Younten Tshedup | Gelephu

Exporters and transporters who were on different wavelengths a few weeks ago on the proposal to allow Indian truckers to ferry boulders in Gelephu has reached a consensus.

During a meeting held yesterday in presence of representatives from the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), both parties agreed that the only option to revive the boulder export business in Gelephu was by allowing Indian trucks to ferry the boulders to Bangladesh.

One of the transporters said that it was time to brush aside individual differences and work for the national interest. “Gelephu has huge potential but the current standstill has not benefited anyone.”

He said that if the current situation continued, besides the dredgers, exporters and transporters who have invested millions of ngultrum in the business, the country would suffer substantial loss.

“By allowing Indian trucks to ferry the boulder, it would not exhaust the entire resources we have in Gelephu,” he said. “Given the amount of resources  at disposal, Gelephu can afford to have over thousand trucks ferrying the boulders everyday.”

Another transporter said that there are no issues in allowing Indian truckers to ferry the Bhutanese materials as long as a condition, which allows Bhutanese drivers equal opportunity, is clearly outlined. “We cannot afford to make Gelephu the next Changrabanda, where no Bhutanese vehicles can ply today.”

BCCI secretary general, Sangay Dorji, said that when the proposal was first put forward by the Gelephu business members last month, the idea was not to replace Bhutanese truckers. “The whole idea was to make Bhutanese trucks pliable on the Indian highway, which currently is ridden with challenges.”

Exporters in Gelephu put up the proposal as a last resort, a desperate attempt to revive the dying business and to enable returns on their investments.

They said that even while carrying permissible load, Bhutanese truckers continue to face harassments along the Indian highway. The idea was to allow Bhutanese trucks to travel with the Indian convoy carrying Bhutanese loads since there were no load restrictions imposed on Indian vehicles, said an exporter.

However, uncontrolled influx of Indian vehicles, which could put local truckers out of business in the long run and the duration of the operation for Indian truckers were identified as possible risks.

Exporters said that the proposed idea was an interim measure to help them dispose the large deposits of boulders stocked alongside the riverbeds in the border town.

It was also proposed that if individual exporters were allowed to hire Indian trucks, they would have to sign an agreement taking the full responsibility of the hired vehicles should anything go wrong.

Meanwhile, a group of exporters met with the Prime Minister and economic affairs minister last month regarding the same.

Karma Gyeltshen of Thongzor export and import house said that time was running out for the exporters who have invested millions in the dredging works in Gelephu and Sarpang riverbeds.

With the monsoon nearing, riverbed materials (RBM) worth billions would be washed away if not action were taken, he said. “We proposed four pivotal points to the Prime Minister and economic affairs minister, which requires immediate action by the government.”

Besides allowing Indian trucks to operate in Gelephu, Karma Gyeltshen said that the exporters requested for a uniform rate on stones from the Natural Resources Development Corporation Ltd (NRDCL).

He said that initially NRDCL charged Nu 250 per metric tonne (MT) of boulder in Gelephu. “They raised the rate to Nu 350 midway for some reasons. Given the challenges we are facing currently, it is difficult to ferry stones at Nu 350.”

Another request put forward to the Prime Minister was on the timing at the border gate. Exporters have requested to keep the gate open until 8pm since most of the export vehicles travelled only after 6pm to avoid local goons and other harassments along the way.

The border gate in Gelephu closes for outbound vehicles at 5pm during winter and at 6pm during summer.

“We also requested Lyonchhen to negotiate with the government in Meghalaya to allow Bhutanese trucks to carry loads in line with the trucks’ cargo bed-level (dalla-level),” said Karma Gyeltshen.

He said that it was practically not feasible for both exporters and transporters to carry loads across more than 640km (to and fro) to Bangladesh carrying just the permissible load of 18MT.

“Lyonchhen and the economic affairs minister have assured that they would look into our proposals,” he said. “We are hopeful for only the government can help address the problems.”

Participants said there was no frictions among the exporters in Gelephu.

Karma Gyeltshen said the initial difference when the business boomed had some differences. 

“But today only those with genuine interest in the business and with experience have remained and we all work together.”