In the frontier area of Hili in Dinajpur district, truants and street children working in the lucrative smuggling trade are pooh-poohing the notion that poverty need be anybody’s destiny.
Rahmat always wanted to be a school teacher, but the sudden death of his parents in a 2014 road accident changed all that.
Alone after his parents’ passing, the twelve-year-old drifted from Dinajpur town to the frontier land port of Hili.
At Hili Railway Station, Rahmat discovered a group he could belong to, found a lucrative profession and a new dream to aim for.
Rahmat’s new-found family consists of several hundred children who have found a way to beat life’s iniquities. His new family of street street-children who have become smugglers call him Chhoto Mia because he successfully smuggled goods from India within months of his arrival.
The children take certain risks as carriers of smuggled goods but say the pay outweighs the danger.
“I make between Tk300 and Tk500 everyday as a carrier. I can’t wait till I become the head of my group and others work under me. There is money to be made. Life will be posh once I succeed,” the pre-teen told the Dhaka Tribune.
Rather than being browbeaten by adversity, Rahmat has the competitiveness of a budding entrepreneur. “I earn a minimum of Tk300 a day, how much do you make?”
The going rate for successfully smuggling twenty packets of spices into the country is Tk500. Frequently, the children also carry three or four bottles of phensedyl, a highly addictive codeine-based cough syrup banned in Bangladesh, to make additional money.
“The demand is high for phensedyl. We carry four to five packets of spices inside our shirts and two or three bottles of phensedyl on each trip in exchange for Tk100. We do four or five runs a day,” Rahmat said.
Fertilisers, spices, local cigarettes and narcotics, especially phensedyl, top the list of Indian goods smuggled into Bangladesh.
Bangladesh law enforcement is relatively lenient towards errant children, the young smugglers say.
The Dhaka Tribune met 12-year-old Shaheen who was caught red-handed on the railway tracks in front of the station by Border Guard Bangladesh while on a smuggling run.
The child toppled over under the weight of his contraband load, packed tightly under his clothing, after the BGB gave him chase. Because of the weight of his burden, Shaheen could not stand up again without assistance.
The BGB threatened to rough him up but let him go after local residents intervened.
Shaheen told the Dhaka Tribune that law enforcers usually let young smugglers go because the volume of goods is so small. He said they typically allow the children to carry four bottles of phensedyl to Bangladesh from India without any hassle.
Hili residents say most young smugglers are either orphans or come from negligent households – either way, they are essentially on their own.
Shaheen’s mother died a few years ago and his father Nayan is an alcoholic.
“We make four or five trips a day. Even if we are caught, cases are never filed against us, so it is easy to make money,” Shaheen said.
Some children painted a less rosy picture of what they endure at the hands of law enforcers, saying they are sometimes soundly thrashed. Girls also work as smugglers and are vulnerable to sexual as well as physical abuse if caught.
Five hundred taka a day is a small fortune for a child and the prospects of financial gain drives truancy in and around Hili. School authorities said absenteeism was frequent as children skipped school to make money smuggling.
They added that the more conscientious students treat smuggling as a kind of extra-curricular after school activity.
Mohammad Tasir Uddin, headmaster of Satkuri Government Primary School in Hakimpur upazila, said although the number of children engaged in smuggling had decreased, it remains a problem.
“Poorer children and orphans, especially, are involved in smuggling. Sometimes, the children of black marketeers carry on their parents’ trade because they are less likely to get caught than their elders,” he added.
Hakimpur Mayor M Sakhawat Hossain Shilpi claimed under-age smugglers were migrants from elsewhere in Dinajpur district, saying: “These smugglers are not local children but come from other areas.”
But Hakimpur police station Officer-in-Charge Ahsan Habib said the demand for children in the smuggling trade had grown so great that children were sometimes even rented out to smuggling rings by their guardians.