Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deliberate Misinformation

There is something not quite right about this whole business about the proposed construction of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road across the wilderness of the TNP. The more I think about it, the more I am puzzled at the idiocy of the whole business. Nothing rings true - there is something fishy about this whole business. Lets us consider the following:

First and foremost, if the politicians are to be believed, it is the people of Lhuentse who want this road. So then why is it called Shingkhar-Gorgan road? It should rightly be called Gorgan-Shingkhar road. The nomenclature Shingkhar-Gorgan implies that the people of Bumthang want to get to Lhuentse and not the other way round.

Next, if this is a farm road, why is it constructed through a desolate area without a square inch of farm land or a single human settlement? How is a farm road defined and what purpose must it serve?

Third, by definition, farm roads are designed to carry vehicular traffic of the class of farm tractors and power tillers. How will it boost tourist arrivals in Lhuentse and the Eastern Dzongkhags? Are the proponents of the road saying that the tourists will be thrilled to bounce along bumpy and muddy farm roads that run through elevations over 4,000 Meters?

One of the arguments put forward by the proponents of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road is that it will cut travel time which will result in reduction of harmful emission. Does that mean that they hope that a caravan of power tillers and farm tractors will traverse through this perilous wilderness to get to Shingkhar and beyond? If not, how is it possible to reduce emission? Certainly, public transport such as buses and trucks and passenger cars will not drive over farm roads and that too, over a terrain fraught with unsafe climactic conditions such as fog, mist, ice and snow.

Regarding the reduction of travel time merely on the basis that distance will be shortened is something that I am not willing to believe. The distance may be shorter but what is the guarantee that the travel time will be reduced? Particularly when you are talking of treacherous terrain shrouded in mist and fog and caked in ice and snow all the year round? I personally would prefer to drive five hours more but through a route that I am certain will deliver me safely to my destination, rather than risk my life in trying to reduce travel time driving over 22 zigs that may not remain open most of the time.

The government’s established cost estimate for a farm road is Ngultrums three million per Km. The overall distance of the proposed road is as follows:
          Shingkhar to Singmala            6 Kms
          Singamala to Pelphu              30 Kms
          Pelphu to Zhongmay               5 Kms
          Zhongmay to Selibizam          6 Kms
          Selibizam to Gorgan               5 Kms

        TOTAL Distance                   52 Kms

At Ngultrums three million a Km, the road should cost the exchequer a sum of Ngulturms one hundred and fifty six million. Additionally, the government has committed that the road will be constructed with the most stringent environment friendly construction practices. This will mean that the cost of the road will be will be four times more!

Why is a lie being put out that the road can be done in under Ngultrums sixty million?

Startlingly, the most Honorable MPs from Lhuentse, in their doggedness to get this road, declared that Lhuentse Dzongkhag is the poorest Dzongkhag in the country. That is in contrary to the government published statistics. Surely, putting out misinformation of this nature is being very irresponsible and designed to deliberately undermine some other Dzongkhags who deserve better treatment than they have been getting so far?

Does the government have so much money to build such lavish farm roads? If yes, then we the people in Khengri Nam Sum want some of that money because, as per the NSB’s fact sheet, as of 2008, Lhuentse has 77.5 Kms of farm road for a total population of 15,395, while the whole of Zhemgang with a population of 18,636 has only 28.5 Kms of farm road.

How about some fair deal for a change?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

No Thank You, Lhuentsips!

Yesterday evening I was in the BBS studio hoping to exchange views with the panelists on the matter concerning the proposed unlawful construction of the controversial Shingkhar-Gorgan road across the wilderness of the TNP. The set of questions that I wanted to ask could not have been answered by anyone who comprised the panelists. So I didn’t ask a single question. It was a wasted effort.

