The troopers of the Border Security Force (BSF) were on a regular patrol on 27 October along the Simsang river, in the district headquarters of the South Garo Hills of Meghalaya bordering Bangladesh, when they noticed several bamboo rafts laden with sacks of coal being steered on the river. In a moment, they rushed on their speedboats to seize the rafts.
Ever since the courts banned coal mining in the state, the infamous coal mafia of Meghalaya has found a new way to smuggle coal to Bangladesh by using the Simsang river. Simsang is the longest river that flows through the Garo Hills and runs into Netrakona in Bangladesh.
In October alone, more than 50 tonnes of coal were seized by the BSF, raising alarm bells for a new challenge along the infamous Indo-Bangladesh border in the Garo Hills, which is already a haven for small arms smugglers and insurgents.
“We intercepted seven such consignments in October and shared the input with other security agencies since this area is also insurgency prone. This is a new trend that has gained traction among the coal mafia in the past few months. Smugglers tie bags of coal beneath bamboo rafts. This way, they do not involve too many people. At times, only one person can bring the raft to the border,” says a senior BSF official posted at the border.
“Whenever, we spot them from the river bank, our boys rush on their speedboats. Often they manage to escape, taking advantage of the terrain across Simsang,” he adds.
The BSF’s speedboats can’t move in shallow waters, making life easier for the local mafia who are now turning into cross-border smugglers.
Early this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) upheld its ban on coal mining in Meghalaya, but relaxed the guidelines for the transportation of extracted coal. The green tribunal had earlier banned the rampant illegal coal mining in the state. Most mines were rathole mines and had employed minors and migrants.
The mafia in the region prefers using the Simsang river as their smuggling route during the night. Until now, they used the river to smuggle timber cut from the thick forests in the South Garo Hills. But the recent spurt in coal smuggling has serious implications than what meets the eye.
At a border checkpost along the riverine route, the BSF has been confiscating huge consignments of timber and, most recently, coal. The river is kept under hawk eyes round the clock.
On 4 October, 2,260 medium-sized bamboo logs were seized by BSF on the Simsang. On 7 October, 50 logs of salwood were seized. The next day, 87 tonnes of coal and 500 medium-sized bamboo logs were seized.
The count does not stop here. Three days later, on 11 October, 16 tonnes of coal and 1,400 medium-sized bamboo logs were seized again.
On 17 October, the BSF got hold of 10 tonnes of coal and 292 medium-sized bamboo logs at the Baghmara outpost along the river. Three days later on 20 October, 24 tonnes of coal and 2,420 medium-sized bamboo logs were seized. And then, on October 27, came the big catch — seven bamboo rafts laden with coal.
“The NGT ban has only put restriction on further extraction of coal. The already extracted coal needs to be sold and Bangladesh is a good market. The cross-border coal mafia is exploring new ways to smuggle this coal from Meghalaya to Bangladesh. If they succeed, they might get involved in smuggling other things. People have lost their livelihood in the region due to the mining ban; smuggling might crop up as an alternative,” says a coal mine owner in Garo hill, who does not wanted to be named.
The stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border in the Garo Hills is still porous. In the past, insurgents have used this route to smuggle arms into India. The use of the waterway can add to the menace.
“It is a new route being used by the smugglers. The BSF has intercepted coal and other natural resources, which were being smuggled out, the fear of the worst is always there,” says Lakador Syiem, superintendent of police, South Garo Hills.
It is high time that the Meghalaya government clamps down on the coal mafia and the smuggling.