Night tobacco smugglers from India crossing into Bhutan along the Amochu bank at midnight on 2nd June 2021. Video caught on a Thermal camera.

RBP says large scale and uncontrollable Tobacco smuggling likely to bring COVID into the heart of Bhutan

A solution could be to scrap or amend the Tobacco Act (Amendment 2014) to legalize tobacco import and sales during the pandemic

The RBP officials on 30th September 2020 could not believe their eyes when they looked at the infra red camera late at night. They saw around 10 people crossing the international border into Bhutan near the Amochu river bank not very far from Phuentsholing.

These were Indian smugglers carrying large consignments of tobacco well inside Bhutan where their local Bhutanese counterparts would be waiting to take over the load.

The RBP officials immediately alerted the outpost in the area which gave chase but they had escaped back after dropping their loads.

Again, as recently as 2nd June 2021, not far from the same place at around 12.37 midnight, the RBP and Dessups using the night vision camera saw 7 people carrying tobacco crossing into Bhutan. When chased the smugglers dropped their consignments jumped into the river and swam away. 

In another incident the smugglers to outsmart the RBP and Dessups had converted large rubber tubes into small floating life rafts to bring the tobacco products along with them into Bhutan through the Amochu river.

On 27th November 2020 a Bhutanese patrol came across 12 smugglers in the water tank area of Pasakha who dropped 7 gunny bags of tobacco and ran away across the border. However, 15 to 20 villagers gathered close to the border around 50 meters from the outpost and pelted stones and sticks at the Bhutanese patrol and even lit a camp fire demanding their smuggling consignment back. The Bhutanese duties maintained calm and did not retaliate. The villagers were eventually dispersed by the SSB.

On 9th March 2021 a party of two RBP personnel and two female Desuups at the Pemaling out post near Phuentsholing intercepted 4 suspicious miscreants smuggling tobacco. One of them hit RBP Chuma Sukraj Subba with a Khukri injuring three of his fingers. Chuma Sukraj who was not armed retaliated with a stick and the miscreants ran across the border. The Chuma had to undergo surgery for the wounds.

Majority getting through

The RBP has been making record and growing seizures of tobacco products ever since the international border was closed from March 2020 till date, but the RBP Officiating Deputy Chief of Police, Colonel Phub Gyeltshen said the majority of tobacco smugglers and tobacco are getting through more than those who are caught.

He said the 699 km border was closed and around 300 outposts were created to guard the border but he said despite the best efforts of the security officials and Dessups, a lot of smuggling happens in the dead of night when nothing is visible or even through thick vegetation during the day where it is difficult to spot people.

The maximum tobacco smuggling takes place around the Phuentsholing area, but smuggling also takes place across the length of the 699 km long border.

In between 23rd March 2020 from the sealing of the border to 12th June there have been 144 cross border tobacco smuggling related cases. Of these 58 are in Phuentsholing, 39 in Samtse, 38 in Gelephu and 9 in Samdrupjongkhar.

As per RBP figures, even in the 58 known cases in Phuentsholing the patrols saw a total of 84 Indians physically crossing the border into Bhutan and then running away when being intercepted. The actual numbers who get through undetected is estimated to be much higher.

Tobacco smuggling the biggest and growing COVID-19 threat

The Chief of Police Major General Chimi Dorji not mincing any words said, “From the RBP side we find that biggest COVID-19 threat is the rampant smuggling of tobacco across the border. Despite so many outposts and checkpoints we are unable to control the smuggling of tobacco.”

The Police Chief said that they even have CCTV images of people crossing the border from India into Bhutan bringing tobacco. He said there is a high chance of somebody who is COVID positive bringing the load across and giving the virus to the Bhutanese counterpart on our side.

To know the scale of the problem in 2018 around 3.7 mn tobacco products were seized, in 2019 it was 5.8 mn but in 2020 this shot up to 14.1 mn and in 2021 till 12th June a period of just six months it has already touched 11.9 mn. This dramatic surge comes at a time when India is undergoing a second wave and when much more transmissible variants of concern are on the loose across the border including the world’s most transmissible and dangerous variant which is the Delta variant.

Apart from commercial smuggling, the Police Chief said a sobering fact is that a large percentage of people living along the international border are dependent on Tobacco products and the tobacco habit can create strong compulsions when supply is not available.

He said that the Duty Free shops have not led to a drop in the smuggling given the limited spread of the shops and also the limited legal imports that they can do.

Given this extraordinary and increasingly dangerous situation the RBP has recently proposed to the National COVID-19 Task Force to legalize the import and sale of Tobacco during the pandemic period.

However, such a move is easier said that done as it will only be possible with Parliamentary support to entirely scrap or amend the Tobacco Act (Amendment 2014) for now as it is not possible to suspend the Act.

