Nima | Gelephu

Thirty-three trucks carrying boulders from Gelephu were stranded at the Assam-Meghalaya border in India for three weeks after being barred from entering Meghalaya on August 26.

The stranded vehicles offloaded their consignments on September 20 after waiting for more than 20 days.

Exporters said the boulders were sold at discounted rates, which did not even cover the expenses. They said they had to bear retention charges, which increased by the day and incurred losses in the millions.

They said exporters in Meghalaya stopped trucks carrying boulders from Bhutan before reaching Nakugaon in Bangladesh with the help of officials on duty along the Indian highways. 

According to exporters from Gelephu, the stopping of their trucks was a measure taken to prevent boulder export competition to Bangladesh, as boulders from Bhutan are sold at cheaper rates compared to boulders and aggregates from Meghalaya.

It is said that boulders from Bhutan were better quality than those exported from north-eastern India. 

Seven of 16 active boulder exporters exported boulders to Bangladesh until the trucks carrying boulders were stopped in August.

Boulder export from Gelephu had just picked up again after being idle for more than two years until the end of 2020. Transporters from India were allowed to carry boulders from Bhutan to facilitate export in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

An exporter, Chencho Gyeltshen, said that transporters from India take a 70 percent benefit from the boulder export to India, while Bhutanese exporters have only been able to secure a 30 percent benefit from the trade.

“Boulder export has turned into a political game. Exporters from Meghalaya sell their boulders to Bangladesh too. When our boulders hit the Bangladeshi market, their sales drop. We don’t know what they have conveyed to their government,” he said.

He added that it was difficult for the boulder trucks from Bhutan to pass Meghalaya, even after deploying transporters from India for export.

“Ours is an international trade and three nations have signed an agreement. However, only Bhutanese consignments are not allowed. We don’t know their real intentions behind this action,” Chencho Gyeltshen said.

Another exporter, Raju Upreti, said that trucks carrying boulders from Gelephu were stranded along the Indian highway, about 38 kilometers away from Dibru Reserve Forest in Meghalaya in early August.

He said an RCC bridge along NH-127B was found unsafe for heavy vehicles to ply. “The notification was issued on July 30, but exporters and transporters were not informed. Even the customs port at Dadhgari, India, was not notified.”

According to the exporter, all procedures of export were duly followed. “We were informed only after the vehicles reached the place in question and were stranded. The exporters tried to request help from the relevant authority but were unsuccessful.”

He said that after halting the vehicles for more than 10 days, transporters dumped the materials in Assam without any other option.

An alternative route to ply through the old route NH-51 was arranged by the Indian transporters until the RCC Bridge along NH-127b is repaired. A few consignments were sent on trial runs and successfully reached their destination.

Raju Upreti added that the local authority in Meghalaya withheld the second consignment of 33 trucks. “Importers from Bangladesh say that Meghalaya exporters still send overloaded Indian trucks. The quality of materials is inferior compared to ours. The main reason behind all these hindrances is that the boulder export from Meghalaya gets affected.”

Exporters said that there were several business prospects for the counterparts in Meghalaya to pursue in future. There were records of boulders and aggregates exported to Meghalaya in the past.

“Meghalaya exports coal and minerals to Bhutan. It is important that we support each other’s causes,” said an exporter.

Programme officer with Bhutan Export Association (BEA), Guru Wangchuk, said BEA is continually following up with the Ministry of Economic Affairs regarding an additional route for Gelephu region.

He said the current transit route through Meghalaya has not benefited the exporters. “Lhakimari or Sonarhut, if approved by the government of India, would be a better route for Gelephu exporters.”

He added that exporters were not able to continue their trade because the route to Bangladesh via Meghalaya is blocked for road widening and various other reasons.

“Exporters from Gelephu use a trade route via Tura district and the route was stopped for Bhutanese exporters because of road widening,” Guru Wangchuk said. “Bhutanese trucks were then diverted to Trikikila bypass but the trucks carrying boulders from Bhutan were stopped at Trikikila Bridge because of a crack in the bridge.”

However, exporters from Gelephu observed that the bridge is open to overloaded trucks and other heavy consignments, but closed only for Bhutanese consignments.

“The crack on the bridge has been there since at least 2018,” said Chencho Gyeltshen.

BEA has written to the deputy commissioner in Meghalaya, as well as the president of the North East Federation of International Trade regarding the road issues.