The four Border Haats (markets), set up in Meghalaya and Tripura in 2011, 2012 and 2015 and six more - four in Meghalaya and two in Tripura -- have been approved by the governments of India and Bangladesh to promote the local business and livelihood of the people living along both the sides of the frontiers.
However, these Border Haats have remained closed since March last year as precautionary measures against the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown, causing immense loss to the people living bordering villages.
Western Tripura's Sepahijala District Additional District Magistrate Subhasis Bandopadhay while talking to IANS said that as the Covid induced situation was largely tamed in India and Bangladesh, both the countries are keen to reopen these bordering markets.
Jaipur-based think-tank and international NGO -- CUTS International, which have done several studies on the border trade and Border Haats had suggested to the Indian government to restart these local markets maintaining necessary precautions against Covid-19, including social distancing as these markets boost the economy, fortify ties among the people of the two neighbours and also check illegal trades.
CUTS International Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that during a virtual discussion on Thursday evening, experts, economists, industry body officials and traders have suggested that the India-Bangladesh "Border Haats" should feed into the larger picture of border areas development.
Industry body FICCI's North-East Advisory Council Director Biswajit Chakrabarty said that there should be consolidated efforts in enhancing the existing value chains.
"The betel nut trade is an excellent example in this regard. Similarly, Bangladesh may explore possibilities of importing raw materials from Assam across the border for its thriving plastic industry instead of getting them from far Middle East. Micro and small enterprises will play a critical role in bringing about economic integration through multiple collaborations and innovation."
Chakrabarty emphasised on the fact that 'Border Haats' could be developed as common contact points for business interaction and networking allowing people on both sides of the border.
Sreeradha Dutta, Centre Head and Senior Fellow of the Delhi based 'Vivekananda International Foundation', said that the larger infrastructure projects and interventions along the border areas connecting mainland India with the South Asian economies with northeast India as the gateway would yield further results if the Border Haats can be seen as platforms beyond a mere trade escalation mechanism.
She also stressed on gender dimensions of the Border Haats as they could empower the women in the border communities to engage in the trade thereby earning a livelihood.
Bangladesh's leading multi-task NGO 'Unnayan Shamannay' and the CUTS International jointly organised the virtual discussion titled 'Border Haats: An Opportunity to Strengthen Cross-border Value Chains between India and Bangladesh'.
Nazneen Ahmed, Senior Research Fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, while participating in the talks from Dhaka, said: "It is an imperative that we think about the scalability and innovations to promote border economic zone." "Further development of information and communication technology facilities will be a welcome step to escalate the Border Haats in the e-commerce platform. Apart from skill training, creation of a robust supply chain of products traded across the border and creating appropriate marketing strategies are equally important," she said.
Bangladesh-based agro-industry expert Sudhir Chandra Nath has said that Border Haats can provide a platform where farmers from both countries can exchange their technology, idea, knowledge and their surplus production of agricultural and horticultural products.
"Border Haats should be defined as platforms for diversification of livelihood options and provision for alternative earning opportunities. In addition to enhancing the bilateral trade between countries, it promotes rural entrepreneurship and private sector participation is crucial to the entire context," he observed.
Former Additional Secretary of Bangladesh Commerce Ministry Monoj Roy while deliberating from Dhaka on the theme pointed out that the importance of skill development through vocational training at the community level for their more active involvement in cross-border economic exchange.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Senior Fellow of Delhi based Observer Research Foundation, touched upon an important point that stakeholders from both sides of the border should to take into account their respective strength and contribute towards the regional development goals. Health and education are two prominent areas where we must concentrate.
"The Border Haats can also be developed as processing zones by demand-supply mapping on both sides and facilitating access to technology and credit," she added.
Coordinating the virtual talks, CUTS International Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that it must realise that the India-Bangladesh border regions are situated in furthest corners of the country and are deprived of access to basic infrastructure and economic activities.
He said, therefore, the role of the governments should mainly be ensuring optimum number of regulations in place for last mile impact and a dynamic policy regime that would facilitate development of the border regions.
Chatterjee told IANS over phone that the discussions focused on how the Border Haats can be leveraged for a better seed exchange regime between India and Bangladesh.
"It was emphasised that exchange of seeds should be complemented with exchange of information and technology through the Border Haats, as each crop has its own science of growth. We must have champions for border areas development in our national as well as state capitals on both sides of the border, for presenting the ground realities, challenges and at the same time advocating for the Border Haats as an important tool to facilitate access to opportunities," he added.
According to the government's records, before the coronavirus-triggered lockdown period, on an average, each Border Haats registered an annual business of Rs 3 crore. On the weekly market day, on an average, at least 25 vendors including women from both sides of the borders from the two countries participate at Border Haats and sell their various produces comprising agricultural, cottage and small enterprises and domestic products.
India's Industries and Commerce Ministry has been spending an average Rs 3.5 crore to develop the infrastructure and necessary facilities for each "Border Haat" in 5,625 sq. metre areas of two countries' territories or 'no-man's land'.
The four northeastern states of Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam share a 1,880-km long border with Bangladesh.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)