As the cow smuggling nexus across the Indo-Bangladesh border breaks down, cow rearing has become a raging business in areas around Dhaka
In 2015 Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that he would not allow cattle smuggling to Bangladesh and the people of that country would have to pay more for their beef. Since the days of that dramatic proclamation our neighbours have not done too badly on that front. They are not only getting their stomachs satiated with beef, but also at a reasonable price. And that too without having to resort to smuggling cattle from an overly sensitive India under a government that worships its holy cows. In fact, the Bangladesh foreign minister grandly said that his country no longer needs cattle from foreign shores as it has become a meat exporter. How did that happen?
Smuggling cows had given the Bangladeshis a bad name in India. Cow propagandists have fed wrong stereotypes about our neighbours, exacerbated by disturbing images of cows being pushed across the border and smugglers getting killed by Border Security Force (BSF) guards’ bullets. In fact, ties between the two countries had come under severe strain due to the optics that go with this clandestine business. Much has changed in recent years.
At its peak 21 lakh cattle heads were smuggled to the neighbouring country through a 4,097-km porous border. As cattle export is banned in India – we don’t sell our cows, buffaloes and bulls – all these cattle were pushed from different parts of the country to this long border as their owners knew the big profit they would make once their animals crossed the border into Bangladesh. The price differential at home and at the border is so significant that as soon as the cow stops producing milk, the farmers use the smugglers’ network to send them to the border. The financial implications of cattle smuggling to Bangladesh vary from an estimated $500 million to $2 billion, but it has far-reaching implications on the economy of the border areas as well as on bilateral ties. Smuggling created a parallel economy around the villages that lay alongside the border. Criminal gangs that acquired expertise to push the cows to the other side, where slaughtering cows was not seen as a criminal act, suffered due to the stringency at the border. Major law and order issues had surfaced, but the vigilance at the border has resulted in a sharp fall in demand for Indian cattle in Bangladesh. “Now we don’t need your cows. You can keep them,” said a Bangladeshi journalist during this writer’s recent visit. “We are rearing and fattening our beef and so we do not need yours.” The same message was conveyed to a group of Indian journalists by the country’s Foreign Minister. “We are now net exporters of meat. We do not need them (Indian cows) anymore.”
The turnaround in this situation, according to Dhaka sources, happened rather quickly. As soon as news went around that the Indian government would not allow smuggling across the border, Bangladeshis saw it as an opportunity. Always looking for ways to make a quick buck, the farmers as well as anyone who had some land began to rear their own cattle. Even the investments that are made from the remittances that are received in Bangladesh have begun to change. “So many people are investing in buying cows and fattening them for Bakr-Eid,” informed a journalist who had also lent money to a friend for raising cattle. During the last Eid the price of beef did not really rise despite the border squeeze. This is despite the fact that the dependence on Indian cattle had come down from a high of 40 percent to barely 10 percent or less. These are 2016 figures and they would be far less this year. Industry sources claim that more and more people around Dhaka have begun to rear their own animals. More people could take to this money-making enterprise if they are not threatened by smuggled animals. Meat industry sources sense a growth in the cow-hide business also. With Indian states, under BJP rule, showing prickliness to skinning of dead animals, Bangladesh could be a major beneficiary of this.
The positive fall-out of this deep reduction in smuggling is that fewer people – most of them used to be those involved in cattle trade – are getting killed at the highly guarded border. In the past, such incidents had fed anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh. “There is less hostility towards India now due to this. In fact, in cricket, Bangladeshis cheer India when it is playing against Pakistan,” claimed an Indian official in Dhaka.