Every winter thousands of Bhutanese head for Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India through local operators that organize the pilgrimage tours. The tours and numbers of Bhutanese pilgrims have been growing dramatically over the last few years.
The Bhutanese newspaper, in an investigative report, in January this year brought out the abuse and exploitation of Bhutanese pilgrims by pilgrim tour operators with one case of carelessness even resulting in the death of a pilgrim. There had also been other deaths.
In response to the story the Minister for Economic Affairs Lyonpo Lekey Dorji at the time had promised an investigation into the issue and also some new regulations.
Acting on its investigation findings and the minister’s instructions the Office of the Consumer Protection (OCP) has come up with new regulations to govern and define responsibilities of pilgrimage tour operators as well as that of pilgrims.
Last winter there were numerous reports of accidents, injuries and exploitation of Bhutanese pilgrims in India also covered by The Bhutanese in its story. “We don’t want our pilgrims to suffer like last year that is why we came up with the regulation,” said Chencho Zangmo of the OCP.
The regulations are aimed at providing timely consumer information to protect lives, health, safety and other rights, and the creation of a grievance redressal mechanism in keeping with section 4 of the Consumer Protection Act.
The regulations require operators to have valid license to operate package pilgrimage tours outside Bhutan and an agreement signed between the pilgrimage operator and the pilgrim.
Importantly the package pilgrimage agreement should include duration of pilgrimage, places of visit, accommodation, guide and transport services, meal plans, insurance plans and total price of the package.
As per the regulation, known as Package Pilgrimage Regulation 2017, the pilgrimage operator shall ensure that the price quoted for package pilgrimage is the total cost of the services including any taxes or other charges payable by pilgrims.
The operator must also provide proper accommodation consisting of standard room to pilgrim and timely hygienic meal at a proper place in accordance with package pilgrimage agreement. The pilgrimage operator has to also give preference to pilgrims with special needs and to senior citizens.
The regulation also defines the role and responsibility of different stakeholders. For instance, the road safety and transport authority (RSTA) must inspect the condition of the vehicle and ensure drivers have valid driving licenses and other important documents. RSTA must also ensure that the seating capacity is commensurate to the number of pilgrims.
On request from the pilgrimage operator, the Royal Bhutan Police will provide information on security and safety measures for the routes and destination, illegal possession of contraband items and safety measures for casualty during accidents.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will share contact addresses of an embassy or consulate office to the pilgrimage operator and to the pilgrims before the pilgrimage. The ministry must also depute one consulate officer as a temporary Bhutan help desk during the pilgrimage season to provide supervisory, guidance, facilitation and support to pilgrims.
The regulation also states that in the event of illness, injury and death of the pilgrim, the pilgrimage operator shall refer the pilgrim to the nearest hospital. In the event of a serious illness, the operator must notify family members and insurance company of pilgrim for evacuation and in the event of death due to accident, illness or any other causes during the pilgrimage, the operator must immediately notify the nearest embassy or the consulate office for assistance and Royal Bhutan Police.
The regulation also states that operators without a valid license will be liable for fines as per the laws of Bhutan.
The regulations were drafted after consultations with the RSTA, RBP, ministry of foreign affairs, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs and insurance companies by the Office of Consumer Protection under the Ministry of Economic Affairs.