A worldwide trend is discernible among countries to look upon their international borders no longer exclusively in terms of military security, but rather as meeting points where two adjacent communities can meet up and interact and exchange. Not that security is unimportant or even secondary, but such meeting grounds can facilitate people-to-people connect and cultural exchange which can contribute to improved relations at the grass-root levels between people and communities inhabiting geographically contiguous areas. The more under-developed border areas are, more are they vulnerable and prone to harbour illegal activities, which only adds to the insecurity of such remote regions.

Reflecting this line of thinking, the Department of Border Management, Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India has been implementing the Border Area Development Programme (BADP) through the State Governments as part of a comprehensive approach to Border Management.

The programme aims to meet the special development needs of the people living in remote and inaccessible areas situated near the international border and to saturate the border areas with the essential infrastructure through convergence of Central/State/BADP/Local schemes and participatory approach.

Keeping this in perspective, the Governments of India and Bangladesh arrived at a consensus about establishing meeting points where people of the two nations could engage in mutual trade of commodities produced locally, without having to navigate through documentation processes that are usually entailed by international travel and trade. Border Haats thus happened.

The ‘Border Haat’ is a rough-and-ready market, which allows local people from both the countries in those areas to trade in vegetables, fruits, spices, food items, agri-implements, cosmetics, toiletries, garments, melamine products, aluminium products, bamboo products, plastic products, fruit juice, processed food items and other such indigenous products. Such haats or markets are located on the zero line of the border between India and Bangladesh and each buyer is allowed to buy commodities upto US$200 a day.

Four such border haats have been operationalized since 2011. Two of these are in Tripura (namely, Kamalasagar-Kasba and Srinagar-Chhagalnaiya) and the other two haats are in Meghalaya (namely, Balat-Dolora and Kalaichar-Baliamari).

In all the locations where border haats are established, subsistence agriculture is the main source of livelihood of the residents. The landless either used to work as labourers or they migrated to towns and cities in search of livelihood opportunities. Border Haats have created different avenues of income for these poor and marginalized people who have found employment as vendors, transporters, labourers and support service providers. Border Haats have also created earning opportunities for vendees who buy products from the haats and sell them in their local markets and thereby manage to earn some profit.

They have been instrumental not only in boosting trade but also in generating livelihood opportunities for residents in these remote border areas.  Border haats have therefore directly impacted income generation opportunities for all the participating stakeholders, viz vendors, transporters, labourers, support service providers and even vendees. It has not only given rise to new vocations of work in the remote interiors of the two countries but has also created new opportunities for people to engage with cross-border trade in different capacities. Many of these stakeholders associated with border haats are the sole income earners for their families and the border haat is the only source of livelihood for them.

Not only have these Border Haats created livelihood opportunities for the people inhabiting remote border areas, they have also provided access to essential products at reasonable prices. In the Balat-Dolora border haat the Indians get fresh vegetables and fish from Bangladesh at a lower price and on the other hand Bangladeshis gets spices, fruits and other items at affordable prices. A CUTS study has found that while Jeera costs around US$5.31in Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi vendees/consumers can buy the same at US$3.30 at the haat.

It needs to be reiterated that one of the professed advantages of border haats lies in respect of reduction of informal trade. The decline in informal trade post establishment of border haats was primarily due to the creation of local employment opportunities and the permission subsequently granted for trade in commodities through border haatsthat was earlier done through informal and often risky informal channels.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced Governments of many countries to enact stringent measures such as national lockdown, suspension of international trade, etc. Closing of border haats along the international border between India and Bangladesh, from mid of March, 2020 for an undeclared period, is another measure adopted by the Governments of India and Bangladesh to contain the spread of this virus.

Now, given the significance of the border haats and their positive impact on the local communities, prolonged closure of border haats will be detrimental to the interests of border residents of both India and Bangladesh as it may force many people below poverty level due to a decrease in income opportunities and non-availability of essential commodities that were earlier available at the border haats at affordable prices.

Additionally, this can also result in migration of border residents as income opportunities are limited in these border areas. The situation will be even more critical for women as their mobility is restricted given their domestic responsibilities and security concerns – a consequence of occupational segregation due to socio-cultural norms prevalent in a patriarchal society like Tripura on the Indian side and the villages in Bangladesh that are adjacent to the Border Haat. It is logical to be apprehensive that the pangs of unemployment and hunger might even drive a few towards informal trade which was predominant in these areas before the establishment of the haats.

In order to mitigate such inevitable adverse consequences of suspension of border haats, it is crucial to re-open border haats at the earliest. Covid-19 is, however, a problem that is going to stay. Going by projections of contemporary medical expertise the world over, it seems that we have to reconcile ourselves to the ‘new normal’ where we will be required to abide by various practices pertaining to the maintenance of hygiene, sanitization norms and physical distancing.

In order to ensure safety, both personal and public, in this COVID-19 era it is equally important to ensure practice of social distancing and adherence to other safety norms within the haat premises. While it is time to resume the Border Haats, one also needs to make certain amendments to the operational guidelines of these border haats in the altered scenario. Some of these include:

  • A limit needs to be imposed on the number of vendees per haat and even time slots could be allotted to vendees to prevent over-crowding and ensuring social distance among participants. For example, a batch of say 200 vendees will be allowed to stay at the haat premises for a stipulated period of time; once they have vacated, the next batch will be allowed to enter after an interval that will grant time for some basic cleaning up of the haat premises.
  • It will also be mandatory for the participants to wear masks, and maintain adequate distance among themselves for which vigilance is also necessary. But, since this might reduce profits of vendors due to reduction in footfall, the number of haat days could be suitably increased to compensate for the loss of business.
  • As hygiene, particularly hand hygiene is extremely important to prevent spread of the virus, it is crucial to ensure adequate supply of running water in all the washrooms and the required sanitation of the washrooms after each haat day.
  • The Border Haat itself could serve as a forum for dissemination of awareness about the COVID-19 virus and the steps that need to be followed by the people to contain its spread. A stall at the Haat premises could be earmarked for sale of soap, sanitizers, masks and such other items that people will need to use to prevent spread and contamination by the virus. Needless to add that inculcation of such habits will continue to remain beneficial to public health even in a Covid-free world.
  • Owing to the national lockdown in both the countries, it is assumed that the purchasing power of the border residents has shrunk, and their purchase basket might remain limited to essential commodities for the time being. In order to compensate the losses of the vendors due to decrease in spending by buyers, vendors of non-essential products could be advised and encouraged to shift their usual merchandise in favour of essential items only and vendees beyond 5 Km should also be allowed to participate in the border haatdditionally, stress should be given on trade in agricultural and essential commodities through the border haat to ensure food security on both sides.

In short, in view of the importance of the border haats for the lives and livelihood of the local communities, there is a need to re-open the border haats, but without compromising with the health and hygiene safety of the participants. In this regard, there is a need to revisit the protocols already in place and revise them; there is also the need to put in place appropriate infrastructure to make the ‘new norms’ workable.

Once re-opened, the haats can also serve as a market for new products like face masks, hand sanitisers, personal protection equipment etc. Local womenfolk who are engaged in tailoring can produce face masks and sell through the border haats which will provide them with additional income opportunities. Border Haats will, thus, have a growing role to play in the world that is emerging.

Indranil Bose is Associate Professor of Political Science, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and Bijaya Roy is Senior Research Associate, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank for enhancing ‘consumer welfare’ by working on trade, regulations and governance.  

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