The decision to allow the export of natural resources on the pretext reducing the trade deficit is a policy-level corruption

The government's decision to allow the export of mineral-based construction materials, such as rocks, gravel and sand, to reduce the trade deficit has drawn flak from different political parties and environmental groups. The budget for Fiscal Year 2021-22 presented last Saturday permits aggregate mining to allow the export of these natural resources on the flimsy pretext that it would help reduce the trade deficit. While the budget does not explicitly mention the Chure hills, it is apparent that the mountain range that stretches from east to west of the country would face the brunt of the massive exploitation of these resources. The government's decision to allow the export of mineral-based construction materials on the pretext of reducing the trade deficit is nothing short of policy-level corruption. There is a huge demand for construction materials, such as stones, gravel and sand, in neighbouring India and Bangladesh.

And there is strong corporate pressure to permit the mining of such natural resources for export.

How much the country will earn through their exports is not known, but the environmental and social cost of allowing such excavations will be very high.

The parties and environmental groups fear the excavation of these construction materials in the Chure hills will put the Tarai and inner region at risk of desertification.

The Chure, which spans 36 districts of the country, is located between the Tarai plains in the south and the Mahabharat mid-hills in the north. The Chure comprises the youngest mountains, and its geographical structure makes it fragile. Why anyone should be concerned about its haphazard development or exploitation is that it is one of the main watersheds helping in the conservation of both surface and underground water in the Tarai belt. This apart, it is also rich in bio-diversity and wildlife. Any disturbance in the hills caused by construction or deforestation leads to landslides and flooding, which have an impact on the lives of the people living downstream and on their agricultural lands.

Following a barrage of criticisms on the issue, the Ministry of Finance was quick to respond with a statement that the government was committed to protecting and conserving the Chure region. According to the ministry, a policy approach of excavating mines at suitable places except in the Chure, Bhawar, Siwalik and river system was presented in the budget statement as per the environmental impact assessment report of the Department of Mines and Geology.

For a government that says one thing and does another, one must stay alert to prevent it from issuing large mining licenses in the Chure hills. Even with the best of intentions, the President Chure Conservation Programme, initiated in 2010-11 to preserve and stop the degradation of the Chure hills, has met with little success. Despite efforts to rein in on the exploitation of the forests, watersheds and rivers and streams for commercial benefits, the local, provincial and federal governments have been issuing licenses to companies for mining there, leading to heavy deforestation and environmental degradation. Unless the government really means what it says, the Chure is an ecological disaster in the making.

Vaccine drive

The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has decided to use Chinese-gifted Vero Cell vaccine to inoculate people aged between 60 and 64 years. The vaccination for this age group will start from June 8 all over the country. The government decided to roll out the vaccine campaign after it received 1 million doses of Vero Cell vaccines from China recently. The Chinese government has provided the vaccines in the form of grant after President Bidhya Devi Bhandari held a telephonic conversation with her Chinese counterpart last week. China had earlier granted 8 lakh doses of vaccines in late March.

As per the plan, all those eligible for the vaccination will have to go to the nearest vaccination centre as determined by the District COVID-19 Vaccination Coordination and Monitoring Committee. They are required to produce papers such as a citizenship certificate or other documents specifying their age to get the shot. Vero Cell vaccine is being inoculated to this age group as per the recommendation of the strategic group of the WHO and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee of Nepal. It is expected that the 1 million vaccines received from China will be enough to inoculate the people of this age group.

A version of this article appears in the print on June 4, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.