…transportation remains the biggest hurdle in the business today  

Younten Tshedup | Gelephu

Ever since the issue of overloading and under-invoicing surfaced in April last year, the boulder business in Gelephu has never been the same.

While several attempts to restart the once-thriving business were made over the months, the business is yet to return to its former vibrancy.

In an effort to extensively revive the boulder business, Gelephu think-tank business members (GTTBM) suggested allowing Indian trucks to ferry Bhutanese boulders to Bangladesh.

The proposal was discussed in the presence of the secretary-general of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) on February 8 in Gelephu.

One of the members, Chencho Gyeltshen, said that the main issue in the boulder export business was transporting consignments through the Indian highway.

He said that even while carrying the permissible load, Bhutanese truckers continue to face harassments along the way. “The only possible way to solve this issue is to allow Indian trucks to carry our consignments.”

Unlike the Bhutanese trucks, he said that there is no load restriction imposed on Indian vehicles plying along the highway. “We can then manage to send some of the our own trucks along with the Indian convoy. This could solve the whole issue that we constantly face.”  

He said that there were several Indian truckers who have expressed to carry the consignments from Gelephu to Nakugaon in Bangladesh. “For security reasons, Indian trucks are not allowed to enter Gelephu. But we can see several Indian trucks freely plying in Phuentsholing, Samtse and Gomtu.”

He said that the proposal is to allow Indian trucks to operate within 5km inside the border gate in Gelephu.

During the daylong meeting, members said that the proposal was a temporary measure to help exporters dispose of the large boulder stock gathered alongside the riverbeds.

A time-specific approval until the boulder deposits are finished or by providing each exporter with a quota to use Indian trucks would solve the issue of unrestricted movement of the Indian vehicles inside the border, it was proposed.

Chencho Gyeltshen said that even otherwise, there are private Indian vehicles coming in and freely operating within the free zone in Gelephu.

It was learnt that presently not many Bhutanese trucks operate in Gelephu given the poor business. From over 300 trucks that flooded the border town last year, there are only about 50 operating today. Many of the truckers have moved to operate at the coal mines in Meghalaya.

Members also deliberated on the need to address issues in the export of stone aggregates and the lengthy bureaucratic procedures that have deterred exporters.

Representing the mines and minerals committee of GTTBM, Chencho Gyeltshen said that there is a need to review the forest department’s rule on considering the one-is-to-two (1:2) boulder and aggregate measurement.

He said that the Department of Forest and Park Services assumes that two truckloads of boulder can produce only one truckload of stone aggregates.

“This is not true. Technically, a truckload of boulder has about 15 percent void, which is why there is no way two trucks of boulder can produce only a truck of aggregates.”

In the case of unrefined riverbed materials (RBM), he said that the 1:2 ratio could be possible. However, most of the crushing units today use only screened materials, he added.

“All we are asking is for a physical verification involving all the stakeholders involved to streamline the system.”

Another issue discussed was on the lengthy bureaucratic procedures involved in the export of stone aggregate from Gelephu.

Members expressed that there was no need to produce an export approval on stone aggregates since it was a value-added product and exporters were already paying the government in the form of royalty.

“If the government deems it a necessity, the permit should be made available from the division offices here,” said Chencho Gyeltshen.

He explained that the range and divisional units in Gelephu after inspecting all the requirements on the ground send the documents to the department in Thimphu for verification.

“The same document is sent back from Thimphu and the whole process takes about a week to 10 days,” he said. “While on one hand, the government wants to foster export, on the other these types of bureaucratic procedures deter many exporters like us.”

Meanwhile, challenges due to the timing at the border gate were also shared during the meeting. Members shared that since there was only one weighbridge in Gelephu, it was delaying the trucks crossing the gate before time.

The border gate closes for outbound vehicles at 5pm in winter and at 6pm in summer. Members proposed to keep the gates open for the truckers till 8pm.

BCCI secretary-general, Sangay Dorji, said that most of the concerns raised by the members were genuine.

“I’ve asked the members to submit all their concerns in writing to the chamber so that we could understand it better and take it forward,” he said.

As the apex body for the private sector, BCCI functions as a bridge between the government and private sectors, he said. “So before forwarding the issues directly, it is our responsibility to thoroughly understand the problems. Sometimes there are solutions that could be provided by the chamber without having to take it up to the government.”