Sitting in his office in Hasnabad in West Bengal’s Basirhat district, BSF deputy commandant Sudhir Kumar is thinking of new ways to stop ‘pepsi’ from being illegally transported across the border to Bangladesh. “It’s not the cola drink, as you might have assumed. A calf is known as ‘pepsi’ in local parlance. It’s a very difficult job to stop a herd of cows, buffaloes and calves from being smuggled to the other side, when all we have are rickety fences and large swathes of unfenced riverine patches,” he says.
His concerns are legitimate. Six districts — Nadia, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Habra, Malda and Krishnanagar — account for 90 per cent of cattle smuggling cases from the south Bengal frontier, where 366 km of the 915 km boundary with Bangladesh is fenced. With fences not enough, the Border Security Force (BSF) has now started devising new ways to curb the problem.
As part of the crackdown on cattle smugglers, the BSF wants 54 villages located at the ‘zero-point’ to be shifted away from the International Border (IB). These villages have 4,749 houses and a population of 30,074. All BSF posts at forward locations maintain a register with photographs and details of all individuals. The registers also have pictures of cattle, photographed with their owners.
The BSF has put up iron pipes and dug up trenches along the barbed wires on the border with Bangladesh to stop ‘pepsis’ from being smuggled. And the results are evident. Since the NDA government came to power, cases of smuggling along the Bangladesh border in the southern part of Bengal have dropped by 75 per cent, data shows. It is in the BSF’s charter of duties to stop cattle smuggling to Bangladesh.
“Times have changed — a fence or barbed wire is not enough. Our men are digging trenches so it is difficult for the cattle be taken across. We are also putting iron pipes along fences to restrict their movement,” BSF IG Sandeep Sulanke, who is in-charge of the South Bengal frontier, said.
“For most people who live in border areas, cattle are the main source of income. Smugglers take advantage of riverine patches and densely populated villages to smuggle cows,” he added.
According to the BSF’s estimate based on local intelligence, around 5.05 lakh cattle were smuggled to Bangladesh between January and March, 2014. That figure dropped to 1.2 lakh in the same time this year.
The BSF has even dug up a 2003 notification issued by the then CPI(M) government, which prohibited cattle haats or markets within eight km of the IB. “We are planning to write to the Ministry of Home Affairs to reiterate the notification with the state government. The cattle haats add up to the problem, as bovines from across the country are brought here and sold. They then make their way illegally to Bangladesh. In southern West Bengal, there are eight such cattle haats. The cattle carriers are armed. In 2011, to stop the deaths of civilians, the BSF was restricted from using any firepower, and asked to confront them with pellet guns,” said Sulanke.
Another problem, a senior BSF official said, is that personnel are outnumbered by smugglers. “Earlier, anyone using a lethal weapon would have to face a departmental inquiry. But after the present government come to power at the Centre, we have been told to use weapons judiciously in self defence,” said an official.
Since 2011, 10 BSF personnel have been killed and 718 injured in clashes with cattle smugglers. “Till recently, I was posted in Chhattisgarh to tackle Maoists. Today, I am chasing bovines. We know that cattle are brought to West Bengal from states such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Maharashtra. They should be stopped at the source,” said another BSF official.
In April this year, Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited south Bengal, where he said that due to the BSF’s crackdown, beef prices in Bangladesh have gone up. A BSF official said, “A cattle purchased from northern states for slaughter at a price between Rs 500-3,000 can fetch as much as Rs 20,000 to 30,000 once it is smuggled to Bangladesh.”