Mohammed Yunus won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for using micro-credit to transform Bangladesh’s rural economy, but one of his services is posing a threat to India’s security. Militants in the Northeast are extensively using Yunus’s GrameenPhone (GP), making a mockery of the union home ministry’s restrictions in the border districts.
Yunus and Iqbal Qadir launched GP in 1997 as an offshoot of his famous Grameen Bank, to provide communications to rural Bangladesh and help the Bank’s clients, mostly women, to use the mobiles as payphones. GP is now Bangladesh’s largest cellular service provider with 9.5 million subscribers. It also has a number of unofficial subscribers in Northeast India, along the border.
The home ministry had restricted cellphones along the border to prevent misuse by cross-border militants. So BSNL and other Indian service providers have not been able to expand operations here. But due to a number of base stations in Bangladesh close to the border, that reach deep inside Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, GP is now servicing militants, smugglers and exporters.
“Militants find it easy to get pre-paid SIM cards and recharge coupons from Bangladesh,” says a senior Border Security Force officer in Assam’s Cachar sector. “It is of grave concern that militants can talk through GP without the fear of being intercepted by our intelligence agencies.”
This misuse came to light a few weeks back when militants of Manipur’s outlawed United Liberation Front were caught in Shillong with Bangladeshi SIM cards. Two coal exporters were penalised for using GP SIMs that they said were “gifted” by their business associates in Bangladesh “to eliminate expenses on international calls”.
ID Shura, additional deputy commissioner of Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills, admits GP’s popularity in his area has complicated matters. “Indian cellular service could have translated into better policing and improved communication in our geographically challenging border areas,” he says.
Local BSNL bosses admit to the problem. “But we cannot restrict it,” says AK Gupta, chief general manager of BSNL’s Northeast circle.