During Nepal’s 2022 federal elections 275 parliament seats were contested. The Federation of Contractors Association of Nepal claims that 17 of those seats were won by contractors, as were 18 of the 550 provincial seats that were also being voted on; the association shared lists with The Third Pole that support these claims. Those contractors include mine and crusher owners.
For most politicians, there seems to be little understanding of this inherent conflict of interest. For example, Maharjan asks The Third Pole: “Why can’t a representative make cash out of their business?”
The Third Pole speaks to Bhushan Tuladhar, an environmentalist: “With the [federal] government and local authorities repeatedly turning a blind eye, it appears to be more of a governance issue rather than an environmental [issue] alone. It hints at the vested interests at the core [of decision-making]. Federalism has accelerated development at the local levels, but meanwhile it has also decentralised the adverse effects.”
Furthermore, decentralisation has created conflicting jurisdictions. “Overlapping laws have created a risk of tussle between local and provincial governments in the name of collecting revenue,” says Balananda Poudel, who chairs the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission. This constitutional body is charged with ensuring the equitable distribution of natural and fiscal resources among federal, state and local governments.
No resources for proper monitoring
On paper, the instructions are clear: according to Nepal’s Stone, Gravel and Sand Mining Sale and Management Standards, it is prohibited to mine and collect river products within two kilometres of settlements and forest areas, within 500 metres of highways, and within one kilometre of a road bridge or suspension bridge. But according to Rishidev Phuyal, who is the District Development Committee Chief (Lalitpur’s most senior government official), the government lacks the resources and manpower to monitor and enforce these regulations. “There is also a lack of collaboration among the forest and survey departments and the police administration,” he adds.
While the administration is hamstrung for resources, Padam Shrestha says the mining industry is not. An environmental lawyer, researcher and activist, Shrestha tells The Third Pole: “Out of 753 municipal levels, more than half are involved in this business, without following proper standards.”
Shrestha says municipalities are awarding contracts to themselves, as well as overseeing them and collecting revenue. With no real mechanism to make anybody pay for conducting illegal mining, Shrestha says there is limited incentive to enforce regulations: “This is why rampant illegal mining has proliferated.”
In 2022, an amendment to Nepal’s Stone, Gravel and Sand Mining Sale and Management Standards actually shortened the permitted distances between mining operations and other places. When Shrestha challenged this, the supreme court issued a stay order that blocked the amendment. “But the businesses are running as usual,” he adds – which means they are flouting standards.
‘All of us are illegal’
According to a Ministry of Home Affairs document shared with The Third Pole, more than 700 of the 1,140 crusher industries in Nepal that were found to not be meeting legal criteria were closed down in January. Within a month, they were all reopened.
“Due to the new standards promulgated for environmental protection, no crusher industry in the country has renewed its license since 2016,” claims the president of the National Federation of Crusher Industries, Sitaram Neupane. “By this [standard], all of us are illegal. The standards imposed by the government, without consulting stakeholders, have left us indecisive.”
Beyond the need for consultations, there is the issue of whether there can ever be one set of mineral mining standards for the whole country – Nepal’s plains, hills and high mountains each have different needs.
The Third Pole speaks to the Ministry of Forests and Environment’s undersecretary, Madhu Ghimire: “Our standards need to be region-specific and there should be effective monitoring of environmental impact assessments and initial environmental examinations.” Ghimire also acknowledged that “[current] monitoring is weak.”
One solution may be a new parliamentary bill that seeks to clarify the “management and regulation of construction materials”. According to Kumar Bhattarai, a Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration spokesperson, “we have already drafted the bill and sent it to the cabinet for discussion.”
Shrestha is certainly supportive of more robust mineral mining rules: “We need an accountable law to guide and monitor local-level river extraction, mining and crushers. It is the fundamental right of the Nepalese to have a healthy environment.”
This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.