The Baliamari-Kalaichar border haat between Bangladesh and India. All photos by the writer.
Somewhere along the Jinjiram River – where Baliamari in Rangpur Division meets Kalaichar in Meghalaya – a haat (market) comes to life every Wednesday, where one can trade in Indian Rupees or Bangladeshi Takas, or just barter in goods. Located on the northern half of the India-Bangladesh border, this trading post has been a regular fare for people living in either side of the river, ever since the haat was opened in 2011.
The Baliamari-Kalaichar border haat is among a few common marketplaces that have been in operation since 2011, after Bangladesh and India agreed to open them to promote local trade and revive markets whose history stretches back to 1972, and in some cases, to the Mughal era. Closed down during Partition, some of these haats were reopened after the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh, but again abruptly closed, becoming a victim of the heavy securitisation of India’s border with Bangladesh.
But the process of reviving them has been slow. So far, only four border haats have become operational: two between Meghalaya’s border with Rangpur and Sylhet; and two between Tripura and Chittagong. In 2018, India and Bangladesh agreed to set up six more haats along Bangladesh’s border with the Northeast. However, the location of these potential markets is yet to be decided. According to estimates by the governments, the annual trade of these haats between India and Bangladesh comes to around USD 600,000.
During my visits to the Baliamari-Kalaichar haat in October 2017 and May 2018, I noticed the revival of the market, but also the visible presence of the state and securitisation of the trading post. Below are some photographs that show how the border haat has served as an interface between two states, and between two peoples.
Situated in a low-land area with Jinjiram River flowing in its vicinity, the haat consists of around 15 tin sheds over mud floor distributed equally to the vendors from Bangladesh and India.
Business in full swing. The haat opens at 10 am on Wednesday mornings and closes around 2 pm.
Bay leaf from India is a popular produce at the market. Vendors from India also offer clothes, spices, fruits, and other locally grown agricultural products. Plastic and melamine goods, molasses, small steel utensils and ready-made garments are among the goods offered by the vendors from Bangladesh.
Weighing of agricultural produce and items inside the haat. A five-member Border Haat Management Committee comprising vendors from both countries manage the haat along with government officials.
An authorised cart puller helping a vendor move their products to the stalls.
Verification of items by an Indian custom officer. The trade policy is highly restrictive: vendors informed that buyer cannot sell and sellers cannot buy in these haats. Fish and meat trade is restricted, even though these are high in demand.
A customs officer inspecting the documents. Only people residing within 5 km of the border haat are eligible to become vendors or buyers. Initially, each vendor was allowed to trade up to a maximum of around 50 USD per day. The cap has now been doubled. Two banks – State Bank of India (SBI) and the Sonali Bank of Bangladesh – operate in the haat premises to facilitate exchange of currencies. Transactions can be done in both Indian Rupees and Bangladeshi Takas.
Labourers from Bangladesh queue up for the final count before transportation of goods bought in the haat. Women’s participation in the market was not visible at all.
Roondra Koch, a member of the Border Haat Committee, who also owns a grocery shop about a kilometer towards the Indian side. “I don’t want to buy plastics from Bangladesh,” Koch replied when asked about the haat. “It’s not much help for our business and I don’t feel like attending the haat anymore,” he says.
A vendor from Bangladesh.
Security forces from Bangladesh counting the sacks before allowing transportation. Each vendor can buy six sacks only. In response to the parallel growth of smuggling alongside the regulated trade, the states have responded with greater deployment of security forces.
Vendors and customers busy moving goods from the haat towards Kurigram in Bangladesh.
~Anjuman Ara Begum is the South Asia Programme Officer at Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).