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…until the situation in Assam improves

Younten Tshedup & Kelzang Wangchuk

December 12, 10am. The otherwise bustling Thursday-market in Dadgari, the Indian bordering town near Gelephu, wears a deserted look.

Indian merchants and Bhutanese customers on the either side of the border gate impatiently wait for the security personnel to open the gate.

However, the gate will not open until 5pm.

A 12hour ‘Assam Bandh’ was called by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) against the Indian government’s proposed citizenship amendment bill.

The previous day, a group of Bhutanese truckers narrowly escaped a riot near Bongaigoan in Assam. “An auto rickshaw was set on fire by a group of students. We managed to escape the situation with help from the locals,” said a trucker.

While the traffic opened on December 13 after two days of ‘bandh’ (strike) on December 10 and December 12, movement of vehicles towards Samdrupjongkhar from Gelephu was still restricted as of yesterday.

Although there were no official strikes called by the Indian locals on December 13, police in Gelephu said that due to reports of widespread protest in various parts in Assam along the national highway-31 and adjoining areas across the border, they had to prevent movement of vehicles towards Samdrupjongkhar.

Travellers stranded in Samdrupjongkhar

Travellers stranded in Samdrupjongkhar

Cost of Assam Bandh  

Assam Bandh means Bhutanese bordering towns being closed, as no movement of vehicles is allowed along the Indian highway during the bandh.

With the onset of orange export business in places like Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar, Phuentsholing and Samtse, multiple bandhs such as this comes at a huge cost.

An orange exporter in Gelephu, Tshering Choki, said that so far the longest strike has been for two consecutive days. “We can afford two days of wait. If it extends any further, we start losing money.”

She said that rerouting the shipment through Wangdue to Thimphu and then to Phuentsholing adds to the cost.  Majority of the export trucks are bound for Bangladesh, which has to ply through the Indian highway.

“I hear the situation in Assam is getting worse. Hope it would not affect us,” said Tshering Choki.

Another exporter, Khandro Dorji, said perishable goods like oranges, cardamom and apples among others has to be delivered on time. “Unlike boulder and stones, these consignments cannot suffer delays,” he said. “You either get the full money on delivery or you don’t get a single penny.”

Besides the export business, regular commuters are also hit due to the regular bandh.

Krishna Kumar Ghallay has just missed an appointment to renew his citizenship identity card. “I was supposed to be in Phuentsholing tonight. My family members have gathered to take photo for our ID cards.”

Police said that restrictions on movement are imposed only upon consultation with and information from the counterparts in India. If the situations are not conducive enough, people are not allowed to travel for their own security.

It was learnt that there are people who come requesting officials to allow them to travel on their own risks. Some of the transporters faked their destination to escape the bandh.

Police suggested public to use alternative routes within the country to go to Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar and to avoid travelling along the Indian highway unless it was an emergency. “We need cooperation from the public as this is for their own safety. This is not harassment,” said an official.

Even otherwise, police said Bhutanese drivers should be extra careful while plying along the Indian highway and to respect the country’s traffic rule. Over speeding and careless driving are some of the common offences Bhutanese drivers commit along the Indian highway.

Meanwhile, on December 12 the foreign affairs ministry on their Facebook page shared a letter from the Assamese government on the current volatile situation of the state.

The ministry in their post requested Bhutanese travellers to refrain from travelling until the situation in Assam improved.

Meanwhile, many travellers are stranded in Samdrupjongkhar following the strike.

About 32 passengers agreed to leave for Thimphu via Bumthang after paying double the fare, as they were stranded in Samdrupjongkhar for about a week.

“I agreed to pay extra fare because I cannot afford to stay in hotels,” Karma, a passenger said.

The bus fare from Samdrupjongkhar to Thimphu via Indian highway is Nu 450. They are paying Nu 950 each.

Pema Sangay, 33, who planned to visit his sick father in Thimphu travelled to Samdrupjongkhar after he couldn’t get a ticket from Trashiyangtse to Thimphu. He said he had been staying in a hotel for four days.

Police officials in Samdrupjongkhar said that they are always in touch with the counterparts in Assam and keep informing the public. “Commuters should refrain from travelling along the Indian highway until the situation gets better,” a police official said.

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