New rule allows crusher plants even closer to rivers, forests and villagesExperts say such policies will damage environment. Questions arise at whose behest the new standards were brought.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
On July 8 last year, three people died and five houses were swept away in a landslide at Hiunde Khola in Ward 5 of Tinau Rural Municipality, Palpa.
Locals blamed the haphazard limestone extraction from the cliffs in the upper part of the Hiunde Khola for the landslide, which has been frequent over the last few years.
According to officials and experts, excessive extraction of sand and stones near the rivers, villages, forests, roads, and bridges poses a greater risk to lives and property.
However, the government appears to be ignoring such concerns, as seen in the amended provisions on the standards for extraction, sales and management of stones, pebbles and sands.
Environmentalists say these new provisions could be disastrous and have amplified prevalent problems.
The amended standards introduced last month allow crusher plants to be set up even closer to forests, human settlements, rivers, highways, religious, cultural and archaeological sites and transmission lines than ever before.
According to officials and experts, the mandated distance of crusher plants from sensitive sites in the case of hill regions has been substantially reduced, which could lead to more landslides and flooding.
“The hilly regions are usually vulnerable to landslides because of the sloped terrain,” said Madhukar Upadhya, an expert on watershed management. “If you run stones and sand mines in the hills, the stable landscape of the hills is weakened and leads to more landslides.”
According to him, Nepal’s hill landscapes have been created by two types of soil—soil deposits brought by the landslides in the last few hundred years, the foundation of which remains weaker, and original soil, the foundation of which remains solid.
“Reckless mining activities weaken the foundations of both types of landscapes,” Upadhya said. “The landscape built on the soil brought by landslides remains more vulnerable like in the case of Jure landslides in 2014 and human casualties caused by it.”
Landslides in Jure of Sindhupalchok in August 2014 had killed 156 people and left hundreds injured and displaced.
Despite grave risks, the new standards reduce the mandated distance between the crusher plants and the right-of-way of the highway to 200 metres in hill districts. The same distance should be maintained between crusher plants and river banks in the hill districts, according to the amended set of standards.
This distance in the Tarai region has been left unchanged at 500 metres. It is the first time separate standards have been set for the hilly and Tarai regions.
Earlier, such distance was 500 metres for both hill and Tarai regions.
Upadhya says excessive extraction of stones has been affecting the soil’s capacity to absorb rainwater, causing landslides and floods. “We can see increased urban flash floods in Kathmandu’s Kapan area, for example,” he added.
According to the new standards, crusher plants can now be set up 500 metres away from a forest, bridge and large human settlement in the hilly region.
In the Tarai, crusher plants can now be set up 500 metres away from a forest or a bridge, but when it comes to large human settlements, they should be one kilometre away.
Earlier, crusher plants could be set up 500 metres away from a highway bridge and this provision has been continued in new rules.
When it comes to human settlements and forests, the crusher plants could only be set up two kilometres away from a dense human settlement and forest as per the old rules.
“Allowing to set up crusher plants close to a human settlement may put the entire human settlement at risk of landslides and floods. It can cause air and sound pollution too,” said Megh Nath Kafle, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests and Environment. “Keeping crusher plants close to the forest may also lead to landslides. It could also encourage people to enter forests and engage in logging, which could cause deforestation.”
What is also concerning about the new standards is that crusher plants have been allowed to operate as close as 500 metres from archaeological, religious and cultural sites and educational and health institutions in hill districts.
As per the new standards, such distance should be one kilometre in the case of Tarai. Earlier, crusher plants were supposed to remain at least two kilometres from such sites.
“Just 500 metres from archaeological sites is too close. Crusher plants cause tremors, which impact archaeological structures,” said Ram Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for the Department of Archeology. “If excavators need to be used for mining, the distance should at least be more than one or one-and-a-half kilometres between archaeological sites and construction sites. If the soil is not compact enough in the area, even a bigger distance should be maintained.”
According to Kunwar, any entity carrying out research near an archaeological site should take approval from the Department of Archaeology.
“Our department has not fixed any specific distance to get such approvals,” he said.
Despite concerns from officials and experts, officials introducing the new standards said it was done after “wider consultations” with stakeholders.
Basanta Adhikari, spokesperson for the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, said that new standards were introduced after consulting line ministries, contractors, operators of crusher plants, and experts.
