Chimi Dema | Gelephu

It is only 8pm in the border town of Gelephu. But the otherwise busy commercial hub for central Bhutan is deserted. The town’s residents have returned home. There are hardly any cars on the road.

While residents have retired to an early night on a Friday, 70 members of the community are out to ensure their safety. With canes and torches in hands, they have come out for the daily patrolling of the town and its periphery.

The men have gathered one hour late than their usual time, as they were busy helping unload Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited’s rations.

The volunteers, mainly from the chiwogs nearby the town split in three groups of six members. From 8pm until midnight,  they monitor the Gelephu-Zhemgang highway, stopping commuters and cars passing by. They also search and question when they become suspicious of commuters and motorists.

Another four groups comprising of mostly elder members are patrolling around the bordering area and along Maokhola riverbank.

A resident, Gopi Lal Bhandari, 57 from Pelrithang said they volunteered to keep an eye on the movement of people in the locality for the safety of the community.

Everybody is aware of the threat imposed by the new coronavirus. As a border town with several informal entries and susceptible to people sneaking in and out, the community is keeping vigil. Residents said that there were people from within and across the border who involves in illicit trafficking of controlled substances. “There have been cases of cattle lifting in the past as well,” one said.

The volunteers are strict. They stop people passing along the border area. If they are suspicious of new faces or strangers, they call the police for help.

Given the grave responsibility, the members are disciplined to not even chat while on duty. Volunteers use social media groups like Wechat to communicate for effective patrolling. “We need to exercise extra caution and be vigilant as anything might happen any time,” Navin Mongar, a class 12 student of Gelephu Higher Secondary School, said. Navin Mongar, along with a group of youth patrols a forested area in Pemathang.

Groups who patrol along the road ensure all shops in the vicinity are closed by 7pm. They check restaurants and bars that they suspect are entertaining crowds behind closed doors.

Led by the gewog leaders, the groups usually patrol the community and the highway from 7pm to 12am.

Pelrithang-Khatoed Tshogpa, Sangay Dorji said that when done on shift systems, patrolling goes on until 6am. According to volunteers, one of the challenges confronting them is threat from the commuters. “While many cooperate, some feel they are being intruded,” Sangay Dorji said.

Meanwhile, the tshogpa said that as monsoon is approaching, temporary shelters would also be constructed for volunteers to protect them from rain. “As long as the situation continues, we are willing to serve,” he said.

Similarly, in the neighbouring gewog of Sershong, about 25 community members patrol the community and highway, every night.

Gup Tshering said that there were about 300 volunteers and the gewog maintains a rooster for duty.

In Jigmecholing gewog, there were about 95 community members helping in patrolling around border areas.

Since the sealing of Gelephu-Datgari checkpoint on March 23, security personnel and surveillance teams have been deployed round the clock at all the points of entry in Sarpang.

A police source said that community volunteers have filled the gap where police and Desuups couldn’t cover. The source said there is no shortage of human resources required for patrolling.

But a growing challenge, the source said, is controlling the movement of people across the porous border as people create their own route to sneak in and out. “This demands us to remain vigilant and make necessary arrangements for team,” he said.

Civil servants from National Land Commission who volunteered for surveillance have been also deployed along with security personnel at various entry points since last Saturday.

Sarpang Dzongdag Karma Galay said that there were more villagers and civil servants who have come forward showing interest in volunteering. “Currently, we are listing those who are interested as we may need more in the future,” he said.