…clarifying the doubts for the interest of the two peoples

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

It has been some time since Phuentsholing Thromde has initiated repair works of the storm water drain at the main gate and the construction of a municipality wall along the Phuentsholing-Jaigaon border (between BP 69/2 and BP 69/4), which starts from the main gate until the Project DANTAK campus, about 250 metres.

This, according to some media reports from across the border, has not been received well by the people. Media outlets have claimed the wall would obstruct people-to-people movement and hinder the livelihoods of the people across the border.

However, Kuensel found that this is misinformation and exaggeration which has worried the people across the border. Relevant officials said the constructions are not meant for “restriction” of the people’s movements but rather to enhance and improve it with international standard facilities and safety.  

Every monsoon, heavy and continuous rainfall causes clogging and the water floods all over the main gate area and Jaigaon—bringing challenges for both the towns and their residents.

The primary reason for carrying out this project is to repair and reinforce the drainage system and control flooding, official sources said.

The works are being pursued for the benefit of residents of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon as the current storm water drain is not only in a state of disrepair but it is also not adequate for the volume of water that flows into the drain from both Phuentsholing and Jaigaon, particularly during the monsoons. This has resulted in water clogging, causing considerable inconvenience to residents of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon.

The reconstruction of the drain is also in line with the revised drainage master plan of Phuentsholing core town. There are over 40 inlets flowing into the storm water drain from Jaigaon.

Furthermore, the storm water drain and municipality wall are in close proximity to each other and, consequently, the reconstruction drain will require dismantling of the existing municipality wall since the foundation of the wall is shallow and is likely to collapse under its own weight during excavation of the drain. Accordingly, the reconstruction of the drain and municipality wall is being pursued simultaneously.

The thromde has taken the simultaneous initiative to raise a concrete (enclosed) wall to mitigate risk to lives and property on both sides of the border.

However, there have been media reports across the border hinting that the wall would bar the movement of people between Bhutan and India.

According to relevant sources, this is not true. It was underscored that Bhutan attaches great importance to mutually beneficial age-old ties and harmonious relations that continue to flourish between Phuentsholing and Jaigaon.

Clogged this monsoon: Water floods the road near the main gate in Phuentsholing

Survey details

Before the storm water drain repair works and municipality wall construction commenced, a joint survey with the counterpart authorities were also conducted.

A joint technical level meeting between Survey of India, Government of India (GoI), and the International Boundaries Office of the government (RGoB) was held on September 8-9 this year in Chalsa, Jalpaiguri District, West Bengal. It was then decided that a joint survey must be conducted to demarcate the “zero line” so that the repairs and construction of the storm water drain and municipality wall could be undertaken.

A zero line is where the international boundary line separates Bhutan and India. No construction is allowed within this radius.

A joint survey was conducted on October 15-16. The survey demarcated the zero line maintaining 1.5 metres on both sides of the zero line for clear line of sight in accordance with the bilateral agreement between RGoB and GoI.

As per the bilateral agreement, there are three boundary demarcation rules.

In the case of Phuentsholing-Jaigaon, a distance of about 1.5 metre from the zero line (no construction zone) has to be maintained by both the countries (sides). If there are main boundary pillars, the distance is two metres.

And for non-urban areas, it is 10 metres on either side of the zero line of boundary pillars.

As per the joint survey, the existing municipality wall in Phuentsholing is 1.5 metres away from the zero line of the international boundary within Bhutan’s territory. This is as per the bilateral agreement of maintaining 1.5 metres on both sides of the zero line.

Meanwhile, the works for the repairs and reconstruction of the storm water drain and the municipality wall has already been awarded to a contractor and the preparatory work at the site has commenced. The dismantling and reconstruction of the wall will be carried out in 20 metre segments. Temporary barricades will be placed on the Jaigaon side on the zero line of the international border. The barricades are temporary and only being used to facilitate the repair and reconstruction works.

Once the work is completed in one segment, the barricades will be progressively moved to the next 20-metre segment. The sanctity of the “no construction zone” will not be affected or undermined in any manner once the work is completed.


New facilities

The entry-exit enclosed wall, meanwhile, will provide a tourist standard enclosed walkway with modern amenities and facilities in a centrally air-conditioned environment. As Bhutan will also be levying SDF on the regional tourists, the facility is highly anticipated to provide much-needed facilities.

There will be a lounge and restrooms.

“Tourists will not have to wait in the rain and heat the moment they enter inside. They will now have a pleasant experience,” a resident said, explaining that the movement of people, including the tourists, would be more streamlined.

The storm water drain will also be repaired and improved, which will supplement the municipal wall.


What do Phuentsholing residents say?

A restaurant owner in the heart of the Phuentsholing town, Karma Tshering Dorji, said friends in Jaigaon should not worry.

“Having a concrete wall is actually good for both people on both sides,” he said.

“Why should they worry?” he asked, adding that whether a concrete wall is raised or not, two peoples will still have the movement. “Our government will never ask to stop our friends from entering Phuentsholing, nor will they ask us to stop from going to Jaigaon.”

The restaurateur said entry-exit would remain the same as before. It will rather be safer, he said, explaining it is for the welfare of people on both sides.

Some Phuentsholing residents also said that the current grill wall was not intact.

Pema Khandu, a resident, said that there are people from both sides who carry out illegal activities because the grill wall does not provide enough security. There have been several instances during the lockdown where miscreants had tried to enter or pass illegal consignments from the inlets through the drainage.

“Having a concrete wall with streamlined entry-exit procedures will deter all these,” he said. “It is good for us both here and across the border.”

Pema Khandu said that Phuentsholing and Jaigaon have shared a special bonding since time immemorial and that a secure wall would only strengthen the bond. “People across the border should be supportive about this and equally help.”

A hotelier, Pema, said the porous border Phuentsholing and Jaigaon shares is an exemplary one.

“Otherwise, there may be other international rules that would not allow such special cross-border existence,” he said.

Pema said that having stronger border protection was similar and as simple as demarking private land among house owners. “Two house owners will not have to complain about small issues if they had secured their borders.”

Pema also said Phuentsholing and Jaigaon are interdependent to one another and will remain so.


What are people thinking across the border?

Kuensel talked to several people across the border. Many are saying people are panicking because they think the movement would be stopped after the construction of the wall.

A resident said the panic was because of the misinformation and lack of details.

“They need to know the actual facts of the matter,” he said.

News outlets across the border have highlighted that Bhutan is constructing a bigger wall and people are worried that their livelihoods would be at stake.

Another Jaigaon resident, a businessman, said that it was all because of the lack of trust among a few people within Jaigaon.

“There are only a few people who have problems,” he said. “They are only thinking about their self-interest.”

The businessman, however, said there must be clear information from both sides.

Ever since the Phuentsholing gate was closed on March 23, 2020, as a response to pandemic, some groups in Jaigaon have raised concerns over the closure of the gate. Several groups with vested interests have voiced for the gate to be opened.

With the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in India and the upgradation of the Land Customs Station (LCS) in Jaigaon, formal trading has improved, cutting away illegal means of trading. Although there have been several issues related to export of agricultural products, GoI has been supportive in resolving the issues.

Recently, Bhutan and India also formally opened seven new trade routes which will boost the trade between the two nations.

Edited by Jigme  Wangchuk