Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

As the country inches closer to amending the Tobacco Act and allow import and sale of tobacco products, law enforcers will still have to deal with tobacco cases.

This is because of huge consignments of tobacco smuggled from across the border in recent times.

After Phuentsholing police seized a huge consignment of tobacco products worth millions concealed in sofa sets at the Mini Dry Port (MDP) on the evening of May 26, police found out that a businessman in Thimphu had ordered the tobacco products.

Thimphu police then arrested the businessman, who is a former monk, and took him to Phuentsholing for investigation.

“Office of the Attorney General will charge the case to court,” a police source said.

It was learnt the sofa sets were specifically made for concealing purposes. The illegal consignment had cigarettes, unprocessed cigarettes (bidis) and chewing tobacco (BABA).

An Indian vehicle, a pick-up truck, with registration number “WB-73-A-7209” had brought the consignment.

The furniture consignment was headed to Thimphu and was registered in the name of the businessman. As per the documents from a source, a man called Suraj Mangar from across the border had sent the furniture.

According to Phuentsholing police, the consignment had 275 boxes of cigarettes (Navy Cut), 590 bundles of chewing tobacco, and 1,073 packets (gums) of two different unprocessed cigarettes (bidis).

The total worth of the consignment as per the duty-free rate would be Nu 1.5 millions (M), meaning if the products would have reached Thimphu, the earnings would triple. The furniture consignment valuation was just Nu 168,500.

This is not the only case police in Phuentsholing and Thimphu are investigating.

On June 21, another huge illegal consignment was seized at MDP. An Indian vehicle (WB-69-A-4957) has been impounded, as the tobacco products were hidden inside vegetable sacks. 

The importer is a vegetable vendor based in Thimphu.

Sources confirmed a 27-year-old businessman was supposed to receive the consignment. He was also arrested and taken to Phuentsholing custody for further interrogation and investigation.

A source said a hotelier in Jaigoan, Suraj Jaiswal, sent the 95 boxes of Navy Cut cigarettes, more than 1,300 two varieties of chewing tobacco and 49 bidi packets (gums) worth over Nu 1.5M.


Modus operandi

It is also evident modus operandi for smuggling tobacco changed with different smugglers.

Initially, smugglers would try to discreetly get the tobacco inside Phuentsholing. Toorsa river and Pasakha border areas were favourites, but strict surveillance and camera technology changed the status, as many were caught in attempts to smuggle.

On March 9 this year, two young policemen had a fight with miscreants from across the border, who were carrying tobacco from Pemaling. A policeman was even injured.

Sources said the smugglers don’t use discreet means anymore, but use the legal and official trade route and transportation system to smuggle.

These days a vehicle has to register with the customs online system in order to import. With the ongoing pandemic, MDP has become a hotspot. Unlike in the past, sources say physical verifications of the loads are not critically monitored due to the need to keep physical distance, providing opportunities of “collusion” among the suppliers and dealers.

Sources feared other than the vegetable and furniture consignments, tobacco could also mostly have been concealed in boxes bringing fruits, groceries, and hardwares.

Although Kuensel couldn’t confirm officially, it has been learned recently that a loader had come across a tobacco consignment at MDP during a transshipment work. He then identified the importer, called him and blackmailed for some amount. They had negotiated the deal and the money was even transferred to the loader’s account.

However, police came to know about it and arrested the loader. “There were others involved,” a source said.

Police say that if a smuggler can avail an importer’s TPN number, it was easy to register an import consignment and smuggle in tobacco.

“But why would an importer give their TPN number unless involved?” a police official said. “The main problem is that people from across the border are involved and police cannot make arrests as people deny.”

In another incident on November 8, 2020, tobacco products worth Nu 2.7 million were seized by officials at Allay land customs station in Pasakha. The consignment contained 30 sacks of chewing tobacco, and 12 cartons of cigarettes and bidis.

According to sources, a renowned garment shop owner’s vehicle had transported in the illegal products. However, the garment shopkeeper had denied saying he had cancelled the export. But he had given his registration to another businessperson so the registration would not go wasted.

This could be one case still under investigation. As per the records maintained by the police and the Department of Revenue and Customs, starting March 23 last year, when the border gates were sealed, a total of 144 people have been arrested until June 12 this year in Phuentrsholing, Gelephu, Samtse and Samdrupjongkhar in tobacco smuggling.

Of the total, 26 cases are still under investigation as of June 12 this year. Further, 58 of the 144 people were arrested in Phuentsholing from March 23, 2020, until June 12 this year. Among them were 16 arrested this year and 42 arrested last year.

Another modus operandi, according to sources, was collusion of many small shops and restaurants owners with those involved in MDP to get tobacco.

Between 2018 and June 12, 2021, records show tobacco products worth Nu 17.8 million (M) were seized. Considering the 100 percent tax, the total amount would be Nu 35.6M. Tobacco products include cigarettes, bidis, and chewing tobacco.

Until June 12 this year, tobacco worth Nu 5.9M was seized, which is Nu 11.9M with tax. In 2020, tobacco worth Nu 7M, which is Nu 14M with tax, was seized.

A Phuentsholing resident said smugglers could be either having a connection with head of some authorities or he or she is elite who has all support from higher authorities. “I am surprised to see police and customs not being able to reveal the importer and media failing to make them accountable.”

Meanwhile, the National Assembly yesterday adopted the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021. Of the total 35 members present, 33 voted “yes,” one voted “no,” and one abstained. The Bill will allow sales, distribution, buying, possessing, and transporting tobacco or tobacco products in the country legally.

Edited by Tashi Dema