Life on the border between India and Nepal, revolves around illegally—and creatively—moving goods between the two countries
Sampurna Nagar is at the farthest end of Uttar Pradesh’s largest district, Lakhimpur Kheri, which borders Nepal. The town is isolated in acres of nothingness, surrounded by wetlands and a river that threatens to pillage its outlying villages every year. Twenty years ago, it was a traders’ hub, with a bustling bazaar and cinema hall. Now, the hall stands abandoned and licensed fertiliser shops line the road, most of them with their shutters down. Some 15 kilometres from the town are villages perched on the edge of India and drawing their life breath from that geography.
“Almost 80 per cent of inhabitants here survive only through smuggling,” says Chamkaur Singh, a local farmer who has volunteered to act as tour guide. “They might be middlemen in the trade, suppliers, distributors, or even carriers. But everyone here does it because it’s the easiest and quickest way to make money.” As we make our way through the town, Singh is excited because the biggest ‘trader’ in the area might be coming to pay a visit. “He moved to Nepal a few years ago as he is a wanted man in this region,” Singh says, before hopping into a car and instructing the driver to take us to Khajuria. It is a village on the edge of a road, surrounded by fields and an open border with one Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) check post. One can take several alternative routes from there to Nepal undetected.
Farm vehicles, mainly large trolleys generally used to transport sugarcane, line the edge of the road. They serve multiple purposes and are often used to transport smuggled goods across the border. “If a person owns more than three trolleys in the region, it is a sure-shot sign of his being involved in smuggling. There is no other reason why you would need so many of them,” says Singh. “Trolleys serve a better purpose in the trade than trucks. They look less threatening and are mainly perceived to be farm vehicles used to transport lightweight foodgrain etcetera.
On the other side of the border from Khajuria lies its mirror image, the small town of Bellaury. One can usually walk freely into the town. There is a stream right at the border demarcating the two countries. A few children, seeing an opportunity to make a quick buck, are charging people Rs 100 to take them to and fro on wooden boats. A light breeze is in the air and the SSB guards are sipping on their tea, oblivious to the many Nepalese on their way home with neatly tucked-in packages of everyday goods, from bicycles to sugar and oil.
Bittu Bhatia, the biggest ‘trader’, comes standing on a boat. The large, portly middle- aged man is unremarkable looking for a smuggler, save for a white bandage on his left arm. A red hatchback is waiting to take him to a doctor for his monthly dialysis in Palia Kalan, a village an hour-and-a-half’s drive away. Bhatia is in no hurry. Introductions are made. He doesn’t consider himself a smuggler.
“We are a Hindu nation; I am just supplying goods to another Hindu nation. It makes me a social worker because Nepal is extremely poor and has nothing. If I make a little profit in the process, how does that make me a bad person? It’s merely tax evasion and I am not the first person to be doing it,” he says laughing. Bhatia’s family were cloth merchants in the area before they turned to the business. It was only after the murder of his brother a decade ago in a gang war that he moved to Nepal and established a safe base.
Last year, in May, a consignment of red sandalwood from Andhra Pradesh, hidden under sacks of cement, was caught at the border. It was intended for delivery to Bhatia in Bellaury, later to be smuggled into China via Nepal. Ever since that seizure, life has been a little difficult for Bhatia. His godowns in Sampurna Nagar were subsequently sealed. He now uses other people to conduct his business of smuggling goods.
Take, for instance, Manoj Aggarwal, a co-accused in the red sandalwood case registered against Bhatia because the cement was bought using his TIN number. Aggarwal got a clean chit from the Crime Branch in Pilibhit. “Bhatia obviously took the fall for him,” says Chamkaur Singh, who also works as a police informer.
The main goods smuggled are food grains, fertilisers—especially urea—betel nuts, cement and wood such as sheesham and sandalwood. “The demand for fertilisers is very big in Nepal since they don’t produce any of their own. Although China has recently started supplying them, they still prefer what comes from India,” says Bhatia.
Supplying fertilisers is good business, and not just for big fish like Bhatia. Even petty smugglers thrive on it. Ram Kumar, a labourer in the region, says that selling one sack of urea across the border can get him Rs 300-400. “Why would I want to do anything else?” he says.
