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No borders for contraband

Thriving along the India-Nepal border are markets that are all about under-the-counter contraband and smuggling. The border guards watch helplessly, reports Sunita Aron.
By Sunita Aron | Hindustan Times, Sunauli
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2008 02:40 PM IST

It’s called Gali No. 2 and could easily pass for an average market selling everything from garlic to garments. But it’s actually a thriving market in contraband coming and going across.

The shops run along a narrow zigzagging lane. And they sell grocery, garments, school bags, stationary and cosmetics. That’s over the counter. But available on demand or home-delivered is a long list of items — motorcycle parts, textiles, sugar, fertiliser, animal skins, rare birds and sandalwood (which goes to China). From Nepal comes Chinese garlic (a banned item), electronic goods, herbals and spices, idols, silk yarn drugs. And Maoist insurgency and continuing internal disturbances have pushed up traffic in arms and ammunition.

An Uttar Pradesh official says, “Most of this is home-delivered on either side.”

This is what the Gali No 2 market is about: under-the-counter contraband and cross-border smuggling. And this is not the only one. There are many such markets thriving along the borders. The Sashastra Sena Bal, which guards the border with Nepal, is helpless.

“I can’t go to the other side and they need to take a few steps to be out of my clutches,” said an officer. Picture him missing the shirt-tails of a grinning carrier as he leapt out of his reach into the no-man’s zone.

Sunauli is the last Indian town in the Uttar Pradesh part of the border with Nepal. There is a narrow stretch of land separating the two countries — called the no-man’s land — and then is the only Hindu Kingdom in the world.

Sunauli is a very small town, with about 3,200 voters and 1,000 shops and roughly 200 PCOs (one for every 16 voters). The population is put at 15,000 — a large number of them being outsiders.

It’s a shifty town of shifty people. Most of those interviewed did not want to be named. A few allowed the use of either the surname or the name, but not the full name.

They know the game well.

Tiwari was one the brave gentlemen. He said, “This town has grown in recent years. Till five years ago we did not have so many godowns for storing material for sale in India or across (45 by last count).”

Sunauli’s recent prosperity has been driven by the illegal trade across this porous border. Sardarji, who runs a general store, said, “We cater to customers from Nepal.”

And just like in all border/frontier towns around the world, currencies of both countries are accepted here. But this over the counter deals and sale are not what is driving this town as is the illegal cross-border trade.

This trade rides on the shoulders of couriers who come in all shape and sizes, and of either gender. Women in burqa is a recent rage, followed closely by children with school bags and the even the physically challenged.

Bahadur is one of them. He is dressed in a flashy T-shirt with a thick gold chain swinging from his neck. He says, “I lost my legs in an accident, I have to earn my bread. I daily make three or -five trips and make 300 to 500 rupees, depending on the consignment.”

By one estimate there is an entire army of them operating along the border. According to a security officer the smugglers even use students to smuggle in fake currency into India, without the child knowing what he is carrying.

This is business and like any business, there is a regulator here. They are called the “smugglers ka don” (the don of smugglers). No prizes of guessing who they are.

The area policemen are on top of he trade. In fact, they actively initiate recruits, offering tips on what to smuggle and where to go for consignment and how much to charge, which is called “fixing the line”.

The couriers are hired for either a fortnight or a month, for anything between Rs 20,000 to Rs 20 lakh. This is determined by the nature and value of the contraband. The police decide the rates.

A bag of ammunition was seized from Shyamkat village on the Indian borders recently from one such courier. Prior to that one AK 47 was found in a truck loaded with coal.

Scrap, by the way, is extremely popular here: stuff can be hidden in a heap, which few security or customs persons will ever check. On the odd occasions they did, they have found Kalashnikovs to 9 mm pistol in them.

They will do anything and everything. They have to innovate everyday. Cameras in hidden box behind the driver’s seat, computer parts and other electronic goods in empty oil tankers. And hashish.

Sunauli is thriving. The porous border gives them their livelihood – they will be ruined if things change here. But they agree the town needs a less dangerous way of making a living.

How about just garlic and garments?

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