Reports have it that at the recently held Bangladesh-India Commerce Secretary level talks in Dhaka, both sides agreed to set up more border haats along the common borders of the two countries with India broaching the proposal. A commerce ministry press release further said that the meeting decided to expedite the procedure of setting up six more border haats within the next six months in addition to the existing four.
There are few things that must not be lost sight of in deciding about border haats. No doubt an innovative idea to boost trade in border areas as well as curb smuggling, success of border haats is heavily reliant on how these are managed and the locations chosen. The latter is more important because it must be looked into whether the locations have the potential of surplus products for marketing, keeping in view their demand on the other side of the border. From what has transpired over the years, there has not been enough homework on this by the Bangladeshi decision makers. It is evident from the fact that products brought for sale in the border haats by Indian traders far outweigh those from the Bangladesh side-in both variety and volume.
Since the launching of the first border haat on the Bangladesh-India zero line in July, 2011, the Indian side is clearly more enthused, as demands keep pouring in for more such makeshift marketplaces. For quite sometime, India has been pressing for these haats in various locations around some of its northeastern states to find easily accessible avenues for marketing locally produced products of those regions, cut off by long distances from marketing hubs within the country. The same might hold good in case of Bangladesh as well, but in the absence of fact-finding surveys, the impact of setting up border haats remains largely a matter of speculation. Clearly, the decision on border haats should have been weighed in no other terms but quantifiable economic gains.
The first border haat was jointly launched at Kalairchar in Kurigram and West Garo Hill district in Meghalaya on July 23, 2011. The intent was clear enough: to open up new economic opportunities and thus improve the livelihood of the people in adjoining locations. Besides, launching of the haat was deemed as a step to revive border trade with India that remained snapped since Bangladesh's liberation war.
Later in the same year, at India's insistence another haat was launched at Lauwaghar (Dalora) in Sunamganj and Balat in East Khasia Hills district. The pressure has been on for more, and it has been learnt that border haats have emerged as a predominant item on Indian agenda in recent bilateral meetings between the two countries.
A couple of years back, India proposed for 27 new border haats across the 443 kilometre-long Bangladesh-Meghalaya borders. At an inter-ministerial meeting some time ago, Bangladesh reportedly did not approve of setting up 23 haats proposed by India, and agreed on proposals for the remaining 4 haats. The places are along the borders of East Khasia Hills, South West Khasia Hills and South Garo Hills of Meghalaya in India. On the Bangladesh side, these are located in the districts of Sylhet, Sunamganj and Mymensingh. The meeting rejected the proposal for 23 border haats on grounds of less than adequate business potential and inadequate infrastructure. The meeting also found it not viable to set up any haat along the Mizoram border due to the absence of proper communication and fewer numbers of people to benefit from business and economic activities.
An overview on how the border hats are being run gives the impression that with time there is the need to cope with emerging necessities in terms of managing the haats as well as catering to the purposes these are meant for. The border haats are located in no-man's-land (zero line) between the borders. It is a once-a-week event. Goods carried by vendors from within 5 kilometres of the haat on both sides are kept under sheds. Transaction takes place in both Indian rupee and Bangladeshi taka. Agencies responsible for managing the haats include the border forces on both sides, police, customs, local administration and union-level local government agencies. According to the agreement on border haats, commodities that can be traded include locally produced vegetables, food items, fruits, spices, bamboo-made products and products of local cottage industries such as gamcha, lungi, dao, plough, axe, spade and chisel, garments, melamine products, processed food items and fruit juice. Ideally, the products should vary depending on the locations where the haats are situated. However, it is still not known whether the tradable goods are identified as and when newer haats are launched.
Expected benefits from border haats should, among others, include lower price of products due to lower transaction costs, higher availability of daily necessities, small-time trading opportunity for villagers around the area, income from support services like transport, labour, food stalls etc, and last but not least formalising informal trade.
There are complaints of mismanagement arising not only from lack of adequate facilities but curiously from attempts to regulate the operations beyond agreed norms. Despite projections that bilateral trade worth $ 20 million would take place annually from border haats, the picture till now does not promise such a prospect in the near future. One of the reasons found responsible for the haats not gaining momentum is the alleged restriction by the Indian authorities on some permissible products such as clothes, plastic and melamine ware to be traded by Bangladeshi vendors in the Concerned quarters hold that in order for the haats to become a source of income for people along the border belts, steps need to be taken to facilitate trading as per the agreed terms. Increasing the days of operation, bigger areas with more sheds, hassle-free movement of vendors from both sides could also be important issues to examine. Review of the list of products depending on the varying locations is another issue to be addressed with authentic feedback from the field.