Open Sesame: The Indo-Bhutan borders

Probably one of the most volatile border areas in India, the region stretching from Darjeeling district in West Bengal to Bongaigaon in Assam, has from a very long time been the centre of massive political and economic upheavals. One of the most bio-diverse and naturally wealthy regions in India, this belt is the doorway between the countries of Bhutan and India and history has aptly been named, the Dooars (literally meaning ‘doors’ in Bengali, Nepali and Bhojpuri).

Assam and the Dooars region is the lifeline of the Bhutanese people, who do not have access from point A to point B within their kingdom through their own territory because of the mountainous terrain. They depend on the Indian Dooars to transport people and goods even within their own kingdom. Various treaties were signed between the two countries during the post independence era in order to sustain their bilateral relations and also for facilitating the landlocked Bhutanese in maintaining their ties with the outside world, through the Indian terrain.

Article 4 from the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, amended and signed between the governments of India and Bhutan in 2007, shows the extent to which this tiny mountain kingdom is dependent on ‘Big Brother’ India even for its own defence.

Equal treatment
Article 5 from the same agreement reads: The government of Bhutan and the government of India agree that Bhutanese subjects residing in Indian territories shall have equal justice with Indian subjects, and that Indian subjects residing in Bhutan shall have equal justice with the subjects of the government of Bhutan.
But, all those who have travelled to Bhutan would have noticed the massive gates at the borders. This is where the control of the Bhutanese regime begins. An Indian citizen entering Bhutan with valid documents like a passport or a voter’s ID card gets his travel documents stamped; if he does not possess any of the mentioned documents, he should get himself identified from the nearest India House. He proves the purpose of his visit to the satisfaction of the Bhutanese immigration officer, gets his baggage checked for customs clearance and finally disinfects his vehicle wheels (if driving) with a red fluid whose name I do not know. But a Bhutanese National entering Assam by car or on foot does not go through any checks, immigration, customs clearance, etc on the Indian side. This is the greatness of India, we believe in a world without borders  — ‘Welcome to Utopia’.

Now take Manas National Park, also within the Dooars, for instance — a Unesco world heritage site and a biosphere reserve. There is a tiny Bhutanese village called Panbang beyond the Park and across the border, a place that produces some of the finest oranges found in this part of the world. Heavy vehicles transporting these oranges cut through the Indian side of Manas in order to reach the bigger markets of Bhutan. This is an ongoing process of disturbing the wildlife, the jungle roads and the flora of this rich park.

One observes the absence of checkpoints on the Indian side to screen and also restrict (where applicable) such transits. But the Bhutanese are in the process of identifying a point on their side of Manas to check the inflow of tourists, ie the casual visitor from the Indian side wishing to catch a glimpse of the Royal Manas National Park (the Bhutanese part) by crossing the Beki River. A fine step indeed, but it should be a reminder to the Indian government to take matching measures on our side as well.

Article VII from the Agreement on Trade, Commerce and Transit between the governments of India and Bhutansigned in July 2006 states: “Trade between India and Bhutan will continue to be transacted in Indian rupees and Bhutanese ngultrums.
But a reality check proves the contrary. Bhutanese authorities ask for payments in US dollars and amounts paid in Indian currency being converted as per existing USD rates is a fact.

Indian currency notes in denominations of 1,000 are not accepted. It means that a traveller or a small time trader from India should either carry a whole stash of cash in smaller denominations or depend upon plastic money in Bhutan, since Ngultrums are not available to purchase in the regulated Forexmarket in our country.
Imagine the vulnerability of the Indian security veil, when you can buy a packet of cigarettes on the Indian side of Hathisar, pay in Indian currency and receive the change in Ngultrums because the unlicensed Bhutanese shopkeeper did not possess any Indian currency! India’s porous borders with Bangladesh have been an issue of concern for decades now, but the borders with Bhutan are no less precarious.

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