Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

When the Pig Year 2019 began, export of boulders was touching the sky. It had topped the list of export at one point.

But there was an unmatched challenge coming its way.

Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) investigation and suspending of an ongoing dredging work at the Toorsa embankment triggered the downfall. The export game changed and the ripple effect hit the transport sector and the banks.

First it was the load capacity that hit the boulder export. Business had stopped abruptly after ACC asked the traffic and road authorities to restrict trucks carrying stones beyond the carrying capacity.

The load weight was restricted to 25MT from 40Mt trucks carried. Hundreds of trucks were stranded when the ceiling was put to effect. Many exporters claimed that business was more of transport and not just the boulder export.  The government increased the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) to 28MT but it did not go well with the people involved.

By this time last year, there were more than 1,500 dumper trucks in Phuentsholing, Samtse and Gelephu, a huge investment in transport targeting the boulders business.

The 2018 Bhutan Trade Statistics (BTS) revealed that dumper trucks worth Nu 1.9 billion (B) was imported. It was the fifth highest imported commodity. Although the figures were inclusive of other dumping equipment, exporters and transporters said the figures increased largely due to import of dumper trucks.

Load restriction alone was not the hurdle on the boulder business highway. Soon after the export resumed, issues from the Indian highway started to arise. On September 23, a mob in Fulbari attacked and damaged more than 30 Bhutanese trucks that were ferrying boulders to Bangladesh.

Fulbari locals and those in the boulder business stopped Bhutanese trucks citing load capacity as the reason. Many were fined.

Meanwhile, truck owners started to default in paying their instalments to the truck companies and banks.

One bank had lent Nu 1.24B in transport loan for heavy vehicles in 2018 alone. Heavy vehicles include dumper trucks and excavation machineries. However, this figure dropped to Nu 427M by December 2019.

As per the Royal Monetary Authority’s report on ‘credit exposure in financial sector’ until June 2019, the transport sector comprised of five percent of the overall loan composition, which is Nu 6.74B.

Out of this, a total of Nu 1.35B was as transport Non Performing Loan (NPL) outstanding, which is six percent of the total NPL composition.


Dredging issues

Issues of dredging of boulders along the Toorsa were also under scrutiny in the Pig year.

In September, despite controversies, the government announced three feasible dredging sites at Toorsa. More than 100 applicants rushed to secure the sites.

However, ongoing Amochhu Township Development Project (PTDP) in Zone A, opposed to the decision. On October 25, the government stopped “the dredging of boulders and riverbed materials” from Toorsa river basin.

The decision was taken after reviewing the PTDP and concerns shared by the project’s executing company, Construction Development Corporation Limited.

The government also decided to cease the export of surface collection and riverbed dredging materials originating in and around Toorsa basin.