November 12, 2020, Kolkata
Up-scaling India-Bangladesh border haats as retail trading zones is essential, not only to make them sustainable in the long run but also that it is a viable strategy to enhance trade in goods and services at the local level, and for creating livelihood and entrepreneurship among border communities
“A more integrated approach towards cross-border commercial development, especially focusing on retail and personalised services on select points in the India-Bangladesh border would address concerns relating to revenue leakage, smuggling and other illegal acts,” said Pritam Banerjee, an independent trade and logistics specialist associated with the Asian Development Bank.
He was speaking at a webinar titled “India-Bangladesh border haats: Poised for a growing role”, organised by CUTS International, India and Unnayan Shamannay, Bangladesh.
It was to discuss complementarities that cross-border trade can facilitate between people living on the two sides of the border and explore the possibility of utilising them to elevate the India-Bangladesh border haats to wider institutional spaces for local area development.
Discussing the overall prospects and drivers of converting border haas into retail trading zones, Banerjee proposed establishing such retail trading zones at the Agartala Airport in Tripura and at Lakhimari-Sonahat border covering north-western Bangladesh, lower Assam and northern West Bengal.
Establishment of retail trading zones in these two locations could be viable both in terms of its immediate vicinity and extended region of population. Banerjee proposed a list of operational guidelines for the proposed retail trading zones.
They include removal of buyers’ restrictions, a special pass with biometric facilitations for persons who would access the cross-border zones on a daily basis, facilitating a system of using a bonded warehouse facility, especially for small retailers, traders and service provider.
The webinar was based on a Discussion Paper titled “Reimaging Border Haats as International Retail Trade Zones” which has recently been published as part of a project on India-Bangladesh border haats supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom under its Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme.
Talking about border haats and women empowerment, Mahbuba Nasreen, Director, Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, Dhaka University, Bangladesh suggested undertaking an exploratory multi-stakeholder study with consultative dialogues.
“This is to raise the much-needed awareness on various gender sensitive issues related to the proposed retail trading zones,” she suggested.
She further mentioned that such an initiative would essentially help women traders to overcome entrenched customs procedures, attitudes and practices that hinder them to do cross-border trade. According to her, “Border haats could be good avenues for enhancing women’s participation in the labour market, thereby empowering them.”
Speaking on the occasion, Sreeradha Datta, Center Head, Vivekananda International Foundation emphasised on the need for sensitising security personnel, who are operating on the grounds, about the benefits of cross-border movement of people, goods and services and how they in turn could lead to prosperous borders.
Moreover, a priority in addressing essential facilities of well-maintained restrooms, running water and sanitation has been highlighted to encourage women participation at the border haats, both as vendors and buyers. “On a larger context, one can ideate border haats as zones for local community development,” she argued.
According to Swapna Debnath, Additional Director, Department of Industries and Commerce, Government of Tripura, “Border haats has been instrumental in achieving its primary objective of promoting people-to-people connections over the years, right after its inception.
Furthering the scope of border haats into border retail trade zones could be an economically profitable and commercially viable strategy that needs to be explored further and pursued by bith the state the central governments.”
She further added that the Government of Tripura could take up the concept of border retail trade zones forward with a greater number of relaxations in regulation and process.
Discussing the macroeconomic aspects of developing border trade zones between Bangladesh and India, Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh stressed on four distinct stages of gradually scaling-up institutional structures, based on market forces.
It includes border haats to retail trading zones to commercial border zones and finally cross-border special economic zones. He mentioned that up-scaling of border haats from their present structure to special economic zones should be a gradual process with a specific focus on strengthening investment connectivity between the two countries. According to him, “the approach should be about respecting the borders and take advantage of socio-economic ties”.
Delivering his concluding remarks, Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International, underlined that “there is a need to engage local governments, panchayats, local media and tribal communities to promote institutional initiatives like border haats and ensure their buy-ins for furthering and scaling up to larger initiatives such as border retail trading zones and cross-border special economic zones.”
In his final remarks, Pritam Banerjee explained that “initial development cannot be market driven. Projects should be taken up with substantial government funding, and provincial governments should have a larger role to play in providing land at competitive rates. Even multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank can be roped in for their support for infrastructural development.”
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