Five years ago, fed up with his father's habit of taking loans, Hasan asked him to close down his tea shop. "Instead of generating any money, the shop had become the cause, for which my father was continuously borrowing money," says Hasan.
The father did not hesitate to burden his then nine year old son with this mammoth responsibility, who was just too happy to shoulder it.
Hasan chose a work, which though dangerous, ensured good returns – carrying various goods across the India-Bangladesh border, illegally. He earns a minimum of Rs 6000 per month, and has been able to repay his father’s loan. He has also managed to buy a television set to watch his favourite game of cricket, and a mobile phone, which helps him stay connected with his friends and the traders for whom he works.
Nonetheless, Hasan lives under constant threat of being caught by the security forces at the border. "I was caught a few times but they let me go after a bit of beating," Hasan smiles, showing the thrashing marks on his body. The torture does not deter the young boy from continuing the job, although he is protective about his younger brother and does not want him to join this "black activity" or 'kala dhandha' - as he calls his work.
Hasan is not alone in working as a "carrier" of goods across the India-Bangladesh border. There are perhaps hundreds of children on both sides, who are involved in this dangerous activity and seem to enjoy it too as it gives them economic freedom at a very young age.
"In Bangladesh it is fun to be a child when you are earning. You can mix up with elders and with cash in hand you can live the life the way you want," says 13 year old Mohd Mamun Hussain, who too started this work to repay a family loan of 80,000 Taka (Rs 48,000)
My recent visit to explore the lives of children living at the border of the two countries was indeed an eye opener. The families living there are poor with very few opportunities for livelihood. Most of them are neck deep in debt. The big traders who are involved in smuggling are always on the lookout for such gullible and needy people to work as 'carriers.' They prefer to employ children, who take this dangerous activity as fun. For them, befooling the security forces is a game and sneaking through the barbed wires is an adventure.
"We always work in groups so as to fool the security forces. A few boys would pretend crossing the border to catch the security forces’ attention, whilst the one actually carrying real goods cross the border from the other side," Ronnie, another boy of same age shares his trade secret.
Ronnie is from Malda in North Bengal and has a similar story to tell. He left school after studying till class five and started this dangerous work. He earns around Rs 10,000 per month and has been able to repay a big chunk of the loan of Rs 90,000 which his father took for his tailoring shop. A chirpy and lively boy, Ronnie loves watching Hindi movies, especially those featuring Govinda, as 'he is funny and makes us laugh.' This innocent explanation is enough to bring tears to our eyes, knowing well that life in reality is full of danger for this boy.
It is not that he does not want to live a normal life. But his options are limited. Despite all odds he dreams big. He wants to learn some trade and then work for some leading industry. "I want to earn enough money to buy a car, which I will run as a taxi," he says with beaming eyes. Ronnie knows how to ride a motorbike and is confident that he will learn to drive a car too. His confidence compelled us to wish him good luck.
Yes, good wishes are what these youngsters need.
Despite their ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, a closer look at these adolescents tells a sad and pathetic story. At times, these children carry 5-50 kg of fertilizers, rice and other grains on their heads. They do not wear shoes for they find running barefoot easier. They have to slither from below the barbed wire fencing, which often gives them deep cuts. Their bruised shoulders and legs bear testimony to the dangers which the boys term as fun. If caught, the border security forces beat them with their batons or crush their tender hands with their heavy boots, before releasing them. Some boys also fall prey to sexual exploitation by the security forces, and are then blackmailed.
Benapole in Bangladesh and Petrapole in India are two places at the border, used commonly for both legal and illegal trade between the two countries. Under the legal trade it is bricks, jaggery, mango juice etc, which comes from Bangladesh to India, and from India it is vegetables, fruit, lentils, rice bran, meat etc, which goes to Bangladesh.
What goes to Bangladesh illegally includes food items like cumin seeds, rice, fertilizers, medicines, and most importantly Phencidryl (a cough syrup), which is used as an alcoholic drink in dry Bangladesh.
These innocent children are victims of circumstances and are living dangerously, being forced to work in a lucrative but illegal business at the behest of their parents in order to make quick bucks.
"Adults use children for these illegal activities. The administration knows about it but cannot take any action against children. No country wants its children to go down the drain, but the real problem is that the education system in Bangladesh is not employment oriented. The children fall into the trap of smuggling because it is lucrative and it fulfills their dreams of becoming rich overnight," admits Sheikh Abdul Hamid, the Managing Director of Social Welfare Department in Bangladesh.
Indrajit, a Panchayat member in Malda says that they are concerned about the children wasting their lives by indulging in these illegal activities. "We raise this issue at various platforms. But the problem is that there are no welfare programmes for these children. People are poor. Instead of sending their children to schools, parents prefer to push their children into this illegal trade."
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India)
Citizen News Service (CNS), India/Thailand
Mangalorean News, Karnataka, India
Elites TV News, California, USA