{Step 1} Govt stops vegetable import on March 24, Minister announces it (Step 2) Faces panic buying, price rise and strong public backlash [Step 3] Issues circular on March 26 saying there never was a ‘ban’

The common English Dictionary says that the words ‘Stop’ and ‘Put a Stop to’ are similar to the word ‘Ban’

At a time when clear and well though out decisions and transparent communication is the need of the hour, The Bhutanese has found that the government first tried ramming in an ad-hoc vegetable, fruits and betel nut/leaves import ban, but after a public backlash it quietly withdrew the ban and then denied it was ever put in place.

The Agriculture Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor broke an important news of the meat ban being extended on his Facebook page on 22nd March at 7.33 pm. It went viral.

This post was broken as breaking news first by Kuensel and then it was also widely shared and reported by media houses, including The Bhutanese a few hours later. The ban was implemented, as is evident from the empty meat shops.

On 24th March 7.37 am Lyonpo followed up with another announcement on the same page saying ‘Importing of vegetables forced to stop for no disinfection option. A call for the test of Bhutanese sustainability has come.” It received 170 likes and 25 shares and comments praising Lyonpo for the move.

24 hours later on the morning of 25th March The Bhutanese called the minister over the phone, to officially confirm Lyonpo’s Facebook post that a stop or ban had been put in place on the import of vegetables, fruits and doma and pani. He said that the vegetable and fruit imports had been physically stopped from the evening of 24th March itself. Lyonpo explained that as per the Ministry of Health advice the MoAF has deployed BAFRA to disinfect all goods coming into Bhutan but there is no way to do so for vegetables, fruits and meat and so their import has been banned.

He also said that another issue is that with the border being closed the import of such items from across the border will lead to monitoring issues with people coming across.

After the official confirmation The Bhutanese was the first news agency to break the news by 8.20 am on 25th March on the ban of import of fruits and vegetables.

With the news now out on a wider platform other than the minister’s Facebook page people rushed to buy vegetables. Vegetable vendors also themselves confirmed that import of vegetables and fruits had been stopped and word spread even more.

On the same day in a COVID-19 press conference at 2 pm The Bhutanese put up the question on the import ban to the Health Minister. The minister did not deny the ban and instead said it is healthier to eat local products.

With the unfolding situation of panic buying The Bhutanese called the agriculture minister on the late afternoon of the same day to ask about any change in the decision or stance by the government. Given the possibility of outright denials being made later, The Bhutanese, as per its policy, recorded the interview this time. Lyonpo reiterated that the import of vegetables, fruits and doma and pani is still stopped and he listed additional reasons like vegetable vendors having to be in quarantine for two weeks and also about the 21-day lockdown in India.

In the recorded interview, Lyonpo also clearly said that decision to stop the import of the vegetables was taken after he consulted the Prime Minister Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering and the Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo, and it was agreed that the import of vegetables, fruits and betel nut and leaves would be stopped for now.

Lyonpo clarified that the stop in imports was authorized by the Prime Minister, who was in Phuentsholing recently.

By the evening of 25th March, Lyonpo appeared on BBS re-confirming the stoppage in imports and on 26th March Kuensel had a news story which quoted his Facebook post and said that since the minister ‘announced a temporary ban on imported fruits, vegetables and areca nuts and betel nut on March 24,’ it has lead to panic buying. The story said that the minister justified the ‘ban’ since the MoH had advised him disinfect the goods coming into the country but it was not possible to do so for fruits, vegetables and meat.

With three news outlets relaying the government decision to ban the import of vegetables, the panic buying and price spike went even higher by 26th March. The public backlash and anger had also grown to a peak.

Given the circumstances, the government now had the usual option of announcing it would reverse its original decision authorized by the Prime Minister.

However, it took a different route of not only not taking accountability for an unpopular decision, but it outright denied that it had ever put a ban in place.

Around the evening of 26th March a notification signed by the MoAF Secretary Rinzin Dorji popped up on the Ministry’s website addressed to all ministers, secretaries, Dzongdas and its own Directors. It said, ‘It has been observed that there is confusion going on with the general public on Government banning import of fruits and vegetables. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests would like to clarify that the Ministry did not issue any official notification banning import of fruits and vegetables.’

