Choki Wangmo

In the past few days, with a hope to return to his country, 28-year-old Sai Dhul Hok has been running from office to office. Since the onset of Covid-19, his family wanted Sai Dhul at home in Cooch Bihar, India.

His ailing mother, wife and two daughters required a family man to bring in essential items during tough times due to continued lockdown in India.

A mason at one of the construction sites in Thimphu, Sai Dhul said that the income was comparatively higher in Bhutan, but problems at home compelled him to return. He earned Nu 12,000 a month.

“If the situation worsens, I don’t want to increase risks to my family and make them vulnerable to harsh conditions,” he added.

Two days, ago, the Indian embassy in Bhutan accepted his repartition documents, and in a few days, he will be leaving the country.

He had been in the country for the last three months but wants to come back once the situation improves. “In India, I will get menial jobs, but it is insufficient for us to sustain.”

There are 22 foreign workers at the site who wants to return too.

Since India eased the stringent lockdown measures across its states, hundreds of Indian construction workers have flocked at the gate of the Indian embassy to apply for repartition.

Many of the workers with whom Kuensel talked to cited poor socio-economic conditions at home and the need to be physically present with their family members in case of a worst-case scenario. Most of them are from Falakata and Cooch Bihar.

Some of them completed the designated works and didn’t want to start jobs at other sites while others have to return for paddy cultivation at home.

Rakshi Kulishlam, 36, said that he would be safer in his village as there are no positive cases reported. He also has an old mother who needs support to bring in essential items. He earned a monthly salary of Nu 20,000.

A site supervisor, Rabi Kulishlam, said that Bhutan should arrange travel for those workers who have problems at home. With his two brothers, they had been stranded in the country due to lockdown in India. “Bhutan is safe, but our family needs protection.”

Last week, the Indian embassy’s Facebook page announced that two buses with 17 workers left Phuentsholing for Assam. Another two buses with labourers left on June 3.

According to an undertaking form, the returnees have to undergo a minimum 14-day mandatory quarantine at their own expense as per the protocols framed by the Indian government. They also have to bear the travelling expenses.

Meanwhile, a construction owner in Thimphu Sonam Peldon said, that it was better to let the workers go since they were unhappy and took leave, therefore, increasing the financial burden on her.

“I tried keeping them here saying that movement was risky and also to consider their financial risks, but they were reluctant. Their families call them time and again and are awaiting their quick return.”

Nine labourers from her site were among the group who left the country recently.

She is planning instead to employ remaining workers at her site to complete plumbing, electrification and tiling works than using the service of skilled labourers the country will import as announced by the immigration department.

The department’s announcement last week stated: “The entry of foreign workers in the professional or skilled categories shall be facilitated in priority sectors determined by the Royal Government with effect from June 4 subject to fulfilling and complying with certain requirements.”

“It is expensive to bring them in and then time is lost in quarantine. There is no surety that the labourers are not Covid-19 positive. There are many risks. What if they don’t want to work after coming here?” Sonam Peldon said, adding that the charges would be much higher as they are brought in on-demand.

To address the labour shortage, she said that the owners could divide different works between Indians and Bhutanese at a reasonable rate. “It is high time to revise the charges and fix a rate so that no one takes advantage of the situation.”

Most of the owners complained about the hiked service charges.

At the press conference on Wednesday, the Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, said that whoever enters the country should be quarantined and the government is discussing who will bear the quarantine charges.