Export halted more than a month ago

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Export of boulders, which has been on halt for more than a month now, is expected to resume in a week’s time.

According to the exporters, the boulder export was put on hold for a week starting September 1 because of a road safety awareness programme, an annual event organised in West Bengal from September 1 to September 7.

Export was supposed to resume on September 8 and more than 70 truckloads of boulders had exited Phuentsholing and Samtse. However, according to sources, police in Jaigaon and Banarhaat stopped the vehicles.

Boulders are exported mainly from West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya. While the Assam route is undisturbed, the Meghalaya route is closed temporarily for maintenance work on one of the bridges. The export will resume from this route as soon as the bridge maintenance works are over, Kuensel learnt, but a timeline is not given.

Why the delay

However, exporters are not sure why export was not allowed after the road event in West Bengal. It was learnt that West Bengal is also trying to streamline its boulder export rules and regulations. Informal sources said that this was the reason why all the boulder activities, including Bhutan’s, were stopped temporarily.

The general secretary with the Bhutan Exporters Association (BEA), Tshering Yeshi said they informed the ministry of economic affairs for intervention.

“The government, the BCCI president, Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi, Bhutanese Consulate Office in Kolkata and Indian Consulate Office in Phuentsholing are all working on this,” he said.

Tshering Yeshi didn’t comment on why the export was stopped. However, he said exports could resume next week.

Tshering Yeshi said that as soon as the problem started, BEA approached all relevant agencies across the border to resolve the issue.

“Our intervention is for all exports and exporters in the country irrespective of who registered or not with the BEA,” he said.

Tshering Yeshi said BEA was informed by local authorities in India that many people and local associations in the country, without any identity, approach them with different issues.

“There are different people and local (unregistered) associations in different regions approaching authorities across the border. It creates misunderstandings and communication lapses.”

He said having local and unregistered associations for the same cause of supporting export creates differences.

“We must work together and collectively,” he said.

BCCI president Tandin Wangchuk said the economic affairs ministry has instructed the chamber should resolve all the border issues.

“Accordingly, I have been following up with the Embassy in New Delhi and Consul General office in Kolkata,” he said. “We were asked to follow up with the Indian Consulate Office in Phuentsholing.”

He said that he contacted the Indian Embassy in Thimphu and received the contact details of West Bengal officials.

The district magistrate (DM) of Jalpaiguri had not instructed to stop the export, he said.

However, the BCCI president said that they suspected Bhutanese trucks doing documentation frauds. Due to this, 39 trucks are also detained by the police across the border in Siliguri, he added. “The case has also been forwarded to the court,” he said.

The judgment for these cases is expected to be out by October 8 or October 10. If the documents are legal, then there are no problems, he said. “Then, the export will resume automatically. The DM has said there won’t be much problem.”

Time lost is revenue lost

Meanwhile, as exporters gear up to resume work, they point out the opportunity to generate revenue and employment was lost temporarily by all partner countries Bhutan, India and Bangladesh.

While boulders are lifted from Bhutan and exported to Bangladesh, people of three places of West Bengal – Coochbehar, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri are involved in transportation.

On a normal day, about 200 truckloads of boulders leave Phuentsholing and Samtse, and 100 truckloads from Gomtu. During the dry season, about 500 truckloads move from Phuentsholing and Samtse alone.

An exporter in Phuentsholing said the cost of one metric tonne (MT) of boulders is around Nu 1,500, of which Nu 500 is the cost of 1MT of boulder, including all expenses like documentation, contentment, tax and royalties.

“Nu 1,000 goes to our Indian friends in transport. Even if we use Bhutanese vehicles, all the drivers are from across the border.”

An official with an export company in Samtse said exporters are trying to find out the problem.

“But we don’t know what’s happening. It is already a month now,” he said.

“We have even written to the local authorities. All options have been given but nothing has come out.”

The official said that huge revenue must have been lost in one month.

The Proprietor of MG Export in Samtse said the boulder business benefits three countries.  While Bhutan exports and Bangladesh imports, about 70 percent of the transportation is dealt by Indians.

“We must try to prevent such disturbances from coming.”

In 2020, Bhutan exported boulders worth Nu 1.87 billion (B). Boulder was the second most exported item after ferrosilicon.

In 2019, Bhutan exported boulders worth Nu 4.97B. In 2018, when the boulder export was at its peak, Bhutan exported boulders worth Nu 2.12B and was the second most exported product.