For a penny more

For a penny more

An exploration of why residents of Phuentsholing are attracted to Jaigoan

Phuentsholing, Bhutan’s commercial capital has always lived in the shadows of its bordering friend – Jaigoan. Pre-pandemic, Bhutanese merchants in Phuentsholing used to gaze from their shops looking at the hundreds of Bhutanese crossing legal and illegal entry and exit points to shop from Jaigoan. There was little that could be done. Everything was cheaper on the other side of the line.

The Covid 19 pandemic, which led to the closure of all international borders literally killed what was once a flourishing town. Jaigoan gradually became empty. Scores of businessman, including those who had migrated from Bhutan’s eastern frontier, Samdrup Jongkhar, and found fulfillment in Jaigoan had to leave for their roots – the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and others. It was proven between reasonable grounds that Jaigoan indeed was living on the disposable incomes of their neighbors, the Bhutanese. Due to the pandemic, vigilance along the international borders were strengthened. Walls were built. Bhutanese living in Jaigoan were repatriated to Bhutan.

With just one entry point after the pandemic and Jaigoan still resembling a village out of a war, seeds of optimism were sowed in the hearts of Bhutanese businesses in Phuentsholing. Most thought that Jaigoan cannot revive. Phuentsholing can now reap the benefits of the untamed and undisciplined consumption patterns of the Bhutanese. Their time had come. Perhaps, it was true for a month or so! Once the international gate was opened, everything turned. Jaigoan is rising from the ashes and businesses in Phuentsholing are back to their long lost game – watching people cross over to shop in Jaigoan.

As opined by a grocery shop owner in Phuentsholing, it is simply difficult to imagine what attracts Bhutanese to Jaigoan. People now need to cross the new exit/entry point. It is not like how it used to be. People need to wait in a queue, sometimes for an hour to step into Jaigoan. And it is not free. They have to pay Nu 10 every time they cross the terminal. This does not stop them from walking the extra mile. Of late, the town of Manglabari, farther away from Jaigoan has become the hunting ground for Bhutanese vegetable buyers. The one day a week vegetable market has taken Phuentsholing residents by storm. Almost everyone waits for an hour to step into Jaigoan, pays Nu 10, gets into an auto rickshaw till Manglabari (paying Nu 10 again) and begins buying necessary vegetables for a week. Carrying the heavy bags, they pay again Nu 10 to reach Jaigoan, walks through the terminal and then home. It is an extra effort. But they do it.

Vegetable vendors in Phuentsholing’s newly constructed sheds are left behind. They do not understand the logic. What about all the opportunity costs involved? How much can people actually save? Is it worth going all the way to Manglabari?

The answer is “yes!” The reasons are apparent. It is all about saving whatever people can. The differences in rates are huge. People do not think of the time lost, the money paid at the gate and to the auto rickshaws, when you are told that a kilogram of cauliflower is Nu 60 in Phuentsholing. It kills every intent you have to buy within Bhutan. You just do not want to even ask about the rates of other vegetables. You know that you can get the same bunch for Nu 30 in Manglabari. You are so frustrated by inflation that calculating other costs incurred for taking the ride to Manglabari just does not occur to you. It is sometimes all about psychology.

The government has tightened inspection especially for those trying to evade taxes. Once the hub where every Bhutanese used to make their vehicles, due to the measures adopted by the government, Bhutanese began to make their vehicles in Phuentsholing, until it dawned to them that they were hammered and robbed in their country. A vehicle that can be restored for Nu 30,000 in Jaigoan is charged Nu 45,000 to 50,000 in Bhutan. The Golden Goose is killed. People now take their vehicles to Jaigoan. Yes! Questions are asked at the exit point. But for every new rule, two ways to evade the rules come. So, what do our folks tell the ones at guard? That they are going to Siliguri and would be back by evening. It is the exact time that would be taken to restore their vehicles just 200 meters away. They happily return in the evening, saving Nu 10,000 or more. They know that the government is losing. But they have an answer. “Even if all taxes are calculated, the rates within Bhutan are just exorbitant.”

Something is reemerging now and if this continues, Jaigoan will again be home to thousands of Bhutanese. Two bedroom flats, where people pay Nu 12000 in Phuentsholing town are easily available for Nu 5,000 in Jaigoan. It comes with incentives: free parking with CCTV and a security guard; additional water storage tanks; free wifi and others. Our friends across the Terminal are not just survivors; they know how to do business; they know how to lure customers. Just last week, three families who were paying Nu 15,000 for three bedroom flats in Phuentsholing reportedly moved to Jaigoan. They are paying just Nu 7,000 there, with all added facilities.

The crux of this perspective is to understand why it is happening. In order to understand the factors leading to the examples cited above, people should know Phuentsholing’s demography. The city is filled with migrant Bhutanese workers, truck drivers and others working in different factories of the town. In other words, it is not like Thimphu, where a majority or at-least a significant number of people are from the lower middle class and above. Phuentsholing residents, on the other hand mostly come from the upper lower class. They are not bachelors or single mothers. Most have families. Thus, most residents in Phuentsholing are under privileged. This is one of the reasons why His Majesty the King’s kidu was mostly availed by the people of Phuentsholing during the pandemic. Yes! The fact that the people of Phuentsholing lived through several lockdowns is also there.

I would not say that the businesspeople in Phuentsholing do not know how to do business. But I would like to point out that one hammer will cost them a lot. They may be able to make a quick buck; but it is not sustainable. Lower down on your profit margins. Learn from your counterparts in Jaigoan. Do not kill the hens that lay the golden eggs! For a penny more, all are losing and in thousands! And you will have to continue watching people brave everything and passing by your shops.

Tandin Wangchuk, Olakha, Thimphu

The views are my own and do not reflect that of the agency I am working for