Saturday, May 31, 2014

Yet Again, The Shingkhar-Gorgan Road Rears Its Ugly Head

Towards the end of their tenure in 2013, the erstwhile DPT government had realized the folly of their intentions and had quietly terminated the construction of the proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan bypass. The agencies such as the NEC and the Department of Forestry, including some environmentalists, who have been vociferous in their resistance to the idea of this road, heaved a sigh of relief that something unlawful and potentially catastrophic had been brought to its just end.

Exactly one year later, the ruling PDP has again resuscitated the foolhardy venture. But this time they are smart enough not to promote the idea that it is a farm road because it certainly does not fulfill the prescribed guidelines for construction of farm roads.

However, this time round, the government does not seem to be all that educated in what they are putting out to the public. The Works and Human Settlement Minister has come on record to state that: “The road could also help travellers, especially by not having to pass through Thrumshingla that remains covered in ice in winters”. This flagrant misinformation can only mean that the Minister has not been told the truth - that Singma-La, over which the Shingkhar-Gorgan road needs to pass, is even higher than Thrumshing-La pass. If the Minister was appropriately appraised of the real situation, she would understand that the incidence of snow and icing on the road would be even more severe at Singma-La than that encountered at Thrumshing-La pass. Are some interest groups intentionally misguiding the government with false information and withholding of truth?

The other reason given is that it will shorten travel distance from the East to the West by about 100 Kms. That is a good reason to consider the road - except that there is some mathematical error in the calculation of the distance. According to what I know, the distances are as follows:

    Shingkhar to Singma-La      6  Kms
    Singamala to Pelphu          30  Kms
    Pelphu to Zhongmay           5   Kms
    Zhongmay to Selibi-zam     6   Kms
    Selibi-zam to Gorgan          5   Kms

Even beyond the numerical error, what the ruling government and its concerned Ministry has not been told is the fact that the ascend from the valley at the bottom of the mountain to Singma-La requires a total of 26 zigs or bends or turns - before hitting the Singma-La top! You can well imagine the gradient of the road! To my memory, there is no road in Bhutan with that kind of steep gradient. This should tell you the kind of geography and topography you are dealing with. To carry out so much cutting into the mountainside will destabilize the already fragile soil structure of the area. Additionally, I am told that this area is most of the time shrouded in mist and fog. Therefore, even if the whole mountain does not end up at the bottom of the ravine, the road will remain perilous and unusable most of the year.

Therefore, even if we were to accept that the distance would be shortened, what will be the volume of traffic the road will carry? Has the government done a cost benefit analysis of this venture? Would it justify the tens of billions of Ngultrums that will be spent in the construction of this road?

Is it enough that the people of Lhuntse makes a request to the Works and Human Settlement Minister and the government has the wherewithal to grant them that kidu? The government has to be mindful of the fact that there are parts of the country where there are no roads at all - let alone a road that can get them to the West in the quickest of time.

In recent times, the Bhutanese lingua franca has been permeated by a newly coined phrase: geological surprise! This new coinage attempts to justify and condone the expensive disaster at Punasangchu I, the consequences and implications of which the Bhutanese people do not seem to fathom or be bothered about. On the floor of our Parliament, elected leaders speak with practiced deftness, of geological surprises as something commonplace and as an act of God that deserves compassion, understanding and forgiveness.

No one is being held accountable for the horrendous disaster; no one seems to point out the fact that such “geological surprises” are not acceptable in a project the size and scale of Punasangchu I. No one seems to care that the project authorities had obviously failed to carry out proper investigation to safeguard against such surprises.

In all likelihood, the geological disturbance caused by the construction of the stretch of road between Singma-La and Zhongmey will cause the entire mountain to collapse at the bottom of the ravine.

Does the present government hope to be indemnified of all blame - because this too can be conveniently written off as another “geological surprise”? I don’t think so, because in this case, fair warning has been given - that the venture is unlawful, meaningless and environmentally disastrous.

