Covid-19 will go, good relations will have to stay, say people on both sides
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Mobile phones glued to their ears and eyes fixed on the other side of the gate, several people wait near the Phuentsholing main gate everyday. A plastic tray has been placed at the gate.
Azad Ansari, 21, a tailor in Phuentsholing picks up some medicines from the tray and drops a wad of cash. Azad Ansari’s parents are in Bihar and he wants to send some money. His relatives in Jaigaon will transfer from there.
After the border gate was closed on March 23 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown in Jaigaon on March 25, this is how people in Phuentsholing (including Indians staying in the town) and Jaigaon engage daily.
This gesture, many say, is a display of a true friendship between the people in the border towns. Bhutan sealed its international borders as a national strategy to prevent the import and transmission of Covid-19. For a small, resource-constrained country with limited and fragile healthcare system, the government was compelled to do it as a necessary measure.
However, despite the rising Covid-19 infection and related challenges, the Government of India (GoI) provided full support in facilitating supply of both essential items and other goods, including industrial raw materials to Bhutan. The Indian counterparts across the border had also facilitated trade and movement of people.
Similarly, recognising the friendship between the people along border areas and the interdependence, Bhutan has been engaging in trade and business with people in border towns, especially Jaigaon, to the fullest extent possible.
As 90 percent of bilateral trade occurs through Phuentsholing via Jaigaon, both trading towns were hit severely as they depend heavily on each other. Eventually, measures were put in both the towns to ease doing business.
On May 4, the West Bengal state government relaxed the lockdown allowing most businesses in Jaigaon to resume. However, since then, Jaigaon business community has been pushing for the international border gate to open.
Interest groups creating problems
Phuentsholing and Jaigaon have always enjoyed the most cordial relationship for ages. The people-to-people cooperation has been outstanding based on long-standing friendship and goodwill as close neighbours.
Even in this pandemic, trade of goods and services has been happening despite challenges. From a small nut-bolt to mobile phones and major construction materials and grocery items, Bhutanese still buy from Jaigaon.
However, on July 6, export of vegetables from Bhutan via Jaigaon was disrupted. According to close Kuensel sources, certain interest groups in Jaigaon and nearby towns disrupted the export.
Vegetables export usually begins in May, but this year due to Covid-19, it was initiated only on June 18. Although export was smooth for about two weeks, the disruption affected both Bhutanese farmers and Indian traders across the border.
One reason for the blockade of vegetable exports is attributed to the recent demand from some interest groups to open Bhutan’s international border in Phuentsholing.
Trading of fruits and vegetables between Bhutan and the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam is an annual event. Annually, about 5,000 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables are exported during summer and autumn months. In winter and spring, Bhutan imports almost thrice the amount of vegetables from India.
Export has resumed from July 16, but many say it is important for people on both sides to understand and appreciate that the fundamental objective of the lockdown in India and the sealing of Bhutan’s international borders, was to prevent the import and transmission of Covid-19.
The blockade of trade by certain interest groups, Phuentsholing residents say, is not in the interest of people on both sides and could undermine the excellent people-to-people relations in these towns.
“It is in the mutual interest of both the trade towns that utmost priority was given to the safety and security of the people living in the two border towns. They should understand that,” said a resident who had been living his entire life in the border town.
Views from Phuentsholing
Although Jaigaon pushes for the gate to open, both Bhutanese and Indians in Phuentsholing say it was not the time for such demand. It is also not right, they say.
A restaurant owner in Phuentsholing, Karma Tshering said that Phuentsholing and Jaigaon couldn’t survive without each other.
“But right now the most crucial goal is to fight the virus,” he said. “Everything is secondary.”
The restauranteur said if the international gate opened tomorrow, it would be difficult to control the movement of people. As a small landlocked nation, opening of gate would be a disastrous decision, he added.
Karma Tshering said that Jaigaon should understand that our relationship with them would never change. Calling the people in Jaigaon brothers, he said, “Pandemics will come and go but our relationship will stay forever.”
Others say that Jaigaon should also think more about the virus and protect its people. In terms of trade, Karma Tshering said both towns are equally affected.
“Business is still continuing. We are still buying from Jaigaon.”
Indians who are doing business in Phuentsholing are also aware that there is pressure from Jaigaon to open the gate. But they say it was futile to demand such a move.
Requesting anonymity, an Indian, running a business in Phuentsholing since the 1970s summed up the importance of the gate closure.
