The ancient barter system still works in two villages on the India-Bangladesh border.
In Daribas and Jaridharla, the Indian villages on the border that is not marked off by a fence because of three rivers passing through this stretch, the barter system holds sway.
The villages depend in a major way on Bangladesh for the supply of almost all types of goods and pay for them in kind, not in cash. Although the villages are not part of “chhitmahal”, they are practically separated from the Indian territory by the three rivers.
Ainal Miyan, 24, a resident of Karnapur in Bangladesh’s Lalmonihat district, comes calling on Daribas, a 15-minute walk from his home. Ainal has been doing this for five years.
He sells samosas, savouries, chocolates, boiled sweet potato, rice, wheat, corn, poultry and vegetables from his cart. The supplies go up during the monsoon when the rivers swell.
A child approaches Ainal for two samosas and gives him 250gm of rice in exchange. It works out — at Rs 30 a kilogram (Indian price), 250 grams of rice costs Rs 7.50. But during the monsoon, when supplies are most difficult to obtain from India, Ainal and other vendors bring in the rice, wheat, vegetables and meat.
This has been the practice since India’s Independence, although many of the villagers now pay in cash. But the currency of choice is the Bangladeshi taka, and the rupee is hardly in sight.
It is not surprising.
“The villagers here are dependent solely on farming. Traders from Bangladesh used to come here since Independence and in exchange for the produce, they would give salt, oil or soap,” says Mohammad Abdul Qasim of Jaridharla.
But slowly, the dependence of the Indian villages on Bangladesh increased. “There used to be a rail bridge that connected us with Gitaldaha market. But that was 25 years ago. The bridge is now in a decrepit condition, covering only the middle of the bed of the river Dharla, whose two banks have receded,” he says.
The villages are cut off from India. “We are forced to depend on Bangladesh. Many of our relatives also stay across the border. We are surviving because of the tolerance shown by the Bangladeshis,” he adds.
Adds Abdul Majid Miyan, a member of the Gitaldaha gram panchayat, where these two villages are located: “There are about 7,000 people in Daribas and Jaridhara. The Gitaldaha bazar is 5km from the two villages as the crow flies. However, it takes nearly four hours to reach Gitaldaha as the Dharla river and its tributary keep them cut off. In fact, women in labour even go to the health centre at Lalmonirhat in Bangladesh to give birth. All these have led to the dependence on the Bangladeshi currency.”
Kulsum Bibi, a resident of Daribas, said the menfolk brought home the Bangladeshi currency during their trips to the markets across the border. “We women and children do not venture out to the markets located across the border,” she says.
Ainal explains the exchange rate that he and the villagers use. “Rs 100 is equivalent to 145 taka and Rs 50 has a value of 75 taka. This has been the rate for several years.”
According to the current official exchange rate, Re 1 equals 1.26 taka.
The Cooch Behar district administration doesn’t seem to be bothered about the plight of the villagers.
Located barely 45km from Cooch Behar town, Daribas and Jaridharla have not attracted attention from the district administration for the use of the Bangladeshi currency.
“I have not seen the presence of any high-level politician or district officials here during my visits,” Ainal says.
Earlier this year, in April, the Trinamul district president and MLA from Natabari, Rabindranath Ghosh, had visited the area. He was shocked by what he saw.
“There is nothing in those villages. Power, drinking water, schools, health centres, markets, transport, these things do not exist there. The people are totally dependent on Bangladesh and their currency. I have spoken to the district magistrate about the state of affairs there and we will soon take up a special development drive for this area,” Ghosh said.
District magistrate Mohan Gandhi agreed. “It is true that these two villages are very backward. We are gathering information and trying to plan what can be done to improve things there,” Gandhi said.