Petrapole/Bongaon: The land port of Petrapole between India and Bangladesh is Asia’s largest, handling Rs 22,000 crore worth of trade annually.
But after the Covid-19 pandemic struck and a nationwide lockdown was imposed on 25 March, the Petrapole integrated check post (ICP) has been shut for the most part, despite there being no orders to this effect by the central government.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has sent repeated orders to the West Bengal government headed by Mamata Banerjee to resume trade through the port, but barring the movement of 15 trucks on 1 and 2 May, nothing else has happened. And the reason is stiff opposition from local villagers, who are afraid that trucks and drivers from other states and Bangladesh will carry the novel coronavirus into their region.
Nearly 2,000 trucks are stranded on the Indian side, and around 100 on the Bangladesh side (Benapole), with goods worth an estimated Rs 1,000-1,500 crore stuck in transit.
Now, after a meeting on 4 June between representatives from both countries’ governments and traders, the district administration has laid down some new procedures for the trade to resume in a restricted fashion.
Centre didn’t ask to close port
The Petrapole ICP accounts for at least 70 per cent of India-Bangladesh land trade. Under normal circumstances, 500-550 trucks cross the border from the Indian side, and about 100-150 come from the Bangladesh side.
According to the Land Port Authority of India website, Petrapole saw Rs 3,978 crore worth of exports and Rs 881.1 crore worth of imports in the first three months of the previous financial year, i.e. April, May and June 2019.
The authority states that Petrapole ICP sees at least Rs 1,000 to 1,200 crore of international trade every month.
However, according to exporters and clearing agents who operate at the port, the lockdown has meant a loss of around Rs 2,000 crore, and the suspension of trade has cost at least 10,000 families in the area their jobs.
About a month into the lockdown, on 24 April, Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla wrote to Bengal’s Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha that all India-Bangladesh border points have been “unilaterally closed by the West Bengal government without official notification”, leading to “over 2,000 trucks bound for Bangladesh” getting stranded at Petrapole border.
Bhalla’s letter added that failure of the Bengal government to restart cross-border trade will amount to violation of central government orders. In the first week of May, the MHA again wrote to the state government, directing it to allow truck movement.
It has been over a month since this order, but the normal movement of trucks is yet to be seen.
The Bengal government allowed partial resumption of movement on 1 May (two trucks) and 2 May (13 trucks), according to the clearing agents. But the trade was stopped again after 50-odd local villagers staged an agitation, alleging that the coronavirus would enter their area through the port.
Rahul Singh, Deputy Director General of Foreign Trade, told ThePrint that there has been no sanction by the central government to stop international trade.
“International trade is part of bilateral ties. The MHA, in multiple letters and orders to the state government, said that international trade cannot be disrupted. In the first week of May, we got some complaints from exporters regarding this, and we forwarded the complaints to the highest authority. We will look into the issue again,” Singh said.
Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha and state Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay had said last month the closure of Petrapole was caused by an “emotive local agitation”, though Bangladesh is friendly nation and discussions would be on.
Text messages sent to the both officials for comments for this report did not elicit a response.
The Petrapole ICP is located around 100 km from Kolkata, in the Bongaon subdivision of the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The nearest village is Jayantipur, under Chhaygharia panchayat.
While the North 24 Parganas district has so far reported 1,035 cases, Jayantipur is still a ‘green zone’ with zero cases. And the villagers want it to remain that way.
So, when movement began at the Petrapole ICP on 1 and 2 May, the villagers protested and demanded that all drivers coming from ‘hot spot’ states and from Bangladesh be quarantined near the port for 14 days. They also demanded that no truck from either side should move beyond the ‘zero point’ — the narrow strip of ‘no man’s land’ between the countries — for unloading. This is despite the fact that the infrastructure for unloading, including warehouses and parking areas, stands beyond the ‘zero point’.
Amit Bose, a villager who led the protests on 1 May and 3 May when trade resumed following the home ministry orders, said they blocked roads to “secure their village” from the infection.
“There is no social distancing among the drivers and exporters. Bangladesh is one of the worst-affected countries. We cannot allow infection to spread to our village from the ICP,” Bose told ThePrint.
