Cattle traders and truck drivers who frequently transport cattle from Chapainawabganj to Dhaka and Chittagong before Eid-ul-Azha are impressed with the recent fall of highway extortion.
“Travelling has improved significantly in the last two or three years,” said Abul Kalam Azad, a cattle trader from Chapainawabganj's Mohipur village. “Before, we would be flagged down at 16-17 points between Chapainawabganj and Dhaka alone in order to pay 'tolls'.”
Azad was preparing to make a trip to Chittagong with his cattle on Saturday when this correspondent approached him. He was loading his cattle – 16 of them – onto a truck with the help of the driver, Sumon.
When this correspondent asked to ride along with them to Chittagong posing as his assistant, Azad agreed, although with a fair warning of rough journey.
And it was quite rough: the truck started from Mohipur at 4:17pm on Saturday and reached the destination – Sagarika cattle market in Chittagong city – at 10:35am the next day. It was over 600 kilometres of driving for Sumon, the truck driver.
During the journey, Azad reminisced about his experience of cattle trading.
“These trips used to be troublesome,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “Roads used to be bad, and extortion was a common occurrence.”
Spots that were especially problematic were in Rajshahi, Pabna, Natore, Sirajganj and Tangail districts. “That is not to say that we did not get extorted between Dhaka and Chittagong,” Azad added.
Who were the extortionists? “Local influentials and goons,” Sumon replied. “Sometimes it was members of the local transport owners' association. Sometimes it was the highway patrol police.”
But in the past few years, such extortions have reduced to almost nothing, said Azad and Sumon.
“However, we do get harassed by traffic police if we fail to pass through Dhaka before sunrise, as trucks are not allowed to run in Dhaka during daytime,” he said. “We sometimes get stopped at Demra, Gazipur and Jatrabari, and on occasions we have to bribe them to avoid hassle.”
There was some truth in their claim: throughout the entire journey, the truck was flagged down once by police in Sirajganj. When the officials saw it was a cattle truck, they let it go without further ado.
However, the journey was not entirely smooth.
The truck was stopped at Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) check points in Sultanganj and Rajbari under Rajshahi and Belpukur under Natore; the officials on duty asked them to show registration receipt.
It is a document collected from the customs office after paying Tk500 per animal in order to sell Indian cattle legally.
At Sultanganj and Rajbari, despite finding the documents in order, the BGB officials held them back and demanded Tk100. Azad paid the money in order to resume the journey.
What happened at the next check point was unexpected.
At Belpukur check point, assuming that he would have to pay another Tk100, Azad sent both the registration receipt and the money to the officials guarding the check point. After verification, the officials sent both the papers and the money back.
This brought a smile on both Azad and Sumon's faces.
“This proves that honesty still exists, that there is still some good left in the world,” mused Azad.
A unique experience
Rough it may have been, but the trip posing as an assistant cattle trader was one-of-a-kind experience for this correspondent.
When Azad was loading his cattle onto the truck, he also put a sack of rice there. Asked why, he said: “So that we can cook our own food when we reach Chittagong. Hotel food is not satisfying enough.”
But when on the road, the truck made a few stops at road-side hotels that seemed to cater to only truck drivers.
“Truck drivers don't stop at the hotels that are frequented by passenger buses or other vehicles,” Sumon explained. “There are specific hotels we go to; regular people would not be able to stand the condition at these places.”
This correspondent ate meals with Azad and Sumon and other truck drivers at a few of such hotels during the journey. The popular choice of food seemed to be rice and beef curry with an abundance of gravy. “We like gravy,” said Sumon, smiling.
Besides the beef-and-rice meal, the truck drivers' fuel for the overnight journey is energy drinks and cigarettes. “I like Tiger and Speed energy drinks, and Derby cigarettes,” Sumon said.
This was the third trip to transport cattle for Sumon, who said around 30 trucks have transported Eid cattle from Chapainawabganj to Dhaka and Chittagong since they started on Thursday.
Asked, Sumon said he was charging Tk33,000 per trip this year.
Asked why he was not taking his cattle to Dhaka, which was much closer, Azad said because he would get a better price in Chittagong.
“Among my 16 cattle, four are big ones and each is expected to produce at least 220kg of meat. I am expected to sell them at Tk2-2.5 lakh each,” he added.