Using an Indian phrase, he said, “Jaan hai toh jahan hai (if there is health, there is wealth).”
The businessman said he had been telling people across the border to respect the decision of the Bhutanese government.
“It is only our people who want the gate opened without understanding the consequences,” he said. “It is only a few people who are playing with the public emotions across the border.”
Another Indian businessman in Phuentsholing, who also requested anonymity, said that people must understand that Bhutan and India are two different countries.
“Whether business is down in Jaigaon or not is not the concern here,” he said.
“The problems are different on the two sides of the gate and should be handled on their own respectively.”
Despite the closure, Bhutan has been importing both essential items and other goods including industrial raw materials from India. From March to July in 2019, the country imported essentials worth about Nu 2.19 billion (B). Despite the pandemic, from March until today, Bhutan has imported essentials worth Nu 3.31B.
For the same period last year, Bhutan imported other goods (including industrial raw materials) worth Nu 10.94B, which this year has decreased to Nu 7.34B. Records also show that from March to July 2019, Bhutan imported petroleum products worth Nu 3.004B. From March until today, import of petroleum was worth Nu 1.82B.
Altogether, Bhutan’s import value was Nu 16.14B from March to July in 2019. From March until today, Bhutan’s import value is Nu 12.47B. In contrast to pre-Covid-19 time, mostly Indian vehicles have been engaged in transporting goods from India to Bhutan, especially from Jaigaon and nearby towns to Phuentsholing.
“Covid-19 will go; relationship will stay”
The general secretary (GS) of Jaigaon Hardware & Electrical Merchant’s Welfare Association (JHEMWA), Rakesh Pandey said the relationship of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon is that of “blood and flesh.”
“We have grown together. Covid-19 will go but our relationship should stay. There shouldn’t be any problem. If Phuentsholing is in pain, we are also in pain,” he said.
The GS said that it is not right to ask Bhutan to open the gate, as Bhutan and India are two countries with different policies that should be respected. However, Rakesh Pandey said people should see how both Jaigaon and Phuentsholing could benefit from each other.
“Jaigaon is never against Bhutan. We depend on each other. If the two governments maintain the relationship, it is also Jaigaon and Phuentsholing’s duty to maintain it,” he said.
On doing business, Rakesh Pandey said cost has increased in sending hardware materials from Phuentsholing. What cost Nu 3,000 to Nu 4,000 to send 100 to 200 packets of tiles to Thimphu prior to pandemic now costs about Nu 4,000 to Nu 5,000 to just drop the materials at Phuentsholing, he said. There are other costs from transshipment, loading and unloading charges that Bhutanese have to pay.
The GS also said that Jaigaon is a “green zone” and that Bhutanese vehicles should be allowed to directly enter Jaigaon for loading. This will ease transportation and minimise breakages.
He said that processing demand drafts was a problem. Today, it is done only in one or two months’ time and it is not smooth.
“We would be happy if it could be done weekly and smoothly,” he said.
The GS also suggested allowing Bhutanese vehicles to enter Jaigaon for repair works and Bhutanese employers to bear the quarantine costs if they needed Indian workers.
Another businessman in Jaigaon, Anil Prasad said while Jaigaon depended on Bhutan, it is difficult to say anything with the situation worsening. Jalpaiguri district has recorded 88 positive cases as of Wednesday.
On the problems, Anil Prasad said the conversion of Ngultrum to INR was a major problem.
Although demand drafts are made but the frequency is low and it is delayed, he said adding that they cannot replenish their stock even if they have money, in Ngultrums.
Meanwhile, Kuensel found out that the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) has been facilitating INR remittances through demand drafts and Real Time Gross Settlements (RTGS) since March this year. During this period, RMA regional office in Phuentsholing has facilitated INR remittances six times, comprising close to 700 transactions for Indian traders in Jaigaon. The latest transaction was done on June 28.
The government also had already made it clear that the employers who wish to bring in skilled workers have to bear the quarantine costs. Recently, more than 150 vehicles have entered Phuentsholing after undergoing repairs in Jaigaon.
Meanwhile, near the gate, standing in queue, Parmila Tamang also waits for her turn to collect a document, which is being brought from Jaigaon.
“It is a cheque,” she said, adding that a Jaigaon businessman with a Bhutanese trade license was stuck in Jaigaon after the lockdown.
“Although his shop is still closed, he insists keeping the space and pay rent regularly. The building owner also has given 30 percent waiver on the rent.”