Kanji Maheswari, an SSB guard posted at Khajuria, says that the open border makes it difficult to catch smugglers. Add to that the fact that most neighbouring villages of Nepal rely on these Indian towns for basic necessities. “We don’t bother checking everyone that passes through. It is done on a random basis. If we act too tough, the villagers give us a tough time.”
That Bhatia just crossed the border calmly despite being wanted shows how completely indifferent the guards were to his being a smuggler. “We have no orders to hold him up and we don’t know what he looks like,” says Maheswari sipping on tea in his tent while Bhatia looks on.
“The border pillars demarcating Nepal from India have been removed from many areas surrounding the town to confuse authorities,” says Rajesh Thakur, commanding officer, SSB, Kheri. Even if smugglers are caught, they manage to escape. “There have been many instances where the SSB involved the local police but the police refused to make a case. They usually take Rs 35,000-50,000 and let the person responsible go free,” says Chamkaur Singh.
The border town of Baisehi is another smuggling haven, bustling with activity because the only Roadways bus from the region to Delhi starts here. “It makes loading and unloading easy for smugglers,” says Gangu Ram, a shopkeeper in the area. “Everything from human trafficking to trade in hashish and tetracycline is rampant. All you have to do is show up and get on the bus. If you look ordinary enough and have a good cover, you will find yourself with smuggled goods in the capital,” he says.
Samsher Lal, another trader in the area, says that though it’s relatively easy to smuggle goods, there is no foolproof way of doing it. He gives the example of the 35 kg of hashish recently seized while being peddled by a 16-year-old local: “The boy had been doing it for three consecutive days. It was only on the third day that he was caught. He was using the regular passage. He could have gone through any of the alternative routes but he was naïve and unwilling to share [the profits].”
When we reach Baisehi, the village is full of Nepalese women with bicycles who have walked across the three kilometre border to buy goods for an upcoming festival. “These women are usually used as baits for SSB and other officials,” says Lal. Whenever there is a huge consignment that needs to pass through, women are sent in droves as decoys with petty goods to distract officials. Once the border gets busy, the goods to be smuggled are transported through alternate routes in the area.
Baisehi borders a forest that, a decade ago, was dense with Rosewood. Now, there is only shrubbery and the occasional tree. “All the rosewood was cut up and smuggled to Nepal,” says Singh. Before the SSB took over, the local police handled checkposts in the area. “Since those people had given a free rein to all smugglers, the situation is a little hard for us to control now,” says Thakur.
At the Baisehi forest check post there is a line of Nepalese women patiently waiting for the SSB to let them pass through. There is a tractor and trolley full of wood and two large steel containers used normally to store food grain. It is evident that the guards and the person on the tractor know each other. They exchange greetings and are allowed to pass through. The Nepalese women, however, are frisked, held back and later released after the petty goods they carry have been confiscated.
Sanjay Mukhiya, a guard posted at the border, says he let the obviously large consignment pass through on the basis of a letter issued by a Gram Panchayat head stating that the goods be allowed to be taken through.
With time, the nature of the business is changing. Now, automobiles and fake currency are being taken across.
Intelligence officials say this is thanks to Munna Khan and Pappu Khan, two brothers running a poultry farm by day and smuggling by night. “We don’t have any proof of it right now, save for one case last year,” says Akhilesh Pratap Singh of the Intelligence wing of the Uttar Pradesh Police, headquartered in Lucknow. Rumours of an arms trade are also doing the rounds. The Khans are relatively new to the business, less than a decade old. Like most of the smuggling businesses in the area, theirs is also a family concern with seven brothers split between India and Nepal.
“Even the MLAs and MPs of the region are party to smuggling or turn a blind eye to the trade, just citing it as harmless,” says Shamsher Lal. This laissez faire attitude keeps this trade thriving. Rajesh Thakur says that smugglers have everyone on their payroll here. If the officers act tough, the smugglers get creative. Lal says that in 2004 when the SSB chief conducted a crackdown, the smugglers got the SSB’s cook on their pay roll. “Every time the officers were in the mess, the cook would dial his friends and they would carry out their business,” he laughs. The SSB has registered 142 cases of smuggling in the last year.
SRL Verma, a Customs officer in Kheri, states that many smugglers hire labourers on low wages to transport goods across the border. “If one or two get caught, it is no big deal. The blame doesn’t ever [get pinned] directly [on] the person who orchestrated the plan.”