Rupak Bhattacharjee

A significant aspect of the growing India-Bangladesh ties has been the setting up of border haats (markets) along the international border in North East. The haats had been thriving centres of trade and commerce across the borders till the partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Studies indicate that some haats existed even in the time of Mughal rule.

During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s landmark visit to New Delhi on January 10-13, 2010, both the countries decided to revive such traditional markets for the benefit of the people living on either side of the border. The leaders of India and Bangladesh concurred that reopening of haats would add new impetus to the economic cooperation between the two nations, restore economic and commercial ties between the people of both sides of the border and reduce informal trade that persists.

The commerce ministries of India and Bangladesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on border haats and border trade on October 23, 2010. According to the MoU, trading would take place once a week among the people living within 5 km radius of the border. Equal numbers of traders (25-30) from both sides are allowed to sell and buy locally produced crops and goods. No local tax is levied on the items sold and currencies of both the countries are accepted. Reports say 16 items had been shortlisted for trading at the haats. The list of items include agricultural and horticultural products, spices, minor forest products (excluding timber), fresh and dry fish, dairy and poultry products, cottage industry commodities, handloom and handicraft products, garments and others. The list of items allowed for trade may expanded or modified by mutual consent. In June 2012, per head spending cap of $50 was raised to $100.

The government officials of India and Bangladesh undertook a joint study in 2012 to assess the infrastructure for trade and business along the border and subsequently suggested measures for upgrading and expanding border infrastructure, including road and constructing border haats to boost cross-border trade. The haats are built within 150 yards of the zero line of the international border with one part on the Indian side and other in Bangladesh.

After consultation with the Bangladesh government and respective state governments, the Centre has identified 70 locations in five border states to set up haats in a phased manner. Out of the 70 haats, 35 have been proposed along the border with Paschim Banga, 22 in Meghalaya border, five in Tripura and four each in Assam and Mizoram.

There is huge scope of enhancing trade between North Eastern states and Bangladesh. Four states of the region—Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram share 1880 km border with Bangladesh. On July 23, 2011, the then Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and his Bangladeshi counter part Faruq Khan inaugurated the first border haat at Kalaichar (in West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya) – Baliamari (in Kurigram district of Bangladesh). Another haat was opened in 2012 at Balat (in East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya) – Dalora (in Sunamganj district of Bangladesh). The commerce ministers of the two countries and Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma, noted that the opening of two haats could significantly contribute towards improving the economic conditions of the people living near the border in both the nations.

Border trade plays a key role in the economy of Tripura which shares 865 km border with Bangladesh. The Tripura government had proposed to set up eight haats along the state’s border with Bangladesh but the governments of both the countries agreed to operate only five. On January 13, 2015, Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Bangladesh’s Commerce Minister Tofael Ahmed jointly opened the border haat at Srinagar (in South Tripura district) – Purba Madhugram (in northeastern Feni district of Bangladesh). This was Tripura’s first and third such market along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

While inaugurating the haat, the union minister observed that with the implementation of “Act East”  policy adopted by the NDA Government, Tripura, which is in an advantageous position in terms of strategic, diplomatic and economic relations with Bangladesh, is likely to emerge as a hub of trade, transit and connectivity between India and its South and South-East Asian neighbours. She suggested that in addition to perishable commodities like vegetables and fruits, the value added items produced by small industries on both sides should be traded in the haats. In her opinion, such products would not only generate more revenue but also solve unemployment problems. The minister also assured that her government would extend full support to the Tripura government in materialising “projects beneficial to the state and improve India-Bangladesh ties.”

The recent reports suggest that the second border haat at Kamalsagar in Sepahijala district of Tripura bordering Brahmanbaria district of Bangladesh is ready for opening. Two more haats at Kamalpur in Dhalai and Raghna in North Tripura districts would be constructed soon. Efforts are also underway to build four border markets in Mizoram.

It may be noted that volume of trade between North East and Bangladesh has been steadily rising over the last few years. Reports say the Tripura-Bangladesh trade has gone up from Rs 4.12 crore in 1995-96 to Rs 343 crore in 2012-13 fiscal year. However, the political turmoil of Bangladesh adversely affected the trade reducing it to Rs 230 crore in 2013-14. Tripura government officials are hopeful that once the existing infrastructure is up graded, trade between Tripura and Bangladesh would cross Rs 500 crore annually. Tripura Industries and Commerce Minister Tapan Chakraborty said after the opening of Srinagar-Purba haat, goods worth Rs 6.50 lakh have been sold every week on an average. Experts maintain that the border haats have the potential to generate trade worth $20 million every year.

The opening of haats has been appreciated by many in both the nations. The security forces of India and Bangladesh guarding their respective borders said haats could play a crucial role in minimising illegal trade and smuggling and thus help in better managing the border. The people residing in the bordering areas of the two countries have also welcomed the establishment of haats which they believe, will revive the trade of pre-partition era.

After the formation of the NDA Government at the Centre, a number of ministers have reiterated that India attaches importance to its relations with strategically-located Bangladesh and seeks to further strengthen economic ties and people-to-people contacts between the two neighbouring nations. It is expected that the recent ratification of the historic Land Boundary Agreement by the Indian Parliament will accelerate the process of building the remaining border haats.

Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East Bangladesh.