Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

It is 3.30pm.  The whole settlement is quiet except for three boys engrossed in a game of marbles.

The three friends were strangers a year ago, all living with their parents and relatives in various areas of Jaigaon, the neighbouring Indian town.

As Covid-19 cases emerged in Jaigaon, Bhutanese living in the town went into a frenzy.  They had young children and elderly members in their families to look after.  Their worst fear was in case the borders gates closed.  They couldn’t go to work in Bhutan and would remain deprived of any income to survive.

Luckily help came in time. It has been more than nine months since they moved to the Toorsa temporary settlement.

Under His Majesty The King’s command, the Royal Bhutan Army constructed the prefabricated temporary shelters at Toorsa.  A total of 1,000 units were constructed within weeks and an estimated 5,000 people have been evacuated and sheltered.  The first lot of shelters was given in May 2020. 

Residents today look back and dread to think what would have become of them if it were not for His Majesty The King’s timely intervention and providing them with refuge.

37-year-old Tendrel Tshomo is a single parent without a job. “Life could have been miserable,” the mother of two said.

She has been receiving relief Kidu of Nu 8,500 every month for the ninth time this month.

Tendrel Tshomo has two school-going daughters.  She raises her family weaving clothes and is looking for a job.

“I’ve got two Kidus: this house and the monthly relief amount. I can’t ever repay this debt of gratitude,” she said. “I pray for His Majesty The King’s long life.”

Another resident, Ugyen Choden, 27, said living across the border during the pandemic could have been a nightmare.

“We used to pay at least Nu 9,000 as rent,” she said.

Her husband’s business collapsed when the Covid-19 cases surfaced in Phuentsholing.  The town was identified as a red-zone with restrictions placed on businesses and movement to other parts of the country.  The temporary shelter had come as the biggest relief.

Ugyen Choden did not apply for the relief kidu (monetary assistance) when it was rolled out in April last year.  Her family was managing from their savings.

“But after the second lockdown, I had to take the relief Kidu money,” she said.

“I wish and pray to be born as a Bhutanese under my King.”

Prior to the pandemic, many Bhutanese chose to stay across the border because the house rent was cheap.  Most residents were from the low-income group.

When the border gate closed on March 23 last year, they found themselves at a difficult cross-road.

However, they were evacuated eventually and placed in the classrooms in schools.  After the prefabricated shelters were completed, they were then shifted to Toorsa.

Niraj Rai, 32, said the Kidu settlement has given him the opportunity to live in Bhutan (Phuentsholing), which otherwise had become a far-fetched dream given the exorbitant house rents.

Recalling his life across the border, Lobzang, who is a security guard in a corporate office, said he spent more than half of his salary on rent.  The electricity and water bills were quite high too.

“I don’t have to worry about rent here. It’s safe and peaceful,” the 59-year-old said. “Everyone here has received the gift of Kidu from the King. I couldn’t be more grateful for anything else.”

A class 7 student, Chimi Wangmo said she loves to stay in the temporary settlement. “I’ve got more friends here,” she said.

The residents will join Bhutanese across the nation today in offering prayers and wishes for the long life, good health and happiness on the 41st birth anniversary of His Majesty The King. 

“While I say these prayers every day, today it’s special,” said Lobzang.