Due to the ongoing elections in Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, Phuentsholing border gate was closed yesterday and will open on April 10 evening

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

With the ongoing elections in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, Bhutanese vehicles ferrying goods and commodities via Indian highways have been seeing routine checks while on the road.

As officials enter the vehicles for inspections, many say this posed Covid-19 transmission risks.

Although the border gate in Phuentsholing has been completely closed since yesterday morning, with no entry-exit of vehicles, the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) in Phuentsholing maintained that everything was under control (even) before the closure.

The Chairman of the SC19TF, Sonam Wangyel, said Bhutanese drivers have been instructed on the protocols and vigilance.

“And they have been following the Covid-19 protocols,” he said.

He also said that the Indian officials who carry out the inspections were following strict protocols. Right after the inspection, Bhutanese drivers and escorts disinfect the vehicles and sanitise.

Every morning, before the vehicles bound for Gelephu and beyond to the east (using the highways) exit from Phuentsholing, the drivers are briefed by the RSTA officials. An escort is also provided to four to five vehicles.

Initially, in 2020, following the upsurge of Covid-19 numbers in the region, there were strict monitoring of vehicle movements on the Indian highways. Screening facilities were also installed. However, such monitoring systems and routine has decreased.

Recently, monitoring on the highways has become stricter due to the ongoing elections in West Bengal. The number of Covid-19 cases has also been reported, touching record high in India in the last few days.

A Regional Transport Officer (RTO) with the RSTA in Phuentsholing, Tila M Sharma, said they have also started providing the escorts with PPE suits—with extra face shields, masks and hand sanitisers.

“Protocols are being followed stringently,” she said.

There are also concerns about the Bhutanese drivers making payments at the tollgates, as they have to use cash. Starting January this year, tollgates have also initiated cashless payment systems using a card system.

However, not all drivers and transporters have availed this service. Drivers pay the tollgates in cash (INR). However, protocols are strictly maintained, RSTA officials said.

There are at least three tollgates between Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar.

Many in Phuentsholing have become careless with the Covid-19 protocols these days. Some are seen without masks. The practice of handwashing has also decreased despite shops kept washing basins and soaps.

This, many in the town say have come after the vaccination.

SC19TF is also aware of the situation and have placed measures accordingly.

Sonam Wangyel said people must understand vaccination is just one means of protection and it was no different from practising the prevention habits of using masks, handwashing and sanitising.

“However, all measures and strategies are well in place,” he said.

Smaller groups have been formed and assigned responsibility in their respective areas, Sonam Wangyel said, explaining safety protocols and advocacies remained primary goal. People are also being explained about the vaccination and its myths.

One of the key areas of consideration is the private warehouse. The import vehicles bypass the MDP and directly take the goods to these warehouses, posing transmission risks if not properly followed.

The Task Force has maintained that failure of the protocols will be penalised. Besides this imposition, the facility to bring in the goods straight to the warehouses will also be discontinued.

Schools, MDP, Pasakha industries, point of entries, and all other business set ups are also under strict protocols.

“Phuentsholing has suffered during the two lockdowns. As it is the commercial hub of the country, another lockdown will be even costlier,” the Task Force chairman said. “We must come together and prevent another lockdown.”

Meanwhile, the gate has been closed after the request from the counterpart government because of the ongoing elections. Officials from both the countries are in touch and closure has been facilitated accordingly.

The gate will open on April 10 evening.

Considering the elections across the border, SC19TF has notified movement of vehicles on the Indian highways have been limited to just essential items such as food items, construction materials, industrial raw materials and export of cash crops. Passengers and other routine travelers have been now restricted—until further notice.