There are probably more crisp currency notes circulating in the area around the river Bandra in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills than in the Mumbai locality with which the stream shares its name.
But there’s a caveat. Most of the notes in this district bordering Bangladesh are counterfeit.
Purakhasia village is the last outpost of the Border Security Force’s 56th Battalion, one of four battalions guarding the 216-km border that West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills districts share with Bangladesh.
In the hilly areas to its east up to Maheshkhola, the easternmost tip of the Garo Hills, hide militants of the Garo tribe. Its western side, forested but relatively level, up to Mahendraganj and Mankachar in Assam, conceals cadres of the United Liberation Front of Assam, or the outlawed Ulfa.
Fake currency freely circulates on both sides.
The barbed-wire fence on the Bangla border was erected in 1999 in the first phase of the fencing project.
It fulfilled a decades-old demand of the Northeast and was expected to be a formidable barrier against infiltrators, militants, timber smugglers and fake currency dealers.
But at many points the fence has been either snipped or has rusted away, following lack of maintainence, leaving holes.
Nor is the fence continuous. Many areas are disputed and have no fence at all.
The double fencing under phase II “to plug the holes” has begun, but as residents point out, “the damage is done”.
In theory, the fence has been erected 150 yards away from the zero line of the border.
In practice, it was a different matter. “The border bends every 10-15 metres and dense foliage and hillocks between the fence and zero line often restrict visibility even during the day,” said B.K. Jha, commandant of the 56th battalion.
“Things have improved in the past few years,” he conceded though. Infrastructure has been strengthened: the battalion now has 18 border outposts with an average of 25 men at each post to monitor a 3.5-km stretch instead of 6-7 km earlier.
More fake currency dealers are being arrested now than before. For instance, a Bangladeshi, Bilap Sangma, was caught at Purakhasia with Rs 39,500 in fake notes on February 27 last year. In September, a group of five, including three Indians, were caught at Baburambeel.
An Assam resident using the Garo Hills route was caught in Shillong with at least Rs 2 crore in fake money.
But the ones that slip through remain a worry. They sneak into border markets and release the fake money in small quantities. Intelligence officials said the Pakistan’s ISI and Bangladesh’s DGFI use a sizeable population of Garos in Bangladesh as well as Muslims who have relations on this side of the border for the job.
“Jamalpur, Sherpur, Mymensingh and Netrakona districts of Bangladesh adjoining Meghalaya are dotted with fake Indian currency printing units and they are usually purchased at a 50 per cent rebate. The local economy is taking a beating with the fake money in circulation,” said an Intelligence officer.