When the first case of COVID-19 emerged in the country the immediate reaction of the people was to not only hoard masks and hand sanitizers but also grocery items and stand in long lines at the fuel pumps.
A few days ago the Prime Minister (Dr) Lotay Tshering said that the Indian Government has assured Bhutan that even if it goes into a lockdown and no not matter what the situation in India, it would ensure the supply of food supplies, medicine and fuel.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian Embassy have worked together and drawn up a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on how this is to exactly happen, which agencies will be involved from both sides, who will give the supplies and the vehicles to be used along with precautions like spraying etc.
The SOP has been sent to the Ministry of External Affairs in India for final approval after which it can be immediately implemented on the ground.
For instance, Bhutan has identified two places in India to supply it fuel and LPG which are at Bongaigaon in Assam and a place near Siliguri in West Bengal.
The trucks of the fuel dealers in Bhutan would go to collect the fuel even if there is a lockdown in India or both countries.
For food supplies most of the supplies will come from Siliguri and this where wholesalers in Bhutan have their suppliers but a few other places have also been identified.
For medicine the MoH is already stocking up on medicine but some major suppliers and the system to get the medicines to Bhutan have also been identified. Even Bangladesh is being looked at as a supplier.
Even in the scenario a supplier in Siliguri runs out of stock, given the assurance is from the GoI then Bhutan can rely on the GoI’s own vast food stocks in its granaries.
The SOP also looks at eventualities where Bhutan’s airplanes fly out and bring in supplies.
The Minister for Economic Affairs Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the government is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
So even while ensuring open supply lines and sources of supply in any kind of situation the government, at the same time, is also stocking up on food items, fuel and medicine to meet any eventuality for up to a month or more.
Lyonpo Loknath said that BODs have already been told to keep enough fuel that can last for a few weeks and to pick up all their quota of LPG gas.
The government itself is also in the process of storing 40,000 LPG cylinders by itself separate from the BODs.
In terms of fuel, while the daily national consumption of petrol is 137.55 kiloliter (1 kl is 1000 liters) and 409.84 kl for diesel the total national storage capacity is 2,763 kl of petrol and 4,512 kl of diesel.
The new Thingchuphakha PoL Depot which is the national depot holds 1,000 kl of petrol and 1,000 kl of diesel while the old depot in Dechencholing holds 300 kl of petrol and 700 kl of diesel.
The 58 retail fuel outlets can hold 1,446 kl of petrol and 2,789 kl of diesel and they have already been told to stock up.
Lyonpo Loknath said the fuel situation is such that Bhutan will be comfortable for quite a while even in the case of any eventuality as the fuel will last even longer as less vehicles would travel in case of a lockdown. He said that Bhutanese trucks can anyhow go and pick up fuel from the two identified places in India near Bhutan and so there would be no shortage at all.
He said in the worse case scenario of LPG shortage then relaxation would be made for firewood and shops in town have also been told to stock up on electric stoves.
Lyonpo said that the government had identified 21 essential food items and the FCB is already stocking on on theses in 16 to 20 locations in Bhutan.
Lyonpo said that apart from FCB godowns, places like Dzongkhag halls and school halls have also been identified to store the food items.
He said, apart from this, wholesalers and shops have been advised to not keep the normal 2-week stock but up to a month’s worth of stocks. Lyonpo said that Dzongdas are also sensitizing the business people in their Dzongkhags. The minister said price would also be strongly monitored.
The minister pointed out that even villages have food stocks stored and these can also be relied on. Lyonpo said that in terms of food the stakeholders are FCB, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, private wholesalers and Dzongkhags.
The minister said that the biggest worry of the industries is that they have to import raw materials and export their products. He said the industries have been asked to import and stock up on their raw materials so that they they are not affected by any future lockdown in India.
Lyonpo said that with such coordinated efforts above everything should be find eve in the worse case scenario for Bhutan.
Bhutan closed its borders from 23rd March while India entered a lockdown from 24th March but supplies are still open.