Anti-Corruption Commission reveals syndicate corruption in export of boulders

THIMPHU (Kuensel/ANN) -  Even as the export of stones to Bangladesh from Phuentsholing, Samtse and Gelephu picks up, the Anti-Corruption Commission  (ACC) has asked relevant authorities to strictly enforce the carrying capacity rule to prevent corrupt inducement across the border.

The ACC chairperson on May 14 wrote to the Chief of Police and the Director General of Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) urging both agencies to exercise vigilance and stop immediately all trucks leaving Bhutan from carrying export consignments over and above what is legally permissible.

The commission asked the authorities to enforce the Road Safety and Transport Act 1999 on overloaded trucks carrying boulders. The commission also asked the RSTA and RBP to take stern actions as authorised by the laws and regulations in effect. 

The carrying capacity as per the blue book of the vehicle is 15 metric tonnes (MT).

The commission also issued a public notification simultaneously on the ongoing investigation into the export business of river boulders to Bangladesh revealing ‘syndicate corruption’ across the border.

The alleged corrupt practices surfaced when the ACC started investigating suspected corruption issues surrounding the dredging of river boulders and export the same to Bangladesh from Toorsa, Phuentsholing.

Bribery and kickbacks

In the letter to the chief of police and RSTA’s director general, the commission stated that ever since the export of dredged boulders started in 2017, a group of Indians across the border has devised an elaborate and systematic bribery and kickback scheme reportedly in collusion with their own public officials.

The ACC found that Bhutanese exporters and transporters are required to pay every month a fixed sum of money against each truck to certain intermediaries for onward payment as bribe to law enforcement officials across the border. The individuals were collecting Nu 9,000 for every 10-wheelers truck and Nu 7,000 to Nu 8,000 for every six wheelers truck and estimates that every month the collection crossed over Nu 10 million.

The ACC’s investigation revealed that these bribes, which they referred to as Motor Vehicle Inspector payments, were made as a corrupt inducement or gratification to numerous public officials at various checkpoints across the Indian border through intermediaries. “Such illegal payments were made by both Bhutanese exporters and transporters to avoid being stopped and fined for overloaded consignment while passing through Indian territory,” the letter stated.

This illegal payments system, according to the commission, had also evidently driven exporters and contractors to devise devious schemes to conceal income and evade statutory tax, which is a breach of Income Tax Act of Bhutan depriving the State of its lawful revenue in millions.

ACC officials said bribing foreign public officials, whether through intermediary or otherwise, is a corrupt offence under Section 44 and 45 of the Anti-Corruption Act of Bhutan 2011. “As a result, various players also end up breaching the Income Tax Act 2001 and Road Safety and Transport Act 1999.” 

The modus operandi

The export of stones and boulders from Phuentsholing to Bangladesh commenced about a year and half years ago and from Gelephu in November last year. Bhutanese 10-wheeler trucks normally carry between 30MT and 35MT of boulders per consignment although each truck is supposed to carry only 15MT.

The exporters or transporters on exiting the border gate either from Phuentsholing, Samtse or Gelephu declared only 15MT on paper. The remaining 20MT of boulders or so dredged from Amochhu riverbank in Phuentsholing, Damdum river in Samtse and Moa Khola in Gelephu were transported illegally.  Bhutanese exporters reportedly resorted to under declaring of consignment at the revenue and customs gate to evade taxes on the extra load.

Importers in Bangladesh, according to exporters in Gelephu, are liable for five percent tax on each MT of boulders they import. For instance, one MT of boulders was sold for US$ 25 but exporters declared only US$ 20 for tax purpose. The importers reportedly pay in cash for the undeclared boulders.

As per the existing rule, trucks are mandated to weigh the consignment through weighbridge at the border gate before leaving Bhutan. However, the ACC found that the weighbridges were not used by the concerned agencies.

“As evident from the facts, the commission is of the considered view that the genesis of the bribery scheme and rent seeking behaviours involving various players can be directly attributed to the fact that transporters leaving Bhutan were allowed to carry commercial loads in breach of the Road Safety and Transport Act raising serious question as to how the relevant enforcement agencies allowed such flagrant violations which has triggered other unlawful activities,” the ACC stated in the letter.

“Had concerned agencies performed its inspection and monitoring duties, the question of creating enabling circumstances to pay bribes across the border would not have arisen in the first place,” the letter stated. The commission is of the belief that even as its investigation is ongoing, such schemes are proliferating and many players are vying to enter the stage drawn by the opportunity to make easy profit.

ACC officials said that while the commission’s investigation will be continuing to determine both criminal and administrative culpability of those involved, ACC also urged all exporters to strictly comply with the RSTA Act. 

The ACC may conduct surprise checks at any point of time and responsible public officials, if found to have neglected duties, will be held accountable and due course of action taken as per the Anti-Corruption Act.

Overloading of vehicles

Road Safety and Transport Act 1999 states that a person must not drive or allow a motor vehicle to be driven on a highway if the vehicle is carrying a load which is in excess of the manufacturers’ specifications (overloaded) for that type of vehicle or it exceeds the gross vehicle weight for the vehicle. 

To determine the load, an authorised person or police officer may direct the driver of the vehicle to go to the nearest weigh bridge to weigh the vehicle and its load; and use a portable weight device provided for in the regulations to determine the load the vehicle is carrying or the gross vehicle weight.

The provision states that if a vehicle is overloaded or exceeds the gross vehicle weight for the vehicle, officials may direct the driver to remove part of the load so that the vehicle will not be overloaded. 

Any person who refuses to obey a direction or continues to drive overloaded vehicles is guilty of an offence. In addition to any penalty, a person failing to obey the rules could have his licenses cancelled or disqualify them from obtaining any license for a period of at least six months by the court.

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