Tobacco smuggling and COVID

The RBP feels that such rampant tobacco smuggling may be a source for some of the recent COVID-19 transmission in the south and that if it is not curtailed then such smuggling may likely not only lead to more cases in the south, but COVID may reach into the very heart of Bhutan in Thimphu and other currently low risk areas via the smugglers and dealers.

Colonel Phub Gyeltshen said that tobacco smuggling is the biggest COVID transmission risk due to the sheer volume, the number of people involved in crossing the border and how people from across the border can come into contact with their Bhutanese counterparts without protocol.

He said while the south is already at risk from COVID-19 due to the smuggling, it also poses a risk to the rest of Bhutan, including Thimphu.

Ideally one would assume that Thimphu, Paro and other low risk areas would be safe as people coming from the high risk southern areas have to undergo a 7-day quarantine, but here the Colonel said that smugglers even break that protocol.

He said that when non-essential goods come up there is transshipment at Sorchen where loaders transfer the load to an empty truck from Thimphu with no contact between the two drivers and loaders.

However, the smugglers carrying the tobacco on their backs have managed to even evade this trans-shipment area and go higher up to a place called Ganglakha where the smuggler offloads the tobacco into waiting trucks and boleros.

The Colonel said this is dangerous because a COVID positive smuggler could come in from across the border and handover the consignment to a local Bhutanese smuggler and there could be infection due to contact between them. Then this infected Bhutanese smuggler would carry this load on his back past the transshipment area using forest routes and in turn infect a driver who does not have to stay in the 7-day quarantine as the driver is not going to Phuentsholing.

Then the driver in turn can bring the virus to low risk areas like Thimphu, Paro, Punakha etc and spread the virus as he distributes the smuggled consignment to local shops.

The shops in turn could lead to further spread of the virus in the community as people go to buy tobacco and other items.

Even along the border the Colonel said people cross the border to buy tobacco for themselves and this can be another way to bring in the virus given the close proximity, especially in certain stretches of the border in Samtse.

The smuggling routes

The Colonel said that the one route for smugglers to smuggle large volumes is coming in late at night along the banks of the Amochu river in Phuentsholing despite having outposts there.

When the RBP tightened the security on the Phuentsholing side of the Amochu including with CCTV and thermal cameras, the smugglers changed tack and started smuggling from the other bank of the Amochu in Samtse near the Dupti Nye where smugglers hiked over the hill and came into Bhutan.

To intercept them a tower worth lakhs was built in the area but this route is still used.

The Colonel said that the Amochu route smugglers after coming into Bhutan either drop or handover the goods to Bhutanese smugglers who carry the same consignments on their back and trek to Ganglakha and other areas using the forest route.

Another much favored route which sees the maximum number of attempts is the wide area between Phuentsholing and Pasakha.

Within this area the most favored route seems to be for Indian smugglers to hike up into Bhutan till Rinchending or below the Rinchending Monastery to reach the consignment there.

Another route is via Pasakha and a favorite area is also around the Pemaling outpost.

Bhutanese patrols on numerous occasions have come across large numbers of Indians hiking well into Bhutan carrying tobacco and on being spotted they drop their consignments and run away.

For example, on 15th April 2021 a RBP Patrol team of Rinchending Goenpa saw a large group of men carrying gunny bags and on seeing the patrol they dropped nine gunny bags full of tobacco and fled across the border.

The smugglers from across the border have also penetrated deeper inside.

There were 11 sacks of tobacco left below the road of the Milarepa Lhakhang. Once seven to eight Indian boys smuggled six gunny bags of tobacco after bypassing the Rinchending check post.

The smugglers also penetrated deep into Phuentsholing itself using alternate routes.

On 21st October 2020 smugglers from across the border had hidden seven gunny bags of tobacco products in the bushes above the Medical Supply Distribution Division (MSDD).

On 23rd February 2021 three smugglers smuggled tobacco products between the Namling out post and the Pemaling outpost to bring in three gunny bags of tobacco above MSDD but dropped the bags and fled on being spotted.

The Colonel said that the smugglers from India keep coming in relentlessly and only some are caught with most having got through and this assessment is made on the basis of the ready black market supply of tobacco in Thimphu and other places and the growing volume of seizures.

The headache for the RBP is not only the multiple and porous routes for the smugglers but the fact that the smugglers are smart and keep adapting to the better security arrangements made to stop them.

Modus operandi and Triple XXX

The tobacco smuggling network and modus operandi is a sophisticated one which the RBP is yet to crack. It is made all the more difficult given the large amounts of money involved and the huge profits to be made. For example, a packet of Select Cigarette is Nu 60 in India but it is sold at Nu 350 and above in black in Bhutan.

Chewing Tobacco or Baba is Nu 3 per packet in India but it becomes Nu 100 per packet in black in Bhutan.

