Transport: Even when the government is looking to push through Parliament an ambitious road connectivity plan involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) that truckers fear will open up competition from foreign vehicles, Indian trucks are already competing with Bhutanese trucks to carry goods between points in Bhutan.

According to the Truckers’ Association of Bhutan (TAB), Indian trucks have been carrying coal and clinkers from Nganglam in Pemagatshel to Gomtu, Gelephu and Phuentsholing. Indian truckers are also competing with Bhutanese counterparts to transport the same goods from Samdrupjongkhar to the industrial towns.

Both the points of loading and unloading are within Bhutanese territory. Although the informal arrangement between the two countries is that Indian cargo vehicles can transport goods only from India to Bhutan, the grey area is that they travel via Indian territories.

A truckers’ representative, BB Tamang, said the government should not allow foreign trucks to carry goods between points in Bhutan. “Although those Indian trucks travel via India the points of loading and unloading are within Bhutan,” he said.

According to TAB, Indian trucks can transport goods from their country to Bhutan but cannot pick up goods from Bhutan to be delivered within Bhutan. “The Department of Revenue and Customs should stop issuing permits to them,” BB Tamang said.

A truck operator from Pemagatshel said trucks from the neighbouring states of India have affected their business. “Often we don’t get work because of competition from Indian trucks,” he said.

However, he said that some of the trucks have stopped coming as there is no demand for clinkers in the Penden Cement Authority Ltd (PCAL). “If PCAL revives its demand for the goods the trucks will come back again,” he said.

Information and communications minister DN Dhungyel said there is no written rules in place that allow foreign trucks to carry goods between points in Bhutan and that there may not be many such practices happening. “If such cases exist, we also don’t have any rules to penalise those foreign vehicles,” he said.

Only foreign vehicles that are allowed to ply their trade within Bhutan, Lyonpo DN Dhungyel, are large Indian trucks that are being used to carry heavy equipment to hydropower projects that Bhutanese trucks cannot carry. “They have been registered with the Road Safety and Transport Authority,” he said.

Indian trucks are allowed to ply within 5km from the international border.

Issues regarding Indian buses operating for the hydropower projects to transport labourers within Bhutan, and to and from India have also been raised. Lyonpo DN Dhungyel said an agreement will be forged with the project authorities to sort out this issue.

Meanwhile, the government hopes to address the issues regarding Indian vehicles affecting Bhutanese transport operators with implementation of the BBIN motor vehicle agreement that will be deliberated and voted on during the upcoming summer session of Parliament. The agreement, which was passed by the National Assembly earlier, will be put to vote in a joint session as the last winter session of the National Council voted not to ratify it.

The truckers association also wants the government to sort out other issues like harassment of Bhutanese drivers and truckers while plying in India. The government says the BBIN agreement will formalise the existing informal transport arrangements between Bhutan and India.

Transport operators say Bhutanese truckers and passengers continue to face harassment while travelling in Indian states. They are required to pay gunda tax (illegal fees) and are coerced into making donations while the problem is also aggravated by interferences of illegal and quasi-legal authorities.

BB Tamang said the Bhutanese transport operators also face the brunt of illegal activities carried out by Indian citizens who use vehicles with Bhutanese number plates. “Many Bhutanese vehicles have been sold to Indian nationals but they still carry Bhutanese number plates in India, and Indian police have found a few such cases,” he said.

If at all the BBIN agreement comes through, the truckers want the government to address those issues through the framework of the BBIN protocol that will provide the guidelines for implementation of the agreement among the four countries.

Truckers say that owners of most of the Bhutanese cars that get destroyed in conflicts in Indian states do not get compensation. They say that the main challenge for Bhutanese drivers who encounter problems in India is dealing with authorities there.

These sorts of problems, they say, have been happening for a long time in West Bengal, Assam and the Bangladesh border area. They say they often face harassment while crossing checkpoints in India.

MB Subba