Male Iron Rat Year

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

When the border gate was sealed on March 23 last year in response to the global pandemic, the country’s largest trading town was not prepared for the consequences.

While it exposed how much Phuentsholing depended on imported labourers, as more than 500 daily wage earners from across the border never returned to work, Bhutanese took up the jobs gradually.

More than 30 drayang workers took up parking fee collection jobs. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the parking agency had about 38 fee collectors, of which 27 were from across the border and 11 were Bhutanese. Some of the drayang workers became the city’s sewerage system cleaners.

The country’s only mini dry port that caters as a transit house for most of the imported goods was also impacted with labour shortage.

Bhutanese youth took up the loading job and by June, about 160 people, mostly jobless youth, were engaged. However, the journey for Bhutanese loaders was never smooth. As they gained experience, importers started complaining of exorbitant loading, unloading and transhipment charges.

Amidst the issue, the cost of goods and commodities increased and the end consumers were affected across the country. Importers, mostly traders and shopkeepers attributed the inflation to the high charges for loading jobs at the MDP.

By June end, the task force revised the labour charges but importers still claimed the manual charges were high and the cost of essential goods and commodities, although negligible, never decreased. Importers then blamed that the cost of essentials had increased in India due to the disruptions by Covid-19.

The two nationwide lockdowns had their own impact in Phuentsholing.

Phuentsholing suffered most after the first nationwide lockdown, as positive cases surfaced from the MDP, Project DANTAK and IMTRAT.

As the lockdown in other dzongkhags eventually eased, some zones in Phuentsholing even stayed under lockdown for more than 50 days.

Phuentsholing had not been the same. The economy had taken a hit, especially, small-time businesses, including restaurants and bars. The closing time, which was 9pm prior to the lockdown changed to 8pm.

The seven days’ quarantine system also came into force after the lockdown. It became mandatory for Phuentsholing residents to stay in quarantine before travelling to Thimphu and beyond.

A 30-year-old-man, who was stranded, had to even sleep at the Zangdopelri Lhakang when he had exhausted all his cash.

He was in a hotel since August 10, one day prior to the lockdown. He continued in the same hotel until August 26. He was later accommodated in a government-funded facility.

Residents also took to social media their frustrations in handling vegetables and other essentials’ supplies. It took more than a week for smooth delivery.

After the second lockdown, Phuentsholing has become a resilient and cautious town. All the shops are required to mandatorily keep hand-washing facilities. The RIGSS Covid-19 hospital for the first time since August 12, 2020 did not have a single Covid-19 patient on January 13.

Meanwhile, Phuentsholing residents are still in shock, as two Bhutanese women were found brutally murdered in Jaigaon in June last year.

The bodies of the two women, a 22-year-old from Lokchina, Chukha and 26-year-old from Chuzergang, Sarpang were found at Mechey Basti in Jaigaon early morning by the locals. One of the deceased was suspected of being raped and murdered.

Counterpart police arrested two suspects the same evening and the suspects confessed to the crime. The suspects were then produced to the court.