Studying pedestrian day

On pedestrian day, the number of vehicles driven is halved, and the number of people walking is doubled. At least, that’s what a study by the National Environment Commission says. Good.

But what would be better, essential in fact, is for the government to study the impact that pedestrian day has on the quality of our lives. And the impact that it has on doing business in Bhutan.

Business on pedestrian day

The central secretariat complex outside the Tashichhodzong wore a deserted look on pedestrian day, this afternoon. No doubt, our civil servants were busy in their own offices, working, since they wouldn’t be able to attend the otherwise unending number of meetings that plague our government.

Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street, also wore a deserted look this afternoon. I saw students walking home and taxis zipping around, but I saw little else. Shops were empty. And some, like these shops on upper Norzin Lam, were closed for business.

There are many things wrong with pedestrian day. And one of the most damaging is its effect on businesses. Restaurants, grocery shops, hardware stores, commercial offices, even the small pann shops, are reeling under the effects of Pedestrian day. That’s why, during question hour this morning, I’d wanted to ask the minister for economic affairs this question:

Will the Hon’ble Minister please report on the amount of business that has been lost in Thimphu because of the implementation of “Pedestrian Day”? Furthermore, will the Hon’ble Minister kindly explain the Royal Government’s measures to facilitate business on “Pedestrian Day”?

However, my question was not included for discussion in today’s question hour. Perhaps the minister for economic affairs was of the opinion that my question was not relevant. And, perhaps, he convinced the Hon’ble Speaker to reject my question. But the question remains: is pedestrian day affecting businesses?

The government cannot continue to ignore this question. The question is relevant. And it is important. But it’s not just Thimphu businesses which are suffering – businesses in other dzongkhags, especially those in the South, are also reeling from the impact of pedestrian day.

Stop playing games

Walking for what?

I like to walk. And I like to bike. So today, on Thimphu’s inaugural Pedestrian Day, I enjoyed the opportunity to bike from my home (in Taba) to my office (in Langjophakha) to the clock tower square to lunch (in Motithang) to the PDP office (Changangkha) to Karma’s Coffee (Hongkong market) to the archery range (near the Indian Embassy) and finally back home.

The government has declared that, henceforth, every Tuesday will be Pedestrian Day, at which time most vehicles will not be permitted to enter the core area of Thimphu. Other cities are reportedly already following suit.

The intentions behind the Pedestrian Day idea may be good. Many of us, for example, already agree that walking is good for our health, and good for our environment. So many of us would not argue against Pedestrian Day.

But some of us may not like to walk, especially if we have several places to go to, in our ghos and kiras, when it is excessively hot or cold, or when it rains. Some of us may find it difficult to walk, like, for example, the old, the weak, and working mothers. And some of us may simply not like walking at all.

So the intention of starting Pedestrian Day – of forcing people to walk once a week – may be good. But the way it has been handled is not good; it is not democratic. The government has, once again, failed to consult the very people they claim to be helping. To walk or not affects the lives of each and every one of us. So we should have been consulted. And the cabinet should not have taken the decision; it should have been left up to the respective local governments. Instead, the prime minister himself has issued an executive order decreeing that, “… all Tuesdays henceforth, will be observed as Pedestrians’ Day throughout the country particularly in major towns”.

As expected, public reaction after the first Pedestrian Day has been varied and mixed. While some residents clearly enjoyed walking to work and back, others have bitterly denounced the government’s decision as arbitrary and draconian.

So the prime minister should call the first Pedestrian Day a “dry run”. And, based on even a few negative reactions, he should revoke his executive order. Then he should start honest consultations with the people. Better still, he should learn to leave these matters to local governments – it is their job to decide how best to organize community life in their respective areas.

The best course of action would be for the prime minister and the government to lead by example. They could call every Tuesday “Pedestrian Day”, encourage people to walk on that day, and make it convenient for them to do so. But people should not be forced to walk. Instead, the government should revitalize the defunct HEHE walk, and lead by example –  they should leave their cars at home and they, themselves, should make it a point to walk every Tuesday. In due course of time, most of us will follow, naturally and happily.

But there’s growing suspicion that the government’s decision to impose Pedestrian Day may not be all that noble. Some have suggested that government’s unilateral decision was motivated by the fact that Rio+ 20, a UN conference on sustainable development, and one that the prime minister is expected attend, will begin in Rio de Janeiro in barely two weeks.

That may indeed be the case. Pedestrian Day may have more to do with pandering to the west than really helping our own people. For instance, if you Google “pedestrian day Bhutan” you’ll find many dozens of news links from all across the world. This shows that the government has obviously targeted the international media; this shows that the government was more concerned about securing international publicity than attending to any domestic inconveniences.

This will not be the first time that the government’s policies would have been determined by our hunger for international adulation. In 2009 the government signed a promise to keep our country carbon neutral for all time to come. That promise, grandiosely called Declaration of the Kingdom of Bhutan – the Land of Gross National Happiness to Save our Planet, was put into effect, also without public consultations or discussions, hardly a week before it was proudly declared at COP15, the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.

If this is the case, if Pedestrian Day has been timed to simply impress the Rio+20 gathering, the government must stop playing games, they must rescind their decision, and they must apologize to the people of Bhutan.

Photo credit: BBS