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Crackdown on cattle smuggling: Boon for Bangladesh, burden for West Bengal

In August this year, a few days ahead of the annual Eid-ul-Adha celebrations, a prominent Bangladeshi newspaper ran a story on how the sudden spurt in the country’s domestic cattle population had reduced livestock shortage over the past few years.

Cattle is mainly used for slaughtering in the country, a practice that rises significantly during Eid, as in several other parts of the world.

The reason for the increase in the count, according to the report, is that after India started cracking down on cross-border cattle trade that had been happening since 2014, farmers in Bangladesh concentrated on their own local breeds, and achieved self-sufficiency over the years.

The report said an estimated 2.4-2.5 million Indian cows used to enter Bangladesh illegally, but there is no official figure on it yet.

The report quoted the latest data compiled by Border Guard Bangladesh, which showed that around 2.3 million cows entered Bangladesh in 2013, while in 2019, only 75,696 cows entered via the corridors till May.

The sharp decrease in the number of illegal cattle entering Bangladesh has pushed up the local cow population in that country, and according to unofficial estimates, Bangladesh had 2.81 million cows in 2018, while in 2019 this number has gone up to 2.88 million.

West Bengal's dilemma

If the curb on illegal cattle trade across the border is pushing up cattle the population in Bangladesh and making it self-sufficient in the process, it has created a problem on the Indian side of the border in West Bengal.

According to the 20th livestock census figures, West Bengal had the highest cattle population among states, at 19 million, followed by UP, MP, Bihar and Maharashtra.

The cattle numbers in West Bengal rose by as much as 15 per cent, from 16.5 million to 19 million between 2012 and 2019.

A major reason for this increase, according to top sources, is the crackdown on cattle smuggling from the West Bengal to Bangladesh. 

India and Bangladesh share a 4,096-km border, of which about 2,216 km is in West Bengal.

The government had set a target of fencing about 1,000 km of the border, mainly in south Bengal, as the remaining stretch is mostly riverine.

According to sources, about 60 per cent of the fencing work is now complete. Despite this, the border remains highly porous.

Historically, cattle smuggling is the mainstay of a large population in the area. This is especially true of the around 250 villages falling in the zero line, which act as the key passage for the smuggling.

According to sources, local villagers get approximately Rs 1,000-1,500 per head of cattle for sheltering them in their houses.

Livestock from other states like Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, is brought to West Bengal for smuggling. 

Various syndicates form a nexus to buy cattle from local butchers and smuggle it to Bangladesh, abetted by corruption.

Interestingly, Bangladesh does not regard cattle smuggling from India as a crime.

In 1993, Bangladesh gave cattle trade a legal status by making it a source of revenue. A cattle smuggler becomes a ‘trader’ once he enters Bangladesh and pays customs charges.

Over the last few years, India's Border Security Force (BSF) has launched an intensive crackdown on smuggling. 

According to BSF data, between 2017 and 2019, the number of animals crossing from West Bengal to Bangladesh has come down from 869,342 to 107,241.

The number of seizures has also come down from 51,443 to 25,613.

BSF bears the brunt 

In the course of these operations, BSF suffered one casualty and injuries to 25 personnel. Many kinships of the cattle trade suffered huge financial losses on account of this crackdown, said sources.

The BSF has substantially increased monitoring and intelligence in border areas, and the number of deployments has gone up as well.

In the past one year, the number of FIRs lodged against illegal cattle trade in West Bengal increased five fold, said sources. BSF also improved fencing, dug border ditches and led joint operations with the police to nab cattle smugglers.

“We are on a mission mode to curb cattle smuggling,” according to a top official at BSF.

However, in the course of this crackdown, BSF faced a peculiar problem. The Force has been left with a large number of cattle in its possession, and the cost of maintaining them is soaring. On an average, close 2,500 cattle a day were found to be added to the BSF stock till about a year back.

The number has come down to about 1,800 in recent months due to the crackdown. 

Earlier, the seized cows used to be auctioned. But since last year, after the department cited a Supreme Court order calling for the discontinuation of auction of seized cattle, the cattle are either given to NGOs or sent to gaushalas.

However, the cost of transportation is high, at about Rs 35,000 for a single truck.

The battle against smuggling is yet to be won, for Assam as emerged as a new route for cattle smuggling, say top sources.

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