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At Moreh, trade with Myanmar borders on informal

Pratim Ranjan Bose November 12 | Updated on November 12, 2018 Published on November 12, 2018

The Namphalong market, the nerve centre of informal trade, in Myanmar

After India ended barter on Manipur border, it is a free-for-all, with rampant drug smuggling

It was Diwali time. But the brand new airport- like passenger terminal of the Integrated Check-Post (ICP) at Moreh — India’s most important border outpost facing Tamu in Myanmar — looked desolate, free from either visitors or officials.

The ICP is not ready yet. Initiated in 2014, the project missed many deadlines. The passenger terminal was opened in August, but Customs authorities are still operating from the Land Customs Station. The goods section still remains incomplete.

But that barely hurts “trade”. Imports from Myanmar came to a halt soon after India increased import duty on betel nut, from 4 per cent to 40 per cent, in January 2017. Exports are mostly related to Indian projects in Myanmar.

Informal trade thrives

In 2018, only some soil testing tools crossed this border into Myanmar to help build the India-financed Trilateral Highway. Unofficially, at least ₹1,000-crore worth goods change hands at this border annually through rampant informal or illegal trade, under the nose of the Customs, the State police and the Assam Rifles (which guards the India-Myanmar border).

A few hundred metres from the ICP, a Manipur- registered truck was unloading cement into makeshift warehouses at an unfenced disputed territory controlled by Myanmar. Sources say 20-30 trucks ply between Moreh and Imphal, everyday.

 

Cement, medicines, packaged food items, cosmetics, fertiliser, second-hand (often stolen) motor parts move from India to Myanmar. In the opposite direction, anything and everything comes in, including betel nuts for processing in Assam. Move to the old border gate (Gate No 2), and you get caught in a frenzy of activity. People of both countries are allowed to travel up to 16 km inside each other’s territory against a day pass issued on submission of an identity proof. Right across the gate, at the Namphalong market in Myanmar, thousands of Indians — mostly traders from Imphal and beyond — throng the shops selling Chinese goods, including expensive mobiles and consumer durables.

In the past when India and Myanmar allowed barter trade of up to $20,000 per transaction, there was a semblance official statistics about the size of the informal trade. But with India switching to the formal trade regime, it’s now a free-for-all.

According to Khin Maung Tin, Secretary-General of the Border Trade Chamber of Commerce at Tamu in Myanmar, over 300 shops at Namphalong sell goods worth over ₹2 crore to Indian buyers daily. Myanmarese buy roughly ₹50 lakh worth goods from India.

Gold and drugs

Prominent Manipuri economists N Mohendra Singh and Ch Priyoranjan Singh put the informal trade between ₹1,300 crore and ₹2,000 crore a year.

This does not include contraband that dominates the life and trade here. Over the last five-six years, insurgency is down in Manipur though not out. At least five outfits are active in the Kuki-dominated Moreh area, extorting, gunrunning and smuggling.

While arms smuggling is reportedly down in recent times, drugs trafficking continues unabated. Gold smuggling is on the rise due to the duty differential. Gold bars weighing nearly 140 kg were recovered in Manipur last year, which is more than half the total recovery in the region.

Drugs are a bigger menace. Cheap ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine- based anti-cold medicines are trafficked from North India to Myanmar through Moreh. They come back as methamphetamine variants for peddling across India and Bangladesh. The latest such drug is called WA or ‘world is yours’.

There is no clue about the size of the contraband trade. But, there is little doubt that the informal trade at Namphalong is a smokescreen for various illegal activities.

This is first in a three-part series

Published on November 12, 2018
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