The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, December 31, 2012

Peace revives regional trade hopes for remote border village

Bilateral co-operation and improved security conditions bring hope of revival to a once-thriving village on the Indo-Bangladesh border where insurgencies once brought economic life to a halt.

By Sahana Ghosh for Khabar South Asia in Dawki, India

December 14, 2012

Nestled among the Jaintia hills in northeastern India, the picturesque village of Dawki, Meghalaya was once a thriving trade centre along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

In this 2001 file photo, Indian Border Security Force troops guard the Indo-Bangladesh border near Dawki, in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Over 30 years of insurgencies in the area brought local trade to a halt, but now it is beginning to recover. [Utpal Baruah/AFP]


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"Villagers on either side traded food and clothing as well as fruits, vegetables and spices in itinerant village haats (bazaars)," local resident Ganjam Mara, 75, told Khabar South Asia. But security problems in the region for nearly 30 years– insurgencies waged by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Garo National Front (GNF), and the response from Indian authorities– choked off trade beneficial to local people.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma reminisced about border markets at Dawki, where in his childhood he bought jackfruit, spices and mangoes from Bangladesh.

"The shutting down of the Dawki markets has affected the livelihood of the farming communities on both sides of the border," Sangma told Khabar.

Now that the insurgencies are on the wane due to stepped-up security measures and declining support for the separatists, efforts are underway to revive it.

"There are now no problems of insurgency in the area," Mara told Khabar. "Earlier, there used to be some infiltration, but checkposts are quite strict now."

Accessing new markets

The waning of the insurgencies is not the only reason Dawki -- located 83km from the state capital of Shillong-- has new hopes for the future. Increased co-operation between India and Bangladesh also improved trade prospects for the border area.

Under a bilateral extradition treaty in the works, both sides agree not to harbour insurgents who conduct attacks and then escape across the border. Deals on water sharing and improved border delineation are also pending.

Geography dictates Meghalaya looks to Bangladesh for trade, since the land route from the remote northeastern state to the rest of India cuts through rough terrain. Area business leaders clamour for the restoration of trade routes with Bangladesh.

"Exports to Bangladesh, if infrastructure is improved, could be beneficial for the local economy," said Meghalaya International Exporters Chamber of Commerce Secretary Dolly Khonglah.

"Bangladesh has allowed India and Bhutan to use the Chittagong port, which is about 7 hours' drive from Dawki," Sangma added. "This will boost trade not only with Bangladesh but also with other countries. Our state does not have port connectivity otherwise." Meanwhile, the state government is taking concrete measures to revive the border haats, opening one as a test case at Kalaichar in the west Garo Hills last year.

Urgent infrastructure needs

Still, authorities say any meaningful turnaround of Dawki is not possible without improving the roads and bridges that connect it to the rest of Meghalaya. One narrow suspension bridge built in 1932 near the checkpost at Dawki is in dire need of complete overhaul. National Highway 40 from Shillong is patchy and almost impassable.

"The government blames truckers carrying loads beyond the mandatory 9 tonnes for damaging the roads in the sensitive geographical area," said Khonglah, the chamber leader.

Restoring the route would add to the coffers of both nations. Its inaccessibility means customs regulations are loosely implemented in Dawki— leading to illegal trading.

"There is no weighbridge at the checkpost, which induces the illegal coal and limestone exports, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in foreign exchange for the country," said Helpme Mohrmen, an environmental activist in Shillong.

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