E-rickshaw drivers caught smuggling firewood in ChandrapurThe number of e-rickshaws has risen dramatically, pushing its drivers to look for new income sources.
Two years back, the local government decided to replace cycle rickshaws with e-rickshaws in Chandrapur bazaar in Rautahat. The first year saw 50 e-rickshaws in operation, by the next year rolled, the number had more than doubled. Today the bazaar has more than 350 e-rickshaws. The increase in the number of e-rickshaws has left many of these e-rickshaw drivers fighting with each other to find passengers.
Seeking an alternative income source, e-rickshaw drivers have found their way into the National Forest area in Chandrapur Municipality Ward No. 3 and No. 6 to collect firewood and sell them in the local market. But the collection and sale of firewood without permission from the Department of Forest is illegal. Binod Singh, chief at the Division Forest Office, said, “Entering the forest area with the motive of collecting firewood without permission is illegal.” Every day, a dozen or so e-rickshaws enter the national forest and leave the area with their vehicles loaded with firewood, said Singh.
One of the e-rickshaw drivers, who chose to remain anonymous, said that e-rickshaw drivers earn more money smuggling firewood than driving their vehicles, and that it is a better option than having to wait all day for passengers. “We make around Rs 4,000 while carrying firewood from the forest two to three times a day,” he said.
According to him, hotel entrepreneurs and bakery factories pay Rs 2,500 per load of firewood. “We cannot even make even Rs 1,000 while carrying passengers. Some of my friends told me that they make more money selling firewood from the forest and I followed suit,” he said.
After the incidents of smuggling of firewood from the forest came to light, the Division Forest Office in Rautahat has started to arrest and detain e-rickshaws from Chandranigahapur-Lamaha section along the East-West Highway. “The e-rickshaw drivers not only collect dry firewood from the forest floor, but also cut down young trees because they are easier to cut down,” said Singh.
It was the locals of Chandrapur who brought the involvement of e-rickshaw drivers’ illegal activities to the forest department’s notice, said Singh. Madhu Dhital, a local, said, “Trying to make a living is not an offence, but most of these drivers supply raw wood to the market which means that they are involved in cutting down green trees. If this goes unchecked, then national forests will be lost.”
Kedar Timalsina, former chairman of the Nepal Transportation Independent Worker Association E-rickshaw Unit Committee in Chandranigahapur, said that most e-rickshaw drivers have resorted to collecting firewood from the forest for lack of better options. “The demand for e-rickshaws in Chandrapur area is easily fulfilled by 40 to 50 e-rickshaws, but the number of rickshaws in this area is increasing day by day,” said Timalsina.
One of the solutions to controlling the smuggling of firewood is to put a cap on the number of e-rickshaws in Chandrapur, say forest officials. To that effect, the Chandrapur Municipality must come up with plans and policies to control the number of e-rickshaws. Ramrati Chaudhary, deputy mayor of Chandrapur Municipality, said that the municipal office has plans to manage three-wheelers in the bazaar area. “We are aware of the growing problem of smuggling of firewood from the national forest area. We will hold discussions with the concerned stakeholders to solve the problem,” she said. “We will set rules and regulations to control the number of vehicles in the area.”
For now, the Division Forest Office have taken matters into its own hands. “We have started to impound the vehicles (e-rickshaw, tempo and bicycle) if they are found involved in illegal business. We won’t let anyone enter the forest and smuggle firewood,” said Binod Shrestha.
The seized vehicles are kept at Armed Forest Guard’s Office. The forest office is yet to disclose the type of legal punishment to be taken against the guilty.