A decade of environmental plunder नेपाली मा पढ्नुहोस
The government’s latest decision to lift the ban on the export of sand and gravel after seven years has come as another blow to environmental conservation.
In late April, as the country was preparing to go into another round of restrictions to curb the spread of the more deadly second wave of Covid-19, advocate Padam Bahadur Shrestha was busy making preparations of his own.
Shrestha had long been worried by the continuous deterioration of Nepal’s rivers, which are being plundered at alarming rates for construction materials. After 12 years of filing public interest litigations on numerous environmental issues, mostly on his own, this time around, Shrestha was putting together an ambitious case with seven other advocates from across all the seven provinces.
The lawsuit was filed against 18 different government agencies, from the Office of the Prime Minister to the Home Ministry, Law Ministry, Ministry of Forest and Environment, and the provincial heads. Shrestha’s case alleged that despite a series of rulings by the Supreme Court over the last decade aimed at regulating the sand mining industry, most of those decisions hadn’t been implemented. The lawsuit was aimed at reminding government agencies of their responsibility to safeguard the rivers and environment, according to Shrestha.
“All the defendants in this lawsuit have made a joke of existing government guidelines and court decisions by failing to strictly monitor sand mining in rivers across the country,” he said. “And to make matters worse, the government’s recent decision to roll back the export ban is going to put our rivers and hills in further peril.”
Three days after filing the case at the Supreme Court, Kathmandu, along with several districts across Nepal, enforced varying levels of lockdowns to curb the deadly second wave. With the rising number of new infections, the court has pushed back all hearings, except for those related to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Shrestha says he isn’t too concerned about the hearing date as much as he is troubled by the prospect of this lockdown period once again becoming a bonanza for illegal sand mining, just like last year when such activities had greatly increased increased due to the attention of local authorities being focused on the pandemic.
“We saw it happen during last year’s lockdown and the chances are high that it will happen again,” said Shrestha.
Shrestha was prescient, as less than two weeks into the lockdown, the advocates who had filed the lawsuit with Shrestha began to report unchecked sand mining across the provinces.
In Province 2, where there have been several instances of violence related to sand mining in the past, locals say river bed extraction has continued unabated even as their lives come to a stand still.
Sanjay Mahato, a resident of Bateswor Rural Municipality in Dhanusha, says that he hears the rumbling of trucks and excavators on the Badahari river, day in and out. Many of them continue gouging sand out of the river even past their daily sunset deadlines.
“If the extraction continues at this same pace for the next few months, the river will submerge our homes during the monsoon, wreaking havoc in the village,” he said. “But there is nothing we can do to stop them.”
Officials from Bateswor Rural Municipality admit they haven’t been able to keep tabs on everyone who is mining the Badahari river at the moment.
“We have awarded tenders to a single contractor to mine three rivers in our jurisdiction, but we don’t know if there are others who are also extracting stones and pebbles there,” said Pramod Singh, information officer at the municipality. “It is difficult for us to stop them.”
As the authorities themselves appear powerless before the miners, locals like Mahato say they too have stopped complaining. But it isn’t just frustration driving their silence; it is also fear.
Exactly this time last year, under similar conditions of a raging pandemic and a lockdown, Mahato and his neighbours had attempted to stop the illegal excavation of the Badahari river. The attempt led to a violent clash, which left Mahato severely injured.
“These days no one dares to even raise a voice or try to confront those extracting sand from the river,” he said. “People fear for their lives. It’s better to act indifferent to what’s happening.”
A brief history of state apathy
Dhanusha is one of the 36 districts that fall under the Chure region, which covers nearly 15 percent of Nepal's area. Forest cover in the Chure is vital for groundwater recharge in the Tarai, while the sand and boulders in the floodplains slow the velocity of rivers during the monsoon. Despite this, nowhere is the exploitation of rivers and forests more evident than in the Chure with its young hills and fragile geology.
Across districts in Province 2, of which Dhanusha is a part, devastating floods destroy life and property each year. These floods can be directly linked to the uncontrolled excavation of the rivers, which leave the riverbeds hollow and the river banks unable to control the rise in water levels during the monsoon. According to the Home Ministry, nearly 200 people have lost their lives to floods in Province 2’s eight districts in the last decade alone; thousands of families have lost their homes and property to inundation.
But despite loud calls to regulate the sand mining industry, mining of the river beds continues. This is primarily because of the construction boom in urban centres and road connectivity projects across the country.
“The businesses benefiting from extracting natural resources aren’t willing to address the environmental cost of their financial gains,” said Radha Wagley, joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Environment. “As the implementation of existing laws is so lax, these groups have little reason to follow them.”
Moreover, the government’s latest decision to lift the ban on the export of sand and gravel after seven years has come as another blow to environmental conservation, experts say.
During the budget speech on May 29, Finance Minister Bishnu Paudel said that the government would seek to reduce the trade deficit by selling off the country’s sand and gravel. The country’s ballooning trade deficit currently stands at nearly $10 billion.
Environmentalist Bijay Singh, who was a board member of the President Chure Conservation Board until 2016, says the government’s decision to relax the export ban on sand and gravel could have lasting impacts on the environment, especially in the Chure.
“If the government allows the export of construction materials from fragile areas of the Chure, which are already being exploited for sand and pebbles to meet domestic demand, it will cause unimaginable environmental degradation, leading to water shortages and habitat loss,” said Singh. “No amount of money that the sale of these materials will bring will be able to compensate for that loss.”
But finance secretary Sishir Kumar Dhungana defended the government’s decision to open up exports, saying a mechanism will be put in place to ensure environmental protection.
“Just because there have been irregularities in the past doesn’t mean that we cross our arms and do nothing,” Dhungana said. “We are not saying we will open exports right away. We will identify areas to mine following due process, conduct environmental impact assessment, and then proceed.”
