It’s autumn. And the Tashichhodzong, when viewed from the North, looks beautiful. Tidy terraced fields, lush with golden paddy present a perfect foreground for Thimphu’s auspicious dzong. Many generations of travelers before us would have, no doubt, taken in almost exactly the same tranquil view.
And thanks to the government’s plans to maintain that lovely stretch of land, many generations of travelers after us could also enjoy the uninterrupted view of the dzong. To ensure that that piece of property stays as it is, the government has decided – and rightfully so – to acquire 42.32 acres of farmland in Hejo.
But the owners are not happy. They feel shortchanged.
The original inhabitants complain that they’ve already lost most of their land to the government. The National Assembly, Royal Banquet Hall, Centre for Bhutan Studies, Jimithang barracks, golf course, cremation grounds, and Wood Craft Centre all stand on land that once belonged to them. They point out that the compensations they received were never sufficient to purchase land of similar value elsewhere. And they worry that, once again, they are being compelled to give up their lands at undervalued prices.
They know that the Constitution and the Land Act allow the government to acquire their land for “public purpose”. And they agree that securing and maintaining the space around the Tashichhodzong is important. But they are unhappy with the price that the government has fixed for their land. They do not see it as the “payment of fair compensation” that the Constitution guarantees them.
So how much are they being paid? Nu 180.38 per square foot.
And why are the land owners not happy? Because Nu 180.38/sft is a pittance. By comparison, land in Jungzhina, which is upstream and further from the city centre, fetches Nu 600/sft; land in Taba, which lies even further upstream, costs Nu 600/sft; and land in relatively distant Kabisa already costs Nu 300/sft. Downstream, in Olakha, which is further from the city centre than Hejo, land prices are soaring at Nu 1000/sft for residential plots and Nu 1700/sft for commercial plots.
It’s no wonder that the land owners in Hejo are unhappy. The Nu 180.38/sft is nowhere near what they would need to buy comparable land anywhere else in Thimphu.
The property assessment and valuation agency (PAVA) appraises and fixes property prices for the government. And PAVA’s rates for Hejo are low because most of the land lie in the so-called “green area”, a zone on which government policy supposedly prohibits all construction. PAVA’s reasoning is that if you can’t build on your land, then your land can’t be worth too much.
But PAVA’s argument has two drawbacks. First, the government has allowed construction in the green area. The Supreme Court is currently being built on the 10.75 acres of green area, also in Hejo, that the government acquired from 28 owners at Nu 150/sft. So the land owners argue that, since the government can easily change policies to allow construction in so-called green areas, their land should be worth much more.
And second, there isn’t any legal provision allowing land to be categorized as “green area”. Section 19 of the Land Act recognizes 8 categories of private land – chhuzhing, kamzhing, cash crop land, residential land, industrial land, commercial land, recreational land and institutional land, but no land category for green area.
The government is correct in acquiring the land to protect the Tashchhodzong. But the Hejo land owners should not have to bear the brunt of the cost of doing so. Most of them are farmers. And many of them have already lost a lot of their land to development.
Instead, the government should advise PAVA that “green area” is not a legal land category, and that, as such, they should revise their valuation of the Hejo land.
Meanwhile, I’m writing to the minister of finance, urging him to protect the fundamental right of land owners as enshrined in Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution:
A person shall not be deprived of property by acquisition or requisition, except for public purpose and on payment of fair compensation in accordance with the provisions of the law.