For around a week, traders and shops trying to import essential commodities like rice, oil and pulses have been unable to do so as they are not being allowed to register to get their trucks in from across the border.
This is result of a decision by the COVID Taskforce in Phuentsholing and the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) after the government appointed wholesalers pointed out that their large stocks of imported rice, oil and pulses could expire as people were not buying from them and importing directly.
In the early days of COVID-19 the government as part of its efforts to stock up on essential items appointed 24 wholesalers including the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) and provided them with soft working capital to stock up on both essential and later non-essential items.
The idea was that in case of a disruption these wholesalers could supply the retail and other outlets across Bhutan to ensure both supply of goods and also keep the retail shops open.
The wholesalers were supposed to cycle their stocks by selling the older stuff and then continuously restocking new ones so that a certain stock was always there.
The issue cropped up in two places. One is a WhatsApp group of the wholesalers and trade officials where some wholesalers pointed out the danger of these goods expiring as traders imported on their own instead of buying from them and the need to stop such imports.
It also came up in a 20th July working capital meeting attended by the wholesalers where again the issue was brought up and the recommendation was to stop imports of rice, oil and pulses.
A trade official who also works under the taskforce said issue was not just about the expiry of the products but that around that time there was a big surge in cases with 17 out of 100 people testing positive for COVID-19 in Jaigaon.
He said that earlier 300 to 400 trucks were entering Bhutan in a day and so the Task Force decided to reduce it to 100 trucks a day to reduce the risk of local transmission.
With the restrictions coming into place and the traders demand, it was decided that trucks of other traders ferrying rice, oil and pulses will not be allowed in.
The official said no circular or notification was issued as this was an interim decision.
However, this decision by the task force and the MoEA has raised the hackles of traders who import these items.
One trader pointed out that traders and customers cannot be made to pay the price of the mismanagement and inefficiency by some wholesalers. They say it is more expensive to buy from the wholesalers who would have a profit margin.
He said he sells a certain brand of rice at Nu 745 a bag but FCBL charges him Nu 855 for the same bag.
He said once he sells it the higher cost would pass down to the customer which is also not fair.
He said that even some of his goods expire occasionally but that does not mean he can request the government to put an import ban till his goods sell out before the expiry date.
The traders also pointed out the danger of a monopoly being created by the wholesalers who could get import bans imposed at will and have a monopoly of the business and profits.
Some also questioned the whole legality of the process. “You cannot decide national policy like this in a WhatsApp group. Business requires stability, clear rules and institutional clarity and not ad hoc decisions like this,” said a trader.
The decision has also impacted the traders whose goods are stuck across the border where they have to find space to store their goods.
Traders said that businesses should have the freedom to run their own businesses and buy from the best places instead of being forced like this. They also pointed out the issue of choice as the brands that their customers prefer may not be with the wholesalers.