Each time Anarul Islam goes to work on his land, he has to cross an international border. Before doing that, he has to follow a detailed protocol and security check. He has to deposit ID proof (he carries his Voter’s card), sign in a register and get frisked. Any farming equipment he carries is checked. And he has to also deposit hardcopy photos of any cows accompanying him that day.
“More than two cows are not allowed [at a time],” Anarul says. “While returning, I have to sign again and my documents are returned. If one doesn’t have ID proof, he is not allowed to pass through.”
Anarul Islam – everyone here knows him as Babul – lives with his family in Bagicha village in South West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. Around 443 kilometres of the state’s border runs alongside Bangladesh – of the roughly 4,140 kilometre-long international border between India and Bangladesh, the fifth-longest land border in the world. The Meghalaya stretch is fenced with barbed wire and concrete.
Fencing began around the 1980s – though for centuries migration had been a part of the region’s economy and rural livelihoods. The partition of the subcontinent and later the creation of Bangladesh brought these movements to a halt. As part of an agreement between the two countries, a distance of 150 yards, a sort of ‘buffer zone’, is maintained alongside the fencing.
Anarul Islam, now 47, inherited this legacy. When he was seven years old he dropped out of school to help his father with ploughing. His three brothers also inherited plots of land, which they too cultivate or lease out (and his four sisters are homemakers).
Besides farming, Anarul’s livelihood strategies include intermittent work as a moneylender and a construction labourer. But it’s the land that he is emotionally connected with. “This is my father’s land, I have visited it since I was a child,” he says. “It is special for me. I feel good cultivating it now.”
He owns seven bighas (around 2.5 acres) located right at the border, just beyond the fencing. But the securitisation of the border created hurdles in accessing the ‘buffer zone’ areas, forcing some farmers, over the years, to give up cultivating. Anarul continues because his farm is not far from the border gate and he feels rooted to the land. “My ancestors lived here, what is now the international border,” he says.
His was once an influential family, its branches spread across a large residential area known as ' dafadars bhita ’ (land-owners’ native land). From the 1970s, after the war, a lack of protection against attacks by border-zone robbers, he says, compelled many of them to relocate to other villages or to the outskirts of Mahendraganj – the larger municipality in Zikzak block of which Bagicha, his village of around 600 people, is a part. For many of them, Anarul adds, varying amounts of compensation promised by the government due to the fencing is yet to be paid in full.
The border gate opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. In between these hours, it remains closed. Farmers on their way to work have to register their names with a valid identity proof and signature or thumb impression, and the Border Security Force (BSF) maintains a register recording every entry and exit. “They are strict. No entry without ID proof. If you forget to bring your ID, you have wasted the whole day,” Anarul says.
He carries along food to work, “rice or roti, dal, sabji , fish, beef…” He puts everything together in an aluminum pot, covers it with a plate and then ties it with a gamcha , a cotton towel, and takes it along. He collects water from a well near a shrine, a mazar , at the border gate. If the water gets over, he must remain thirsty till 4 p.m. or once again follow the entry-exit protocol, though he says at times the BSF personnel help with this. “If I want to drink water, I have to come all the way, follow the process again and often wait a long time for the gate to be opened,” Anarul says. “Is this possible for a farmer like me?”
The strict 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. timing too creates hurdles. Farmers in Mahendraganj traditionally plough land early in the morning, before sunrise. “After having fermented rice or leftovers of dinner, we start work in our land at around 4 a.m. and before the sun gets brighter we finish our work. But here it opens only at 8 a.m. and I work in strong sunlight. This affects my health,” Anarul says.
He follows the security protocols throughout the year. The BSF frisk everything before entry is granted. Mobile phones are not allowed. He has to deposit his at the gate and take it back on return. Each agricultural instrument and all other carry-ons are thoroughly checked. Tractors are allowed, as are power-tillers, and Anarul sometimes hires these for the day, but they could be stopped if a higher official is visiting the border. At times, cows are stopped too, and Anarul says it then becomes difficult to keep them somewhere for the day and work on his land. He sold his three cows last year, and has given a cow and a calf out on lease, so if necessary he now hires a cow to take across with him to his farmland.
Seeds are checked too at the border gate, and seeds of jute and sugarcane are not allowed – anything that grows more than three-feet high is not allowed so that visibility is not obstructed.
So Anarul cultivates pulses in winter, paddy in the rains, and fruits and vegetables like papaya, radish, brinjal, chilli, gourd, drumstick and green leafy vegetables throughout the year. During the paddy season, July to November, Anarul occasionally leases out some of his land and the rest of the time he cultivates it himself.
Carrying back this produce is another challenge – the paddy harvest across some weeks can be about 25 quintals, the potatoes another 25-30 quintals. “I carry this on my head and it takes 2-5 rounds,” Anarul says. He first brings the produce to the gate and then hauls it to the other side and then again takes it near the roadside and waits for local transportation to bring it home or to the Mahendraganj market.
