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Living on the edge

Mahendraganj, Feb. 21: The 18km trip from here to Kalaichar border haat is a backbreaking one but it swiftly pales into insignificance when one encounters the backbreaking existence of those inhabiting the area along the fenced Indo-Bangladesh border here.

The border haat, which operates only on Wednesday after its inauguration in 2011, is, however seen as one big bright spot in the otherwise dreary existence of the locals.

“This haat has at least given us an opportunity to smoothly trade in local produce which would not have been possible otherwise given the non-existent roads and law and order issue. We need more such openings as survival here is tough...most people are poor,” said Selim Ali, who trades in ginger, betelnut, and bananas at the haat, which was the first to be revived last year after Partition.

It is no wonder that when Union minister Deepa Das Munshi talked about the pain and sufferings of people living in border areas and tried to extract an assurance from Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma to set up a special border haat here, it drew a long and loud round of applause from the hundreds who had gathered to attend her election rally here to woo voters in favour of Sangma’s wife contesting on a Congress ticket.

Das Munshi had struck a chord with the locals for whom watching a helicopter take off and land is a huge attraction; attending a poll rally addressed by VVIPs a recreation. For such visits and functions are a rarity.

Scratch the surface and it becomes clear that the border haat idea works but it is just not enough in an area where there are few livelihood options, something which the government has to address immediately. Besides livelihood options, there is also the pressing need to improve higher education. The only college in the region offers arts stream. Those who want to pursue commerce or science have to shift to Tura, 85km away, or Shillong, another 222km away, which only a handful can afford. With aspiration level soaring with the advent of dish TV and mobile telephony, this section needs to be heard and nurtured.

Says a BSF personnel posted along the route to Kalichar: “The border haat has helped the locals on both sides. It has also helped ease tension between the neighbouring countries. The border fencing has helped check influx of migrants and miscreants. But the government has to create more such opportunities. There is huge potential in both agri and tourism sectors.”

What he didn’t say is that a large majority still have to make do with virtually nothing. Poverty is driving most towards alcohol; still others are attracted by easy money and insurgency. Mahendraganj is part of the newly created South West Garo Hills district and has a sizeable population of Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Biharis, besides Garos and Hajongs. Most of them came after Partition. Meghalaya shares a 444km border with Bangladesh.

But despite life being one big challenge for most, they remain hopeful. The election is one reason. “They don’t deliver but every five years we get a reason to hope,” said Hiralal Chowhan, a mason, tongue-in-cheek.