When the announcement from the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) rewarding Nu 100,000 for information leading to the theft of 108 barrels of bitumen was made in the media last November, many wondered why the information mandated such a huge reward.

Almost four months after the two truckloads of bitumen reportedly went missing from Bjeepam, Trongsa on the night of October 3 2018, three different police investigations were conducted and three people arrested in relation to the case. But the case remains a mystery.

While police officials, both from the headquarters and those in Trongsa conducting the investigation then, refused to give any concrete information, saying the case is still under investigation, it was learnt that the general manager of the construction company and a contractor executing one of the packages of the Northern East-West Highway widening works in Trongsa area were detained for their alleged involvement and later released for lack of concrete evidence.   

By the end of December, a manager of another construction company was detained for his alleged involvement.

Although no official statement was available, it was learnt that police officials in Trongsa conducted an investigation right after the complaint was filed but could not come to any conclusion.

Police then deputed two investigation teams with three senior officials in each team from the headquarters, once in November and another one in December but could not crack the case on how the bitumen barrels went missing.

Police sources said they conducted a thorough investigation and submitted the findings to the police chief, who would review and then direct a way forward. “Until then, we cannot discuss the findings,” a source said.

People who know and follow the case closely have, however, constructed many theories.


Is the construction company involved?

Sources in the road construction industry allege the construction company should be involved, reasoning that it would not be possible to lift 108 barrels of bitumen in a night. The project manager of the construction company that filed the missing report, Druk Lhayul Construction, in an earlier interview with Kuensel claimed the bitumen went missing on October 3.

The manager had also then said a woman, who lives about 500ms from the place where the barrels were kept said she didn’t see or hear anything on the night the barrels went missing. However, he claimed that he saw footprints and tyre marks of a truck or tripper at the site and that he believes whoever took the bitumen did not use any machine to load the barrels.

“No one would be able to lift the 108 barrels in a night,” an engineer said. “A barrel of bitumen would be about 151 to 161kgs.”

Sources in Trongsa doubt if the bitumen had even reached the site and alleged the construction company had manipulated it to buy time or justify for the delayed work in Korphu gewog, where the bitumen is actually provided for.

“I heard the police investigation revealed that there was spot print of only about 26 barrels at the site where it reportedly went missing,” a civil servant in Trongsa said.

He alleged that there was no reason for the construction company to unload the bitumen, which was actually meant for Korphu gewog centre (GC) road blacktopping in Bjeepam when the GC blacktopping work is already delayed.

Korphu gup Sangay Khandu confirmed that the GC road blacktopping work was delayed by more than two years as the contractor was supposed to complete it by January 4, 2017.

He said only about an archery ground range of the road is blacktopped. “I wrote several times to Department of Roads and even complained verbally.”

The gup said DoR has not shared any information on why the work is delayed and why the department is giving time extension to the contractor. “Now we hear the bitumen is lost.”

It was learnt that the project manager, who initially told media that the 108 barrels of bitumen were there at the site the previous evening of the alleged theft, later told police he is not sure if whatever was unloaded was there until October 2.

DoR’s chief engineer in Trongsa, Ugyen Dorji, said the GC road blacktopping completion date was extended until August last year based on some unavoidable circumstances and the contractor’s liability period was also over.


Bitumen racket?

There are also many, who allege that there is a racket of bitumen business in the road construction industry, as many contractors executing the Northern East-West Highway widening works were found to have been allegedly selling the bitumen.

A source, who knows the industry well, alleged that a contractor had sold 306 barrels of bitumen to another company and DoR officials had to issue an order stating that they would suspend issuance of bitumen if they do not recover the sold bitumen. “But the company that sold the bitumen kept receiving it even without recovering the sold ones.”

The source also alleged that another company sold more than 500 barrels of bitumen to two contractors executing the highway widening works in Wangduephodrang.

It was learnt that a case is under trial in Trongsa court where a construction company executing three packages of the highway widening works lodged a civil case against a manager of another company for stealing more than 500 barrels of bitumen since last October.

The manager, who is in custody for the alleged involvement in the 108 barrels of bitumen missing case, has signed an agreement that he would return the bitumen but refused to do so.

A source alleged that the free issuance of bitumen by the government has become a boon for the contractors. “The black business is also helping petty contractors constructing small stretches of road to procure bitumen at a lower rate against the highly quoted one in tender documents.”

DoR’s chief engineer in Trongsa, Ugyen Dorji, said while there are allegations of bitumen racket, no official complaint has been lodged.

“We only know one case and we have asked the contractor to return the bitumen,” he said.

The chief engineer also said they now provide bitumen based on the work and not at one go as it was done earlier.


Who is accountable?

Sources in Trongsa said since the government provides bitumen free of cost, DoR should actually issue the bitumen to the contractors based on the estimate. But in the 108 barrels case, the contractors unloaded it at Bjeepam, which is not even the actual site of the bitumen.

“As per the procedure, a DoR official has to be present while unloading and countersign the challan but in this case, the truck driver went to DoR office after unloading the consignment and got the signature,” the source said.

Another Trongsa resident questioned why there was no monitoring, as the bitumen meant for Korphu road, which was unloaded since September 3, was not taken to the actual site until it went missing.

“There are many things that do not connect in this case,” the resident said. “I heard it is a practice everywhere in road construction and there has to be a thorough investigation.”

Tashi Dema