Government bodies vehemently defend the move of exporting construction materials. Not many believe itThe government rolled out a plan to export construction materials from mines to balance the trade deficit, however, environmentalists and concerned stakeholders term the plan ludicrous, having consequences for Chure and downstream districts.
The President Chure Tarai Madhes Conservation Development Board has finally spoken.
Eight days after the government announced its plan to export construction materials, a plan that is likely to harm the already fragile and degraded region, the Board, which is mandated to conserve the region from further degradation, came forward only to defend the government’s move.
On Sunday, the Board organised a virtual press conference and went all out defending the government for its decision to excavate construction materials and export them, claiming the decision does not affect the Chure range.
The budget announced for the upcoming fiscal year has invited massive criticism from environmentalists, development practitioners and the general public, for the plan could invite an ecological disaster in the Chure range and downhill communities.
After several days of hue and cry, the Board said its attention was drawn after an extensive reporting in the media that the plan could lead to an exploitation of construction materials from the Chure belt.
A team including the Board’s members, officials of the Ministry of Forests and Environment, and a member of the National Planning Commission vehemently defended the government saying the plan does not include excavation of sand, pebbles and stones from the Chure range but from mines identified elsewhere.
Instead, they blamed the media and other stakeholders for unnecessarily linking the plan with Chure.
“Point 199 of the budget speech doesn’t include Chure. But the latest media discourse has linked Chure with that plan,” said Kiran Poudyal, chairperson of the Board. “Digging up stones, sand and pebbles for export will be done outside the Chure range, in the Mahabharat range, which is above the Chure area and beyond the Board’s jurisdiction. We are not answerable to the issues beyond our jurisdiction.”
In its latest budget for the fiscal year 2021-22, the government unveiled the plan to mine construction materials like stones, pebbles and sand and export them to other countries purportedly to reduce the trade deficit. This is mentioned in point 199 of the budget statement.
“Based on an environmental impact assessment, mine-based stones, pebbles and sand can be exported to minimise the trade deficit,” Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel said while reading out the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22.
The announcement has caused a huge uproar from conservationists and even political parties, who say the plan to dig up valuable resources for export purportedly to reduce the trade deficit is not only ludicrous but will also prove disastrous for the country.
After massive backlash against the plan, the Ministry of Forests and Environment and Ministry of Finance released statements saying stones and pebbles will be mined only after conducting environmental impact assessment and that the government was committed to preserving the Chure range.
On the ground, digging of these materials, even from various rivers of the Chure region, has continued unabated.
“We are not claiming that it’s all good everywhere. We have heard that excavation of riverbed materials has been taking place in various places. But most of these excavations are taking place with approval from the local governments,” said Poudyal. “We have not permitted the use of heavy equipment, which is illegal. We have written to the district-level authorities to stop such practices. We are committed to protecting the Chure region.”
While the government officials, including Chure Board members, left no stone unturned to defend the government plan claiming that the Chure range would be left untouched, the Lumbini provincial government has rolled out a plan to slice the hills in the Siddhababa area for exporting stones and aggregate.
Siddhababa area falls in the Chure range, which occupies about 12.78 percent of the country’s total area and comprises the inner Tarai, the Chure hills and the Bhavar plains.
The provincial government plans to dig up and flatten the hills on the border of Rupandehi and Palpa districts for utilising the construction materials within the country and exporting the surplus to other countries.
During the virtual press conference, the Chure Board officials conceded that the Siddhababa area is part of the Chure range but claimed they were unaware of any such plan.
Other officials present at the press conference also highlighted the significance of the Chure region but did not speak about the possible consequences of the government plan. Decades of unchecked mining operations in the Chure range have caused widespread degradation of the fragile landscape. The impacts of degradation of the Chure range are witnessed downhill in the Tarai that see an acute water shortage in the summer and flooding in the monsoon.
“Mining will take place in the areas identified by the Department of Geology and Mines, followed by environmental and social impact studies,” said Krishna Prasad Oli, a member of the National Planning Commission. “Chure will be spared while mining will be conducted in the hilly area above Chure which is a less sensitive zone. Should we not utilise our resources for bringing prosperity?”
However, not everyone is convinced by the claims of the officials.
Also, on Sunday afternoon, at a webinar participated by about 400 people from various walks of life, the government plan was roundly criticised saying the plan will leave behind a trail of destruction in the Chure region and the Tarai districts.
“Although the budget has not mentioned the Chure range and said the export of mine-based materials would be done after environmental impact assessment, the impact of the decision will be on Chure itself as there is no possibility of digging up these materials from other mines immediately,” said Rameshore Khanal, who was the first chairperson of the President Chure Tarai Madhes Conservation Board. “Lack of physical infrastructure, mainly roads, leading to other mines shows excavations will ultimately be carried out in the Chure region. Siddhababa area is an example.”
Besides, the Chure region will be the preferred site for excavation of these materials for being cost-effective and hassle-free for constructing ropeway, which is mentioned in the budget speech, according to Khanal.
“They know it’s easier and cheaper to extract these construction materials from Chure. Even though EIA is done, excavation of these materials should not take place in the Chure region because of its geological features,” said Khanal. “The region is extremely fragile as its topsoil is too loose and prone to landslides. It’s because of the Chure, the productivity of Tarai region is intact so far, and wildlife presence is abundant in the region.”
Khanal, also a former Finance Secretary, added that the government’s plan of minimising the trade deficit is not possible.
“Even when there was no ban on the export of these materials, the trade deficit was the same as of today,” said Khanal. “So it is unlikely that the trade deficit will improve.”
Growing population, unchecked human activities and emerging constructions in the region have only affected the Chure further, impacting the livelihoods of the people living downstream.
According to Nagendra Yadav, a Chure conservationist, the government’s decision made in the budget doesn’t bode well for the Tarai region which is dealing with disaster throughout the year—cold wave in winter, water shortage in summer and flooding and inundation in monsoon.
“The government has conducted EIA in the past as well, but they are hardly implemented,” said Yadav. “The government may succeed in digging up sand, pebbles and stones from mines but what about soil? Remaining soil will be ultimately washed down to Tarai through rivers, causing disaster downstream. The government should rectify its decision.”
Participants accused the government of being involved in the illicit exploitation of the state’s resources which would only bring loss to the country in the long run.
“As claimed by the government, they might produce stones and pebbles by exploding hills, but sand can not be available there,” said Prabhu Budhathoki, a former member of the National Planning Commission and a conservationist. “For sand, as the budget talked about exporting sand too, they will turn to Chure as only Chure has adequate sand deposits. Still, breaking hills that store water for the dry season and provide moisture is not a wise idea.”
Former President Dr Ram Baran Yadav, whose relentless concerns for Chure degradation led to its protection through a dedicated programme, said the latest decision will only worsen the situation of Chure and having its impacts on Tarai districts.
“There are roads being built in the Chure region whereas there are already Mid-Hill highways above Chure and East-West Highway and East-West Railways planned down the Chure,” said Yadav, while addressing the webinar. “Water crisis is already prevalent in mid-hills and Tarai districts. Jungle from Chure is already gone. Now if sand, pebbles and stones are excavated, the coming generation will have nothing, not even soil to do plantation. All of these combined lead the Tarai towards desertification.”