers seized are only the tip of the iceberg.

“There is an entire chain operating on both side of the borders. There are a chain of financiers, traders, middlemen and the couriers who actually take the cattle across. And the BSF acts as the only barrier in this system,” said Mr. Sharma.

The cattle come all the way across from States including Rajasthan, Harayana, Punjab and Bihar to haats (village markets) in the border villages. It is only when the cattle is taken across the border – tripling the price it will fetch in the market – that the trade becomes illegal, he explained.

Most rampant in West Bengal’s Malda, Murshidabad and North 24 Parganas district, the problem of cattle smuggling is only made worse by the fact that nearly 500 kilometres of the over 2,200 kilometre border with Bangladesh is riverine.

“How do you put up a fence on the river? You cannot. So the smugglers merely float the cattle in the water sometimes with a courier who swims across with them. Their counterparts on the other side will merely pull the animals out of the water,” he said.

But even the fencing that has now been completed for over 1,200 kilometres of the land border is only an obstacle that is the mother of invention for the smugglers. In response to the ten-foot high wire fencing, they have come up with the “ jhoola system” that has been revealed in a video captured on night-vision cameras.

Groups of villagers from both sides of the fence congregate at the zero line. A few logs are tied up and made to rest on another forked on to act as a fulcrum. A hook is attached on one side of the lever which is latched onto a rope tied around the cow’s neck. The animal hangs by its neck and is then just swung across to the other side of the fence.

The system is certainly cruel, but effective. It takes about 40 seconds to get an animal across to the other side and an hour’s time is enough to smuggle an entire consignment.