Driving a truck carrying a consignment of Bangladesh-ordered truck chassis from Alwar, Sunil Sharma reached Satberia near Petrapole, the Indian border land port in West Bengal, on March 23, a day before the national lockdown kicked in. He has been there ever since. COVID-19 LIVE updates
For three weeks now, the truck has been his home. The 42-year-old from Haryana, who found space for his truck in a private parking lot off Jessore Road at Satberia in Bongaon in North 24 Parganas, cooks and eats beneath the truck and then crawls into the cabin to rest.
He has made new friends — drivers Prem Chand who carted machinery from Faridabad, and Kamlesh Yadav who had to deliver industrial magnets across the border. Short of cash, they now settle for a meal a day, at times dipping rotis in tea.
“I am running out of money. When I called my employer for my salary, he told me to borrow money from home for now. How can I do that? I am supposed to be the one sending money home,” Sharma said.
They are not alone. An estimated 2100 trucks are stuck near Petrapole, the largest land port in the country. The border crossing is closed, and they are unable to drop their consignments at the warehouses in Benapole across the border.
While exporters have been urging the Centre to allow unloading for subsequent passage of goods, clearing agents, workers and even drivers are scared to step inside Bangladesh which too is fighting the coronavirus. Local Trinamool Congress leaders, enforcing the lockdown, have been warning against any movement of trucks and goods.
In parking lots, and on both sides of the Jessore Road leading to the land port, trucks have taken up all available space. BSF personnel stand guard 500 metres from Petrapole, and a local municipal team, armed with thermal scanners, is busy checking people for fever symptoms.
The Integrated Check Post is almost deserted. Only Bangladesh citizens with valid passports can go past the border gates, returning home on foot.
On a normal day, 500-550 trucks make it to Benapole while 100-150 trucks from Bangladesh enter Petrapole to unload their cargo. All that stopped three weeks ago.
Through this land port, India exports cotton fabrics, vehicle chassis, non-alloy steel, yarn, iron and steel products, synthetic fibres, two-wheelers, jute seeds, machinery parts, books and paper, cereals and other food products. And from Bangladesh come consignments of jute, readymade garments, betel nut, rice bran and other products.
Trade volume via Petrapole, according to statistics of the Land Ports Authority of India, was Rs 21,380 crore in 2018-19. In the next financial year, up to June 2019-20, that volume was worth Rs 4859.18 crore. In 2018-19, as many as 163,555 vehicles crossed the land port and the passenger count was 23,54,962.
As soon as the lockdown was announced, all drivers already at Benapole were told to leave the trucks and return to the Indian side. It was the same with Bangladeshi drivers. They too returned, leaving their vehicles. There are 100 loaded Indian trucks across the border while 30 Bangladeshi trucks are at Petrapole.
Ajay Sahai, Director General and CEO, Federation of Indian Export Organisations, told The Indian Express over phone: “We stand with the nation and the central and state governments at this time, fighting COVID-19. However, we have written to Chairman of Land Ports Authority and other agencies in India. As per orders and notifications of the government, ports — land, sea, air — and related activities and movement of cargo trucks to and from ports have been categorized under essential services. But in Petrapole, there is no movement. Already there are delays and cancellations of orders. The little orders we have, these have to be executed and all agencies should pitch in.”
From his home in Bongaon, Kartick Chakraborty, secretary of Petrapole Clearing Agents Staffs’ Welfare Association, said: “There were meetings held with all stake holders, including Customs, BSF, Immigration, warehousing, exporters, labour unions, clearing agents and others. Immigration banned movement on foot to Bangladesh side.
Second, drivers and labourers are scared that if they come in close contact with people across the border, there are chances of COVID-19 infection. If a driver enters Bangladesh, he will be quarantined for 14 days. When he returns to India, he will again be quarantined for 14 days. All this has led to the logjam. There should be a proper medical team at the port. Nothing is moving here.” The association has also written to the West Bengal Chief Secretary, seeking a medical unit for the land port.
Pradip Kumar Dey, an exporter in Bongaon, said: “The entire business chain will be hurt since the trucks are stranded. For instance, we deal in jute seeds. There are over 50 trucks with more than 1,000 tonnes of jute seeds stuck on the Indian side. Bangladesh farmers just have a little over a week to sow them. If the seeds do not reach in time, jute cultivation in Bangladesh will be hit. Bangladesh supplies jute to mills in India, and these will be hit. Lakhs of jute mill workers will be affected. All agencies should allow us to export and end the logjam.”
At No. 44 bus stand in Bongaon, near the CITU office, a group has gathered. “Truck owners are not paying salaries to drivers and helpers. They say no payments unless goods are delivered. We are trying to provide ration to the drivers. So far, we have been able to help over 200 drivers, but there are so many,” Ananda Biswas, a leader of the Janpath Paribahan Mazdoor Union, said.
Local Trinamool Congress leaders have a different take though. They are against any movement of trucks while the lockdown is on.
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Gopal Seth, former TMC MLA and mentor of North 24 Zilla Parishad, said: “I told the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police that a lockdown is in place and our Trinamool Congress government is doing everything to fight COVID-19. There has been no infection case in Bongaon. If they try to move trucks, people of Bongaon will protest and there may be a law-and-order problem. We will not allow anything to move until the state government ends the lockdown.”
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