The erstwhile DPT government saw through the futility of this undertaking and stopped it in time, at the behest of the people whom they represented. I urge the present government to do the same. Even if not entirely - until a thorough investigation is carried out and until after amending the law that currently prohibits construction of any kind within the core park areas.

The construction of this road was, and still is, a great concern to all of us who care for the environmental health of this country. In June of 2013, I trekked up to Singma-La top - to see for myself what was involved. The following photographs will tell a small bit of the larger story that is the Shingkhar-Gorgan road.

The Singma-La Pass. One can see that the pass is way above the tree lines meaning it is over 4,000 Mtrs.

Thrumshing-La Pass at under 3,800 Mtrs. As opposed to the barren top of Singma-La, you can see trees atop the Thrumshing-La Pass. This means that this pass is much lower than Singama-La.

View of the beautiful Shingkhar Village from atop the Singma-La.

 The endless wilderness between Singma-La Pass and Pelphu Goenpa through which the run will run, if the construction is to resume.

View of the road from Gorgan side that has reached Pelphu Goenpa at which point the erstwhile DPT government had halted further construction. Notice the number of zigs/turns already. The road has to climb further 30 KMs to reach the Singama-La top. One can imagine how many more zigs/turns it will require until the road is able to reach the top of the pass.

 A long shot of the wilderness between Singma-La and Pelphu Goenpa


Perhaps Bhutan's oldest forest stand of Silver Fir that will be desecrated if the road gets constructed.

Some pretty houses in Shingkhar.


  1. Well researched article. Today - 2nd June - Environment Day/ Social Forestry Day is marked throughout the country by planting trees and the Government is planning to cut down the trees just for a road. And it is not as if Lhuntse is not connected at all. PDP has pledged helicopters if we are talking about shortening the travel time. So, conserve our forest - which is our treasure.

  2. I guess the author has done a pretty good background study. i won't be surprised to know if the author is the very group that is involved in planning the road. anyway all said and done, we should sometimes concentrate on the better things that the uncompleted road will bring to the nation as a whole by completing it to its desired end than keeping it half way done. after going through your well researched information, this are some of my observations.
    1 The numerous zigs that is required to negotiate pelphu gonpa is already done and complete. what remains in the 30 km or so of balance length which should now be through a gentle stretch.
    2 the peoples of Kurtoe,and area between pelphu gonpa and shingkhar is practically herders with lots of cows. with the present government putting all its effort to maximize the use of internal resources, this road will help maximize the income of these farmers through sale of butter, cheese and not forgetting the agricultural products.
    i again beg to disagree that the road will result in the whole mountain being pulled down.????? with a little knowledge i have, it looks even more disastrous than an tsunami or an volcanic eruption. lets not put unrealistic fear in the minds of innocent peoples.
    i'm not quite sure if singma la pass is higher than the Thrimshing la pass.
    as you pointed out of the very old trees, i feel we Bhutanese should harvest these tress when they have valuable economic life instead of making them age and rot to the ground.( may be the relevant professionals would have a better say)
    the reduction in the distance by almost 100km will not only save us from cost of fuel, but on time, wear and tear of vehicle parts, the stretch of environmental pollution caused by vehicular emissions etc. ...
    of course i agree there will be certain degree of disturbance to the environment. this are small cost we have to pay if the projects gives us even better benefits.
    so lets not make it an political issue. by the way i do not in any way mean to oppose your article but just wants to contribute in a positive way with little facts a for more comments if there is any. by the way, thank you author for beautiful pictures you have posted.

