If the Southern Belt is the main frontline in the fight to prevent COVID-19 from coming into the country its weakest link emerging so far is Samtse.
This Dzongkhag has witnessed the maximum violations of people crossing the border and not following the quarantine protocol with 50 cases involving 61 people.
However, what is it about the Dzongkhag and its unique layout that is encouraging such violations ?
The Minister for Economic Affairs Loknath Sharma who is from Samtse and came back from a tour of the Dzongkhag recently has a few answers.
The first problem is that the Dzongkhag is one of the largest in Bhutan with 15 Gewogs and the highest population.
It also has around more than 100 km of border with West Bengal which has seen a large number of cases.
Samtse has around 69 observation posts along the border but this is still not enough as people can still get through.
Lyonpo said a unique challenge is that large stretches of the border have local communities who are settled just adjacent to each other on the border and share not only economic ties but also close social ties including inter-marriage ties.
Lyonpo said that in some cases the houses and communities are barely 10 to 20 meters apart from each other.
The minister the said the problem is particularly severe among a local indigenous community settled along a stretch of Samtse who are a homogenous community, and exchange daily labour and even have cross border marriages with their fellow folk across the border.
The minister said that in the case of the indigenous community they are around 500 to 600 households and number around 2,000 to 3,000. This community is also dependent on day labourers from India for paddy cultivation and the community on the Indian side of the border are economically dependent on the Bhutanese side which encourages crossings.
Lyonpo said that this indigenous community or people are settled towards the end of Samtse Gewog from Mechitar and extend all along the border from there to Norbugang Gewog, Ugentse, Yoeseltse, Sangngagchhoeling, Namgaychhoeling and Tashichhoeling.
Lyonpo said that after Tashichhoeling there is Tendu and then the Norgaygang Gewog that border Kalimpong.
He said the communities on this stretch are more aware. He said that this stretch is also separated by a river from the Indian side which is currently swollen.
Lyonpo said that another factor is that economically the people on the Kalimpong side are quite well off and so do not have to cross to the Bhutanese side on this latter stretch.
This stretch also has cross border marriages and certain social and economic interactions but it is not as intense or close as that in the case of the indigenous people.
Measures being taken
On 19th July the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering issued a press release where he said it was one of the busiest days for health workers and law enforcement officials when a resident of Rinchenphu village under Yoeseltse gewog had entered the country on July 16. The man was working in Jaigaon, India since March, and had visited two homes since he arrived, coming in contact with about eight people.
The other was the confirmation of a report of a man who entered Thongzom village in Samtse in May, and had recently travelled with his wife to the national referral hospital in Thimphu for maternity reasons.
All tests on the primary suspects and contacts are negative and the men were arrested.
Lyonchhen said the matter and such crossings heightened concerns and His Majesty commanded an emergency meeting among all stakeholders, personally chairing and participating in the important discussion.
Out of 50 registered cases on such crossings the court has delivered judgment for 47 cases while the three are under trail.
Out of 50 cases, the maximum cases registered are cases of illegal entry, followed by cases of tobacco product smuggling and illegal exit which is trying to walk out of the country without informing anyone.
Samtse Dzongda Sonam Wangyel said that it is good if people involved in such cases are arrested, otherwise if would be a failure from their side. “We are able to arrest more people with time because of our duty along the border around the clock. Had it not been for Dessups, Police and RBA we may not be able to arrest those people,” he added.
“More the surveillance along the border, more number of people are arrested,” he said, adding that in the future they are hoping to arrest more people who are trying to cross borders with improved surveillance.
“People are now aware and we are educating them on associated risks of COVID-19 and the risk a person illegally entering the country can pose to the people, community and country as whole. Therefore, if they have any information on illegal entry of people or smuggling which is going to take place, they come to us. And that is one reason why we are able to arrest more people,” he added.
He said that in COVID-19 situation, if they come across any non-Bhutanese entering the country illegally, they ask for explanation and ask them to leave immediately.
“However, the number of people coming inside illegally is increasing and we are still in the process of discussing how we should handle this,” he said.
The arrested persons are directly handed over to the health team by police whereby they are put under quarantine. After serving the quarantine, they are investigated and the case is charge sheeted to court accordingly.
An additional hundred Dessups have been put along the border, including police and RBA personnel. They also have plans to further strengthen the border surveillance.
Those manning the Samtse border has to look after 66 Point of Entries (POE’s) and other illegal routes.