By Sujit Chakraborty
Agartala/Kolkata, Jul 5 (IANS): The "Border Haats" along the India-Bangladesh frontier must restart soon while maintaining necessary precautions against Covid-19, including social distancing as these markets boost the economy, fortify ties among the people of the two neighbouring states, and also check illegal trades, experts and economists said as they urged the Centre to prioritise.
The four "Border Haats", set up in Meghalaya and Tripura in 2011, 2012 and 2015, have remained closed since March as precautionary measures against the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus forced a lockdown, causing immense loss to the people living near these borders.
Experts, academicians, researchers and economists from India as well as Bangladesh, while speaking at a day-long discussion on a virtual platform earlier this week observed that the prolonged closure of "Border Haats" (markets) would lead to hardship that could egg the people in these areas to pick up informal cross-border trade.
Former Governor of Bangladesh Bank Atiur Rahman said people living in the border areas used to rely on informal trade due to remoteness of where they live and marginality of their living conditions.
"Informal trade is definitely a risk to border security. The innovative approach of 'Border Haats' has enabled the local people to exchange goods and products through a formal arrangement and also reduce the security risk."
Rahman, also the Chairperson of Unnayan Shamannay, Bangladesh's prominent non-profit and non-governmental research organisation, said that field studies have shown that "Border Haats" have become a preferred formal local-level platform for exchange of local produce. They have also created additional earning for people living along the boundaries.
"Border Haats" have significantly contributed in reducing informal trade along the border areas. At the macro-level, the markets are contributing towards cementing a good economic understanding and cooperation between the two vibrant economies of South Asia. Even as the frontier has divided many families, "Border Haats" have created a formal mechanism through which exchange of goods take place, enabling the people to reconnect with each other, said Rahman, a renowned economist.
Jaipur-based CUTS International Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that existing four "Border Haats" in Meghalaya and Tripura along the India-Bangladesh border need to be re-opened at the earliest after adopting proper precautionary measures related to health and hygiene.
"Following the suggestions and proposals that emerged from the discussion, we have submitted the 'Standard Operating Procedures during the Covid-19' period and 'Health and Hygiene Safety guidelines' to the government to be maintained after reopening the 'Border Haats'," Chatterjee told IANS over phone from CUTS International headquarters in Jaipur.
The proposed measures include barring entry of aged persons above 65 years of age, pregnant women and children below the age of 10 years, monitoring the health and hygiene measures by the officials of two countries, wearing hand gloves and face masks during the marketing hours by visitors, vendors and officials, regular cleaning and disinfection in the "Border Haats", maintaining social and physical distancing norms, controlling the crowd, and carry out a campaign about the preventive measures on Covid-19.
Considering the growing demands of all sections of people, proposals also submitted to the Central government include, increase in the number of haat (marketing) days, remove the five-km radius restriction, promote the sale of essential commodities and allow the trading of protective equipment.
He said that considering the benefits emanating from the existing "Border Haats", it was also proposed that India and Myanmar should engage in dialogues about establishing such border markets along their border to generate livelihood opportunities for the people residing in remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
CUTS International Assistant Policy Analyst Arnab Ganguly said that "Border Haat" is once-a-week semi-formal market which allows people from both the countries to trade in vegetables, fruits, spices, food items, agri-implements, cosmetics, toiletries, garments, melamine products, aluminum products, bamboo and plastic products besides fruit juice, processed food items and other such indigenous products.
"The 'Border Haats' are located on the zero line of the border between India and Bangladesh and each buyer is allowed to buy commodities worth up to $200 (around Rs 15,000) a day. However, currencies of both India and Bangladesh are valid in these border markets," Ganguly told IANS from Kolkata.
According to government records, before the Coronavirus-triggered lockdown period, on an average, each "Border Haat" registered an annual business of Rs 3 crore.
On the weekly market day, on an average, at least 25 vendors from the two countries participate at "Border Haat".
The first "Border Haat" had started functioning on July 23, 2011 at Kalaichar (India)-Kurigram (Bangladesh) in West Garo Hills of Meghalaya.
Three other haats were later set up at Balat (Meghalaya)-Dolora (Bangladesh) in 2012; Srinagar (Tripura)-Chhagalnaiya (Bangladesh); and Kamnalasagar (Tripura)-Kasba (Bangladesh) in 2015.
The four Northeastern states of Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam share a 1,880-km long border with Bangladesh.
India's Industries and Commerce Ministry has been spending an average Rs 3.5 crore to develop the infrastructure and necessary facilities for each "Border Haat" in 5,625 sq. metre areas of two countries' territories or 'no-man's land'.
CUTS International, the Jaipur-based international NGO, has conducted several studies to understand and examine the effect of "Border Haats" on poverty alleviation and other multiplier effects such as reduction in informal trade.