The Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS) and Department of Geology and Mines (DGM) are at war.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said this while clarifying the Cabinet’s order for suspending surface collection and dredging a few months ago.
The two departments are at least at loggerheads, if not at war.
Both departments claim authority over surface collections, as the Mines and Minerals Management Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan 1995 (MMMA) and Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995 (FNCA) provide the respective departments authority over surface collection materials.
It has also now surfaced that it is not just the two Acts that have conflicting provisions on the matter, but also the Water Act of Bhutan 2011.
The Royal Audit Authority (RAA) had issued observations on the surface collection issue after the DoFPS allowed excavations with machines to dredge after the adoption of Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations (FNCRR) in 2017.
While the RAA, DoFPS and DGM officials refused to share the audit findings, as it is still a memo, sources confirmed that allowing excavations with heavy machinery to dredge through the FNCRR 2017 violated the FNCA, MMMA and the Water Act.
“The rules and regulations have to be adopted in line with the Act but it has violated the Act,” a source confirmed.
The source cited examples of how allowing excavations by machines violated the clauses of the Act that states permit or licence should be issued with applicable management plan and the work should not increase the danger of landslides, soil erosion and other environmental damage.
Another source said that going by the dredging works in the southern dzongkhags, especially in Phuentsholing, Sarpang and Samtse, there is no management plans in the collection and the works might bring temporary benefits, but more risk of environmental damages in the future.
An environmentalist said that Water Act mandates National Environment Commission (NEC), in collaboration with relevant authorities to set the minimum environmental flow of watercourses required to support and conserve the riverine habitats, its flora and fauna.
“With relevant agencies fighting over the authority, there is no monitoring at any dredging sites,” the source alleged.
It was learnt that works in Phuentsholing were awarded to private contractors, some works were awarded to NRDCL in Sarpang and Samtse.
A retired senior citizen took to social media to question if authorities are earmarking proper collection points as boulders are collected and exported in huge quantities from the riverbeds.
Those who experienced working in surface collection materials, have confirmed that once the officials issue the permit, there is no one to monitor. “We dredge and collect wherever there are materials,” an engineer said.
The government had sought Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) legal advise on the matter, but OAG officials declined to share their view, as it has to be confidential to the government.
It was, however, learnt that OAG asked for harmonisation of the conflicting provisions of the FNCA, MMMA and the Water Act.
This was not the first time a law harmonisation need was raised. The Law Review Taskforce also highlighted the need to harmonise FNCA and the Water Act in 2018.
The other problem-related to surface collection, sources say, was with the royalty. An engineer said since the adoption of FNCRR 2017, the revenue earned through boulder export is Nu 50 a truck, whereas it ranged from Nu 9 to 12 per metric tonne when DGM issued the permits. Sources alleged that contractors in the boulder export business made Nu 2M a day.
The Cabinet discussed the need to increase the fees and charges on the export of the boulders on May 7 but the outcome of the decision would be shared only next week.
Agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor said the authority should be with the DGM. The ministry has been suggesting that given the professional knowledge regarding all minerals, including sand and stone, the authority should be with DGM.
“But the MMMA states that domestic collection should be left with DoFPS and DGM would look after commercial aspect of surface collection, which again left room for the two authorities to involve in the same activity and more problems associated with it,” he said.
Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor said DoFPS should only look after wildlife and vegetation. “Anything beyond vegetation should be with DGM, be it surface collection, quarry, mining, dredging. DGM should not segregate domestic consumption and export.”
He said that OAG suggested for a holistic Act instead of too many conflicting Acts for nature conservation. “I would suggest having one Act for natural resources that would be a law for all relevant agencies.”
The minister said all other sectors could have regulations so that no one could claim authority. “Having too many Acts is detrimental in implementing.”
Meanwhile, the MMMA would be tabled for amendment in the upcoming Parliament session.