Younten Tshedup  | Gelephu

Exporters and transporters in Gelephu remain divided on the proposal to allow Indian trucks to ferry boulders to Bangladesh from the border town.

The exporters proposed the option to address the growing harassment incidents Bhutanese truckers suffered while travelling along Indian highway and to expedite the boulder export that has failed to pick up in Gelephu since last year.

Exporters viewed the move as a last resort, a desperate attempt to revive the dying business and to enable returns on their investments.

Since 2018, most exporters have spent millions on dredging and screening of the riverbed materials (RBM) along numerous river banks in Sarpang.

The Moakhola basin alone has more than 400 million metric tonnes (MT) of stocked RBM. Natural Resources Development Corporation Ltd (NRDCL) pay the exporters on a disposal basis, meaning unless the materials are lifted and exported from the river basins, the exporter is not paid for the dredging and screening works.

The oncoming monsoon remains another challenge, whereby if the stocked RBM is not disposed before monsoon, exporters fear that the rain would wash away the deposits and they have to incur huge loses.

However, transporters and truckers have strongly opposed this idea saying the initiative would completely send them out of business.

“We are already struggling to pay off our loans on the trucks because of the slow boulder business,” said a trucker in Gelephu. “Allowing Indian trucks inside will definitely put us out of business.”

He said the transportation rate would go down comparatively as the Indian trucks would be in a better position to ply at a lower rate. “This is because these Indian trucks have been operating for decades and do not have loans on them.”

Majority of the Bhutanese trucks are new and purchased on loan, he added.

He said that another advantage Indian truckers would have is on the carrying capacity. “They could carry overload and still won’t face harassments along the way as we do. So it is only natural for them to lower the rates and leave us without the business in our own country.”

Requesting anonymity, another trucker said exporters’ claim that Bhutanese transporters are charging high rates is false. He said that the reason transporters cannot lower the rates was because carrying consignments below the current rate would incur losses.  

“There is no logic whatsoever if we are to operate in loss. Even the current rate is just barely enough for some truckers to pay off their loans given the varying incidental changes along the way.”

Exporters argue that transporters have hiked the rates to Nu 1,500 per MT from Nu 1,200 per MT when the business first began in Gelephu. Today, almost 73 percent of the total cost is incurred in transportation.

One of the truckers said that the reason for the increased rate is because they are no more allowed to carry overload. “Because we were carrying some 35-40MT before, the rate per MT was lower. We cannot afford to carry at the same rate when we are carrying just 18MT today.”

Citing examples of Phuentsholing, Samtse and Gomtu, exporters have requested if the government could allow Indian trucks to operate within 5km radius inside the border gate.

However, transporters said that it would set a negative precedent and complicate things. “Phuentsholing and Samtse are already facing traffic issues from these Indian trucks. Gelephu have managed to stay away from such incidences and it would be in the best interest for all if this is not allowed from the beginning in Gelephu,” said another trucker.

Meanwhile, it was learnt that several Bhutanese trucks are operating in coal mines in Sibsagar, upper Assam, and Nagaland.

“Yes, some of our colleagues are working at the coal mines because there was no other option to pay off the huge loans they had with the banks.”

The monthly installment for a single dumper truck (10-wheeler) ranges between Nu 45,000 to Nu 50,000 for five years.