Pandemic curbs on India-Nepal border hurt business
Hundreds of traders in Panitanki, the hamlet on the India-Nepal border some 35km from here on the bank of Mechi river, which marks the international boundary, hit the streets on Wednesday, demanding the immediate opening of the border for movement of people among both the countries.
Since March 24 last year, movement of common people across the border has been halted owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only trucks carrying goods are allowed to cross the border.
This border clamp has left around 2,000 traders of Panitanki in the lurch as their business is almost entirely dependent on residents of the neighbouring country.
“Thousands would cross the Mechi river bridge to visit our shops, buy an array of products ranging from groceries and vegetables to garments, furniture and other household items. Since March last year, their entry has been stopped and we are bearing the brunt of it. We want the central government to immediately reopen the border or else it would be tough for us to survive,” said Ram Kumar Chhetri, an adviser of Panitanki Byabsayee Samiti.
According to him, goods worth around Rs 1 crore used to be transacted every day at Panitanki before the onset of the pandemic.
“The border movement has been closed for around one-and-a-half years now. One can easily assess the loss our members have borne during these months. Many of us find it tough these days to pay monthly instalments of bank loans and are exploring other options to run families,” added Chhetri.
Another senior trader in Panitanki said that along with traders, rickshaw-pullers, van and e-rickshaw drivers are also in dire straits. In all, there are around 2,000 local vehicles which used to ply on the border.
On Wednesday, a delegation of traders also submitted a memorandum to officials of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), which guards the international border.
“Earlier, we had submitted a memorandum to the district magistrate of Darjeeling through the BDO of Kharibari block. But there has been no change in the situation. Hardly a few shops open at Panitanki these days, and a section of traders are in fact planning to sell their shops and shift to other places. The central government should consider our situation and take steps to reopen the border for people. Otherwise, the situation would only turn more grim in the coming days,” said a grocery shop owner.
According to him, ahead of the pandemic, he used to sell goods worth around Rs 60,000 in a day. “These days, I can hardly make a sale of Rs 2,000. Only local residents of Panitanki turn up at my shop these days,” he said.
Sources in Darjeeling district administration said the decision to open the border has to be taken by the central government.
“We are aware of the situation and have passed information to necessary quarters. But as this is an international border, it is the Centre that has to take the call,” said a senior official.