But given the lack of strong monitoring, experts fear that the export of construction materials might once again be a loss for the environment.
“There are EIA provisions for all kinds of projects, from roads and irrigation projects to riverbed mining, but there is no follow up,” said conservationist Singh, “How can we be assured that environmental concerns will be addressed when these materials are excavated in huge quantities to be exported?”
And there are plenty of examples of mining industries bending government guidelines with zero repercussions. In Lalitpur’s Lele (see below), stone mining industries have razed down entire hills. Despite protests from locals and government reports flagging those industries for not following due processes to protect the surrounding environment, they continue to flagrantly undermine the guidelines for mining.
Lawmakers like Gagan Thapa of the Nepali Congress, who have been vocal about the impacts of the mining industry, say that the government’s decision is a blow to environmental protection.
“It was clearly brought about for the gain of a handful of people at the cost of irreversible damage to the environment,”said Thapa. “And blatant disregard for mining guidelines in the past have shown how ineffective our monitoring mechanisms are despite the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment].”
Thapa was part of the parliamentary natural resources committee in early 2010s which had called for stronger regulations on sand and boulder mining, after which the ban on the export of these materials was announced.
People like Singh and Thapa, who over the past decade have witnessed lobbying to allow the export of these materials citing similar financial reasons, say that the government decision is once again a grim reminder of the direct influence that businesses have on the country’s policies.
In Nepal, the growing lobbying power of the sand mining and construction industry can be traced back to their fierce opposition to stricter guidelines unveiled by the Nepal government in 2010 following a Supreme Court ruling. This was around the same time when public pressure was increasing to regulate crusher industries in the Chure region, which had just been declared a protected area.
Then president Ram Baran Yadav, who also hails from Dhanusha, had pushed for an ambitious undertaking to address the ongoing crisis in the Chure, which led to the formation of the President Chure Conservation Board. Following the board’s formation in July 2014, the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies in the same month decided to halt exports of sand and gravel saying, “export of sand, stones and pebbles from Chure has led to excessive exploitation in the region, adversely impacting people and the ecology.”
This, along with new guidelines for sand mining factories, was hailed as a major achievement. Many conservationists at the time had hoped that these new regulations would reduce illegal sand mining. The new set of guidelines, which among many other things, required sand mining factories to be located 500 meters away from rivers and highways, 100 meters away from high-tension power lines, and 2km away from schools and colleges, health centres and hospitals, human settlements, and religious and archaeological sites. But crusher plant operators launched a major protest against the new guidelines. They completely halted production of construction materials for months, effectively bringing all kinds of construction activity, including the government’s large scale development projects, to a grinding halt.
Former finance secretary Rameshore Khanal, who chaired the President Chure Tarai Madhesh Conservation Board at that time, says those were the early signs of the construction industry flexing its muscle and attempting to influence government agencies.
“Their argument was that Nepal had to sell whatever was readily available, like riverbed materials, no matter what the ecological cost, ” he said, “and they wouldn’t budge on relocating according to the new guidelines.”
With avenues opening up once again for the export of construction materials, in the absence of proper study and monitoring mechanisms, bending regulations and guidelines, like in the past, will become commonplace.
Back in 2014, the protesting group, the Federation of Nepalese Crusher and Mines Entrepreneurs’ Association, was also able to get endorsements from the larger and more powerful umbrella organization of Nepali industries -- the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Supplies. Eventually, the government was forced to give in to their demands and roll back the decision to immediately implement the new guidelines.
Speaking to the media in late 2014, Shantaraj Subedi, then secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “We have decided to let the industries operate where they are currently and relocate according to the new guidelines in a few months. If they fail to do so after a certain time period, those plants will be shut down.”
But that never happened. In the eight years since the guidelines were first rolled out, subsequent governments have made several attempts -- the latest being in November last year -- to close down or punish crusher industries who do not comply with existing guidelines, without much success.
The tussle between the construction industry and government’s regulatory guidelines, and the government subsequently backtracking on strictly regulating crusher operators, marked the beginning of the balance tipping in favor of the industries.
“They blocked roads in Kathmandu and stopped the distribution of construction materials all over the country, and yet no action was taken against them,” said forestry scholar Deepak Bishwakarma, who has written extensively about natural resource management. “This showed just how powerful the sector had become.”
According to the Auditor General’s latest report, in 2019/2020, local bodies collected nearly three and half billion rupees in revenue from the sale of riverbed materials, making them a top earner for local governments. But officials say that in the absence of strict monitoring on exactly how much of these materials are extracted, the lucrative river mining businesses are getting away by paying only a small sum for the wholesale exploitation of rivers.
“Contractors must pay additional taxes on the basis of the quantity of materials extracted from rivers,” said Falgun Magar, ward chair of Bardibas-7. “But there is no system in place to monitor how much was extracted.”
According to drivers making daily trips from rivers like the Indrawati and Sun Koshi in Sindhupalchok, they usually pay local units Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 every time they leave the riverbanks with sand and pebbles, irrespective of the quantity of materials they are carrying. The current market rates for a truckload of these construction materials ranges between Rs 20,000 and Rs 28,000.
To address such revenue leakage, the Financial Comptroller General’s Office is currently working to create a mechanism to monitor revenue collected from natural resources at the local level.
But with industry insiders now a part of local and provincial governments, there is even less incentive for the authorities to regulate the lucrative river mining business.
The handful of officials who have tried to ensure better regulations have been met with several roadblocks because of the construction industry’s overreaching influence in the country’s power corridors, experts say.
There have been several instances of government bureaucrats being punished simply for doing their job. In 2017, local development officer Jiblal Bhushal was transferred from Nuwakot merely a month after his appointment because he fined a local crusher operator for illegally extracting riverbed materials.