Rajesh Rai  | Phuentsholing

The Mini Dry Port (MDP) in Phuentsholing, from where the first Covid-19 positive case was reported, is returning to business, albeit slowly.

The port has 44 new loaders. With almost 60 customs officials in quarantine, 20 officials from Paro have been moved to Phuentsholing on August 15 and began work at MDP since August 17.

Import is not open yet and only those vehicles, stranded or en route to Bhutan, are cleared.

As of August 25, about 167 consignments out of the 176 listed as stranded across the border have been cleared at the MDP. This is excluding import-export of industrial raw materials or finished goods from Allay land customs station in Pasakha.

The director general (DG) with the Department of Revenue and Customs (DRC), Wangchuk Thayey said operationalising MDP is an ongoing process.

“Although there is no new import order since the lockdown, it is still difficult to monitor,” he said adding that many import vehicles could be on the way or stranded and not listed.

While the issuance of license for third country import has been stopped, the DG said that the import from India could remain a challenge as there is free trade without the requirement of issuing a license. People might still place order and claim it was placed prior to the lockdown, he said.

In terms of third-country import, as of August 25, there were 128 containers in Kolkata port yet to be cleared. Also, there were 28 containers in Jaigaon. Eight containers were between Jaigaon and Kolkata and en route to Bhutan.

Wangchuk Thayey said that DRC is facilitating the services in a “regulated manner.”

“It’s not like before where 200-300 vehicles could enter. Now, only 20-28 stranded vehicles are allowed to enter a day,” he said.

There are also not many loaders today, he said, and that the MDP also gets only 10 customs officials in a shift compared to 20 before.

In the past, vehicles were randomly cleared by the customs office in Jaigaon and permitted to enter Phuentsholing. Now, trade and customs office prepare the list of vehicles to be released by Indian customs prior to their entry.

Customs officials provide details of vehicles that should be let through to the counterpart custom officials. Police are also informed to allow entry of these vehicles.

For transshipment at MDP, importers must first send the contact details of the vehicles that would come at MDP. They will be informed which vehicles would enter Phuentsholing.

After the transshipment, the vehicles drive until the Rinchending check post. From there, a different driver, who is already identified by the importer and crosschecked by relevant agencies takes over the vehicle.

Phuentsholing-based drivers cannot drive beyond Rinchending checkpost. Before the vehicle is handed over to a new driver, all health safety measures are followed.

Although the flow was not smooth in the initial days of lockdown, DRC DG Wangchuk Thayey said it has improved.

“It is much more regulated now. And the top priority is to break the transmission chain,” he said.

New loaders

A new batch of 44 men has taken up the loading jobs at the MDP.

About 17 of them are from a community-based youth group called Bhutan Happy Helping Hands (BHHH) in Phuentsholing.

Its representative, Phurba Wangchuk, 40, said he came along with the members to encourage them.

“This is a difficult time and we wanted to help,” he said.

Phurba Wangchuk said that the loaders are highly cautious and maintain utmost safety protocol at the workplace.

“We keep sanitising and wear masks until we go to bed,” he said.

The loaders are also stationed in a school and strictly monitored. Five loaders are given a room each and they cook on their own and don’t mingle with other groups. They are dropped at MDP and picked up by a bus.

Kuensel learned that many who were registered with Phuentsholing labour office withdrew from working at the MDP. Some were in other dzongkhags and couldn’t make it.

When the border was sealed on March 23, the cheap labourers from across the border couldn’t enter and work at MDP which led to an acute shortage of labourers at MDP.

Eventually, many unemployed youth and those who lost jobs due to the pandemic started working at the MDP. About 181 were involved at the MDP until the lockdown on August 11.