Running alongside the India-Bangladesh border are a flurry of compact villages — some lie beyond expanses of cultivated fields, others hug the dangerously wired border fence that demarcates the Indian territory. Some villages are sliced in two, right down the middle, by the border wires.
The village of Sabdalpur is one such border village. A 2-km run from the wired fence, it is also a village of counterfeit runners. In the dead of the night, the distant sky glows a faint orange — from huge floodlights installed by the BSF to apprehend runners bringing in fake currency. It’s these lights that the “runners” at Sabdalpur use as beacons to locate the pick-up points.
Most families in Sabdalpur are abjectly poor and make do by growing poppy — an omnipresent crop in Malda — on small patches of land. Women supplement that by rolling bidi. Additionally, every home in the village is known to have members involved in the fake currency racket.
When demonetisation was announced on November 8 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, officials say, many Sabdalpur villagers were holding consignments of fake Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes. This coincided with a crackdown by the state government on poppy cultivation (the season lasts from November to March). But this dry period didn’t last long. By the end of December, the first samples of the fake new Rs 2,000 notes had started coming in from Bangladesh.
Over the past month, the BSF has seized two consignments of Rs 2,000 fake notes worth Rs 2.96 lakh from Malda area, and apprehended one person. This month, a consignment they seized had fake Rs 500 notes of new denomination. In 2005, 11,119 fake notes worth over Rs 31 lakh were seized in West Bengal, and 90 people arrested. By 2015, this figure had jumped to 30,849 notes worth over Rs 1.7 crore, but only one arrest made. Last year, between January and October, the figure stood at Rs 1.47 crore for West Bengal, and 19 arrests in FICN (fake Indian currency notes) cases. While the amounts seem low, these are just the notes seized. Many more, officials admit, slip through.
A BSF official says 90 per cent of fake currency from Pakistan, entering the country through Bangladesh, is believed to be routed through Malda. Sabdalpur villagers are confident it’s just a matter of time before “business” is back to normal.
THE RUNNERS, THE MAALIK, THE CARRIERS
A runner, or labourer as they are called in the FICN trade, is never used for longer than two years. The danger of him being caught is too high. Sudeep, 22, from Sabdalpur, has been a “labourer” for only the past year. Sarkar lives in a small hut with his parents and a 14-year-old brother who goes to school. Sudeep, who studied till higher secondary, says his family used to grow poppy, like the others, on their one-acre plot. The family has now switched to corn, but the money isn’t enough for the family of five. The earnings from fake money remain low post-demonetisation but, Sudeep says, something is better than nothing. “Every time we bring in a consignment from the border, we get paid Rs 300.”
The rate is the same, irrespective of the size of the consignment of “kagoj (paper)”, as the notes are called. Youth in their 20s, like Sudeep, who are nimble and can run fast, are preferred. He says that most of them manage to get these pick-up jobs for 15 days in a month.
Explaining how they operate, Sudeep says, “Labourers like us never coordinate with the Bangladeshi counterparts directly. We report to maalik (owners) and the maalik get calls from Bangladesh. They then call one of us and tell us we need to be at an appointed place at an appointed time. We know these parts well so we make our way in the dark (mostly between 3 am and 4 am), without torches.”
There is a gap of 10-15 minutes every time guard duty changes at the border. “This is when we usually transact,” says Sudeep. The runner on the Bangladeshi side first throws across pebbles to see if these raise any alarm. If all remains quiet, the consignment is thrown over the fence. It is generally a small bundle, approximately seven inches long and three inches wide, wrapped tightly in plastic and sealed. Never do the runners deal in more than one bundle at a time.
Sudeep says he has been spotted by BSF guards more than once. “So many times I have run for my life, with the BSF chasing me. So many people die because sometimes the BSF opens fire. But I have never been caught.”
Nasir, who also belongs to Sabdalpur, says they don’t keep the fake currency at home for more than a night, and pass it along to a handler. “We are also never allowed to open the packets to see what’s inside,” the 24-year-old adds. “If the seal is even slightly askew, we get calls from our maalik. We know that if there is the slightest suspicion, we will not be called for this work again.”
