In July 2016, the then government decided to temporarily ban the import of chillies. It was decided after discovering a high level of pesticides in the imported spice -considered a vegetable only in Bhutan.
The decision was lauded even if Bhutanese cannot do without chillies for a single meal. It was for the safety of the consumers. The Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regularity Authority (BAFRA) implemented the ban and, even today, closely monitors import of chillies and a few other vegetables that were made off the import list.
At the entry points, BAFRA officials are strict with the rule. Therefore, quite often we hear or see officials seizing and disposing off imported chillies. The latest was in Tsirang where officials seized 585 kgs of chillies and another 200 kgs of beans in Tsirang. The vehicle carrying about 700kgs of vegetables was on its way from Gelephu, the border town.
Chilli is indispensable to Bhutanese. It is like onions to Indians. No dish is complete without chillies. Therefore, the absence or shortage of it creates panic. When supply goes down, the poorest of the poor are affected the most.
When the ban was implemented, politicians assured consumers that there would be strategies to fill the shortages in winter. Bhutan is chilli-sufficient in summer. Chilli is available today. But it is expensive. When a necessity becomes dearer, people resort to illegal means to buy it cheap or make it available at a reasonable price.
Surprisingly, those living across the border have no problem. Contaminated or clean, they consume the same chillies. The only difference is the quantity consumed, bought or sold. And there are those who have the means to sneak it in with or without the notice of the officials at the border. Government and military vehicles are alleged to be the safest mode to bring them in.
Following the Tsirang incident, some are even questioning how the Bolero pick up truck carrying 700 kgs of vegetables escaped the eyes of officials at Gelephu and Sarpang check posts.
The last thing we should do is encourage import. The ban has led to more Bhutanese getting into winter vegetable cultivation, especially chillies. However, it is only starting to pick up. As long as the ban remains, there will be incidents of illegal import.
What we have forgotten after the ‘temporary’ ban is perhaps following up on the tests. Three years is a long time. Have we done another round of laboratory testing of the chillies? If so, people should be regularly warned or informed to discourage consuming such produce.
The average Bhutanese is not in a position to differentiate Terasani from Akashi chillies. For them, all Indian chillies are jitsi ema. The safest way is to make people aware of the varieties of chillies still banned following updated laboratory tests.
Nobody wants to die from eating contaminated chillies. If consumers stop buying because they are aware of the repercussions, there will be no sellers or suppliers.