Ranged in single file stand Reliance Trends, Pantaloons and Citi Mart, along with many other branded malls, whose density increases as we reach the vibrantly engraved Bhutan Gate. Guarding the border gate between India and Bhutan is a rusted and locked grille. The locked gate is an unusual sight for the people of the small yet densely populated town of Jaygaon that’s known as Jaigaon in West Bengal.
Trucks are lined up on the Jaygaon side of the Bhutan Gate — waiting to deliver food consignments from Kolkata and Siliguri to Bhutan. A few kilometres away is a shopping complex that stands dark and empty, its shutters down and its keepers idle. At the entrance of the complex is a small shop with a heart-shaped leaf drawn on its closed blue shutters.
Wrapping betel leaves around pieces of areca nut and smearing chuna is Atul*. He recalls the days just before the pandemic lockdown was declared. On March 22, he sold 3,000 paans for ₹10 each to his Bhutanese buyers, who take them back to Phuentsholing, a Bhutanese border town. “They love doma paan with Bangla betel leaves. In the last two years alone, around 100 paan shops have popped up in Jaygaon, and 70% of our customers are Bhutanese,” he says. Chewing on a betel leaf, Atul adds, “I hope the Bhutan Gate opens soon, or else I will have to shut shop and sell vegetables instead.”
Gateway to Bhutan
Jaygaon offers three major categories of employment: there are the labourers who work in Bhutan, there are the local businesses patronised by Bhutanese customers, and the flat owners who rent to Bhutanese tenants.
“Jaygaon exists on the map because of Bhutan. And after the lockdown, there are no jobs here any more,” says an employee of a tourism agency in Phuentsholing.
It’s been six months since the Bhutan Gate was closed.
Jaygaon, grandly called the ‘gateway to Bhutan’, has come to a standstill. With each passing month, the people of the town are losing hope that their businesses will ever revive. “People are now moving to Bengaluru to work as labourers,” says a porter. Says Anil Prasad, director of Vakil’s supermarket in Jaygaon, “If the gate doesn’t open soon, I will face massive losses and be forced to shut down and move to Siliguri for better opportunities.”
The restaurants in the area, which primarily catered to the labourers who would pack lunch before they left for Bhutan on work, are all closed.
On March 8, Bhutan cancelled the work permits of hundreds of Indian labourers. In early April, as the coronavirus cases rose, Bhutanese tenants in Jaygaon returned to Phuentsholing. “We transported the belongings of over 200 Bhutanese families to Bhutan Gate,” says Phurba Lama, the Panchayat head of Jaygaon 2.
Twice in size
Meanwhile, India’s loss is Bhutan’s gain. A report in KuenselOnline, a media outlet in Bhutan, says the local economy in Phuentsholing seems to be picking up because buyers are not going to Jaygaon for commodities such as clothes and food.
Jaygaon has grown to twice its original size just in the last two years. Recent data gathered for the West Bengal government showed that some 1,100 labourers had come to Jaygaon from Bihar alone for construction work in Bhutan. Says Phurba Lama, “Jaygaon was just a gram panchayat masquerading as a border town. We demanded a municipality status considering its growing size and density.”
On June 9, at a meeting with the People Welfare Society, Jaygaon’s people demanded the opening of Bhutan Gate for basic business. Lama replied that Bhutan Gate was the property of Bhutan and the administration understood the problem but needed to wait for further dialogue.
“It is understandable that Bhutan is afraid to open the gate,” says Lama. “It is a small country with a population of just eight lakh.” And the pandemic shows no signs of abating in India.
*Name changed on request.
Lakhotia is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata. Mangar is a post-graduate student at Jadavpur University.