But as I plodded out of the BBS studio, something stuck me. I, as a member of the Kheng community, may no longer feel ashamed to be belonging to the poorest Dzongkhag in the Kingdom of Bhutan. It is now official - the government has declared it and the most Honorable MPs from Lhuentse have declared it - Lhuentse is now the poorest Dzongkhag in the country. In one stroke, the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway has been downgraded to the status of a farm road while, simultaneously, elevating Zhemgang Dzongkhag one notch up the economic/development ladder.

I am getting serious bad vibes here. Either the government is trying to hoodwink the people of Bhutan or they are totally clueless about the state of affairs in the country that they have been elected to govern.

The drama and theater aside, I strongly object to the government and the Lhuentse MPs usurping the Zhemgang Dzongkhag’s just and factual status as the poorest Dzongkhag in the country. Just because the government wishes to unfairly allocate a huge chunk of public money to do a luxuries by-pass that will enable the people of Lhuentse to get to Thimphu in a hurry, it is not good enough reason to put a blemish on the decades old reputation of my Dzongkhag as the poorest Dzongkhag in the country. That distinction belongs to the Kheng people and, unless the government wakes up and does something to alter that status, the reputation of the poorest Dzongkhag must belong to us Khengpas.

Sorry Lhuentsips, you are not welcome to that enviable status. It belongs to the Khengpas!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shingkhar-Gorgan Farm Road

For whatever reason, the unfathomable desperation to build a road across the wilderness from Shingkhar in Bumthang to Gorgan in Lhuentse is getting more and more preposterous. Are some of our elected leaders suffering from Brain fog or are they on a diet of Death Root? I am bewildered.

Today’s Bhutan Times features an article on their front page that is headlined “Farm Road in Place of Highway”. As incredulous as it may sound, the reporter of the news article stands by what she wrote in the article - that the government has now downgraded the proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan secondary highway to that of a farm road and that they intend to go ahead and build the road.

I was aghast at the implications of what was said in the article so I called up the reporter to reconfirm that she got her facts right. She was in no doubt that she reported exactly what she was told by the two MP’s she named in her news report.

It is incredible to say the least! I mean the government would actually build a Ngultrums sixty million worth of farm road across the wilderness that does not have a square inch of farmland or a single human settlement? Does it get any more bizarre?

According to the news report, the Gangzur-Minjay MP is quoted as saying; “……… the road is the biggest aspiration of the people of Lhuentse”. Something is totally amiss here. Why would the people of Lhuentse aspire for a road that would run through total wilderness, one that exits at Pelphu Goenpa and terminate at Shingkhar in Bumthang, at a cost of sixty million Ngultrums? Aren’t they better off asking for farm roads and other services in their gewogs and villages?

Of the two surveys and feasibility studies conducted, the latest one was undertaken from 8th to 14th October, 2010. Out of the 5 members that comprised the latest study group, the two Lhuentse MPs were members along with a member from the Dzongkhag Administration and two from the Department of Roads. A report submitted by this team categorically states that:

a.     There is not a single human settlement between Shingkhar
        and Pelphu Goenpa - overall distance: 36 Kms.
b.   Of that length, more than half of it will pass through altitudes over 3,000 Mtrs. Barely 8 Kms from Shingkhar, the road has to pass over a high pass called Singmala at an elevation of over 4,000 Mtrs - way higher than Thrumshingla pass which is a perennial problem during the winter months. The report also states that “because of the elevation, the construction and maintenance will be affected since the area will be snow bound for extended period of time”.
c. The report also states that the road alignment envisages a minimum total of 22 zigs. This clearly means that the terrain is very steep and thus, prone to land slides.
d. A Park (TNP) officer I spoke to tells me that the area is wet and shrouded in mist and fog half the year and the other half it is snow bound. He also tells me that the soil condition is very lose and sandy and very unstable.
e. On page 3 of the Checklist for Processing Environmental Clearance, it is stated that the construction will involve the use of explosives consisting of: Gelatin, Safety fuse, Detonator and Cordex. The results will be catastrophic - given that the whole area is unstable and fragile.
f. The TNP and the Forest Department have, on two occasions - once in April, 2007 and another in June, 2011 refused the clearance for the construction of the road on various grounds but mainly because there is a law in place that prohibits construction of any kind in the core areas of a Park.
g. The first ever photographic evidence of the existence of Bengal Tiger at high altitudes was acquired from a place called Pemi in 2001. This place is in the vicinity of proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan highway.

