Choki Wangmo

At Sonam Sawmill in Babesa Thimphu, grasses have grown around stacked logs and the machines are locked away. The place is eerily silent for an otherwise noisy area.

Never in his 30 years as the manager did Madhan Kumar Rai remain closed.

Since February, the sawmill’s only Indian skilled labourer was stranded in India due to Covid-19 and the sawmill couldn’t produce important materials such as doors, windows, shutters and panelling woods for the construction sector.

“Except for menial jobs, Bhutanese don’t have required skills to furnish the products,” Madhan Kumar said.

According to him, there is no drop in demand for furniture but the firm couldn’t meet the demand.

The firm has nine Bhutanese workers who are provided free lodge and a monthly salary. The salary ranges from Nu 12,000 to Nu 25,000.

If the situation continues, Madhan Kumar said, a huge loss was inevitable. As of now, the company’s business is down by 80 percent.

But the demand in the construction sector too has drastically dropped due to shortage of labour or raw materials.

Before Covid-19, the sawmill’s daily income was Nu 50,000 but within three months, they incurred a loss of Nu 130,000 excluding the payments to workers.

When asked about the possibility of importing Indian workers as announced by the immigration department, Madhan Kumar said that there are risks as they might want to return if the situation escalates. “This pandemic is a global problem and times are uncertain.”

However, by the end of this month, Madhan is hoping to employ a former employee who is currently in Samtse.

The manager of Phubgyel sawmill in Ramtokto, Bir Man Gurung also has a similar story.  The demand has decreased due to the pandemic and the earning is half the amount compared to the pre-pandemic period. “We barely earn 15,000 these days.”

In a month, the sawmill could sell construction materials only once. There are 17 workers from which three are Indian and three are temporary women workers.  Workers’ monthly salary ranges from Nu 7,500 to more than Nu, 12,000.

The resources like blue pine and hemlock trees are procured from Thimphu, Bumthang and Natural Resource Development Corporation limited (NRDCL).  Most of the demands for furniture are from Paro and Haa.

Manager of NRDCL branch in Ramtokto, Ngawang Tenzin said that there was a decrease in demand as activities in the construction sector have reduced. Those who put the requisition earlier are also withdrawing including the government projects to reduce the cost of labour and capital.

He said that the company had faced problems in bringing in the parts of sawing machines which are imported from Europe, the US and India. “Due to lockdown in different areas, the parts are stranded in different countries.”

The financial loss incurred has however been recovered since NRDCL got the project to build His Majesty The Kings’ temporary shelters.

There are 45 workers in Ramtokto. Resources are aplenty since most of the sawmills across the country are closed, he said.

The chief executive officer of NRDCL Sonam Wangchuk said that there were concerns due to the non-availability of the market for the products. He said that if there are no buyers for raw timber, then NRDCL will explore opportunities to manufacture different types of products through value addition.

At the depot, as of April this year, the closing stock balance of timber is 507,248.84 cubic feet.

The sawmills cannot export timber since the ban in 2000 but the country imports eight times more wood and wood products than it exports according to records.