“We relaxed the past provisions to increase compliance of crusher plants to the new standards as it had been difficult to effectively implement the past standards,” he said. “We aim to bring all the crusher plants in compliance with the new standards within a year in coordination with District Coordination Committees.”
Experts, however, doubt if the provisions were relaxed to increase compliance.
They insist that the provisions were relaxed to serve the interests of certain groups.
“Certain interest groups must have influenced the government decision,” said Upadhya, the watershed expert.
Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary and former chairperson of the President Chure Tarai Madhesh Conservation Development Board, said the government seems to have relaxed the standards now in the interest of certain political leaders, particularly those from the CPN (Maoist Centre).
According to him, some federal and provincial leaders of the Maoist Centre are benefitting from the crusher plants operating along the Trishuli River in Dhading
“This is not the first time that the government has introduced a policy in favour of the unruly crusher industry. It has been years that the government made efforts to increase compliance on mining sand, stones and pebbles by setting standards. Instead of strictly implementing the standards, the government has been bowing to the influential crusher plant operators.”
According to Khanal, politicians take benefits from the owners of the crusher plants.
“So the crusher industry doesn’t feel necessary to comply with the standards,” Khanal told the Post.
The KP Sharma Oli administration introduced the policy of exporting mine-based stones, pebbles and sand so as to “minimise the trade deficit.”
To encourage the industry, then finance minister Bishnu Poudel through the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22, announced exemption of import duty for the construction of ropeways from manufacturing units to the point of export.
Seven different writ petitions were registered at the Supreme Court against the government policy, demanding that exploiting the Chure hills to decrease the trade deficit with India would come at the cost of environmental degradation. The top court in June last year ordered not to implement the standards, saying that the government's decision violates Articles 30 and 51 of the constitution, related to citizens’ right to live in a clean and healthy environment and policies of the state (protection, promotion and use of natural resources), respectively.
“The budgetary provision by the Oli government was introduced to serve the interest of certain leaders of the CPN-UML of Lumbini province who had colluded with the crusher industry,” Khanal claimed.
Owners of crusher plants for long have been lobbying not only for weak rules but also demanding that they should be allowed to export the extracted natural resources—sand, pebbles and stones.
A writ petition filed against the new rules mentioned that there are 921 crusher plants in 68 districts, citing a study of the Home Ministry.
There are some crusher plants whose licences were not renewed for failing to comply in part with the standards, but they continued to operate. Now with the new rules, they can easily become legal.
Dipak Bhandari, a crusher plant owner who is also an advisor to the Federation of Nepalese Crushers and Mines Entrepreneurs’ Association, said that boosting export is necessary for any country.
“We can prosper by exporting sand, stones and pebbles by sustainably extracting them,” he said.
But experts object to making money at the cost of environmental degradation.
Crusher plants in Nepal have been extracting stones and sand even from sensitive zones and forests, home to various species of flora and fauna, some of which are critically endangered or on the verge of extinction.
“Environmental damage caused by such acts in sensitive areas will not be compensated by the revenue,” said Khanal. “Allowing extraction in such places means the government asking the poor to sell their kidneys for their livelihood as people can still live by selling them. But is it good practice?”
Even after the relaxed standards, there is no guarantee that the new rules would be followed.
But crusher operators like Bhandari say despite relaxation in the existing provision, the new provisions “are still not practical.”
“We believe that crusher plants should be allowed within 100 metres from river beds as there are no human settlements near the rivers and people will not be affected by the dust created by crusher plants,” he said.
As the government does not have a strong legal tool to penalise the violators of the standards, those breaching the norms usually remain immune to penalty from the authorities.
“Except shutting down the unruly crusher plants, we don't have any law that allows us to imprison or fine owners of such plants for their failure to comply with the standards. So, we are also drafting a law on extracting stone, sand and pebbles,” said Adhikari, spokesperson at the federal affairs ministry. “We have already got approval from the Cabinet in principle to draft the law.”
He also stressed a strict mechanism to monitor if any crusher plant is over-extracting the natural resources—or more than permissible limit.
“If the activities of the crusher plants are not monitored strictly by those responsible for monitoring, nobody can stop the environmental cost of over-extraction,” said Adhikari.
Meanwhile, a petition was registered at the Supreme Court on Monday, demanding scrapping of the new standards arguing that the new rule would contribute to environmental degradation, cause landslides and flooding, and affect the wildlife.
“The Supreme Court has registered our petition,” said Padam Bahadur Shrestha, an advocate and one of the three petitioners. “A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday.”