  3. We have to build billions of Nu. road so some cow herders in kurtoe can sell butter and cheese. Rediculous!!!!!

  4. Dear Lopen Yeshe,
    Thank you for the well written and well researched article. I hope it will get the attention of the relevant authorities. As much as I stand for the economic development of the local communities and the provision of good and easy communication facilities to people of these areas, I too remain suspicious of the benefit of this road. I am myself deeply connected to this part of Bhutan, with some deep roots in Shingkhar and quarter of my origin in Tsakaling, which lies on the edge of Kurtoe and shall benefit from this new road. In spite of the likely short term economic benefit and convenience this new connection will bring, I am wary as you are of the ecological consequences. The geological make of that terrain is precarious to say the least. Just next door in the Ngalakharchung valley, a whole mountain broke loose a dozen years ago causing not only great ecological disaster but much loss of life and property. The whole Kurichu project was nearly swept away downstream. That was already enough warning for people to be careful when they deal with the steep terrain in these areas.

    The economic argument that the local communities can develop with the construction of these roads has no basis. Shingkhar already has road, so does villages in Kurtoe on the other side of the mountain. The connection that will pass through sheer wilderness is not going to add any significant bit to their economic betterment. Some commentators above say that the farmers could easily sell their dairy products. What we know is dairy farming almost immediately stops with the arrival of road as people have quick access to Amul. Shingkhar is a good example. Closure of yak farming and decline in dairy farming started when motor road reached Shingkhar.

    The most important question is really about where we envision Bhutan to be in 30, 50 or a 100 years time. Do we want all our valleys and wild life reserves crisscrossed by highways? Do we want gas stations and auto-workshop shacks to prop up in every idyllic valley we have today? Bhutan's main wealth is and will be its environment and culture and this will be our lasting source of income and happiness as well as our contribution to the world. Any untoward intrusion into ecological watershed and spiritual valley such as Shingkhar will not result in economic loss (as we increasingly rely on hydro power and tourism) as well the very unique characteristics which make Bhutan special. It is for this reason, the Shingkhar community campaigned against a golf course and the responsible government of the day saw reason to stop as they have to stop the road. The Shingkhar-Gorgan road plan deserves much more debate than it is given, certainly more than MP salary packages.

    Karma Phuntsho

  5. This seems to be a good article but i don't agree with all that it stands for. My first argument is if nangar-ura by pass makes so much sense then why not this. What is big difference?
    It is not only about Lhuntse, it is also about Mongar, Trashigang and Trashiyangtse almost entire eastern Bhutan, except S/jongkhar and Pema Gatshel. If this road come up it could cut short distances to Lhuntse by 150 kilometers(approx), Mongar and Trashigang by 50 kilometers and similarly Trashiyangtse if traversed via Lhuntse. It could therefore save govt. billions of money annually and precious time. It could immensely benefit people in these dzongkhags above all. This could go well with the proposal of regional balance in terms of economic development.
    Where in Bhutan do we have roads that does not cut through forests and community?. If we talk about treachery of roads thrumshingla-namling is no better, i do not have to account those losses especially of life. In 2006 i accompanied a group of geologists to help collect rock samples from shingkhar. These experts believe that phobjikha and shingkhar could be relatively older than himalayas, it could be proved other wise. But how do you say that the road is geologically unstable, what is the basis.
    From my experience singmala would be dry almost whole winter, when thrumshingla is under ice and snow. So, i can't believe Singmala is higher than Thrumshingla. Hope you have GPS data to support this statement.
    Being brought up in shingkhar and having traversed the olden mule track to zhongmey i am skeptical about the accuracy of distances calculated, because we could reach zhongmey in 7 odd hours on foot.
    I can see through the eyes of people of kurtoe what this road means to them because whole may of 2012 i traveled length and breath of kurtoe; wawai in the north to Jarey, tsenkhar, metsho and autsho in the south on my trip to oversee rural electrification project. This could be the game changer for them in terms of improving their livelihoods in the long-run. Govt must also have undertaken cost-benefit analysis for sure, because it entails a huge expenditure.
    However, i feel sometimes the so called educated elite in Bhutan have a lot of reasons which are in part mostly text-bookish rather than pragmatic. Any way just my view!

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