OPINION

India and Bangladesh: Aam Border for the Aam Aadmi

June 05, 2007
Shantanu Dutta

Those of us who bemoan long immigration queues at Delhi or Mumbai airports should try out the experience of a land border crossing and savor the experience. I would recommend the Changrabandha- Burimari land port on the Cooch-Behar - Lalmonirhat sector of the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Most of those who use this border are from the lower socio-economic class though a few wealthy Bangladeshi people on their way for a vacation to Nepal or Darjeeling. The Siliguri - Dhaka bus uses this route and some people use that bus. Most use the run down buses from Siliguri, cross the border on foot and then resume their journey in the some what better maintained Bangladesh buses.

A few arrive by air from Bagdogra and then change into a taxi at the airport and then trundle into the border village. And there the fun starts.

The first official point that one encounters at Changrabandha, the Indian side of the border, is the customs outpost. Except that you have to first go through immigration. And the immigration at the Changrabndha border is a preview of hell.

The immigration operates from a thatched hut tucked away in a corner. The staff has out grown the hut and currently half of them operate from the open air outside the shack. Without any fans and electricity, in the stifling 40 degrees heat, with crowds milling every where, luggage piled up in every available vacant space, the place is the very definition of chaos and yet things happen.

The West Bengal Police, who man the counter, collect a bunch of passports at a time. As the passport disappears into one cavernous hole, one is forced to keep two eyes and one ear open. One eye on the passport in case you can distinguish it from among a mass of others, another eye on your luggage and an ear open for when the immigration clerk will call out your name.

Once in a while, a white man walks in and the crowd parts like the Red Sea once did for Moses. The pecking order for immigration seems to be European and US passports, then Indian passports and at the bottom of the pole are those with the Bangladeshi passports.

The immigration officer's cross examination is cursory. I am asked my profession and when I say doctor, he says that his mother in law has high blood pressure and what would I advise. I suggest a salt restricted diet and he looks happy and waves me on to the counter where the passport would be stamped. Most of the work here seems to be done here by unemployed local youth who act as facilitators for many of the travelers who are illiterate, helping them fill the immigration forms.

The official staff is there to sign and stamp and with their outsize stamps, they take up a lot of space on the passport. How the immigration department functions without any fans, forget air conditioning and how they might be functioning in the monsoon is anyone's guess. The immigration process is all manual, so there are heaps of ledgers and notebooks and rubber stamps all around, plenty of stuff to take care of in case of a sudden down pour.

After immigration is the customs and they have their own outsized stamp. The customs operate out of a room which is a little airy and it has a fan. A local boy informs that they don't have an official connection either but they have made 'arrangements' with the local electricity board and pay their bills with the 'offerings' that come their way. Again the customs stance seems to be tougher on the Bangladeshis than on the Indians.

Finally, there is the Border Security Force, the land border's version of the airport's CISF. No X Ray machines or scanners here of course, so everything is searched physically. The earthy hands of the BSF jawan will string out your underwear, toiletries and any other thing that you might be carrying looking for contraband or bombs or grenades or what not.

Some where in this process, you have to change your money and you have to make your way to the money changers. No Thomas Cook or Amex here, just tin roofed shacks with bespectacled munshi type characters wearing soiled vests with holes in them for exchange rates that are all their own. They may be sitting in the one horse village of Changrabandha but they deal not just with Bangladesh currency but with Dollars, Pounds and Euros and their exchange rates are all put up with a stick of chalk on a faded black board.

Finally, after dealing with immigration, customs, BSF and the money changer, you cross the border on foot. No luggage trolleys here , so you put the luggage on your head and cross the no man's land or get some help from the Bangladeshi coolies, who somehow have the permission to come to the edge of the no man's land , pick up the luggage and carry it into Bangladesh.

And once you are in Bangladesh, drenched in sweat by the nearly hourlong dealings with one set of officials, you wipe your brow and begin again with another set of officials - this time, the Bangladesh set.

A memorable border crossing indeed: an Aam border for the Aam Aadmi!

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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#1
Ferdous Khan
June 6, 2007
05:13 AM

Dear Dr Shantanu,

Wonderfully portrayed the realities, what is so simple has been made so difficult. May be just to salt the wound so that it never heals. May be someday we all will realize where we could be rather than where we are.

Reagrds
Ferdous

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