NRC ripples in Bengal, trade to politics

Draft register bites border business

By Devadeep Purohit and Anirban Choudhury
  • Published 11.08.18
The deserted wholesale market at Barovisa in Alipurduar on the Bengal-Assam border on Friday evening. Picture by Anirban Choudhury

Barobisha (Bengal-Assam border): Akram Alam Sheikh, a vegetable-seller from Srirampur in Assam's Kokrajhar, has not set up his stall in the past few days, losing at least Rs 250 to Rs 300 daily.

"How can I set up my stall if I don't have the vegetables?" asked the father of three kids. Akram, in his late thirties, would travel to Barobisha, a town in Alipurduar in neighbouring Bengal, at least five times a week to procure stocks.

He hasn't done so since August 1, two days after the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in Assam. The draft excluded over 40 lakh people out of a population of 3.2 crore, triggering fear and tighter checks.

"Suddenly, the 6km distance seems far. So many policemen on the border, repeated checks on both sides...I feel scared as we deal in cash," Akram.

Akram said his name features in the NRC draft. "All along, we Muslims in Assam were called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Now no one can say that to me now."

But the names of most people in Kokrajhar do not figure in the list. Some youths at a tea stall in Srirampur said 85 per cent of the people in the area - which falls under the Gosaigaon Assembly segment - were now "D (doubtful)" voters.

"Trade is heavily dependent on customers and wholesalers from Assam. Over the past week or so, they have not been coming. Business is down 50 per cent," said Prabhas Ranjan Das, president of the Barobisha Byabsayee Samiti, a traders' body.

The dusty town along the Bengal-Assam border has more than 1,500 shops. The number is almost the same in nearby Kamakhyaguri. Traders on both sides said they were suffering from the NRC fallout, with Das putting the loss at Rs 1 crore daily.

Alipurduar is one of the backward districts in Bengal, with much of its population dependant on agriculture and petty trading in farm produce for sustenance.

As Siliguri, north Bengal's major trading hub, is over 200km away, lower Assam - areas like Choutara, Srirampur, Gosaigaon, Srirampur, Shimultapu - is the main market for the region's businessmen.

The trade is largely in cash. "If there are so many cops on the roads, businessmen are frightened to carry cash. Some of us are owed money by traders in Assam but no one has been going there to collect the cash," said the owner of a hardware shop in Barobisha.

The worries echo across the border. "We do all our shopping in Bengal. But there is a pause on trading for now," said Maidul Islam, sitting at a tea stall in Srirampur.

K.K. Tiwari, chairman of north Bengal zonal council of business chamber CII, confirmed the slump.

"There are reports trade has come down in the border areas of Alipurduar and Cooch Behar. If required, we will approach the authorities to ensure the business community does not suffer," said Tiwari.