It is rumored that the required budget of Ngultrums sixty million to construct the road will be drawn from the overall seven billion of the SDP fund available for small development projects in the Dzongkhags. But it remains to be seen whether the SDP fund can be applied to construct a highway across the alpine wilderness that do not benefit any community. Other than that, there seems to be one other problem - I am told that a project to be funded with the SDP fund cannot exceed Ngultrums 30 million. Come to think of it, I wonder if the reason for the down gradation of the highway to the status of a farm road is to be able to qualify for funding from SDP fund? But what of the requirement that the project cost cannot exceed Ngultrums thirty million?

May be they will invite the Bumthang Dzongkhag MPs - Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho of Tang-Chhoekhor Constituency and Dungtsho Karma Wangchuk of Chume-Ura Constituency to participate in the project since the exit point of the high way falls under their Dzongkhag in Shingkhar.

That will be really funny.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Years ago, a friend offered me this rather queer kind of logic. He told me that it is not a crime to commit a crime but being caught in the act. The thought of this rather uncommon logic came to mind because I am rummaging through old newspapers and for the life of me, I cannot find a single report on tobacco related arrests in the past many weeks. So what happened? Has the Tobacco Control Act finally broken the backs of the smugglers and the delinquent smokers?

Or, have they all turned into smart criminals?

While on the subject of criminals turning smart, another thought comes to mind - that of the government’s proposal to construct the Shingkhar-Gorgan by-pass: please notice that I am calling it a by-pass and not a highway because we already have a national highway and do not need an additional one. The proposed road is said to be passing through the core tiger conservation area and cutting right across our world famous Biological Corridor which we have proudly called “Gift to the Earth from Bhutan”.

Key to my support for the Tobacco Control Act was for the need for strong laws and even stronger will to enforce those laws. It wasn’t about the need to ban tobacco consumption, as some have mistakenly misunderstood. But should the government go ahead and build that road across the wilderness that is home to some of the rarest wildlife species in the world, I would say that the spirit of the Tobacco Control Act would have been broken.

I am told that there are a number of laws and by-laws that prohibit construction of any kind within the protected areas of the park systems of Bhutan. Unless those laws are first repealed, how can the construction of the by-pass go ahead? No amount of justification, humanitarian or otherwise, can condone the breaking of a law. In particular, it would be foolish for the central government to be seen to be doing so. On the other hand, it does not seem like it is justifiable that such an expensive road, both in monetary as well as environmental terms, is warranted merely on the grounds that the people from Lhuntse Dzongkhag has the urge to get to Thimphu in a hurry. The government must bear in mind that while it seems to be eager to extend the luxury of an exclusive by-bass to the people of Lhuntse, people in other Dzongkhags lack basic necessities such as piped drinking water, farm roads and proper school facilities.

No doubt environmental conservation cannot come at the cost of human progress and livelihood. But from all accounts, the environmental damage that will be caused by the Shingkhar-Gorgan by-pass is likely to far outweigh the benefits that will accrue to the people of Lhuntse. People may offer a host of reasons why the road must be constructed, but all of them will pale against the argument that this by-pass is not critical and is unnecessary and just too expensive for the purpose it is proposed.

And what of our reputation as a champion of environmental conservation? How do we explain this irresponsibility to our many donor agencies that pumped in millions of Ngultrums to help us create the Biological Corridor and the conservation initiatives that have been put into place? How do we hope to justify the saving of 1-2 hours of driving time over the dismantling of a conservation effort that is a shinning example of our commitment to conservation?