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It is afternoon, well beyond the peak time for tourist arrivals from Bangladesh. Still a snaking queue makes its way to the arrival zone — not a swanky lounge but a tin shed. The queue breaks up and the tourists jostle to cram inside the shed. There are seven counters each for arrival and departure that handle 8,000 passengers a day. Welcome to the Haridaspur Land Check Post that has been clocking in the third-highest percentage of foreign tourist arrivals over the last two years.
In January, the percentage share of foreign tourist arrivals was highest at Delhi airport at 28.03 per cent, followed by Mumbai airport at 17.47 per cent and the Haridaspur Land Check Post at 7.63 per cent. The numbers reflect a trend that emerged in 2016.
In 2017-18, up to December, total crossings at Haridaspur stood at 2 million, compared to 1.3 million in 2016-17. The number stood at 663,272 seven years ago. According to immigration officials, the number is projected to increase to 4 million.
The surge in traffic is a result of the friendly ties between the Indian and Bangladesh governments. Visa norms have been simplified, which is why Haridaspur has moved up the ladder in terms of the number of crossings in the last two years.
Medical tourism accounts for about 70-80 per cent of the foreign tourist arrivals from Bangladesh. A well-oiled machinery is behind it. Agents on the other side of the border have tie-ups with hospitals in Kolkata and ambulances are sent to pick up patients, if required. Some arrive for regular medical check-ups, while a percentage proceeds to Vellore and Bengaluru for specialised treatment.
According to immigration officials, 600-700 day traders from Bangladesh make their way to Kolkata daily. They arrive at dawn and return in the evening. Suppliers to small shops, these traders usually carry wares ranging from shampoos to sarees to biscuits to crockeries. And this crop of traders is growing in number.
“The building, the infrastructure might have been good enough to handle the traffic about 20-30 years ago, but now it is creaking under the pressure,” say officials who work 361 days a year. About 60 officials handle the inflow and outflow of passengers at Haridaspur.
The tin shed is the arrival zone in all seasons. “During the rains, people wade through the water to gain entry through the tin shed,” the immigration officials said.
It is tough on the officials as well. Though the summers are around the corner, the building does not house a single air conditioner. The plan for a state-of-the-art passenger terminal, likely to cost Rs 50 billion, has been sent for approval.
Make your way across the border and you are presented with a contrasting picture. The passenger terminal in Bangladesh is a smart steel-and-glass structure with adequate manpower and a smooth flux of passengers. It even houses a duty-free shop.
The contrast is most glaring at the Petrapole-Benapole border post. At 4:30 pm every day, the Wagah of the East ceremony is held between India’s Border Security Force and Bangladesh’s Border Guards. The gallery on the Bangladesh side completely outclasses the one on the Indian side.