Just as special or export processing zones catalyse the national economy on its upward climb, border haats similarly spur the rural economy. There is no competition between the two: both play fundamental roles in the economic development of transforming agricultural societies. Between Bangladesh and India, they are stark reminders of a time when there were no walls or warriors to safeguard territories, and the current opportunities they expose to two countries desperately scrambling to banish poverty and the social barriers hindering that goal.
It was of no surprise, then, that Bangladesh and India signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in October 2010 (following Sheikh Hasina's January 2010 agreement on an Indian visit), entitled "Border Trade and Border Haats," permitting local produce to be traded across their 4,096-kilometre boundary without any duty, while people associated with those products could also flow across frontiers freely. This was not a mere drop-from-the-sky outcome: the political condition conducive to such a move were the warm ties between the Awami League and the Congress parties, the even warmer relationships between their leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh, and the successful subsequent passage of both those forms of cordiality to the Awami League-Bharitya Janata Party and Hasina-Narendra Modi.
Four border haats were operationalised: Brahmanbaria and Feni in Comilla, and Kurigram and Sunamganj in Sylhet, corresponding to Kamlasagar and Srinagar in Tripura; while those in Baliamari and Dalora had corresponding stations in Kalaichar and Balat in Meghalaya (set up in 2012). Work on two more began in Maulvibazar's Juri and Kamalganj zones, both corresponding to Tripura locations in India, while four more have been envisaged along India's Meghalayan border, thus totaling 10 in the first six years. At a cost of about Tk 25 million (2.5 crore), each haat generates a localised economy far larger.
One does not have to be an economist to perceive expected benefits. Producers will see the widening market fuelling greater production, more cash inflows, increasing diversity in consumption, and a cross-border camaraderie that has only fluctuated since Bangladesh's independence (yet did not exist between 1947 and 1971), in turn, enhancing market constraints.
One does not have to be a politician either to envision those advantages. No producer would have to travel to or telephone a central governmental official for permission or clarification, not even to a district government's office, since the border haats would have their local control-system rules, mostly embedded in the actual transaction. That producer would not have to have knowledge of business cycles and could remain oblivious of the country being in a growth-mode or recession, since it will be his capacity to independently (a) produce, (b) market, and (c) spend from the income.
These are precisely the features setting special or export processing zones from the national economy: gated economic communities producing for exports, inviting foreign investors and technological upgrades, and building a niche under more controlled circumstances than in the free-for-all national economy, but not at all being divorced from the national economy. The macroeconomic SEZ and EPZ contributions can easily be rivalled at the most microeconomic level by border haats: they are part of the small- and medium-sized, oftentimes family-owned, enterprises that, like metropolitan bazaars, have served as the heart of Bangladeshi and Indian economies. Even countries dominating the Fortune 500, such as the United States, have also been crying out loud to restore their own economically-activated heart through small- and medium-sized business ventures. These belong to the silent army that works over-time to restore normalcy in the event of a recession or depression, and the unspoken heroes of any growth.
Mao Zedong made much ado of letting "a thousand flowers bloom" to advance the communist cause; but capitalism can also beckon its own thousand blooming flowers in these local-level units. For Bangladesh and India, with a 160 million-odd market of people in the former, 96m in West Bengal, 32m in Assam, 3.5m in Tripura, 3m in Meghalaya, and 1m in Mizoram, the scope for a thousand border haats is ripe and ready. At least 70 have been earmarked, 35 in West Bengal, 22 in Meghalaya, 5 in Tripura, 4 in Assam, and 4 in Mizoram, mostly for farm and forest products: spices, fish, dairy and poultry, cottage industry items, handloom and handicraft products, and certain furniture (though not timber). It would be an indigenous safeguard against, rather than a springboard of, smuggling, in fact, smugglers thrive in the very absence of locally-controlled exchanges. Even more, it would harmonise currency exchange rates more effectively than currency traders, stock market brokers, or central bank interventionists: in its most routine flow, it would expose the advantages and disadvantages of currency alignments and economic integration. Border haats would supply all the empirical reasons for central policy-makers and policy-makers and politicians if a free trade agreement is worth pursuing or not, indeed the very existence of a border haat implicitly condones the logic behind ultimately adopting such compacts at the national levels.
Bangladesh and India do not have to look very intensively for border exchanges working national miracles. Mexico's 1965 Border Industrialisation Programme provided a marriage of convenience between low-wage Mexican workers and hi-tech U.S. (particularly Michigan automobile) producers which, thirty years later transformed into the North American Free Trade Agreement: Mexican border residents still do not have the same income as their U.S. counterparts, nor earn the same wages, but the strides taken towards those goals made within their own contexts, of being able to buy an automobile and other consumption goods, expand education, travel to the United States, and so forth, have been far larger than in the 1960s (or even 1970s, let alone in the "lost decade" of the 1980s). Chipping in at the micro-level produced macro wonders: Mexico is today among the top-dozen most industrialised countries, and among the leaders in forging trade partnerships across the world when it had none until the mid-1980s.
Similar tales should be narrated by our children and grand-children about our border-haats pivoting the golden age of Bangla-Indian relations from now. Like free trade, ultimately, border haats open new doors, bringing in multiplicity and diversity, while taming adversity and scarcity.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.