After their plea to stop a bitumen-processing firm for health and socio-economic reasons fell on deaf ears, the people of Zhelgno in Paro decided to stop the hot mix plant from operating in their village themselves.

On July 15, about 30 people intervened at the site and stopped the movement of trucks along the farm road. Two fully filled bitumen tanks and a processing machine remain idle at the site today.

Residents alleged the firm and Shaba Gup of starting the plant without public consultation in November last year. According to a villager, Sangay Khandu, at the end of three months, in April, the firm got another three months to operate, this time with approval from public. “After people questioned the legality of firm in the area, the Gup called for a public consultation.”

Villagers accused the firm of initially misleading them about building a storeroom and not the hot mix plant in the allocated area.

The three-month contract ended on July 4 but the firm continued to process, justifying that the dzongkhag administration gave them the clearance to again operate for 15 days. That was when some 30 people stopped the movement of trucks.

“When we visited the dzongkhag office, the dzongrab said they have the Prime Minister’s order to extend the contract for 15 days. The road should be well-maintained for VIP visits next month but there was no document to prove that,” a villager said.

However, Paro dzongrab Kinley Gyeltshen said the dzongkhag administration gave a temporary clearance for 15 days for it involved national interest. “The clearance was given after a survey team along with civil aviation found insignificant harm to the people and the environment.”

But residents of Zhelgno complained of pollution related illnesses. A woman said, “We are at the receiving end of air pollution because of the wind direction. There are about six to seven chronic asthma, pneumonia, and TB patients who face difficulty living in this kind of environment.”

Some residents also suffered from eye sore and throat pain.

They said toxic air entered paddy fields and vegetable gardens in the form of grease and affected yields.  “Our village is known for cucumbers (Shabi Genchu). In a year, vegetable alone fetches about Nu 100,000. This year, we did not even earn Nu 10,000,” said Sangay Khandu. “We could not work in our fields during cultivation season because of the stench.”

Shaba Gup Chencho Gyeltshen said few households received compensation of Nu 2,000 to 3,000 for crop damage from the firm. The gewog agriculture officer inspected the damage.

A village elderly said that as work started around 1-2am, the smell of burning bitumen filled the atmosphere. “This year, we received untimely rain and intense heat because of the environmental pollution.”

The owner, who didn’t want to be named, said although they obtained public clearance, their request to reheat and drain the bitumen tanks was curtly rejected. “Without means to take the machines and tanks to other place, we are incurring huge losses.”

While the firm has completed blacktopping 19.9km from Woochu to Chuzom, another 17km from Chuzom to Babesa is being operated through other alternatives once they stopped the hot mix plant in Shaba.

Next month, villagers said they would again visit the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS). There are about 65 households in Zhelngo village. They depend on paddy, wheat, apples, and vegetables for sustenance.

Choki Wangmo  | Paro