A valid ticket is not enough to guarantee you a seat on the Benapole Commuter Train. You will have to pay an additional amount to touts if you don’t mind standing all the way.
To get a seat you will have to collect a slip from the representatives of a racket, paying them Tk 150-200, before boarding the train. The fare for the three-hour journey between Khulna and Benapole is only Tk 45.
“These people who keep the seats occupied are none but smugglers and nobody dares say a word against them,” Shafiqul Alam, a commuter, told this newspaper.
“You have to pay them to grab a seat, or else complete the journey standing,” he said.
The train, which run four times a day between Khulna and Benapole via Jashore, is virtually ruled by the smugglers who transport illegal items including yaba and phensedyl on it under the very nose of law enforcers, said passengers and local people.
Some women who act as the mules for the smugglers also keep seats occupied for the passengers who would pay the racket. The seats are their additional source of income, they alleged.
Benapole is the country’s busiest land port, through which many travel to and from India every day and goods are also transported in huge quantities.
A JOURNEY BY TRAIN
In an attempt to get a first-hand experience, this correspondent embarked on a journey by the commuter train from Benapole on October 15.
It was 9:10am when the train came and passengers started to get off. Surprisingly, a noticeable number of people remained seated in all the six compartments though it was the first station from where it would start for Khulna.
The reporter managed to squeeze into one of the compartments before the train left the station around 9:35am, after going through a “BGB security check”. Noticeably, most of the seats were occupied by women.
This correspondent saw a woman allowed a male passenger to take her seat. When approached, the passenger, Maruf Hassan, a staff of KPCL in Khulna, said he had to pay Tk 150 for the seat.
“I just handed over a small orange paper to the woman that I have collected by paying her associate before boarding the train,” said Maruf, a frequent traveller on this train, adding that the slip also specifies the number of persons.
The train reached Navaran station after around 15 minutes. After the journey, it suddenly stopped although the next station was still far away.
Eight to ten women and a man got on the compartment with heavy sacks on their back. One of the women sat beside the correspondent, who had managed a seat by paying Tk 50 to another woman.
Asked what she was carrying in her sacks, one of the women frustratingly responded: “The security is very tight now. We usually bring two or three bottles of phensedyl but we don’t have it today. What we got right now is some Horlicks bottles from black market.”
Asked about the prices of phensedyl, one of the women said: “If you take it now, it will cost you Tk 800 but if you want it after getting off the train, you will have to pay Tk 1,200 because at stations, I have to pay railway and local police.”
A passenger named Nazmul Islam boarded the train from Navaran. Most of the time, he said, he had to stand all the way to Jashore during the one-hour journey.
“They [smugglers] bribe the driver, law enforcers and the ticket checkers,” said Nazmul, who runs an export-import business in Jashore. He also alleged that the smugglers manage to stop the train at many points to evade checking by the border guards.
A number of passengers echoed his statement.
“There is a permanent BGB checkpoint at Amrakhali, some three kilometres away from Benapole. The smugglers illegally stop the train to get off before reaching that point,” said Habibur Rahman, another regular passenger.
“They throw away their goods through the windows and get back on the train as per their convenience,” said a businessman, who runs shops in Benapole Bazar.
“The railway police favour the smugglers as they get payment for each luggage.”
The passengers said syndicate members, waiting on the ground, signal to stop the train. Sometimes those on board pull the chain but that doesn’t work always.
The train previously ran on the route twice a day. But due to growing number of passengers, the authorities introduced two more trips daily.
A number of passengers said they still prefer the commuter train over bus on the Benapole-Khulna route as it reaches destinations on time and the road is in bad shape.
As the train moves along, a man in police uniform appeared in the compartment. He was seen collecting Tk 20 from the women with sacks. Asked about it, he said: “Mind your own business.”
The man was not wearing any nameplate.
Talking with this correspondent, the women said they hide the goods inside seat covers, bathrooms and ceiling of the train.
Sources said, Daulatpur, Gatipara, Teroghar, Sadipur, Sutipur, Putkhali, Goga, Bhulot, Kaiba, Rudrapur, Dhannokhola, Ghiba, Kashipur, and Shalkona are some spots inside India from where the smugglers bring their consignments.
WHAT BGB, RAILWAY SAY
“We routinely check the train every day, sometimes we seize smuggled goods and sometimes we get nothing. We even travel till the next station [Navaran] for security checks,” Subedar Abdul Wahab, head of Benapole BOP of Border Guard Bangladesh, told The Daily Star on November 13.
“BGB is doing its best to stop the practice but the smugglers often take the train after Navaran using village streets,” he added.
Although the exchange of money became an open secret for all, Feroz Ahmed, assistant superintendent of government railway police, said they had no information of officials taking bribes from smugglers.
“We will take stern action if specific complaint is found against anyone,” said Feroz, responsible to oversee the security of Khulna and Jashore railway.
This correspondent also communicated with the train driver. Wishing not to be named, he said, “We do not stop anywhere other than the regular stoppages. But to stop the train, the smugglers sometimes snap the coupling hoses between compartments, which engages the brakes.”
Benapole Stationmaster Md Saiduzzaman said there was no connection between the smugglers and his staffers. “If anyone is found involved in such activities, he will be punished.”
According to the official database, the BGB seized smuggled goods including Phensedyl worth around Tk 11.25 lakh from the train in October. On July 2 last year, the customs intelligence recovered one tonne of firecrackers from the train after those were smuggled in from India.
[With inputs from our Benapole correspondent Mohsin Milon]