Fuel: It is the first day of the New Year. There is no time for celebrations. It is just another day at work for Arzin, the 37-year-old woman from Jaigaon.
At the Pipal Dara roadside, the clock has ticked 2:37pm. At a slightly higher elevation from the dusty Phuentsholing town, the evening’s warm wind rightly chords a mood for Arzin and her friends to toil. It is indeed now, when Phuentsholing is waking up to the eve’s hangover, they must work even harder.
Wearing a sheepish smile, this group of nine women weaves their collection of firewood into bundles. The focus they exhibit in their endeavour indicates collecting firewood is a serious business. The branches and twigs will serve nine homes as cooking fuel tonight.
“This bundle will last about two to three days,” Arzin said. “We cook food, boil water, and keep our homes warm.”
Hastily clarifying they do not cut down trees, dying or green, Arzin said she understands the rules in Bhutan. Felling of trees, the mother of four explained, would attract forest guards in the town.
Morzeenia, on the other hand, is anxious as she knows what they are doing is illegal. It takes Arzin’s soothing words for her to open up to a conversation.
“We do not come regularly,” the 30-year-old said, explaining it was New Year holiday that has given them opportunity. “I am a labourer in a construction site in Phuentsholing.”
Mother of five, Morzeenia said her family could not afford Liquid Petroleum Gas. She relies on the twigs, branches, and discarded woods on the streets or forests.
The struggle of Morzeenia and Arzin, meanwhile, is a common story in Phuentsholing. Rain or shine, there are always someone in the town, as far as Torsa embankments, who are hunting fallen branches and twigs.
The abundance of firewood littering around lures them. With more competition in Jaigaon, people are easily tempted to cross the border, take risks, and gather firewood.
“Woods are available aplenty in Phuentsholing,” another woman, friend of Arzin and Morzeenia said, pointing out that Bhutanese are kind people. “People advise us to lift only the broken branches and twigs.”
A particular route to carry the firewood is identified. Although the picking can be done anywhere in the town or the outskirts, the exit is via the Chinese Lane gate. The gate is hassle-free and spacious to exit with wood rolls that could weigh about 15-20kg.
Foresters in Phuentsholing term this practice “illegal.” Five days ago, foresters had apprehended few from across the border collecting woods. “We seized their belongings to demotivate them,” an official said. “We miss to monitor at times when we are in the fieldwork.”
With Phuentsholing sharing a porous border with Jaigaon, foresters say it was also hard to monitor such practices at a regular basis. Officials also do not punish harshly whenever cases are caught.
“We advise them not to come,” the official said, explaining they kept on coming despite discouraging them. “The numbers, however, have decreased.”
Foresters say firewood collection practices flourish in places starting from Torsa embankments until Pasakha. As of now, no cases of such people felling trees have been reported.
Although illegal, town residents say there is no harm, if trees are not chopped. Residents remember a distinct moment in Phuentsholing when the wood collectors became a great help.
The windstorm in April 2015 had left the city in a mess with trees or branches fallen all over. Despite risks in the windstorm, many people, especially, women, from across the border lifted the branches and eased the thromde office’s job to clear the town.
Meanwhile, at Pipal Dara roadside Arzin’s gang is ready with their load. It is now time for the most horrendous stint in their venture—to carry the wood. While Arzin and Morzeenia kept talking, their expressions change as they struggle the firewood on their head. They bid farewell to the stranger, while their friends walk without an expression.
About 30 minutes later, Arzin and Morzeenia are seen leaning on a wall near the Lama Building, while others have left. After another 10 minutes, the duo exit from the Chinese Lane gate.
They give a dying smile as they walk on and eventually fade in the rush of a thickly populated lane crowd. For two days, their kitchen will cook.
Rajesh Rai, Phuentsholing