The problem of cattle smuggling along the Indo-Bangla border has assumed distressing proportions -- with 50 per cent of the firing incidents and 65 per cent of reported assault cases against BSF personnel in the last six months being termed as "cattle-related".
Intelligence reports are indicative of an even more worrying trend: Diversion of manpower for "handling cattle" at Border Out Posts (BOPs) has compromised operational functions of the border force.
The problem is huge. An estimated 50 per cent of the total value of seizure of smuggled goods on the Indian side is related to cattle smuggling. Annually, an estimated one million cattle find their way into Bangladesh, while the yearly value of livestock smuggling is assessed at an astounding Rs 2,250-3000 crore.
Indications also are that more than 150 firing incidents between the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in the last one year have been "cattle-related".
The Indian delegation at the last round of official level talks with Bangladesh earlier this year had conveyed its concerns about the "encouragement" by Bangladesh authorities to cattle smuggling activities. A number of checkpoints referred to as cattle corridors have been established by Bangladesh, officials say.
Sources in the Bangladesh High Commission contested these claims and asserted that such claims were "completely untrue", while conceding that the subject of contraband trade along the long borders had been a subject matter for discussions at several bilateral talks.
Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights believes that the "money-spinning" business powered by the ever-expanding network of "cattle syndicates" having a presence in at least 12 Indian states, has continued to rapidly thrive along the eastern frontiers. The issue has emerged as the most distressing factor in recent months, he added.
Official calculations are that the price of one cattle - costing between Rs 500-3,000 at the source level in India - increases to Rs 5,000-10,000 after reaching the "cattle haats" at the borders.
Rates do another quantum jump (Rs 15,000-20,000) after reaching Bangladesh. Conservative figures are that this illegal trade commences as an Rs 450 crore business at source, climbing up to Rs 1,500 crore at the haat points and shooting up to Rs 3,000 crore after reaching Bangladesh.
Unless recommendations of the committees set up in the post-Kargil phase are truly implemented and border management issues are effectively tackled, unlawful activities such as cattle smuggling will continue to flourish, said Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) executive council member Lt Gen BS Malik (Retd).
These 'cattle corridors' account for about 70 per cent of the inflow - with the Bangladesh customs levying a charge of Taka 500 for allowing the passage of one cattle. Given that 10.5 lakh cattle pass through these corridors, the Bangladesh Government is generates annual revenues totalling Rs 52.5 crore, according to estimates.
Cattle apprehended and auctioned off at locations close to the BOPs are generally re-purchased by the cattle syndicates - which operate as a cartel. Therefore, not only is the cattle re-purchased at cheap rates, the smugglers also make good use of the custom receipt to re-circulate the cattle.
Officials said a mechanism for preventing the illegal trade is being worked out by the task force - which has solicited inputs from affected states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Cattle brought from these states are made to converge at the 100-odd cattle haats that are functional in India along the Bangladesh border. Areas including Murshidabad, 24-Paraganas, Malda, South Dinajpur and Nadia in West Bengal are identified as the "most-prone" districts.
The task force has been attempting to fine-tune some suggestions for tackling the problem - including recommendations for the creation of infrastructure for keeping the cattle.
It is also likely to suggest that cattle auction sites should be located at places that are at some distance from the international border.