The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The big rural experiment


Bhutan’s experiment with farm roads began in earnest in the Ninth Plan. People asked, and the government gave.

With the rationale of making rural life more comfortable and attractive, the farm road vision was thus born. In the Ninth Plan several villages were connected, and the roads continue to be taken to some of the remotest corners of the country.

The DPT manifesto promises road to all 205 gewogs as pre-condition for growth and development. The government, therefore, is gearing up to construct about 1,500 kilometers of farm roads in the next four years.

However, people are already beginning to question the rationale behind the experiment. Given the rate at which rural folks are migrating to urban centers, critics say farm roads might not be sustainable in the long run.

Who will maintain the roads? Who will use the roads? Isn’t taking farm roads to all the gewogs a waste of government resources? Is the experiment wrong?

The lengthy miles

In the Ninth Plan a total of 1,132 kilometers of farm roads, including power tiller tracks, were constructed in the country.

Punakha tops the list with 88 kilometers, followed by Trashigang with 81, and Lhuentse 73. Punakha also has the highest number of farm roads, 30, followed by 28 in Bumthang and 22 in Paro. Gasa has the least farm roads, 4.

The highest number of farm roads was constructed in 2007 and 2008, totaling to 289.58 kilometers. Records show that the number of farm roads constructed increased by four times between 2002 to 2004.

Adding another 1,500 km in the 10th Plan will take the grand total to 2,632 km.

The rationale

The DPT manifesto states that connecting every gewog with roads will improve the quality of life and access to health and education services and profitable returns for farm produce.

The agriculture minister, Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), said the major bottleneck for increasing farm productivity is due to lack of infrastructure - roads. He said without farm roads even if there is an increase in production of farm products, the products don’t reach the market.

“And if farmers have to carry whatever little they produce on their back and if it doesn’t even pay the cost of their labor and cover their wages for carrying the goods to town, farming doesn’t make sense,” he said.

For 76-year-old Karsang in Bartsham, Trashigang, farm roads have immensely improved the village life. He said the road opened up avenues to all other services. Bartsham was one of the earlier gewogs in Trashigang to be connected with a farm road.

Today, Bartshampas enjoy a better life. Affluent families own power tillers and even cars. The road has been diligently maintained, and it has brought numerous opportunities to the people.

The agriculture minister said that with road access immense opportunities for farmers to market their products have been created. Roads have also helped farmers bring in farm inputs like seeds and fertilizers.

“Roads facilitate all other development activities. And that is exactly the rationale behind our priority to farm roads,” said Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho.

A wish list?

Today, farm roads feature in every gewog’s wish list. The local governments are frantically identifying all possible roads in the dzongkhags.

However, Guidelines for Farm Development prepared by the agriculture ministry states that the prioritization or selection of farm roads will be done by the Gewog Tshogde based on the criteria set by the agriculture department.

Dzongkhag Rural Access Planning (DRAP) states that a farm road must serve 10 households a kilometer. It estimates the construction of one kilometer at Nu 3 million, and states that villages with a travel time more than one hour will be given preference. It further states that a farm road will also depend on technical feasibility.

Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho said the government’s priority will primarily focus on areas where farm roads are feasible.

Will the roads hold back people?

A study by the agriculture ministry states that if the current rural-urban migration trend continues, about half of Bhutan’s population will be living in urban areas by the year 2020.

It states that although it will be difficult to keep people back in villages, the government must, however, make rural life more attractive and meaningful if the rapid drift is to be controlled.

A farmer in Pemagatshel said over the telephone that people from many villages in the dzongkhag have left for urban areas. First, it is the children who move out for education, and once they find jobs parents follow them, he said.

However, the agriculture minister is optimistic that farm roads will play a crucial role in keeping farmers back in the villages.

“We will not be able to stop rural-urban migration altogether but we will be able to create more opportunities for employment and income generation in rural areas,” he said. “A young person will realize that plowing his field with a tractor is much more attractive than with a pair of bullocks. And to reach the tractor there we need farm roads.”

Is the experiment sustainable?

Absolutely, said Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho.

He explained that before the construction of a farm road, the people benefiting from it must give the assurance in writing that they will carry out the routine maintenance. This doesn’t include major damages, though.

Moreover, in order to enhance the sustainability, the ministry is looking for better quality roads by increasing the construction cost from Nu 1 million to Nu 3 million a kilometer.

The agriculture minister said the priority given to farm roads will not be a waste of government resources. Rather, farm roads are assets.

“Farm roads are assets for people to embrace better lives,” he said. “When we have roads we will have people making use of the land and the resources. In fact, we are creating conducive conditions for people to stay back in villages.”

However, only time will tell if the experiment will succeed or if it is merely a wish-fulfiling stunt.

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