Border Haats along the fringes of the Indo-Bangladesh border are rough and ready markets that have been established in order to enable local residents on both sides of the border to market and consume their ‘local produce’. The idea of Border Haats was conceived by the Governments of India and Bangladesh with the aim of promoting the well-being of such marginalised people. Results are encouraging. People are happy.
People residing in the part of the Indian sub-continent that today comprise the territories of India and Bangladesh. They have shared languages and dialects, lifestyles and food habits, Gods and Goddesses and customs and traditions through history. After years of such togetherness and generations of co-existence, a fence ran through their lives splitting families and friends, relatives and neighbours.
People who had lived as a community were given different badges of national identity. In order to reach out to their neighbours, they were required to navigate through cumbersome procedures and bureaucratic hurdles: passports and visas, customs and border checkpoints. A decisive change had taken place in their lives.
Genesis of the initiative
India shares with Bangladesh a border that stretches almost 4156 kilometres. Recognising the years of symbiosis that characterised the lives of these people who have inhabited geographically contiguous areas across generations, the Governments of India and Bangladesh decided to create for them an institutional space for people-to-people connect.
They would be able to meet from time to time and freely trade their goods without having to go through official and cumbersome documentation procedures that are usually required when people cross borders between countries. These mechanisms would also serve as a confidence-building measure among the citizens of the two countries. The result was Border Haats.
They are located on the zero lines of the border that separates India and Bangladesh and allows people from both sides of the border to purchase each other’s products. According to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries, on October 23, 2010, the Border Haats are to be operated as per modalities that would be agreed upon between the two countries and would be established on a ‘pilot’ basis.
These Border Haats allow the sale of locally produced agricultural and horticultural products, small agriculture and household goods (for example, spices), minor forest products (excluding timber), fresh and dry fish, cottage industry items, wooden furniture, handloom and handicraft items, etc. Subsequently, however, the list of commodities has been expanded and the stipulation of ‘local produce’ removed from the guidelines.
No taxes are imposed on trading, and both Indian Rupee and Bangladeshi Taka are accepted in these markets. Four such Haats are presently in operation at the Indo-Bangladesh border: two in Meghalaya (India)-Rangpur/Sylhet (Bangladesh) sub-region and the other two in Tripura (India)-Chittagong (Bangladesh) sub-region.
A positive experience
Over the last several years, CUTS International has been working in and around Indo-Bangladesh border areas to understand the impacts and challenges of Border Haats. (bit.ly/31JTwe7) They are yielding economic benefits for the local people in a number of ways. They promote several cottage industries producing items such as gamchha, lungi, garments and mats. There are also plastic and melamine products, processed food items, juices, agricultural produce, household tools like spade, axe, plough, sickle, etc.
The rules and regulations of trade in Border Haats require sellers and buyers to reside within proximity of five kilometres radius of a particular BH. This is mainly for securing improved standards of living and economic development of local residents. However, in practice, people residing well beyond the stipulated distance manage to travel to the haats and participate as buyers.
Traders get a trading permit, which is usually valid for one year and they are required to carry photo identity cards. For several vendors who have regular shops in their villages, the Border haat is an additional venue where they can augment their income. Border haats have also created employment opportunities for the local youth who have emerged as providers of various services: transporters, labourers, food stall owners.
This is also true for several women folk who manage to earn a modest sum on haat days after finishing with their household chores. They are seen doing odd jobs like offering assistance to vendors in setting up stalls at the haats or carrying head-loads for buyers.
Border Haats are thus seen to have impacted gender dimensions of trade in a positive way. In fact, there has been a persistent demand on the part of women in the border regions of Meghalaya for reservation of more vendor ships in their favour. By contrast, there is a paucity of women vendors in the Tripura Haats, probably because of more entrenched patriarchal values among families residing in Tripura.
One of the perceptible benefits of Border Haat is the opportunity that it provides for people on both sides of the border to connect with each other. One encounters numerous instances when people have come to the Border Haats with the additional incentive of meeting up with friends, families and acquaintances from whom they have got distanced (sometimes for more than decades) as a result of political barriers.
It is heart-warming to see vendors from Bangladesh carrying goodies to the Haats for their fellow vendors in India on the occasion of Eid, or an Indian vendor carry a special dish prepared in his home for his Bangladesh friend. As Shirin Akhter, a Member of Parliament from a border area in Bangladesh stated: “Border Haats can be viewed as a platform at the grassroots level where the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh can be cemented.”
Indeed, Border Haats should be looked at from a broader perspective of Indo-Bangladesh relations, not simply as an economic institution, for it has as much political and social implications as it has economic content. In that sense, the Border Haats could well be likened to some kind of a tool in the hands of the Governments for feeling the pulse of ground realities and for gauging what is happening at the border.
Following a revision of the MOU in April 2017 (an addendum had been signed in 2012), six more haats promised under the agreement are in the pipeline. Both addition and revision have expanded the scope for trade and economic activity in the region.
Therefore, the importance of adequate infrastructural facilities can hardly be exaggerated. Better infrastructure like well-structured stalls with sufficient protection from sun and rain, availability of electricity, water, particularly drinking water, proper and separate restrooms for men and women, will help the residents on the two sides of the border to engage more in border haat trade. Such infrastructural facilities will also boost women’s participation. Several vendors and buyers suggest the need for a separate body to look into infrastructural facilities and their maintenance at each haat.
In lieu of a conclusion
The case of the Indo-Bangladesh Border Haats reveals that prudent measures on the part of Governments can go a long way in transforming the worlds of people living in often neglected and remote border regions. And, it will be the responsibility of informed citizens, think- and action tanks and civil society organisations to sensitise governments in regard to such instruments in other domains of people-to-people connect.
(Bipul Chatterjee is the Executive Director, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank and Indranil Bose is Associate Professor of Political Science, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata)