Firsthand assessment of makeshift Indo-Bangla border haats

Financial Express, December 02, 2019

In 2011, the governments of Bangladesh and India formally opened the first border haat at Kalaichar in the Indian state of Meghalaya and Baliamari of Kurigram district in Bangladesh. Later three more border haats were opened in between 2012 and 2015. These are: Balat (Meghalaya, India)-Sunamganj (Sylhet, Bangladesh); Srinagar (Tripura, India)-Chhagalnaiya (Feni, Bangladesh); Kamalasagar (Triura, India)-Kasba (Cumilla, Bangladesh).

Traditionally a haat is ‘a rough-and-ready market’ allowing ‘local people to trade with locally-grown agricultural and manufactured’ items. The core idea behind the border haat is to provide a formal arrangement of trading between the local communities of two countries who have very limited access to big markets mainly due to long distances. It was also argued that through the formalisation, it would be possible to reduce the frequency of informal trading — smuggling to be precise.

To examine whether these objectives have been achieved to some extent and also to explore the possibility of opening more haats, India-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International initiated a study. Unnayan Shamannay, a Dhaka-based research and development organisation became the partner of the project and the World Bank provided support for the study. The outcome of the study is reflected in a paper titled ‘Bordering on Happiness: An Assessment of Socio-Economic Impacts of Bangladesh-India Border Haats,’ Released in 2019, it is the first comprehensive paper on Indo-Bangla border haats.

To run the study, CUTS research team conducted extensive fieldwork which included survey of some 400 stakeholders of the four active border haats. There were also interactions and conversations with vendors, vendees, transporters, labourers, officials, opinion leaders, villagers and residents on both sides of the border. It is to be noted that Bangladesh and India share a common border stretching some 4100 kms.

The study had three objectives: to understand and estimate the positive impacts of border haats on poverty reduction; to estimate the possible future benefits; and to estimate the level of efficiency of the existing border haats and understand their long-term sustainability. To understand the status of existing border haats and potential of new haats, the paper tries to draw examples from around the globe. Through literature review, it shows that border markets in Asia and Africa are slowly growing and thus small-scale cross-border trade is flourishing. To define the cross-border trade, the paper takes the benchmarks set by the World Bank at a report on Central Asian region. It says, the cross-border trade is trade flow of goods and services ‘across international land borders within reach of up to 30 Kms’. A ‘significant feature of cross-border trade lies in geographical proximity’ and ‘transportation costs become almost irrelevant’ there. Bangladesh-India border haats or bazaars are established within 5-kms on either side of the international border.

The study focuses on broader aspects as well as long-term direct and indirect benefits of border haats. The paper allocates independent chapters on livelihoods; safety and informal trade; gender; items, regulations and procedures; and infrastructure. It seems justified when the researchers agree saying: “Indeed, border haats have impacted beyond economic and trade relations.”

Focusing on the livelihood issue, the paper finds: “(The) border haats have directly impacted income generation for all the participating stakeholders (especially vendors). It has not only given rise to new vocations of work in the interiors but has also created new opportunities for people to engage themselves with cross-border trade in the capacity of labourers, transporters etc.” That’s why it recommends encouraging more people to participate in income-generating activities in these haats.

It is to be noted that border haats are open once a week where pre-selected traders and vendors, living within five-kilometer radius of the border in India and Bangladesh, are allowed to sell and buy locally produced goods and crops. Usually, 500 people from both sides are allowed to enter the border haat on each weekly market day. It also allows consumers to make purchases up to US$200 on a single haat day and there is no customs duty.

A major argument in favour of introducing border haats is reduction of smuggling. CUTS study finds that ‘border haats have lowered the extent of informal trade’ in the adjoined areas. It says: “The institutionalisation of trade through fora like border haats means not only the lowering of informal trade but also substantial diminution of flow of unwelcome commodities like drugs and explosives.” This is a positive development and makes the case for more border haats stronger. Nevertheless, more caution is needed and border haats should not be considered as a panacea for formalising all the informal trade.

An interesting finding of the CUTS paper is the gender issue. It is not unusual that male vendors dominate the border haats. Other stakeholders like officials, transporters and labourers are almost entirely male especially on Bangladesh side. The paper, however, suggests: “Border haats can be treated as a platform to enhance participation of women, in various capabilities. Although, there is limited scope for increasing vendorship in view of persisting regulations, specific vendor quotas for women can boost women engagement.”

By focusing on regulations the paper finds that there is a problem of information asymmetry. Vendors don’t always have updated information on officially approved items for border haats. Any amendment on rules and regulations do not reach the concern officials on time. Officials also apply rules and regulations discriminately. Again, “Customs officials and local policemen are not present regularly and it largely falls on the BSF/BGB personnel to monitor Haat proceedings on a day-to-day basis.” This kind of laxity in applying rules and regulations may hamper the long-term benefit of the border haats and authorities in both the countries need to take these findings into consideration.

There is also a problem of inadequate infrastructure in border haats as mentioned in the paper. “Major infrastructural inadequacies across the haats include poor toilets, unavailability of regular and drinking water, lack of currency exchange booths and absence of electricity.” In this connection, CUTS paper suggests a separate body to look into infrastructural facilities and their maintenance at the haats.

Overall, the paper finds a number of positive outcomes of the four border haats. It says: “Our study concludes that the positive impacts of the border haats is perceptible in terms of income generation and elevation of the living standards of the people and have contributed to border area development. They have also promoted people to people connectivity, and boosted cross-border confidence building and goodwill. The case in favour of replication and up-scaling of border haats is thereby established.”

One small drawback of the study is absence of combined estimate of annual transactions and trade volumes of the four border haats. Though transactions in individual haats are presented separately, a combined estimate is needed. Moreover, most of the transaction data is in Indian Rupees. There should be Bangladesh Taka as well as US Dollar figures also for better understanding. Regarding the estimation of informal trade, the study, however, mentions absence of reliable statistics as a problem.

In spite of some limitations, the paper no doubt provides a reasonably detailed account of the activities in four border haats and may well serve as a guideline for both governments to make the haats more purpose-serving and beneficial to the people using them on either side of the biorder.

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