ACC is not issuing authority, says those in dredging business

Rinzin Wangchuk 

Following the agriculture minister’s claims that the 7.05 acres site in Titiring was allotted to Druk Magical Private Ltd (DMPL) based on the Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) decision, those in the boulder business are questioning the claims the agriculture minister made.

Last week, following complaints, agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor, said the allotment of 7.05 acres site in Titiring to DMPL was given based on ACC’s decision and had nothing to do with the Cabinet or the ministry. “Our stand was very clear not to issue the permit,” he told Kuensel last week.

This had made dredgers and proponents to question the legality of permit issuance by ACC when the issuing authority is with the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS). “ACC’s mandate is to investigate and recommend for action if procedural lapses are found,” one dredger said. “Passing the blame from one organization to another is to cover up possible policy corruption,” said one.

Why MoAF denied?

In September 2019, the agriculture ministry approved the dredging site at Titiring and notified that it would be allotted on a first-come-first serve basis.

However, the application submitted by DMPL for the site could not be processed as another company  filed a  case at the Samtse dzongkhag court against DMPL. The same complainant also informed the director of forest and secretary of MoAF.

The ministry, on repeated request from Druk Holding and Investment Limited (DHI), Phuentsholing Thromde Development Project (PTDP), and Construction Development Corporation Ltd (CDCL) to halt ongoing works and not to allow new dredging in Toorsa basin, convened a multi-stakeholders meeting on September 30, 2019. The meeting decided that DoFPS shall not issue new clearance for surface collection and river-bed materials (RBM) dredging at all three Zones, A, B, and C of the PTDP, including three sites falling in Zone B.

Zone C is in Titiring which has 277 hectares  (684 acres).

“This was to prevent complications in the future and protect the national interest in the long term as all the zones are expected to be developed for the extended township of Phuentsholing,” stated a letter the MoAF secretary wrote to ACC on June 18, 2021.

Together with DMPL, three other sites in zone B were not allotted.

The Cabinet on December 12, 2020, however, issued a letter asking the MoAF to allow DMPL to dredge from the identified 7.05 acres site at zone C if there was feasible deposit and if transportation accessibility could be arranged with SSD Ventures and PTDP.

Based on Cabinet secretariat’s recommendation, the DoFPS offered alternate sites to DMPL. DMPL rejected the alternate site and insisted on allocation of the Titiring site or an alternate from upstream at Tading. DMPL also submitted their grievance to the Cabinet secretariat and ACC making several allegations against DoFPS/MoAF for creating misunderstanding and disharmony among the agencies.

DMPL has accused the ministry and department of forest for conspiracy and bureaucratic politics and even probable collusion between private individuals and officials for blatantly ignoring the Cabinet orders.

“After assessing all the diverse issues, complaints, a court case, and objections against the dredging activities from DHI and PTDP, the MoAF could not consider both dredging and RBM export requests from DMPL,” MoAF secretary stated in the letter.


ACC’s stand

ACC officials said that after reviewing DMPL’s complaint and ministry’s report and hearing from both the parties, the commission discerned that ministry did not allot Titiring site to DMPL primarily due to reservations from DHI that dredging activity could hamper the work of PTDP since the access to the area was through the project site.

They said that ACC learnt DHI had written eight letters to MoAF, one to Prime Minister and one to MoEA regarding dredging and surface collection and observed that no issue had been raised downstream or zone C of PTDP where the Titiring site is located. The same issue was not raised during the stakeholder’s meeting represented by DHI, CDCL and MoAF.

“Given the prevalence of evidences and explanations, the ACC finds no convincing reason to why Titiring site has not been allotted as publicly notified for dredging and surface collection to the business entity, DMPL,  that fulfilled all requirements specified in the public notification,” stated the letter ACC chairperson Deki Pema wrote to the agriculture minister on July 29 this year.

The DoFPS announced on September 14, 2019 that all the new feasible sites for surface collection and dredging shall be allocated to new applicants on “first come first serve basis.” Out of the 24 sites announced, 12 sites were in Samtse, seven in Sarpang and five in Gedu forest division.

ACC officials said that DMPL had followed due process and was listed as the first in the order of “first come first serve modality” of allotting the sites.

The letter stated that the Commission decided to opt for the Action Taken Report (ATR) so that the matter could be resolved at the complaint stage, providing an opportunity for the agency to correct any inadvertent mistakes and take appropriate measures to address any systematic flaws.

ACC gave the ministry two weeks to submit an ATR. Accordingly, forest director Lobzang Dorji submitted ATR to ACC on August 10 stating that the Titiring site was allotted to DMPL.

Meanwhile, some aggrieved people in the dredging business said that there were three firms and an individual who submitted their applications for Titiring site on “first come first serve basis.” However, they were denied like in the case of DMPL. “That is why we filed a case in Samtse Court,” the proponent from Gawai Nyima Construction said. The court however dismissed the case citing it was of an administrative nature.

Another dredger said that the site in Titiring allotted to DMPL falls under a buffer zone where construction or dredging activities cannot be carried out.

An assessment report compiled by CDCL found that 13 species of birds and 9 species of mammalswere at risk at the dredging site. As part of the study, a rapid biodiversity assessment was undertaken as required by ADB to understand the possible route of the elephants from the Jaldapara National Park in India into Bhutan.

Forest director Lobzang Dorji, meanwhile, said that the DoFPS recommended the Cabinet to issue environment clearance to SSD venture. It was not approved.

SSD is threatening to sue the agriculture and forests minister and the director to claim a compensation of Nu 60 million (M), losses the company claims had incurred due to unfair treatment.