If the BSF spots them at the border before they can pick up the consignment, the runners leave without it. Nasir says he returns the next day, with a scythe in hand, pretending to have come to cut the grass. “I pick up the consignment which the BSF has not found, and put it in a sack with the grass.” Anjit, 24, who lives with his ageing parents, brother and the brother’s family, claims he makes around Rs 4,500-Rs 5,000 a month from the runs. The women in his household roll bidi, earning Rs 120 for 1,000 bidi a day. Together, apart from what they earn from their fields, the family makes around Rs 10,000-12,000 a month. “That’s just enough to sustain us,” Anjit says.
The talk these days here is about a “large consignment” waiting to make its way across the border. “Rs 40 lakh in fake currency… we have been told. Our maalik are waiting. But we believe that NIA (National Investigation Agency) officials are here somewhere. So no one has had the courage to move the consignment yet. There are rumours that they might eventually bring this consignment through another border,” says Sudeep. The maalik have been hit hard too due to the demonetisation and fake note crackdown. Anjit claims his owner had stacks of the fake currency at home when notebandi was announced. “He bundled it in several sacks and threw them into the river.”
As per the three runners, these sacks are still floating around in the Ganga, and keep washing up on the Mahaganga ghat. “Our maalik now works in the fields alongside us,” laughs Anjit. Once a fake note bundle has reached a maalik, “carriers”, who are again young but men as well as women, take it to the next link in the chain.
A carrier, who does not want to be identified, says the easiest way to transport counterfeit is through migrant labour. He himself did this earlier, when he worked briefly at a dhaba in Delhi and at the Mumbai docks. “For direct transport like this — that is from the source to the destination — one can make Rs 10,000 in one go,” says the carrier. More commonly though, there are several carriers in the chain. “Each carrier transports the fake notes for 5, sometimes 10, km. For instance, from Churiandpur to Golapganj, then from Golapganj to Kaliachak, and onwards. For each stretch, a carrier gets around Rs 2,000. The cost of transporting a counterfeit bundle from Dhaka to Kolkata is usually Rs 20,000,” the carrier says, adding that the main areas of the fake note racket are the villages of Sabdalpur, Mohabbatpur, Dui Sata Bigha, Sasani, Milik and the appropriately named Shesh Road (or the final road).
A BSF official says that post-demonetisation they came across their first counterfeit Rs 2,000 note on December 26. It was just a sample, only one note and essentially a high-quality Xerox of the new Rs 2,000 note. But it was enough to raise alarm. “We knew that the samples would continue to come in. The way fake currency operates is that handlers float samples in the market to see if these can pass off for the original. The handlers keep doing this till they get the fake note exactly right — or at least near enough for people to be unable to differentiate… Every fake note we have found since December 26 has been of a slightly higher quality,” says the official, while noting that with 17 different security features, the Rs 2,000 note is actually more difficult to counterfeit than the new Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.
The one arrest the BSF has made in the past two months over fake currency is Shariful Shah, 32, a ration shop owner from Nadia. He was allegedly transporting 48 counterfeit notes of Rs 2,000 denomination, worth Rs 96,000, to Behrampore. He was picked up from National Highway 34, following a tip-off. “We believe that the intention was to distribute the notes through the ration shop. The notes belonged to 12 different series and were of varying quality,” says an official.
Apart from the money seized from Shah, the BSF has seized two other consignments of fake notes over the past one month. Officials talk of spending the February 15-16 night atop trees next to the border fence for one of those seizures. Around 2 am, the packet was thrown over the fence, and the BSF found Rs 2 lakh inside. The runner, though, managed to get away. “The second consignment we seized was of higher quality than the first. If this is the pace at which the notes are improving, just after four months of demonetisation, we expect very high-quality notes in another three months,” says an official posted at the Malda headquarters.
P S R Anjaneyulu, the Inspector General, Headquarters, of the South Bengal Frontier of the BSF, which looks after the area from Malda to the Sunderbans, also confirms the growing quality of the fake notes. “After demonetisation, the entry of FICN into India had stopped entirely. But within one-and-a-half months, samples of the counterfeit Rs 2,000 notes started coming in. These fake notes were amateurish, just scans and photocopies. But in February, the seizures that we made in collaboration with the NIA were already higher quality. We had a meeting with the RBI earlier, and the RBI was confident that the large number of security features introduced in the new notes would be hard to replicate. But several security features have already been compromised and replicated. Since it’s the ISI (the Pakistani security agency) that pushes counterfeit into India — a form of economic terrorism — we expect the counterfeiting to continue and the quality to be upgraded over a period of time,” he says.
