A brief story of cattle smuggling in Assam
The major issue is not catching those transporters, but what to do with the seized cattle? If all the cattle are seized, it will need a lot of space and food. There is lack of planning on the part of the government as to what they want to do with the seized cattle.
The holy cow and its economic divinity
With the BJP government coming to power in the Centre reports of harassment to cattle businesses started pouring in. People got killed while transporting cattle from one place to the other. Mostly, it was about cows and the widely condemned gau-rakshaks were blamed for most of the assaults on cattle transporters. Without getting into the communal angle of the cattle (read cow) business we can have a story on what it is and why it survives everything.
Cattle business is the oldest of the businesses and it has survived all odds. In fact here in Assam, it has flourished, as transportation in motorised vehicles has given the traders speed. Sashtras have mentioned that the cow is a divine animal. If you ignore the ritualistic part in Hinduism, the cow is definitely a divine economic animal. All its parts are useful, starting from the milk to the dung, and of course, the gaumutra (urine). Veterinary experts have time and again delivered reports on the usefulness of this animal.
Most of the leather business revolves around this species. You can’t get that many alligators for your purse, you see. The holy cow is everything for a small poor family. It provides for the nourishment through milk and milk products. The dung is used in the farm and has proven to be rich manure for the crops, especially the vegetables. Once it is dead or butchered the meat is used for consumption and the leather is used for making various goods. Even the bone is used in the food processing industry.
There are cows who give milk and there are others who grow old. But what about the bulls and other male members who, due to the rapid mechanisation in farmlands, are losing their jobs – yes ploughing! The good old mere desh ki dharti song where it says bailon ke gale mein jab ghungroo brings back memories of farmlands ploughed with bulls walking to the sound of jingles from the ghungroo. So, we know that those bulls were revered and were like family.
That was about the usefulness. Now, let’s talk about the smuggling (or un-organised trading) where all the stakeholders are making money. We will take the case of Assam where if we go by media reports, the state has turned into one big cattle smuggling haven. Some of it may look true but not much water holds ground. Villagers still rear cattle in their homes in the state and the number of births can be overwhelming. If a calf is born and the farmer already has a power tiller the new-born becomes a potential investment to be sold off later for a neat sum – more the merrier. For a poor villager, a sum of Rs. 8-10K depending on the health and basic stats for a two-year old (only local calf not the Jersey) is a good trade. Cows give birth once a year, some are biennial, rest you can calculate.
The smuggling, rescue operations and the plight of the seized cattle
There have been reports of incidents of cattle smuggling to Bangladesh from Assam. The government looks concerned but the transportation continues under the nose of the administration. BSF looks after the border and it is its duty to ensure that such consignments are seized. We should not forget that Assam’s share of border with Bangladesh is 263 km and 119.1 km of this is riverine.
That’s quite a length of border to look after. Take an example of Karimganj in Assam bordering Sylhet in Bangladesh and sharing a 92 km border, of which around 41 km is riverine.
The smuggling or the transport route can be from as far as Lakhimpur-Dhemaji to Bangladesh. Though the gau-rakshaks tip off the police when they get information, that is just a once in a while thing.
As per a report submitted in the Assam Assembly, cattle seized during 2016, 2017 and 2018 is 5056, 265 and 536 respectively and the number of arrested persons are 240, 170 and 60 respectively.
If you look at these figures it just means that from 2016 the number of seized cattle came down drastically.
According to reports by an intelligence agency the illegal cross-border trade is said to be worth Rs 5,000 crore annually. That’s a lot of money for an un-organised sector. An animal’s price may go up to ten times by the time it reaches the potential buyer in Bangladesh.
The major issue is not catching those transporters, but what to do with the seized cattle. If all the cattle are seized it will need a lot of space and food for it to survive.
The high demand of cattle in neighbouring Bangladesh makes it a lucrative business. It takes a spike especially during the Ramadan month as the demand grows manifold.
A large number of cattle have been recovered, people have been arrested and vehicles seized. But that does not deter the traders to keep going. The whole business is run by entrepreneurs who devise their own business routes and contacts. Police can’t be solely blamed for this trade as they have to maintain law and order and other duties.
The challenge is post-recovery of the illegally-smuggled cattle. The police face a dilemma as to what to do with the cattle as they need a lot of attention. Lack of government-run gaushalas and provision of fodder and veterinarians for the bovines becomes a major concern. There is lack of planning on the part of the government as to what they want to do with the seized cattle.
Not all is stolen and even if the animals have been stolen it would be very difficult to trace the owners as the animal would have changed multiple hands by the time police gets hold of the consignment. So, the police now, apart from policing, have the additional burden to take care of the cattle.
The organised guys
Across the border, transport of cattle is due to the demand of beef and the leather industry in Bangladesh. The usual hawala routes and the normal bribing the consignment process is the practice.
All sorts of tools are used to transfer the cattle to Bangladesh. Tricks innovations, locally made bamboo cranes to fling the animal directly above the high fences, not to mention the tunnels.
Though the trafficking routes are secret the police do sometimes get hold of the smugglers but it’s all dynamic. Sometimes there are fights with the cattle smugglers and even the police are attacked.
We have the All India Livestock Traders and Transporters Association (AILTTA) which has been asking for a high-level probe into the smuggling of livestock from Assam to Bangladesh. Their main worry is that the smuggling is eating into their margins. They have made allegations that some of the illegal traders are working with the police to gain free passage. They also allege that despite having licenses to transport the police harass them at various border checkpoints near Bangladesh.
The cattle smuggling is here to stay because our border arrangement with Bangladesh is not shoot at sight like with Pakistan. So, this business will continue till the whole border is fenced and the river routes are monitored with high-tech surveillance equipment. Though news keeps on coming about latest development on border fencing and state-of-the-art equipment for checking infiltration but then again, our expanding trade with Bangladesh might just legalise the whole cattle business in future.