SMCL office in Samdrupjongkhar

The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) seized  Nu 2.9 million (M) in cash from a prime suspect and transport agency based in Samdrupjongkhar as it launched an investigation into alleged corruption in exporting and transportation of gypsum from Bhutan to Nepal.

Of the Nu 2.9M, Nu 1.2M was reportedly seized from the house of Kumar Pradhan, marketing specialist of the State Mining Corporation Limited (SMCL) and Nu 1.7M from the transport company, East Bhutan Private Limited (EBPL). However, ACC has returned Nu 1.7M to EBPL as the cash was reportedly withdrawn for the payment of salary to its employees.

ACC’s investigation team in Samdrupjongkhar sought a search warrant from the dzongkhag court on March 15 and raided  SMCL, EBPL offices, and homes of SMCL general manager and the marketing specialist. The team seized documents, computers of SMCL and EBPL, and laptops and cell phones.

In his letter to the court seeking a search warrant, ACC’s lawyer Sonam Tshering stated that the commission has grounds to suspect Kumar Pradhan’s involvement in corrupt practices.

Sonam Tshering stated that the suspect is a shareholder of EBPL when exporting gypsum to Nepal and the same company is also a transporter. “There is a direct conflict of interest which he failed to declare,” he stated in the letter.

ACC also alleged that both transport and export of gypsum were done directly violating procurement rules and regulations.

The letter also stated that since the suspect is the marketing expert of minerals, the commission suspected that he abused his authority in fixing rates for gypsum. There were also allegations that the gypsum was sold at Nu 1,970 per metric tonne from Bhutan and then exported to Nepal at Nu 5,000  incurring loss to the government. “There is no transparency with these two different rates,” the ACC letter to the court stated. “That is why there were many allegations  that public properties are being misused by one or two individuals.”

Given these suspicions and allegations against the suspect,  the commission concluded that there was a prima facie case of corruption that requires a search and seizure warrant from the court as per the Anti-Corruption Act.  The letter stated that the suspect has not only failed to declare the “conflict of interest” but is also suspected of committing offences involving commission amounting to an abuse of functions, embezzlement of property by public servant, active and passive bribery of public servant and tax evasion.

Based on the appeal for search and seizure by ACC, the court issued a search warrant to conduct a search at Kumar Pradhan’s residence, SMCL office, EBPL office, and his son’s residence.

The Anti-Corruption Act grants the commission power to search and seize.

The ACC began an investigation after the anonymous complainant addressed a three-page letter to the commission’s chairperson and uploaded it on Facebook on March 1.

It detailed allegations of how the director and manager are exporting minerals to Nepal, deflating the gypsum price to Nu 1,970 from the actual market rate of Nu 5,500 and sharing the profit. “Accountability has to be fixed and ACC has to intervene and proceed for spot quotation of the minerals from the stockyard by fixing rates at auctions,” the letter stated.

SMCL officials, however, in an earlier interview with Kuensel refuted corruption allegations and said the complaint was “bogus”. They said the complaint was made by an individual, who wanted to transport gypsum but did not win the tender. “SMCL doesn’t look after transport,” an official said.

The official had said the person lodged a similar complaint to ACC in September last year and ACC officials, who were in Samdrupjongkhar for a different case, visited the SMCL office.

He said that ACC forwarded the complaints to Druk Holdings and Investment (DHI) because there was no corruption element to the case and that they had written to DHI about how they were making a seamless transfer.

The official also said the SMCL board fixes the rate for gypsum and that the director and manager do not have authority to fix the price as claimed in the article. “Everything is transparent here, as all transactions are online. Payments are made upfront.”

Rinzin Wangchuk