 The RBP has been trying to get to who in Bhutan is ordering these large consignments, but except for a few small cases it has not been able to get to the bottom of it.

The Colonel said that one technique frequently used is that a transporter of the smuggled goods is not told to whom the goods are to be given and that they will be contacted only once they reach the destination. As a result, the RBP even while nabbing the drivers or carriers of the consignments are not able to get the names and contact information of the people who ordered the tobacco.

In some cases, the smugglers even fool ordinary traders and people requesting them to carry a parcel or two to a particular location and that they will be contacted when they get there.

In one case a businessman in Paro carried a large consignment on request but nobody came to collect it.

He waited for five days and got suspicious and opened it and found a large amount of tobacco in it. He immediately reported it to the Paro police who seized the items.

The Colonel said that on the Jaigaon side a key figure involved in the smuggling business is Ugyen Tshewang, a Bhutanese citizen and former RBP Chuma who had been terminated from service. He is popularly known by his nickname Triple XXX.

He said Ugyen is a key figure who organizes the smuggling from Jaigaon. He said that with increased surveillance the RBP had caught some big consignments of Ugyen but after some losses Ugyen started doubling up his consignments to make up for losses from earlier consignments.

The RBP also suspects that some traders in Jaigaon suffering due to a closed border could be involved in the smuggling.

A prominent outlet in Jaigaon known as Balaji had sent a truck with some mattresses for Thimphu. The RBP checked the mattresses and found them all carrying large amounts of cigarettes in holes cut into them. The unusually heavy weight of the mattresses made the police suspicious. 

The RBP offered to release Balaji’s truck if he revealed for whom the consignment was headed for but he claimed the truck belonged to a ‘poor person’ and did not give up any names.

The Colonel said the smugglers are getting so bold that they have now started smuggling tobacco via the essential goods trucks that come into the MDP.

He said the RBP stayed away from the MDP due to COVID protocol to avoid getting in touch with the loaders and drivers and as the revenue and customs and trade people were supposed to note the items and check them.

However, the RBP later started finding a lot of tobacco being hidden among these essential items and so the RBP now checks them.

In one case an entire fake sofa had been designed just to carry a large amount of tobacco within it.

The RBP has not been arresting and charging the Indians they catch for three reasons. One is the danger of COVID-19 spreading among the inmates in Bhutan, the other is the huge numbers and related to that is the expenses for the state to detain and feed them and finally they do not want to antagonize the Indian communities along the borders as large arrests and detentions could even lead to aggrieved family and community members crossing the border to protest which would present its own set of COVID challenges.

The Colonel also said that another option is to take sniffer dogs and start arresting shop keepers in Thimphu and other towns but then the prisons would overflow and may not even be able to accommodate people there.

In the past after the Tobacco Act 2010 was passed the RBP started arresting a lot of people and soon there was no space in the RBP detention center in Thimphu. The RBP had to request the Ministry of Finance for special budget so that they could add an extra floor to the detention center to lock up more Bhutanese people.

For the transporters, smuggling tobacco is a lucrative business as they get Nu 25,000 to Nu 30,000 per consignment where as the normal rate to carry essential goods is Nu 9,000 to Nu 10,000 per truck. So trucks along with the essential goods need only carry some tobacco to make a lot more money.

A matter of concern for the RBP is the presence of tobacco in local shops along the border which shows that tobacco is getting in and possibly along with it the virus.

Duty Free shops have not worked

It was with the aim of cutting down the illegal smuggling of tobacco that the government, after advice from the Office  of the Attorney General, allowed duty free shops to import and supply tobacco from early August 2020.

This move was criticized by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and others who argued this was illegal given the presence of the Tobacco Act and it violated Article 20 (8) of the Constitution that prohibits the executive from ‘modifying, varying and superseding any provisions of the law made by Parliament or a law in force,’ while others argued the same exception should be given for everyone.

However, the duty free shops which mainly cater to a few urban areas have not been able to fulfill the demand and as a result rampant smuggling continues.

Duty free shops are limited by many factors. The first is their location in urban settings. Then they can only import a limited number based on a certain quota for people. This quota often is not even enough for the urban towns as shopkeepers pay commission to even non-smokers to line up at duty free shops and give them the products which is then sold in black along with the smuggled products.

Duty free shops also face harassment on the India side of the border as their products get seized or detained by the Indian police or the SSB who say it is illegal since the Tobacco Act in Bhutan does not allow import of tobacco.

Given the clear and present danger, and growing smuggling operations in the face of huge demand the RBP feels the only solution for now would be to legalize the import and sale of tobacco during the Pandemic period.

The other option is to wait until another batch of smugglers from across the border smuggle in not only tobacco but also COVID-19.

The Bill is up for amendment today as an urgent Bill.

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