Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Unable to bring their goods stuck in Jaigaon into Phuentsholing, importers in Phuentsholing and Thimphu are frustrated.

According to sources, there are more than 8,000 vehicles stuck across the border due to the increased backlog.

They said if not resolved, it could lead to inflation, which is already on the rise since the pandemic started and the border gates closed in March 2020.

Customs registration system hacked

An online vehicle registration system was initiated last year.

Initially, it was the trade office that handled the registration. Importers from across the country would register their details prior to importing. Trade office would then accept it, depending on a first-come-first basis and the importance of the goods.

It was then handed over to the customs office. Then a google document registration system was used, but importers were finding the registration increasingly difficult.

With importers desperate to get their consignments into Bhutan, but unable to get it done, some people, allegedly from across the border, hacked into the registration system and made a ‘pay and register system’ without the government agencies knowing it.

Importers who made the payments got their registration done.

An importer paid Nu 1,000 each as registration fee for the consignment.

An importer said he received the registration confirmation message immediately after paying. “I paid through MBOB.”

Given the close link Phuentsholing people have with people across the border in Jaigaon, the businessman said the payment mode was not a problem. “Bhutanese individuals who received the money on behalf of their friends across the border may have been oblivious to such scam.”

Another importer, who paid for registration said his registration was successful after the payment.

“Maybe the system was hacked.”

He said whoever developed the system may be involved. “Otherwise, people would not be able to manage the system.”

Another importer, Sangay Rigsel, said he has been trying to register for non-essential goods for almost 75 days. “But the registration was rejected with a message that the maximum limit for non-essential was over every day.”

He said there is an Indian driver, who delivered his goods when he could register.

“When I informed him about my registration being rejected, he told me that he received a call late at night from someone saying that his vehicle got registered to deliver non-essential items.”

Sangay Rigsel said he is wondering how registration was done late at night when it remains open only for half an hour during the day.

He questioned if there was favouritism or are people responsible for opening and closing the registration doing this to fetch some commission.

“Looks like the registration is sold for a few thousand. There are concerns from many importers with regards to this unreliable registration system.”

He said concerned authorities must intervene and give equal opportunity to all the importers.

“Or the agency should take all the registration and give the chances as per the que of the registration.”

Kuensel learned from informal sources that the scammers charged Nu 1,000 to Nu 2,500 for registration and the registration issue was also mostly related to import of non-essential goods.

New system and frustration

A new system of vehicle registration, where the registration must be completed a day ahead of the entry commenced on June 25, but failed to help.

Importers are even pointing that some importers were getting more registration and doubt if the system was compromised again.

According to the new system, essential goods should be registered from 10am to 11am and non-essential goods from 11:30am to noon. It is based on first-come-first registration and subject to verification of documents.

A businessman, Lal Bahadur, from Thimphu said he said people are having a tough time registering. “Our goods got stranded in Jaigaon for more than a month.”

Lal Bahadur said demurrage charges go up to Nu 3,000 per day in Jaigaon and it would be expensive if the days extended without registration.

The proprietor of Phuentsholing based MS Tshongkhag said he supplies raw materials to cottage industries in Punakha, Zhemgang, Paro and Thimphu and has not been able to bring in his consignment after the lockdown.

“I send raw materials such as chemicals and pulps. It has been two months since I have not been able to bring the materials to Phuentsholing,” he said. “Vehicle registration closes down the moment we open it.”

The biggest concern, he said, is that the materials have been in Jaigaon for a long time and there was not much guarantee for safety.

“We have government supply orders. They have asked to deliver within June due to June closing. That is giving us pressure. We paid to the suppliers but we may not get paid from the government.”

Similarly, another supplier based in Phuentsholing, Sonam Tobgay said he has been trying to register daily after the new system commenced but in vain.

“I tried from my phone, laptops, i-pad, and desktop. I even tried from Thimphu thinking the internet was slow in Phuentsholing, but it has not worked so far,” he said. “There are some who registered frequently. I got the registration done yesterday but I haven’t yet got the confirmation.”

Sonam Tobgay said he also supplies to the government agencies and there is a growing pressure to supply on time due to the June closing. “Our goods are in Jaigaon and we want to send them to Thimphu. The agencies that order with us don’t understand this. It would be good even if we get to bring our consignments once or twice in a month.”

Meanwhile, an importer, Jagdish, managed to bring his consignment from Samtse after keeping it in Jaigaon for seven days and paying Nu 7,500 as demurrage charges. “But bringing from Samtse is expensive.”

He said he paid more than Nu 55,000 to transport the goods from Jaigaon to Samtse, from Samtse to Amochhu bridge and then to Thimphu, including loading, transshipment and demurrage charges.


Prices increasing in Thimphu

In Thimphu, prices of goods and commodities are increasing. With the loading and transshipment charges at the Mini Dry Port (MDP) already inflating the prices since the pandemic, this delay of registration is further adding to the inflation.

A Thimphu resident Tashi said prices have increased manifold. “When we ask the shop owners, they say the loading charge is the cause.”

Another resident, Phuntsho said prices of everything increased in the capital. “I used to buy metal tubes for roof trusses at Nu 50 to 60 per kg before. Now, it is Nu 78 to 81 per kg.”

A Thimphu based businessman said an MDP loader had asked him for extra commission for loading.

“I called the owner of the Dhendup Enterprise to complain. He asked me to call his manager. My load was left there because of this issue,” he said.

The businessman also said some of his hardware goods were broken when it reached Thimphu.

Some Thimphu importers are also pointing out there must be two contractors at MDP in order to offer a competitive basis and control the cost of loading, unloading and transshipment.

Kuensel also learned that the government is working on further expansion of parking space in Phuentsholing to allow entry of more vehicles.

The department of revenue and customs, as advised by the southern Covid-19 task force (SC-19TF) yesterday notified that the vehicle registration system will open for three hours from 9am to noon on July 3 to take stock of all stranded vehicles.

Edited by Tashi Dema