The Agriculture Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor, today evening, reiterated that the import of vegetables, fruits and betel nut and leaves has been stopped as a control measure for various reasons.
Lyonpo said the same in a Facebook post yesterday morning and confirmed it with The Bhutanese this morning too.
He said that since the border is closed it will not be possible to put Bhutanese vegetable vendors in a two-week quarantine each time they go to India to import vegetables.
“The vegetables would go bad within two weeks,” said the minister.
“While some wholesalers in Phuentsholing had made an arrangement to get the vegetables delivered till Jaigaon the issue is again about who will be allowed to go and get those vegetables from Jaigaon and do the transaction,” added the minister.
He also said with the gates sealed there will be an issue to ask the gates to be opened each time a truck comes in and there would be issues around allowing the foreigners in.
The minister also said that with BAFRA spraying and disinfecting all items that come to Bhutan, it is not feasible for BAFRA to spray the vegetables, fruits and betel leaves and nuts.
Lyonpo pointed out that now with the 21-day lockdown in India, the local people and authorities there will not allow the movement of people from Falakata to Phuentsholing nor allow Bhutanese vendors to move there.
Lyonpo said that there were too many issues and hence he consulted the Prime Minister Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering and the Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo and so it was agreed that the imports of vegetables, fruits and betel nut and leaves would be stopped for now. Though he had initially said the decision was taken at the Ministry level he now clarified that it was authorised by the Prime Minister, who himself was in Phuentsholing recently.
The minister said that as of now imports can only be allowed once again if the border gates open and that would take some time.
Meanwhile, with the announcement of the 21-day lockdown in India and the Agriculture Minister’s announcement stopping the imports of vegetables, fruits and betel nuts and leave there was some panic buying in the morning.
However, the panic buying was not only for vegetables but also for other grocery items like rice, oil, salt, detergents, soap etc. betraying a deeper panic among the people.
There was criticism in the social media on this decision of the minister saying it would trigger panic and cause difficulty.
Here, the Agriculture Minister said that people should not panic as Bhutan has enough vegetables being produced in country and especially from Southern Bhutan.
He said he talked to all the Dzongdas and found there is adequate supply.
“While we cannot replace all the vegetables we have almost all the items within Bhutan,” said Lyonpo. Lyonpo said that people should not worry about essentials like rice, oil, salt etc. as these imports would continue with assurance from the Indian government and the government also has enough stocks.
Lyonpo, however, clarified that the stopping of vegetable imports was not to encourage local production but due to the factors mentioned above.
Lyonpo in a Facebook post on 24th March had said, “Importing vegetables forced to stop for No disinfection option.’
However, the Health Minister in a press conference today said that there is no scientific evidence yet that COVID-19 can be contracted through vegetables, fruits and meat. The health minister though encouraged Bhutanese to eat local products wich she said was healthier.
When the Agriculture Minister was asked about this today he said that while there is no scientific evidence of transmission the bigger issues were the logistic issues mentioned above.
Lyonpo in his original Facebook post said that farmers have been requested to increase their farm production and a buyback guarantee from the government. He also requested urban dwellers to start kitchen gardens and said that a call for the test of Bhutanese sustainability has come.
The import of meat was already banned earlier and so even though the holy month is over the meat shops in Thimphu did not open.
With increasing worry among the public on the issue there is already increasing pressure on the government to roll back this decision.