“The border road and the approach road for the ICP goes through our village. The market and parking bay remain full with trucks and drivers. How can we control infection this way? So, we had to stop this trade for our safety. Our village is corona-free,” he said.
However, Bose said villagers did not have a problem if trade started at the ‘zero point’ only, and with a separate driver zone.
Prasenjit Ghosh, pradhan of Chhaygharia panchayat and member of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, said: “We protested because the lockdown was on then. Now, lockdown has been eased out with some measures. So, we have placed some conditions before the authorities.”
Ghosh added: “There have to be separate driver zones and the drivers need to give it in writing that they are not carrying the infection. The villagers who work as labourers need to be compensated for these two months.”
Trading at ‘zero point’
Even though the villagers lifted their blockade, the district administration communicated to the ICP authority that international trade may only happen at ‘zero point’.
Speaking to ThePrint, Chaitali Chakrabarti, DM, North 24 Parganas, said: “We did not stop trade there. It is allowed at zero point.” She, however, did not elaborate further.
According to Kartik Chakraborty, secretary of the Petrapole Clearing Agents’ Staff Welfare Association, trade ‘only at zero point’ is not possible.
“The villagers demanded that the drivers be quarantined for 14 days before they move in or out of ICP. This is neither feasible for the drivers nor for the agents. The district administration in a meeting told us that we can continue with operations only on the zero point. Zero point is a small space along the international border between the gates of two countries. An international trade of such a huge scale can’t function at zero point. The trucks need to go inside the ICP for unloading or loading,” Chakraborty said.
He added that his association wrote to all government offices concerned including the offices of the prime minister and the chief minister.
“In our letters, we have mentioned that we would comply with all Covid-19 protocols and take all precautions. The same will also be done by the Bangladeshi unloading agents and they will not come in contact with their Indian counterparts. But truck movements need to be regularised like before corona,” he said.
Jamshed Ali, who owns and drives a truck, said he was stuck on the other side of the border for two months. “My truck was loaded with perishable items. I lost lakhs of rupees. I had to leave my truck at the Bangladesh side and enter India,” Ali said.
“In fact, parts of my truck are now getting stolen, and I cannot even claim insurance. There are hundreds of Indian trucks stranded on the other side now,” he said.
Another driver, Binod Kumar, who drove to Petrapole from Rajasthan, got stranded there on 25 March. “I have cotton loaded in my truck. I ferry these raw materials for the Bangladesh garment industry. I cannot leave my truck here and go, so I have to stay till trade starts,” Kumar said.
On 4 June, a meeting was held between the local administrations on the Indian and Bangladeshi sides, as well as exporters and other stakeholders.
After the meeting, the North 24 Parganas district administration, on 6 June, issued a new standard operating procedure to clear the stranded trucks by 14 June.
According to the new procedure, a pool of around 100 local Indian drivers will be engaged by stakeholders to drive the trucks across the border, up to 500 metres into Bangladeshi territory. Exporters will pay the drivers and provide PPE kits, and trucks will be unloaded on the same day, with the hours of operation being 6 am to 6 pm. The target is to clear 200 trucks between 7 am and 11 am every day.
The drivers from the pool won’t get down or come into contact with any Bangladeshi nationals. They will live inside the ICP area and won’t mix with people from outside it.
“Local gram panchayat assured to extend all sorts of help for facilitation of trade within their respective capacity and jurisdiction,” states the document signed by the sub-divisional officer of Bongaon.
However, the ruling Trinamool Congress still has its reservations about the resumption of trade.
Nirmal Ghosh, the party’s observer in North 24 Parganas, said: “We have to be prudent now. The lives of people are more important than trade and money. Every day, numbers of Covid-positive cases are increasing due to returning migrant labourers’ entry. We cannot put villagers at risk as the Benapole side (the Bangladesh side of the port) is badly affected.
He added: “Trade can happen at zero point, as the district magistrate rightly pointed out, but trucks cannot move beyond. We will discuss and review the situation in a week or 10 days again, depending on the Covid curve.”
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