Chencho Dema | Wangdue 

Faced with an acute shortage of sand, those engaged in construction are turning to the black market, paying exorbitant prices for sand. The shortage, meanwhile, has led to a thriving market where sand is sold illegally at prices much higher than levels set by the government.

Shady agents have been busy attending to requests from builders who call them out of desperation. A truckload of sand from Wangdue is sold between Nu 28,000 and Nu 35,000 for 10m3 (cubic metre) in Thimphu. The market price is Nu 13,938.

According to truck drivers ferrying sand from Wangdue, the shortage is caused during monsoon, and dredging sand from the river is difficult. “Whatever is dredged in a day is used within a day,” said a driver.

On Friday, 46 trucks lined up for sand at the sand quarry in Wangdue. Only around half received the cargo. The remaining trucks must wait until today to transport sand to Thimphu.

Shortage of sand in summer is nothing new, according to Kinley Gyeltshen, a trucker. “We warn builders and property owners that it would be difficult to get enough sand in summer, but they don’t listen and instead resort to buying from the illicit market and afterwards, complain about the prices,” he said.

A truckload of sand costs Nu 2,828.Transportation from the quarry site to Olakha costs Nu 11,110. “But because the load is distributed via a token system, we have to wait for our turn and sometimes we have to wait for days,” he added.   

Truckers add the waiting charges on the cost of sand, Nu 5,000 a day, which is resulting in the expensive sand price.

There are eight sand dredging machines (boat) deployed at the Punatshangchhu, each with a capacity of dredging 11 truckloads of sand during summer and 15 in winter. 

The Sha region supplies sand to Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Bumthang, Trongsa, Wangdue, and Punakha. 

In the country, the Natural Resources Development Corporation  Wangdue is the highest supplier of sand.


Thriving black market

A builder in Thimphu said that buying sand from black market is a norm despite the price. He recalls buying about 12 truckloads after his uncle suggested avoiding the former channel. 

A common trick used by the transporters is unloading sand along the way and selling them when it is enough for a truckload.  “Drivers don’t bring full load, while rich or careless builders don’t care to check the quantity delivered. If they quarrel with the drivers, they will not get sand. Builders are cheated,” said a builder. 

Another builder recommends authorities to monitor the sand supply during winter. For instance, he said that if a truck arrives with a request for five truckloads of sand, it is important to check if all the orders are delivered at the site. “We are not sure if the sand is being used for the intended purpose or if it is being stored for sale in summer,” said a 53-year-old businessman based in Thimphu. 

An official with the Wangdue forest division said miscreants risk dredging sand because of the profit. They use heavy earth moving machineries to extract sand. He said that individuals stock up sand in winter, aware that there will be shortage in summer.

He said that they suspect leftover sand from completed projects are sold at higher prices. Rural residents who are allowed five truckloads of sand per year, he said, could also be selling it illegally.

Meanwhile, the forestry officials suspect drivers of stealing sand when it is transported. “They could dump a portion along the way and sell it, when it is enough for a truckload,  in the black market,” said an official. He said that a way forward could be assessing the carrying capacity of sand in the Wangdue region and the annual demand of sand. 

About 22 truckers were fined Nu 50,000 as of today for stealing sand and offloading sand to be sold later. Truck drivers who were caught, explained to the forestry officials that they relied on the trick to pay their loans and support their families. “There is no choice but to engage in such activities.”