At times, fights break out when cattle stray across the border, or straw stacked in heaps is stolen. Sometimes, there are skirmishes over the demarcation of the borderline. “Around 10 years ago, I was working in my land when a big fight took place between me and some Bangladeshis when I tried to flatten a small raised area in my plot,” Anarul says. “Personnel of the Border Guard of Bangladesh reached immediately and asked me to stop digging, saying that the land belongs to Bangladesh.” Anarul complained to the Indian BSF. Locals say that several rounds of ‘flag meetings’ and arguments between the security forces of India and Bangladesh finally fixed the borderline with a bamboo. The bamboo soon vanished. Anarul says he lost about two bighas , and recovery of that land is still pending. So of the seven bighas he inherited, he cultivates only five.
Though Indian and Bangladeshi farmers work together in fields only a few metres away, separated by the border, Anarul says, “I avoid talking to them because the security forces don’t like it. Any suspicion may affect my access to the land. My interaction is limited. I pretend silence even if they ask questions.”
‘Thieves steal my vegetables. But I have no complaints,” he alleges. “They don’t have imaan [integrity], but I have Allah’s blessings.” The border areas are infamous for cattle smuggling and residents of Mahendraganj say drug smuggling too has increased. A young man, 28 years old, who Anarul loaned Rs. 70,000 to in 2018, hoping for Rs. 20,000 extra as interest, died soon after due to drugs. The people here say these ‘tablets’ were smuggled from across the border. “It’s easy to get drugs,” Anarul says. “One just needs to throw it from the other side of the fencing. If you are good at throwing, you can transfer drugs easily.” Anarul, worried about the pending loan, spoke to the young man’s family, who eventually agreed to pay Rs. 50,000.
Of his moneylending work, he adds, “I was not able to maintain my big family. So whenever I have some money, I loan it to others on interest. I need money. That’s why."
The fencing has also created barriers for irrigation and drainage. Anarul’s rain-fed land gets flooded if there is heavy rain in July-August, and there is no way to drain out the water. Keeping a pump in the plot is impossible due to the strict rules and fear of thieves. And it’s a heavy machine difficult to move in and out every day. Bigger machines like JCBs are not allowed to enter to flatten the land. So he waits till the water drains out, over a day or two, and during the heavy floods it can take even two weeks. This damages his crops, and it's a loss Anarul has to shoulder.
Employing agricultural labourers is also a big barrier, since Anarul can only employ those who have valid ID proof. He says it also becomes difficult to manage drinking water for everyone, and there is no big tree on the land for resting in its shade. “Labourers find these rules difficult to follow,” he says, and they hesitate once he mentions the location of his land. This compels Anarul to work alone, though sometimes he takes along his wife or a family member for help.
But for women, there are additional problems in the border farmlands, such as access to toilets. Babies are not allowed to be carried into the buffer zone, and women labourers who he might hire, he says, sometimes arrive with kids.
In his third job – working at construction sites – Anarul says he manages to earn a steady income. Various public and private development projects in the area provide regular construction work, usually within a 15-20 kilometres radius. At times, he goes to Tura, a town roughly 80 kilometres away. (This though has stopped during the last year of lockdowns and Covid-19). Around three years ago, Anarul says he managed to earn Rs. 3 lakhs and bought a secondhand motorbike and gold for his daughter’s weddings. Usually though, he earns Rs. 700 a day, and manages to make around Rs. 1 lakh a year from construction labour. “It gives me instant income while to earn from my paddy field I have wait at least three months,” he explains.
Anarul accords a lot of importance of education. His elder brother is a former school teacher. His 15-year-old daughter Shobha Begum is in Class 8, his son Saddam Islam, 11, studies in in Class 4, and six-year-old Seema Begum is in Class 3. His three older daughters, ages ranging from 21 to 25, are married. Anarul has two wives, Gipsila T. Sangma and Jakida Begum, both around 40 years old.
He says he wanted his older daughters to study till graduation, but “cinema, TV, mobile phones influenced them and they fell in love and got married. My children are not ambitious and that hurts me. They don’t work or study hard. But I believe in luck and hope they will bring good luck in their lives.”
In 2020, Anarul was planning to try his luck in the cashew nut business, but the BSF announced that the border gate will remain closed to contain Covid and farmers won’t be allowed to go to their land. So Anarul says he lost some of his produce. He did however manage to make a profit on betel nut seedlings.
Last year, the border gate was completely closed till April 29, after which the farmers were allowed across to work for 3-4 hours, until the timings eventually returned to the regular hours.
Over the years, Anarul has made friends with a few BSF personnel. “Sometimes I feel bad for them,” he says. “They live far away from their family and have come here to guard us.” At times he has invited them home for meals during Eid festivities, or on occasion he says he carries rice and meat gravy for them. And sometimes they too offer him tea on his way across either side of the border.
The reporter’s family is from Mahendraganj.