From the banks of Punatshangchhu to the construction sites in Thimphu, Kuensel’s Younten Tshedup follows the illegal sand business
Rinchengang, Wangdue—A full sail dredging is underway at the quarry. This happens six days a week from 7am to 7pm.
The narrow stretch along the Punatsangchhu is crowded with trucks zooming in and out, and this dizzying state of affair ever seems to stop. Sand from this quarry is ferried mostly to Thimphu and Paro.
It takes less than five minutes to fill an 8m3 (cubic metre) truck with a help of a pay-loader. Loaded trucks start their journey towards Thimphu, making way for the others waiting for their turn.
However, the journey from the quarry to the final destination, in either Paro or Thimphu, takes a curious turn with numerous clandestine transactions in between.
Why illegal supply and black market
Over the years, the growing demand due to the construction boom, especially in Thimphu and Paro, has unleashed an illegal market in the sand supply. And, because of the illegal nature of business, the real game happens under the cover of darkness.
Records with the Natural Resources Development Corporation Ltd (NRDCL) show that Thimphu alone has more than 2,500 new on-going construction activities registered this year.
Based on approvals, the NRDCL supplies the sand.
With the capital gripped by a construction frenzy, demand for sand is soaring. The increasing demand is confronted with the supply limit NRDCL has set. As per the corporation’s regulation, an individual building a house is eligible for only a truckload of sand a week.
This, according to builders, hinders construction work. “One truckload of sand is not enough for whole week’ work,” said Karma Tsewang, who is constructing a three-storey building in Changangkha, Thimphu. “The quota, with judicious use, is enough for only about two days’ work.”
He said that once the sand was used up, labourers had no work. “This adds up to the construction cost. Works are resumed only when we receive the next quota of sand a week later,” he said.
On an average, construction of a three-storey building (20mx10m) with 3BHK of two units on each floor would require around 30 truckloads (8m3) of sand.
Since November 2007, among other natural resources, sand was nationalised. Operation and marketing of sand was put under the purview of the NRDCL.
However, many builders have found a solution of a sort. There are others who are involved in supplying sand besides the NRDCL. These suppliers are mainly truckers who engage some middlemen to connect the builders with them.
Under the cover of darkness
Like in most illegal businesses, the activities happen at night. The loaded trucks enroute to Thimphu from the quarry in Rinchengang starts moving at night.
The trucks are seen parked alongside the highway until late evening. Hiding in secret pockets along the Dochula-Lampari highway are other empty trucks waiting.
At least seven to eight trucks laden with sand start moving together. When they reach the secret pockets, mostly near Chasheygang area, they start sharing the load. Sand shared from eight trucks can fill up another two trucks. This additional sand is sold in the black market where the cost is more than double the regulated price.
When the trucks arrive at the check post in Hongtsho, those with valid documents take the lead, while others without documents wait.
The wait is long.
“Before the additional trucks start to move, we make sure that the guards are either sleeping or busy in some other works,” said a trucker who requested anonymity. “We also see if there are vehicles to chase us if in case they see us.”
Once the drivers hiding a few metres away from the checkpoint receives the green signal from the friends, they slowly start to move without starting the engine. This usually happens after 2am.
“They take advantage of the person who is on duty,” said a forester at the Hongtsho check post. “If it’s a female on duty, the drivers pass using force. Most of the time, they cross the check post while the duties are asleep or while eating.”
The forester shared that once when a 10-wheeler truck forcefully crossed the check post they followed the vehicle. “We were in my car and the truck nearly threw us off the road when we tried to overtake and stop it,” he said.
In another event, some of the truckers had quietly latched the door of the duty-room with foresters inside. “Even the tyre of the vehicles of a duty personnel was flattened so that we could not follow them,” said an officer.
Except for a CCTV camera that was recently installed near the check post, there is no barrier gate or other fortifications in Hongtsho. “Speed bumps and a barrier gate can help monitor the vehicles better,” said the forester. “This is the only check post between the source and Thimphu. Once you pass from here, you cannot monitor the vehicles.”
Besides illegally transshipping the sand from one truck to another, NRDCL officials in Rinchengang said that there are truckers who extract sand from along the banks of Punatsangchhu.
Sand collected for rural consumption and from private land are also illegally sold, according to NRDCL officials.
The forest and nature conservation rules and regulation 2017 of the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS) allows private registered landowners to commercially trade sand extracted from their land after obtaining environment clearance from the department.
