Bhutan used to barter rice for salt with Tibet. Rice from East Bhutan was exported mainly through Bumthang and bartered with salt in trade marts in the highest plains in the world. However, the trade practice ceased in 1955. Our Government banned the export of the cereal grain and the official reason cited was that rice was required to meet the domestic demand. As a result of the embargo, the Tibetans retaliated by banning the export of salt.
Details of the ban and its consequences are recorded in Nari K. Rustomji’s book, Bhutan Venture, A Guest at the Royal Court. Rustomji was the Dewan of Sikkim. As a close friend of Bhutan, he was fondly known as Uncle Rustomji. At the time of the salt crises, he was in the country invited for a royal wedding.
On his way back home, after attending the royal wedding in Bumthang, Uncle Rustomji writes a letter to Shri Apa B Pant who was the Political Officer in Sikkim. This 25-point letter, dated 15 August and written from camp Ridha in Wangdue Phodrang has insights of the Bumthang salt crisis.
Point 16 of the letter reads, “The Tibetans have retaliated by banning the export of salt to Bhutan. This has created something of a crisis, as salt is an absolute essential in Bhutanese diet.”
To resolve the crises, our Government studied few options but settled for air dropping of 5,000 maunds in the Bumthang valley in October. One maund is 37.32 kilograms so the target was to air drop 186,600 kgs of salt.
By Uncle Rustomji’s calculation, if salt had to be transported by land from India to Bumthang, it would cost nearly Rs. 40 per maund. At the time, a senior secretary of the government was paid Rs. 200 a month and one could buy a cow for Rs.75.
It seems that Uncle Rustomji was the one who proposed the idea of airdropping to His Late Majesty.
As per His Late Majesty’s command, Late Lyonchen Jigme Palden Dorji (1919-1964) arranging the air drops. “I rushed off to Calcutta to make arrangements and drop salt in Bumthang where, as you yourself know, there is very little salt; as a matter of fact, there is no salt there now.” Lyonchen’s letter to Uncle Rustomji, dated 21 October 1955 from Dechencholing.
From the letter, we learn that the air drops were negotiated with three air transport firms; I.A.C, Indamere and Jamair. At the time I.A.C was busy with flood relief operations and showed no interest. After much persuasion Jamair which was privately owned and based in Calcutta showed interest. They felt competent to do the salt dropping and even offered a complimentary survey flight but was not able secure the necessary permits.
Interestingly, by then I.A.C had already conducted two survey flights in Bhutan. They found the air dropping areas not suitable and suggested change in the area. The two identified spots for airdropping were the meadow of the Wangduechhoeling Palace before reaching Kurjey Lhakhang and the flat land on the bank of Chamkarchu near the Palace.
With the salt crises in Bumthang, the late Lyonchen was in a hurry but his counterparts in India were not. His letter to Uncle Rustomji states,“Apa Sahib has sent me a wireless message to say to be patient and have faith. Goodness knows why I have to have patience and have faith in Apa Sahib for I have had letters from Bumthang and to quote from it, “The people here are praying and blessing you for having promised to drop salt to them and every time there is a loud roar, the whole valley gets excited and says here comes Jigme’s salt. “If I should fail them now in their life time of need and after my loud promises, do you honestly think that they will ever trust me again, for to go around saying it is not my fault would be absolutely puerile to vindicate myself.”
Finally, on 6 November, the much-awaited salt dropping started. The details of this operation are in Late Dasho Ugen Dorji (1932-2006) letter to Uncle Rustomji. The letter is written from Wangduechhoeling on 17 November, “As you must have known from Jigs, the salt air-dropping has begun from 6th November.”
From Dasho’s letter, we learn that the first and the second days of air dropping were disastrous. The plane was flying too high and the dropping was inaccurate. Fourteen bags of salt were lost; Eight bags landed in the river and six hit against the rocks and were shattered and ruined. The remaining bags were either damaged or torn. Dasho writes, “Now the dropping has improved a great deal. They are only concentrating dropping at one place (Jampa Lhakhang). The damages are much less.”
From the letter we learn that. I.A.C did three sorties daily. On each sortie, 82 bags of salt were dropped. From the 246 bags, four or five bags were damaged. From each bag seven to eight pounds of salt were ruined. While rest of details are yet to be discovered, we known in 11 days, 2,706 kgs. of salt were airdropped against the target of 186,000 kgs.
In his letter to Uncle Rustomji, Dasho Ugen Dorji writes, “I have not yet started selling the salt, as I have not received any fixed orders from His Highness [His Majesty ] at what price, I should sell the salt to the people here.”
The Trade Marts
During his stay in Bumthang, Uncle Rustomji quickly figured out that Bhutan’s ban on rice export originated from considerations other than of merely local demand. He was able to sense the Bhutanese displeasure about the Tibetan’s unfair trade practice.
Bhutanese traders got the raw end of the deal. For example, our traders were only allowed to sell rice in prescribed Tsongdhue or marts in Tibet. They had to first sell a big portion of their wares to the Tibetan government depots for a bargain. Only then, were they allowed to sell their produce in the open market.
The Tshongdue of Tsona was held annually in the 5th month. At the trade mart prices were negotiated on the first day after the merchant had greeted each other and exchanged gifts. Usually, one dre of salt was exchanged for one dre of rice. The salt was measured leveled to the rim of the dre while the rice had to be measured heaped above the rim.
While the exchange was in progress, a lump of salt, called a drang doh or counting stone was kept aside as a marker for every 20 dres of salt measured. The counting stones were claimed by the person who did the tedious task of measuring dre after dre of salt.
In 1953, during the Tsongdhue held on the fifth month, rice was fetching Rs.45/- or 100 Betangs per load of rice. At the time, one Rupee coin or note could fetch three Betangs.
In 1955, His Late Majesty wanted to break the long-established unhealthy trade trend. So, decided to ban the export of rice until the Tibetan’s agreed to lift the unfair restrictions on Bhutan trade.
In his letter, Uncle Rustomji wrote, “I understand the matter will shortly be taken up officially and the Bhutan Government expect the government of India to have it suitable represented with the Chinese authorities at Peking.”
The 1955 ban of export of rice to Tibet resulted in a ban of salt from Tibet. This created a brief salt crisis in Bumthang but was overcome with the help of India. Five years, in 1960 Bhutan imposed a total ban on trade with its northern neighbour.