Sunday, May 7, 2017

Happiness is a Place … of rickety roads and bumpy rides!

One evening a few days back, a retired senior officer walked in on me while I was sipping beer in a restaurant. I wished him Kuzuangpo and offered him a chair to sit on, and a beer to drink. He declined the offer of beer explaining that it exasperated his gout and gastrointestinal problems. But he accepted the offer of a chair.

Not quiet the shy and retiring type, my unexpected companion got straight to the point; “Yeshey, I read your Blog quite regularly and I like most of what you write. However, I do not like your articles on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road."

“What is wrong with my Shingkhar-Gorgan road articles?"

“In your last post on the subject, you allege that some private interest is behind the push for the road. This is totally wrong. I know that there is no private interest involved. Anyway, why does it have to be private interest? Aren’t the people of Lhuentse important enough to deserve the Shingkhar-Gorgan road?"

“You also say that the road is illegal. You surely know how many roads run through national parks. Why is this made an issue of, while you keep quite about other roads that run through a number of parks and reserve forests?"

He went on; “Lhuentsips spend hundreds of Ngultrums more, to make a detour to come to Thimphu or to go to Trashiyangtse. With this road, people of Lhuentse can get to Thimphu much faster and with greater ease, and at lesser cost."

If few thousand lines that I have already written on the subject (which he has read) have not been able to dissuade him from the folly of his logic, it is unlikely that another round of lecture will help alter his views. But I did try. Unfortunately, we had to cut short our discussions since he was called way.

It is a pity. This retired officer worked in the civil service for close to four decades. He had risen to one of the highest positions in the bureaucracy; he held some seriously important posts with great responsibilities. During his tenure in the government, he would have been indoctrinated in, and parroted about, the virtues and merits of serving the Tsa Wa Sum (King, Country and People), a few thousand times. And yet, all that he has to show for it at the dusk of his life is that it is still about serving theTsa Wa Nga (Self).

I do not think that the question is about whether Lhuentsips are important - more likely, the pertinent question to ask would be whether they are more important than rest of the Bhutanese. For context, please read my following post:

What is the logic behind the government wanting to spend more than 2 billion Ngultrums (I am aware that the present estimate is Nu.890 million) to build that illegal and senseless road? What meaningful benefit would this road bring to the country and the rest of the people of Bhutan, other then helping some Lhuentsips, in the words of this retired civil servant, to get to Thimphu in a jiffy?

He also made the point that there are roads existing within the park areas and reserved forests and that if I cared so much for the law and the environment, I should be making noise about those and not merely about the Shingkhar-Gorgan road.

I am amazed at this unfortunate and regressive point of view. What he is saying is that we should continue to break laws and imperil the environment, on the grounds that there is precedence of roads being built through the park systems and reserve forests. He is unwilling to consider that those were built during a time when laws prohibiting their construction were not in place - that in some cases, the imperatives were different and more compelling. I tried to explain to him that there is no such thing as an illegal law - that as long as a law remains valid and in force, it has to be respected and abided with, as stupid as they may appear to be. That is what all law abiding citizens do.

It is a matter of great concern that not many seem to have any sense of the far-reaching implications of doing this road. Even fewer seem to understand that doing this road will test every single one of our resolves – those related to environmental conservation, the promise of “Bhutan for Life”, the claim that we are a GNH country, that we are a comity of people who respect laws and the right of the animals, our resolve and promise to ensure forest coverage of 60% for all times to come, our guarantee for the equitable distribution of nation’s wealth and opportunities.

Doing this road will be the very antithesis to all the promises we make and the hope we hold out to all those who look up to us, to provide leadership and direction in healing a world that is going sicker by the day. To say Bhutan can single handedly save this planet from ruin would be preposterous - but to say that our efforts would be, as one of our honorable Parliamentarians put it, inconsequential when bigger spoilers aren’t doing their share, would be the height of irresponsibility. We cannot give up hope just because others aren’t as caring.

I hope that the present government is mature enough to realize that if they go ahead and do this Shingkhar-Gorgan road, they will be seen as a government that connives with interest groups to break laws - that which they have been elected to protect and uphold, and be the custodians of.

Come to think of it - road construction in Bhutan follows a certain set pattern that defies logic. Roads that we do not need get done, and those that are critical remain undone.

Shingkhar-Gorgan road is illegal, meaningless, environmentally destructive, a complete slur to our reputation as a champion of environmental conservation, and yet we want to do it, so desperately that the government would submit false reports to the NEC in an effort to obtain environmental clearance.

What we need is the widening of roads: North-South and South-North given the increase in traffic and economic activities in those areas. And yet, it is the West-East road that we are widening at great cost to the tourism industry and the environment.

Kawajangtsa has seen the largest concentration of some seriously large buildings: National Land Commission, Ministry of Health, Royal Audit Authority, WWF, RSPN, UNDP, NITM, ACC and, more recently the Democracy House. In addition, the area attracts a large number of tourists since the area has some interesting destinations of tourist interest, such as the Institute of Zorign Chusum, National Library, Folk Heritage Museum, including most frequented handicraft shops and a very popular eatery called the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant. And yet, a patch of road in that area has seen years of neglect and apathy. The patch of road - no more that 500 Mtrs. - between the National Library and the Democracy House is in total shambles. The Democracy House would have cost few hundred millions to build and yet, they did not provide less than a million to do up the road leading to it. The bumpy pot-hole ridden road is not a sight we can be proud of.

Similarly, Bhutan earns hundreds of millions of dollars - from tourist arrivals every year. And yet, we are unable to pave that short stretch of road in Paro - that run along side the BOD towards Drugyel Dzong. This stretch of road is not more than 500 Mtrs. And yet, year after year it remains broken down and unrepaired. It is quiet possible that every tourist that land in Bhutan bumps along this road - on their sightseeing trips to Taktsang, Drugyel Dzong, Kichu Lhakhang, and those who are headed for treks to Jumolhari and beyond.

We talk of spending Nu.890 million on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road and Nu.8 billion on the West-East highway widening --- and yet we are unable to find the money to do less than a thousand Mtrs. of road resurfacing in Kawajangtsa and Paro. If we hope to keep the cash cows mooing contentedly, we have to learn to give them an enjoyable experience. This is not the way to do it.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, we have to begin to place our hearts where our minds are. Or soon there will be a chorus of: Happiness is a Place! …. of bumpy rides and rickety roads.

1 comment:

  1. Getting to Thimphu in a "jiffy" makes sense if we are talking about connecting two economic hubs. But in this case I cannot see the socio-economic benefits overriding the environmental and legal concerns.

    The spate of road building in Bhutan since the coming of democracy has been enormous. I imagine rural communities are yet to reap the full benefits from these roads but they sure have lined the pockets of many contractors. Imagine, there is even talk of a farmroad to Lunana now.

    Getting back to this particular road, it is encouraging that the new NEC leadership will remain steadfast in upholding our environmental laws. I hear the NEC is continuously bombarded with political rhetoric to be more forthcoming with the environmental clearance for the road. For now, I rest assured that NEC will stand firm in upholding our laws and environmental principles. However, we must play our part by reminding the politicians that "we are watching".