Construction workers from India want to return home

Over 100 Indian laborers have secretly escaped from the open borders of Samdrup Jongkhar since the Indian government imposed nationwide lockdown two months ago, while 33 laborers from Buxa district in Assam, India were repatriated by the local authorities following the due process.

Their exit was facilitated by the immigration, police and labor department in consultation with the Indian counterpart, who sent their officials to collect them from the main entry point in Samdrup Jongkhar.  

Currently there are about 2,500 Indian construction workers in the six eastern districts of the country, and most have expressed their desire to return back to their country.

However, their repatriation is predicated on the condition that their government would accept them back and take full responsibility after being handed over by the Bhutanese authorities.

“Currently, only the administration of the Buxa district of Assam has agreed to take back their people,” said the Dzongdag.    

The director of immigration, Pema L. Dorji, in a statement to Business Bhutan pointed out that the foreign workers are anxious and keen on returning to their homes in India.

“This is being pursued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the embassy of India as there is a lockdown there at the moment. Once the modalities have been finalized, they should be able to return,” the statement reads.

He said the Bhutanese government has not imposed any restriction on their exit, and plans to ensure smooth and orderly exit have been put in place at all the entry points. 

Meanwhile, SD. Ferro Silicon, Ajista Pharmaceuticals and Kuenden Builders in Samdrup Jongkhar combined lost 80 Indian laborers, who quietly absconded to the other side.   

Even those redeployed by the labor department have been putting pressure on the concerned authorities to facilitate their repatriation. Some have even threatened suicide if withheld any longer.

“Its paddy cultivation season in India and that is why they are desperate to get back to their villages,” said Karma Choeda, the regional director of labor, “But many of them have also decided to stay back and continue working.”

Meanwhile, the outflux of Indian expatriates and laborers, both prior to and after the lockdown in India, has created a major work force crisis in the Mortanga industrial estate, not to mention the construction sector which is still reeling from the crisis.

The director of Bhutan Gypsum Products, Kuenzang Leki, pointed out that in absence of the Indian laborers the production of Plaster of Paris (PoP) has come to a halt and if it does not restart soon, the company may have to declare bankruptcy.

“We had to avail loan to pay the salary of the existing workers,” he said, besides being plagued by Indian rupee crunch, “We have to pay to the Indian truckers in INR.”

One of the biggest industries at Mortanga, Druk Metallurgy Limited, which is engaged in the production of billets, has also remained shut down since March 23 after approximately 150 Indian workers from the company left for India following the lockdown.   

“In absence of further production, we are simply focusing on exporting the remaining stock, close to 4000 MT of billets,” said an official from the company, adding that their TMT project which is in the second phase has also been affected.”   

Likewise, Ugyen Tenzin, the agent for Lhaki and Dungsam cement in Samdrup Jongkhar is also experiencing a sharp decline in the supply and sale of cement. Earlier, he would supply over 500mt per month but today the sale figure has dwindled to less than 50mt.

“Moreover, the labor cost has also increased drastically since I am engaging Bhutanese for loading and unloading purposes,” he said, “I am paying Nu 10 per bag but earlier the Indian laborer would charge only Nu 3 per bag.”     

Meanwhile, the labor department has been approached by a group of Bhutanese youths who wishes to take up loading and unloading work permanently.

“We are hopeful that gradually they would be able to replace the Indian coolies illegally stationed in the town,” said Karma Choeda, pointing at the obvious fall out of being over dependent on expatriates, “The department is willing to provide any necessary assistance if Bhutanese youths come forward to take up the work, including mechanizing the same.”   

The department has also redeployed 35 Bhutanese youths with the Thromde Administration, who were earlier working in the entertainment sector.

Karma Tenzin from S/Jongkhar