Salil Burmans eyes are restless. Its one in the afternoon — and time for the 13-year-old boy to get to work. A resident of Dumrain village in north Bengal, he has to meet a local businessman to pick up 25 kilograms of sugar. Once thats done, he has to hand over the package to a boy waiting on the other side of the Indo-Bangladesh border. Burman is paid around Rs 200 every day by traders whose goods he carries to the border.
Usually, we have to dodge at least five men of the Border Security Force (BSF) along the 2km stretch from the traders shop to the border. But the afternoons are better for us, for there are few jawans to be seen then, says Burman, whose village is in Hili block, South Dinajpur.
More than 500km away, Moinuddin Khan has been waiting at the Benapole checkpost in Bangladeshs Jessore district to pick up 30kg of urea from his Indian counterpart. I am afraid that Ill be caught by the BSF or the Border Guard Bangladesh. I feel relieved once I come back to safer ground, says Khan, 14.
Burman and Khan are divided by borders but they have a link. They act as carriers of goods that are illegally traded between India and Bangladesh. While cows are the most commonly smuggled item, the Indian children carry rice, sugar, urea, bicycles, nylon saris and country-made pistols to Bangladesh.
Goods that are cheaper in India are smuggled into Bangladesh for higher profits, explains Suraj Das, district co-ordinator of the Society for Participatory Action and Reflection, an NGO that works on border issues. Fifty kilograms of urea bought for Rs 320 in India can fetch Rs 1,000 Bangladesh taka (BDT) or Rs 600. But goods with a price difference of Rs 5-10 a kg are also smuggled, he says.
Diesel is one of the items illegally brought in from Bangladesh to India for it is cheaper there than in India, says Mohammad Nurul Amin, district magistrate, Jessore. Other goods smuggled from Bangladesh include fish, soaps and mobile handsets. Every month, we confiscate goods worth 4 crore BDT (Rs 2.38 crore), Amin adds.
The child carriers belong to poor families on both sides. My father was an agricultural labourer but he didnt earn more than Rs 300 a month. So I became a carrier, says Burman, who now provides for his family of five.
Moinuddins story is no different. His father had a debt of 2 lakh BDT (Rs 1.19 lakh) in the local credit market and he fled the village without repaying it two years ago. I have to pay off the debt as well as run the house. There was no option but to work as a carrier because it gave me an assured means of income, says Moinuddin, who earns around 500 BDT (Rs 300) every month.
| BEARERS OF DOOM: Many of the children end up as victims of abuse. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar
Poverty is so stark in the villages that often the children start smuggling with the consent of their parents. My mother knows, but she doesnt stop me because the family needs this money to survive, says 13-year-old Abdul Rehman of Sharsha village in Jessore. Rehman is also paying off his fathers debts.
Child carriers are in demand for two reasons. One, as Das stresses, they are cheaper than adult carriers. But whats more important is that paramilitary forces often mistake them for students. Most of the smuggled good, he adds, are carried in school bags.
About 25 per cent of children are in the trade — up from 10 per cent five years ago, says Sabita Pradhan, a member of the Panjun gram panchayat which includes Hilis border villages.
The 4,095km stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border is porous enough to encourage smuggling. And the children adopt different methods to cross the border. First we clear the shrubs that grow around the fence and then cut the fence with a pair of pliers, says Mullah Javed, a Bangladeshi carrier.
Activists stress that the illegal trade is huge business, with three sets of participants — traders, children and linemen or agents, who ensure the smooth movement of goods across the border. Each trader pays around Rs 15,000 every month to these linemen, says an activist in Hili.
A senior BSF official based in Delhi admits that porous points on the border aid smuggling. Keeping tab on such activities is a daunting task for Indian forces, he says. The official adds that there are occasions when jawans are bribed. There may be some black sheep in uniform too. But it is also very difficult for the personnel to remain clean as there is immense pressure on them from local people to ignore the smuggling, he says.
Locals accuse the BSF jawans of abusing children caught smuggling. The global rights group, Human Rights Watch, said in a report in December last year that scores of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens, including minors, end up as victims of BSF abuse ranging from verbal abuse to intimidation to torture, beatings and killings.
Many of the children bear scars on their faces, palms, arms and feet. Once I was stopped and badly beaten by a BSF jawan while carrying 20kg of mangoes, says Azhar Khan, a Bangladeshi carrier. My friends ran away with my mangoes. That helped me, because if the mangoes had got confiscated, I would have had to pay the trader for the loss.
But the children believe that the trade is worth the risks, for the money they earn doesnt just help keep the kitchen fires burning, but occasionally leads to luxury. Baburam Mandal of Dakhinpara in Hili, who has been smuggling goods for months, has a television set, a video player and a new bed.
Moinuddin likes to take time off from work every now and then to play cricket. My running skills for smuggling help me score runs between the wickets, he says.
The Bangladesh boy, who has scars around his eyes, dreams of getting out of smuggling some day. I want to go to Darjeeling and see the sun rise from Tiger Hill. Perhaps that will mark a new morning for him.
(The names of the child carriers have been changed to protect their identity)