Assam poll 2016: Tired of playing second fiddle to Bhutan, border town Garageline votes for a better tomorrow

Garageline, Baksa, Assam: Small shops on either side of the road, quintessential of any of Assam's nondescript tiny urban centres on a highway makes Garageline no different from the others in its class, except that it is located just 50 metres away from the India-Bhutan border. It overlooks Samdrup Jongkhar, a Bhutanese town located in the south-eastern part of the mountainous nation.

As Assam votes in its second and last phase of polling for its new Assembly, Garageline which falls under Tamulpur constituency in Baksa district, will also lock its hopes and aspirations for the next five years through the beeps of electronic voting machines.

However, it is on Bhutan that Garageline largely depends to thrive economically while Assam has done remarkably little to develop the area as a prospering border zone.

"Bhutan is more developed than us because of its low population and minimal corruption," Hemanta Kumar Dutta, a small trader who runs a shop in Garageline selling miscellaneous items from cosmetics to pan and betel nut told Firstpost.

Villagers in Baksa. Reuters

Villagers in Baksa. Reuters

"Most of the Indian daily wage earners are dependent on Bhutan for their livelihood. They enter Bhutan in the morning and return before the gate closes at 4 pm for the day," said another trader Sadan Thakur, who runs an electrical and electronics items shop in Garageline. "But there is talk going on that they might close the gate barring the entry of our people into Bhutan from this month itself. If that happens, our people would be in dire straits."

Both the traders hoped that whoever wins the Tamulpur seat will take up the matter at the appropriate level urgently. Incumbent Tamulpur MLA Emmanuel Mosahary, belonging to the Bodo People's Front, has not taken up the issue yet. He is contesting the poll again.

There are rising demands that the border should be made free of all formalities so that people from both sides can transit at will and in convenience.

"During the first phase of polls on 4 April, the gates were closed as all the international borders in Assam were sealed. On that day, all shops were closed in Garageline as if it was a shutdown because no customers could come down from Bhutan. There was no point in keeping the shops open," said Thakur.

The problem was worse till a few months back due to the difference in values between the Indian rupee and the Bhutanese ngultrum. Now it is comparatively easy as both the currencies share the same value. For example, if a Bhutanese buyer came down to Garageline to shop, he or she can use an assortment of the two currencies to purchase a single commodity depending on the denomination he or she possesses.

"Around two years back, Bhutanese banks used to allow Indians to hold accounts. But they have stopped the practice now. Today if we get a big sum of Bhutanese ngultrum, then we go to the Bank of Bhutan in Samdrup Jongkhar, deposit it there while the bank wires the money to our accounts in India. They don't allow currency exchange in cash anymore. The MLA should take up these issues as it concerns many people on the Indian side," he said.

The lack of adequate infrastructure is quite visible in the Indian border town. In contrast, Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan is pretty organised.

"There are power cuts here for long hours. Even the farming and service quality in Bhutan are far better than ours," said Dutta. "For the past five years, we have been getting running water only for one hour a day on alternate days. Drinking water is a major problem here. People still go to Bhutan on cycles to bring water or to a school in nearby Shashipur for water."

It is ironic that there is a distinct lack of progress on the Indian side, despite being the supply line of nearly all commodities to Bhutan. The dependence on India is such that Bhutanese citizens have to be on this side of the border to have the pleasure of a smoke.

"Sale of cigarettes and smoking is strictly banned in Bhutan. It is so severe that if a person is found smoking outside a shop, the shopkeeper would be fined Rs 10,000 whether he has sold the cigarette or not. Even the smoker would not be spared. This has forced everyone not to smoke within the country. So even for a cigarette they cross over to India. They smoke as much as their lungs permit at one go and return. When we have shutdowns on our side due to frequent bandh calls in the Bodoland Territorial District Areas, the gates remain closed and no Bhutanese citizen is allowed to enter India. In the following morning, Bhutanese customers turn up as early as 6'o clock in the morning for a smoke. Even tobacco is banned in Bhutan," Dutta said.

Instead of encouraging a more prosperous trade relationship between the two countries, Tamulpur MLA Mosahary allegedly did not visit the area even once after winning the last Assembly election in 2011.

"The MLA is still to come and meet us after his last win. Now, Bhutan has also introduced tax on Indian items. It is 10 percent on electronics goods, five percent on electrical items and shoes while on vegetables there is sales tax. We have a fear that it might get prohibitive for them to trade with us if it is raised too much. Although it is the prerogative of the Bhutanese government we can't keep our eyes closed. Our MLA should be abreast of these issues," Thakur said.

The biggest disappointment among the people residing in the Garageline and Darranga area is that despite being a huge country, the governments on the Indian side — be it the state or the Centre — have failed to fulfil even the basic needs of the people.

"There is no hospital in the area. There is not a single higher secondary school nearby. We have more population but no facilities. You have just returned from Bhutan and I am sure you have observed the stark differences," Dutta said.

Both Dutta and Thakur are probably voting today with the hope that these "stark differences" would go away soon and the MLA, whoever he might be, takes out some time in the next five years to visit Garageline and Darranga.

Updated Date: Apr 11, 2016 10:58 AM

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