Younten Tshedup | Gelephu

As much as people in Gelephu and nearby gewogs depend on Dadgari village in Assam, India for trade, the small Indian settlement’s main customers for business is it’s neighbours this side of the border.

Over the years, the tiny settlement known as Hatisar among the locals has grown. Many small businesses have also mushroomed along the highway connecting Bhutan and India.

One of the star-attractions here is the weekly bazaar every Thursday. Besides those from Gelephu, this rapidly growing market attracts shoppers from Sarpang, Zhemgang, Tsirang, Nganglam, Wangdue and Punakha, among others.

Records from the border checkpoint show that more than 8,000 Bhutanese visit the market during Thursdays. All manner of goods – vegetables, garments, utensils, meat, and construction materials are sold here.

However, business at the bazaar has comparatively dropped in the past two weeks. Indian traders blame the global COVID-19 outbreak for poor sales.

One of the businessmen, Sanjib Chakraborty, said that the fear that they might contract the virus, many people have stopped visiting the market. “No one is infected in the area and people should not worry. We know about the outbreak and are equally concerned.”

He said that in the absence of Bhutanese customers, there is hardly any business. “We mostly depend on the Thursday market and Bhutanese customers for our survival. Otherwise, the local people do not buy much of our goods.”

He added that on a regular Thursday, his earning hovered between Nu 20,000 to Nu 30,000. “Business is better when the schools reopen. We earn more than Nu 50,000 over the week,” he said. “However, in the last two weeks, we could barely make Nu 4,000.”

There are more than 400 stalls at the bazaar.

Security officials at the border gate also said that the number of people visiting the weekly market has drastically dropped with intensive awareness programmes and screening measures put at the checkpoint.

The number of people who entered the border gate yesterday was less than 3,000.

Health officials said that the drop in the number of people visiting Dadgari market is a positive sign. “It shows that people are concerned. While there are no suspected cases detected in the locality so far, it is wise to avoid such large gatherings,” said an official.

The business community in Gelephu are also equally pleased with the current development. “So it’s going to take a virus to stop our people from going outside,” said a hotelier.

He said that the Thursday bazaar remains one of the biggest challenges for local vendors in Gelephu. “We have tried on several occasions to inform the public to refrain from spending outside when all the goods were available inside. Nothing worked so far.”

Meanwhile, those who had come to the bazaar said that most of the commodities were comparatively cheaper in Dadgari than in Gelephu town.

“There is no point coming all the way here if the items inside were charged the same,” said a customer. “Prices in Gelephu are almost double of what is charged here.”

However, many business operators argue that the public fails to take into consideration the transportation and time factor when they compare the prices. “They are basically paying the same, if not more by going all the way to Dadgari.”