Going by recent issues surfacing on surface collection of boulders and exporting them to Bangladesh, there seem to be a rush – a big one.
Located on a delta, Bangladesh needs stone. The country is developing fast. It is the second fastest growing economy today. They need stones and boulders and they need it in the millions of tonnes.
Bhutan is blessed with stones. If we can make money out of our natural resources, it is good for the country. But we are in a great rush as if we are running out of stones. We are collecting them from the surfaces, dredging it from the rivers and its banks.
Why are we in such a hurry?
The business is lucrative for both importers and exporters. When business is lucrative, everybody wants to make the most of it. So we bend rules. Both parties are benefiting from the extra tonnes by evading taxes or not paying full royalty. There are loopholes in the rules, some knowingly. There is confusion to the extent that it looks deliberately created to let people evade tax.
Trading with Bangladesh is difficult because we do not share border. Importers, going by past experience, are smarter. They want as much as a truck can carry, but want documents showing a reduced volume to evade tax.
If we recall, we fought an arbitration case against Bangladeshi importers in the past. The issue revolves around the same trick, volume. Importers formed syndicates and refused to pay for extra volume of oranges supplied.
Today, they are willing to pay for the extra boulders Bhutanese trucks carry, but that is illegal. The business is at the local level and if exposed, it could jeopardise the friendly relations the two countries enjoy. Worst, it could put an end to the win-win-business.
At home, everybody seems to be making money except for the government, the custodian of natural resources that belong to the people of Bhutan.
Now it is surfacing that the government has lost revenue of Nu 454M from fees and dividends and Nu 35.6M from royalty in 21 months since the business started. This is from the audit observation, which is yet to be made public.
Some information is being leaked from those who felt pressurised. The department of forest awarded surface collection works to 33 individuals and private parties directly contravening the provision of the rules and regulations. Forest and nature conservation rules and regulations, 2017, was not followed, as authorities rushed to award jobs.
A lot had been happening behind the scene even before the regulations came into effect. If some contractors immediately got into the business right after the regulations were passed, it is clear some of them were privy to government decisions.
At the moment, we can only guess what is in the audit report that is not in a rush to recommend measures or fix accountability. The exporters are better.
They want to make hay when the sun shines, before the ‘swelling rivers wash the stones across the border!’