Bhutan stocks up again as India heads into lockdown mode

Many states in India have entered either full or partial lockdowns as the cases and deaths rise. There is also the possibility of a national lockdown in India on the horizon if the numbers there keep getting worse.

For Bhutan, West Bengal and Assam which just came out of their elections finally have a government in place along with rapidly rising cases and deaths. Curbs and lockdowns are expected in these two states as their governments take charge to control the spread.

Bhutan already experienced a massive lockdown by India last year and it is drawing its lessons from the experience at the time to prepare for ongoing and future lockdowns in India.

The Minister for Economic Affairs Loknath Sharma said that unlike the first lockdown in India the same approach will not be taken this time in terms of stocking goods.

Lyonpo said that at that time the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) and private wholesalers had stocked up a lot but then had to later face losses as the products expired and there was quite a wastage.

The minister said the important thing is that the supply of essentials from India were not stopped during the first lockdown and even though there was a lockdown the movement of vehicles carrying essentials was still facilitated.

Lyonpo said that a lot of stocking up is also not advisable as once any lockdown ends it is not fair to ask people to finish the old stocks and then only allow imports as there are others who want to import on their own.

The minister also said that mass storage would also not be physically possible since at the time schools had been shut and their halls could be used to store the essentials which is not possible now as schools have opened.

He said, however, there is a daily stock taking to ensure that the country as enough essentials to last it in case of a lockdown or disruption of supplies.

Lyonpo said that the MoEA team from the Trade Department do a daily compilation in Phuentsholing of the essentials. He said in the head office there are around five people who are in touch with the focal people in the Dzongkhags to keep track of 38 essentials.

He said that though there is no mass stocking up like before there is consistent stocking up at a smaller scale.

The minister said Bhutan has enough rice to last it 30 to 35 days and other essential commodities like diapers, toilet paper etc to last around 58 days.

He said there is already an edible oil factory called Kenpa in Pasakha which can meet requirements if need be.

Lyonpo said one area of concern is milk as it is consumed in large quantities but a lot of stocking up is not possible given its expiry date. Given that he said they are in touch with Zimdra which produces packaged milk.

Lyonpo said apart from essentials even the industries have stocked up on raw materials and so there is no immediate problem.

He said that already there are standing instructions that trucks with essential goods should be given priority so that the goods can move up to Thimphu and other places.

The minister said that the other important focus is on ensuring that exports continue to happen no matter what be it from Pasakha, Gomtu, Samdrupjongkhar or Gelephu. He said the task forces are giving a lot of emphasis on this under strict protocols and exports would continue.

He said problems may only arise if there is a strict national lockdown in India but the expectation is that even in the case of a national lockdown in India the heavy industries there will be allowed to operate.

One issue has been the careless or rough handling of materials and products by staff doing the trans-shipment at the MDP in Phuentsholing with complaints of broken or damaged goods.

Lyonpo said an issue is that many of the youths do not have the skills for this and so while trying to finish the work fast such things happened. He said if such things happen then the youths may not get a job as then mechanization would have to take over. He said such damages impacts the business people and also the customers.

The minister said that petroleum and LPG gas are also a priority but again mass stocking is not being done given the limited storage capacity and because it is not safe. He said despite any lockdown he expects these things to come through.

Lyonpo said that to ensure adequate safety the MDP is only being used for trans-shipment to send trucks to other Dzongkhags while the truck parking is being used for Phuentsholing.

The MDP is shut for now as three drivers tested positive.

President of Association of Bhutanese Industries (ABI), Pema Tenzin said that they are well stocked up in raw materials and most industries would have stocked enough for a month or so but problems would start if the lockdown went beyond a month.

He said though a national lockdown in India is yet to be announced many states have already gone into lockdown, though the movement of trucks is being allowed.

He said that the oxygen demand in India is impacting the Ferrosilicon factories in Bhutan as this product is required by steel companies in India who are currently diverting liquid oxygen for use in hospitals and so their production is hampered.

Pema said India does not have an oxygen shortage per say but the issue is with logistics and transportation of the oxygen.

He said in the first national lockdown the industries have stocked up massively on essentials for their workers but there was a lot of wastage as a lot of products went bad and had to be dumped.

He said the warm factory environment is not a good place to store essentials and so this time while stocking up is happening it is on a smaller scale.

Pema said the ABI is very grateful for a lot of gifts like the interest waiver Kidu, loan deferral, power demand charge waiver and the taskforce which has resolved many issues on the spot.

He, however, said that an issue that continues to impact them is shortage of labour and just when they had built their own quarantine center and were getting in workers the second wave happened in India and so the government had to stop the import of workers.

Pema said that the industries are short of staff by around 40 percent and though they try and fill in with locals they cannot do skilled work and so they are being trained.

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