This regulation, NRDCL officials said has loopholes that are exploited by individuals. The chief forestry officer (CFO) has the authority to allow people to collect sand from certain pockets where the NRDCL does not operate.
“People collect more than what the CFO permits,” said an official. The additional sand is sold illegally.
It was learnt that some of the people intentionally dump the legally lifted sand in open spaces and claim it to be illegal. This is a trick adopted by suppliers to convert illegal sand into legal sand.
Forest officials impose fine on illegal sand. However, the sand is not seized. Once the fine is imposed, the sand becomes legal.
“If we have about 20 truckloads of sand, we just claim five truckloads to be illegal,” said one trucker. “Once we pay fine for the five truckloads, we take the remaining 15 truckloads together claiming that we paid the fine for all.”
The illegal auction yard
The truck parking in Thimphu is a bustling hub. Covered in blue tarpaulin are trucks loaded with sand. And there are people busy on their phones negotiating rates.
“We cannot keep the load for long. There is pressure on the vehicle tyre,” said a trucker. “The frequency of checking from forest has increased lately.”
According to sources, many more loaded trucks stay hiding elsewhere and avoid coming to the truck parking. “Most of the deals are made in advance so immediately as the trucks reach Thimphu, the load is delivered to the concerned buyers,” said a source.
He said that during peak season when constructions are in full swing, the demand for illegal supply of sand increases. “People don’t mind paying double the price as long as the consignment is delivered on time. There is a risk involved but the reward is worth it.”
The cost of dredged sand at the Rinchengang quarry is set at Nu 273.77 per cubic metre. The cost for stock and quarry sand is different.
As per NRDCL rate, an eight cubic metre tipper truck ferrying dredged sand from the quarry till Olakha, Simtokha and Changbangdu areas cost Nu 9,168.72 (Nu 6,978.56 as transportation rate). For every additional kilometre from Simtokha area, the transportation rate increases by about Nu 100.
According to the source, illegal sand is sold at about Nu 18,000 (for the same amount) in areas near Simtokha. The cost differs with the carrying capacity of vehicles. A 16m3 AMW truck sells sand for some Nu 28,000 in Simtokha area.
Recently, the NRDCL sacked four staffs involved in illegal transaction of sand. Two of them were at managerial level.
NRDCL’s officiating chief executive officer, Sonam Chophel, said that the management does not tolerate any illegal activity among the staffs. “There is no big or small corruption. They had misused their authority which is why they were terminated.”
An internal investigation was undertaken to curb the practice after the office received complaints from the public.
Sonam Chophel said that with a new system in place things have improved. “It might not be a perfect system, but it’s a good one and people have come to us expressing their gratitude.”
Under the new system, customers with their own vehicles can collect sand on their own once all the documentation of the construction approval and the sand requirement is worked out.
For those without vehicles, NRDCL mobilises vehicles from their common pool. Currently there are more than 400 registered trucks in the pool.
No system is full proof, said Sonam Chophel. “A strong collusion among the agencies involved could work through any system.” However, he said that there are also advantages of involving several counterparts.
The fine imposed on the illegal sand intercepted at the check post and along the highway is minimal. The sand is not seized after the fines are imposed.
The fine imposed for 8m3 tipper truck was about Nu 3,000.
Chief forestry officer with the Thimphu division, Gyeltshen, said that the department is now planning to seize illegal sand. However, a large area to dump the seized sand has to be identified, he added.
He said that having another check post while entering Thimphu could help curb the issue, however, it would be additional harassment for the public. “Constructing a gate at the Hontsho check post could help control the illegal movements.”
Sonam Chophel said that with increasing demand of sand, the pressure is on the natural reserve. However, he said that NRDCL has managed to narrow the demand-supply gap over the years.
“Initially we had targeted to supply about 50-60 trucks in a day but due to high demand we are supplying about 120-130 trucks everyday,” he said. “During winter the supply goes up to 200-230 trucks a day.”
He added that with almost 65 percent of the total sand transaction in the country happening in Wangdue, opportunities are abundant to do illegal business.
“We are yet to find a solution to this problem. But the overall system has improved and we believe almost 95 percent of the illegal business is stopped,” he said. “However, a few incidents are bound to happen.”
Meanwhile, recently, in a cat and mouse chase, officials intercepted a truck laden with sand at char-kilo near Chuzom checkpost.
It was learnt that the truck was illegally ferrying sand and was enroute to Paro after escaping officials at the Hongtsho checkpost.
This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation’s content grant