Businesses in border towns win some and lose some due to COVID -19 sealing the border

Shopkeepers and locals residing in border towns of the country were anticipating a shift in the market share as the borders are currently closed and locals who used to previously rely on the Indian border towns to get their shopping done had to avail the items from the internal market.

However, many of the shop owners stated that although this is an opportunity for the Bhutanese to lure in more customers the situation of COVID-19 being in the mix does not help. Most of them stated that, although people have to rely on internal market, the turnout of people on the streets have dropped as there are worrying news just outside the border gates.

Phuentsholing Thrompoen, Uttar Kumar Rai said “Positive cases in Jaigoan does not have direct impact in the town. As of now, the situation is kind of normal and compared to the first days of the COVID-19 news outbreak in the world, the panic has settled down”.

He added “However, if the situation across the border worsens and if the taskforce decides to increase security measures, definitely, I think we have to lockdown the town and all. For that we are currently working on a SOP on what needs to be done if such a situation arises. For example, if Phuentsholing gets locked-down, where will the people get the essential items from and other things”.

The Thrompoen said that the disaster management measures are being drafted currently and will probably have a test simulation for it today to understand and adapt to necessary changes that need to be made to the contingency plan.

He added that since the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic is a new challenge, previously setup disaster management plan will definitely have to be changed accordingly.

In terms of business, shops in Phuentsholing have not seen much difference as compared to before but some have slightly benefitted due to the border closure while others have lost customers from across the border.

A personnel Namgay Tshering at Sheedee enterprise, a liquor shop in Phuentsholing said that they have lost the variety in their customers and have had some drop in business. He said “Before, we used to have Indians coming to buy liquor at our shop as compared to India the price for alcohol is cheaper. We also have Indian and other brands like Royal Stag, Old Monk and others which normally the locals do not buy. Currently our sales are only the AWP products like Rock Bee, Highland and others like Raven vodka”.

He added “There are about 23-26 liquor shops in Phuentsholing and Indians from across the border and the laborers previously residing within Bhutan used to consume a lot of the items as well”.

Another business Tamshing Enterprise in Phuentsholing who deals in wholesale of essential items said that compared to the past they have had a slight benefit in terms of demand from the retailers.

The proprietor Pema Namgyel said that this is an opportunity for the Bhutanese to actually gain some momentum with business. He added “However, it all depends on the individual business owners and how they approach and take the situation at hand. In our case, we have good credibility with the Indian dealers and they are also giving us business even in these times for a long-term partnership I suppose”.

The owner’s son said that the troubling factor was the work pressure that the situation demanded with the shortage of manpower.

He said “Three of our Indian workforce were allowed to stay back before the COVID-19 crisis but it was still a tough job initially but now we are kind of habituated with the situation and we are coping up to the task”.

Meanwhile in Samdrup Jongkhar the shopkeepers stated that their businesses which were already quite dry had further taken a hit due to a smaller number of commuters from other Dzongkhags and the closure of schools due to COVID-19.

A Thromde Representative, Selden said “groceries, vegetable shops and pan shops seem to be doing fairly well, whereas restaurants, cloth shops have taken some hit due to a smaller number of commuters, which used to be one of the main sources of customers for the local businesses”.

Raj Kumar Thakur who owns a saloon in Samdrup Jongkhar town said “We expected more people to turn up to our shops since the border is closed and people cannot go to nearby border town Parki Juli to get their haircuts but it seems that due to the school closure, children are not getting haircuts just yet”.

A vegetable vendor in Samdrup Jongkhar Shiv Shankar Gupta said that currently there are not many items available for import and some of the variety of vegetables are not available within Bhutan. He said “We can get onions, tomatoes, lady finger, bitter gourd, large green chillies, ginger and dried chilies from here while other items that the locals sometimes come looking for like watermelon, grapes, pointed gourd, ‘lauka’ and other vegetables are not available anymore”.

In Gelephu, the Thrompon said that businesses are actually doing better compared to before as per what he witnessed asking around few of the shops like those selling kids toys, pan shops and shoe shops.

He said “Previously almost all the Gelephu people would go towards the bordering town Daadgari as there is a huge Thursday bazaar sales and people used to buy not just vegetables but almost everything else from there”.

He added “Now that people are compelled to buy things from within Gelephu, shops are actually doing well, some of the shops even told me that their stocks are selling out. As for the goods they need to bring in, that is a challenge they have to bear but we are letting as much goods flow inwards as possible following the SOP in place.

Another concerning issue that both the Phuentsholing Thrompoen and the Samdrup Jongkhar Thromde representative mentioned was that since it has been quite some time that entertainment hubs have been forced for closure, the employers and landowners particularly are concerned and they have been questioning as to when their businesses could operate again. To this the Phuentsholing Thrompoen said “So far His Majesty’s kidu and rent waivers by some of the landlords have let this businesses sustain but this is a complicated matter as it would be another weight to bear if there is ever a community transmission to let them open at this point and all the other efforts would go in vain”.

He added that this does not seem likely to be solved by the higher decision-making bodies at this point and that he too believes that they need to remain shut for some time in order to keep the maximum preventive phase working effectively.

In case of Samdrup Jongkhar, the Thromde representative said that businesses in Samdrup Jongkhar were already quite low and due to complete shutdown of these type of businesses it has become a greater hurdle for them to overcome.

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