“However, the general public is being informed that such imports will be subject to Coronavirus containment protocols in place at the border entry points,” it added.

Kuensel carried the notification and its text on its social media handle, as it is and with no other information.

The Bhutanese Facebook and Twitter pages on 26th March evening pointed out the divergence in what the notification is saying as opposed to Lyonpo’s own facebook post and interviews he gave to BBS, Kuensel and The Bhutanese.

On the morning of 27th March the Agriculture Minister in a Facebook post tagged to this reporter said there was a ‘communication gap’ between him and his secretary causing the confusion. Lyonpo, though, took full blame for the issue and he said he did not see any blame to the media in the secretary’s notification.

The minister listing various reasons (listed above) for the vegetable import ban said, “I decided to temporarily stop the import of vegetables.”

However, some new information came in as the minister claimed that he had, ‘clearly cautioned BAFRA to go by the advice and decisions of the COVID19 preparedness and response management committee head by the Home Secretary at Phuentsholing.’

Lyonpo said this committee in Phuentsholing decided to allow vegetables across the border in a secured transhift management. “The decision was made uniformly to allow vegetables coming into all the border towns and other places, wherever shortage is felt. MoAF respects the decision,” said Lyonpo.

The minister said, “MoAF Secretary issued the notification to clarify that there is no confusion in decisions to stop and allow the vegetable import. MoAF respects the decision of the Committee in Phuentsholing. Secretary in his notification clarifies that MoAF has not issued any official notification that will confuse or stand against the decision of the committee in Phuentsholing.”

Lyonpo said, “It is all about language barriers and perceptions. No blame game, No confusion in decisions, la.”

However, the notification of the MoAF Secretary makes no mention of the fact that a ban was put in the first place or that it has been rescinded in deference to a decision taken by a committee in Phuentsholing headed by the Home Secretary.

Importantly, Lyonpo in his Facebook post omitted the fact that the original decision had been discussed with and authorized by the Prime Minister.

During the meet-the-press on the morning of 27th March the Prime Minister was asked by The Bhutanese about the difference between the Agriculture Minister’s original post on stopping vegetable imports and the notification issue by the ministry.

The Prime minister said that he had heard about the issue in the social media but that he had not received anything officially.

The PM asked a rhetorical question asking if the people have their essential supplies or not. He said that the government has assured the people essential supplies and as long as that is happening people need not worry about who is saying what and whose character is of what nature.

The PM said that the issue is about whether there is a ban or not on vegetables and as along as the people are getting the vegetables then there should be no issues.

The PM said that the Agriculture Minister is a farmer’s son and he keeps talking about the importance of giving good nutrition to people.

“Now when we are talking about the stopping of import of vegetables did he use the word ‘ban’ or not, I cannot say. He may have said it also but I don’t know.” said the PM.

Lyonchhen said the issue is not only vegetables but given the closure of the border some items may have been hampered and the government is allowing in items but in a way that lessens the potential of COVID-19 coming to Bhutan.

The PM also said that there may have been some miscommunication on the issue. He said that if people say that the Agriculture minister has miscommunicated then the government apologizes for it.

The Prime Minister in response to another question said, “Coronavirus cannot come into the country via vegetables but if the person handling the vegetable has the virus then his saliva or droplets come in touch with the vegetables and if they eat it without washing it well then there is a danger.” The PM asked people to wash the vegetables well.

He said that people will not be allowed to fetch vegetables like before by driving across in a bolero but now only select vehicles will be allowed. He said people will face problems but it will not be major problems. Lyonchhen said that if nobody goes to fetch vegetables then he would go fetch it himself as people are not willing to go across and so government vehicles and drivers maybe pressed into service.

The PM said that the Agriculture Minister has been requesting the Dzongdas to keep enough stock for themselves and then send the excess to Thimphu.

“If people are worried about the country then when they buy vegetables they should not hesitate to pay a little more for local products. This will be good service to the nation but if we talk about self sustainability and go for the cheapest imported products then I have nothing more to say,” said the PM.

About Tenzing Lamsang

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