There was no movement of trucks or goods at the country’s biggest land port, Petrapole in North 24 Parganas district, on the Bangladesh border, for the third consecutive day on Wednesday even as Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to state Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha on Tuesday, asking the state to open the land port and send a report to the Centre.
In its letter to the state, the Home Ministry stated that this “unilateral decision” to close the land port was hampering the country’s “legally binding international commitments”.
The MHA also said the state was violating the Centre’s guidelines that movement of goods trucks could not be stopped.
Movement of trucks across the border at Petrapole checkpost in Bongaon, in North 24 Parganas district, less than 90 km from Kolkata, was stopped on Monday following protests, primarily by Trinamool Congress-backed labour unions and local villagers. They had voiced apprehension of coronavirus spreading from Bangladeshi labourers to Indian truck drivers and their helpers.
Petrapole had reopened on April 30, more a month after being closed due to the nationwide lockdown. Only 20 trucks were unloaded before movement of goods from the Indian side was halted again on May 4.
In the letter dated May 5, Bhalla wrote, “…it has been reported that goods traffic through border crossings between India and Bangladesh…has still not resumed. As a result, a large number of trucks carrying essential supplies, bound for Bangladesh, are stranded at different border crossing points. A number of drivers of such vehicles, while returning from Bangladesh, have also not been allowed to cross the border and are stranded in Bangladesh.”
Reminding West Bengal of its April 24 order to allow cross-land border transportation of essential goods through the country’s borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the MHA stated that a compliance report from the state had still not been received.
The letter stated, “…the unilateral action on the part of Government of West Bengal to stop the cross land border movement of essential goods would have larger implications for the Indian Government with regard to its legally binding international commitments. This act of…West Bengal amounts to violation of the Orders issued by MHA under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 as well as Articles 253, 256 and 257 of the Constitution of India.”
Reiterating that its consolidated guidelines for the third phase of lockdown had specifically mentioned that no state can stop movement of goods trucks for cross-border land trade under treaties with neighbouring countries, the MHA stated, “You are therefore again directed to allow cross land border transportation through all Indo-Bangladesh borders without any further delay and send the compliance report on opening of cross land borders, by today itself.”
The reopening was disrupted after labour unions under the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC) agitated near the land port on May 1. The following day, a group of villagers briefly gheraoed vehicles of land port officials while they were on their way to join duty.
On May 4, in a letter to the district magistrate and police superintendent of North 24 Parganas, the deputy commissioner of customs expressed his concern over the protest by villagers. According to the letter (a copy is with The Indian Express), the crowd shouted: “Customs office khola thakle sobai ke mere felbo (If customs office remains open, we will kill all officials). Villagers locked the office gate from outside.
Meanwhile, local TMC leaders and union leaders said the movement of trucks would not be allowed due to the fear of the infection.
Kartik Chakraborty, secretary of Petrapole Clearing Agents Staffs’ Welfare Association, said, “…There is fear of infection spreading from Bangladesh. Instead of writing letters, the Centre and the state should send teams to Petrapole and find a solution.”
Gopal Seth, TMC leader and mentor of North 24 Parganas Zilla Parishad, said: “The Bangladeshi side of the border – Benapole and Jessore – has reported many COVID-positive cases and there has been some deaths. So far, Bongaon (West Bengal) is safe from infection, and the people fear a spread (if movement of trucks restart).”
He maintained that the Petrapole landport can be opened “only after the end of lockdown”.
Before the lockdown, an average of 500 to 550 Indian trucks crossed the border daily and 100-150 trucks to the Indian side. However, according to sources, only Indian trucks will be unloaded at the zero point from now onwards.
At Petrapole, India exports cotton fabrics, motor vehicle chassis, non alloy steel, yarn, iron and steel products, synthetic fibers, two wheelers, jute seeds, machinery parts, books, papers, cereals and other food products to Bangladesh. India imports jute, readymade garments, betel nut, rice bran and others from Bangladesh.