At the largest land port, no signs yet of unlocking trade

Goods transport to and from Bangladesh has come to a halt in Petrapole

On the first day of Unlock 1.0, Jessore Road in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas, lined with majestic trees, returned to life with people and vehicles emerging after two months. The road culminates in India’s largest customs port Petrapole on the India-Bangladesh border. It accounts for a majority of bilateral trade. Even after trade activities started, the largest international land port wore a deserted look. The Indian and Bangladesh flags stood still. Custom clearing agents and a handful of traders from both sides stood around the pole and spoke in a high pitch.

“In the past two-and-a-half months, we have written several letters to the authorities in the State and at the Centre, including the Prime Minister’s Office, for resumption of trade, but the issue is far from being resolved,” said Kartik Chakraborty, secretary of the Petrapole Clearing Agents’ Staff Welfare Association. Mr. Chakraborty, along with other customs clearing agents, go so far as the zero point, talk to Bangladesh traders about the resumption of trade and leave. “I can tell you what is going to be the weather tomorrow, but not when the trade will resume,” he said.

A kilometre away from the international checkpoint is a large shed surrounded by trucks. This is the area where trucks from India cross to Bangladesh and vice versa. BSF officer Pradip Singh said two companies of soldiers were deployed round the clock to check the trucks passing from both sides. He said that on an average, 500-600 trucks passed through the checkpoint daily.

Bilateral trade was suspended in the last week of March. It resumed at the intervention of the Union government on April 30. But only a few trucks plied as the locals protested and alleged that the resumption of trade would help in the spread of COVID-19. The locals staged a protest one kilometre from the checkpoint at Jayantipur Bazar on May 1. The district authorities expressed their inability to resume the trade. According to the customs clearing agents, a handful of people were protesting, demanding that the drivers returning from Bangladesh be quarantined for 14 days. While the BSF removed the protesters from near the checkpoint, trade could not be resumed. The State government was upset at the resumption of trade. Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said on April 30 that the State should have the final word on such matters.

Also read: India Bangladesh land border at Petrapole opens; jute, maize exported

District officials are tight-lipped about the resumption of trade. “We have nothing to say about export and import,” North 24 Parganas District Magistrate Chaitali Chakrabarti said. Asked whether the district administration had any objection, she said, “We do not have any objection. It has to start at zero point.”

The BSF said it was fully prepared to facilitate trade. “We are ready with our Standard Operating Procedure and the protocol to deal with COVID-19,” said S.S. Guleria, DIG, Public Relations, South Bengal Frontier of the BSF.

While there is no official figure on trade losses, Mr. Chakraborty, the secretary of the customs clearing agent association, said it could be around ₹2,000 crore. Ancillary activities, mostly transport or labour supplied by the locals, have also come to a halt.

Until a few weeks ago, 2,000 trucks were lined on the road leading to the checkpoint. Not knowing when the trade would resume, many drivers had parked their trucks and left. At the BSF shed, there are several trucks from Bangladesh awaiting clearance and hundreds of trucks from India. Drivers are waiting for the trade to start so that they can unload the goods and return.

Binod Kumar is a truck driver from Rajasthan and Pratap Singh is from Haryana. They have been waiting with their trucks full of cotton since early March. “It took us seven days from our States to reach here. We have been waiting for three months,” they said. The drivers are surviving on what voluntary organisations and the BSF give them. There are also Indian traders whose trucks are stranded in Bangladesh. Jamsedh Ali Mondal says his truck carrying machine parts has been struck in Bangladesh since March 18. “Please do something, the tires of the trucks are being stolen,” he says.

The trade through Petrapole (India) and Benapole (Bangladesh) has been a bone of contention between the Union government and the State government during the pandemic. On May 5, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to the Chief Secretary that an “unilateral action on the part of the Government of West Bengal to stop cross-land border movement of essential goods would have larger implications for the Indian government with regard to its legally binding international commitments.” Mr. Bhalla said letters were issued on April 24 to allow transport of goods through the India-Nepal, India-Bhutan and India-Bangladesh borders. On May 9, the West Bengal government suggested an alternative route. Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay said there was an “emotive issue” among the locals who feared the spread of the contagion if the trade resumed and suggested a railway route from Gede (Nadia) to Darsana (Bangladesh).

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 10:57:50 AM |

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