The BSF is not surprised that Malda is proving to be the entry point for the fake notes. IG Anjaneyulu points out that it is “the easiest route” through Bangladesh and the poverty here makes people susceptible to lure of easy money. “That is why you have an NIA unit stationed here.” Malda is among the 250 most backward districts in the country as per the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, and receives funds under the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme.
BSF officials say most of the high-quality counterfeit notes are made in Pakistan, make their way to Bangladesh and from there enter India. India has often blamed ISI for the fake notes, and an official explains why it can’t be the work of fly-by-night operators. “High-quality counterfeit needs to be manufactured on mint machines. Now these machines are sold by a handful of companies to governments. The machines are made after a country issues particular instructions about their currency to the company, and cost a bomb. The pricing is so prohibitive that only a country, and not an individual or a company, can usually afford to buy them. So counterfeit is usually produced by particular countries,” the official says.
According to the official, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Malaysia and China are behind most fake notes. “Many big economies in the world deal with counterfeit, including the US, Germany and the UK. The counterfeit American dollar, for instance, is made in North Korea and is of such high quality that it is called the ‘super dollar’.” The official adds that the fake notes are brought from Pakistan to Bangladesh aboard airplanes, with the connivance of the crew. “At Dhaka airport, the counterfeit is split and different people carry it in different cars out of the airport.” Gradually, the notes make their way to the Indian border.
Recently, however, officials have found high-quality fake notes of Rs 2,000 denomination printed on stamp paper from Bangladesh. Confirming it is “a new trend”, an official said they were planning to take up the matter with Dhaka. Those arrested for FICN are booked under Sections 489 (b) and (c) of the Indian Penal Code, and can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. But so far the BSF and Malda police have largely arrested runners and carriers at the bottom end of the chain, while the financers, the fake currency network heads, even the maalik continue to elude them.
A NO-MAN’S LAND
Barely a few feet separate houses on two sides of the border fence, which came up in 1995 and cuts across Dui Sata Bigha village of Churiandpur. Gate No. 13 in the fence is opened three times a day, for an hour each, to let Indians on either side come across. Of Dui Sata Bigha’s 300 families, around a hundred live on the Bangladesh side. Samsun Nihar Bibi’s family used to live on that side of the fence, across some green fields. Now they live this side. Both the sons of the 57-year-old — Rintu, 34, and Pintu Sheikh, 27 — are in jail since 2008, after they were arrested transporting fake currency.
Samsun says she didn’t know her sons were involved in the racket. “They just told me they were going to Golapganj to meet relatives and never came back… I haven’t seen my sons since.”
Ashadur Jamal Mian, whose wife is a panchayat member, trades in hardware products and is among the few villagers here to have a business. He says the youth of the village are “stuck”, with few choices. “They can’t sell their land because no one wants to buy plots in a no-man’s land. Their means of earning are limited. There is only one primary school and the teacher barely comes. Only half the students even go to school. So they are not educated enough to get jobs.” Churiandpur Peerpara village pradhan Mohammada Bibi, who herself rolls bidi, also points to the lack of jobs in these parts. “Under the MNREGS, out of 100 days we usually get 17 days of work. Most of the villagers are daily wage earners. Seventy per cent of the women in the village make bidi. Many villagers have gone to Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat looking for work.”
Farmers like Jahangir Alam, who grows jute, are still recuperating from losses due to demonetisation. “There is no cash in the market. I invested Rs 4,500 per quintal in the crop, but prices have fallen drastically and I have only managed to earn Rs 2,200 per quintal,” he says.
District Social Welfare Officer Ashim Roy says that due to the lack of good education, youth either get caught up in FICN, as in the Kaliachak block, or migrate. “Most of the boys who become migrant labourers are between 15 and 21 years old. They go to Delhi, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. While a migrant worker would make Rs 150 a day in West Bengal, he would make Rs 800-900 a day in these states,” he says. Within Malda district, for example, Churiandpur anchal (meaning a cluster of villages) in Kaliachak zone has the highest infiltration of FICN. The Bangladesh border is 0 km away, the railway station at Kaliachak, 45 km.