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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Livelihoods on line at Indian border

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Tripura

Tripura border fence
The fence will curb a thriving illegal trade. (Pics: Bapi Roy Chowdhury)
Tens of thousands of people in India's north-eastern state of Tripura are unhappy with the fence India is constructing across its border with Bangladesh.

Tripura's economy has been largely dependent on informal - or illegal - border trade with Bangladesh.

India's formal trade with Bangladesh is worth $1.5bn a year. The illegal trade is worth as much, if not more.

"When the fence is completed, illegal trade with Bangladesh may totally come to halt. The fence will destroy our economy," says local resident, ML Debnath.

He says about 250,000 to 300,000 people will be affected if this trade dries up - that is a tenth of Tripura's population.

Tens of thousands of villagers engage in this illegal trade by doubling up as "carriers", transporting goods across the border on their head.


The roads outside Gol Bazar, the biggest market in Tripura's capital, Agartala, are not as busy as before.

Until about a year ago, 500 trucks ready to smuggle goods into Bangladesh would be parked on the streets around the market.

It is difficult to find more than 50 at any given time now.

"Our medicines are in great demand in Bangladesh and we thrive on that. It is an open secret where all our goods are going," says Durgaprasad Roy, who runs a thriving pharmacy in Agartala's Battala area.

Among them is a cough syrup that is consumed by addicts in Muslim Bangladesh, where liquor is not available.

Sugar is another commodity commonly smuggled into Bangladesh.

"I carry 10 bags of Indian sugar every day to the other side and I make around 60 to 70 rupees ($1.40 to $1.60). This is my only income," says Subal Sarkar of Mohanpur market near Agartala.

Tripura has an 856km (535 mile) border with Bangladesh and a small 60km strip that connects it to the rest of India through the neighbouring state of Assam.

Almost the entire border will be fenced off.

A third of the work has been completed, says Arvind Kumar, chief of a state-owned company constructing the fence.


There is another worry the fence has brought villagers.

Indian security in Tripura
Security has been stepped up on the border

Bangladesh insists India must construct the fence 150 metres from the border under a bilateral pact signed in 1975.

Whenever the Indians have deviated, Bangladesh border guards have opened fire to stop work on the fence - in Tripura and elsewhere.

According to a survey by the Tripura government, at least 7,123 families (40,000 to 50,000 people) will lose their homes, land or shops because their properties fall between the fence and the border.

"Those people are beginning to feel they have been given away to Bangladesh," says Shahid Choudhury, a local legislator.

In village after village, people speak of feeling vulnerable.

"The Indian border guards will patrol mostly up to the fence. Only occasionally will they cross it to cover lands after the fence. For us it means living at the mercy of Bangladesh," says Kamal Miah of Motinagar village.

Kamal says land prices in his village have crashed from 100,000 rupees an acre to 5,000 because it has fallen the wrong side of the fence.


In many places, angry villagers have forced authorities to stop work on the fence.

Tripura fence
People have lost their homes to make way for the fence

"The government should first give us compensation and resettle us elsewhere. Only then will we allow them to construct the fence," says Nanigopal Sarkar of Madhavpur village.

There is acute pressure on land in Tripura thanks to a continuing influx from people from Bangladesh.

This is forcing the state government and the federal border guards to erect the fence as close to the border as possible to save Indian properties.

"How can we allow Indian lands, houses, markets to be outside the fence?" asks Suresh Kumar Dutta, who heads the federal border guards in Tripura.

"At places where Indian properties exist right up to the border, I am afraid Bangladesh will have to accept our fence right up to the zero-line. We just don't have a choice."

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