Thimphu High Street

Thank you for taking part in the last Big Picture. Your answers were varied – Changangkha, Phobjikha, Gangtey, Wangdue, Paro, Bumthang, Dagana, Lhuntse and Thimphu town – and rightfully so. The old photo, after all, could have been taken anywhere in Bhutan.

The picture, as you can now easily see, was taken outside the Tashichhodzong. It shows the beginnings of modern Thimphu complete with offices, shops and, in the background, the dzong undergoing major renovation and expansion.

Dorji, “Pothery” and “River” all identified the place correctly. But the first correct answer came from Ugen, who wrote, “Settlement outside Tashichhodzong in Thimphu in early 50′s.” This picture was actually taken in the early 1960’s, but it couldn’t have been that much different in the 50’s, so I’m awarding the prize to Ugen. (Ugen: please email me to claim your prize.)

The photo is from a book “Hearts and Life and the Kingdom of Bhutan” by Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. This book is mainly about developments in the field of cardiology since 1945. But the author has included a chapter about his experiences in Bhutan, and that’s what gives the books excitement for us, and a sense of magic and mystery for other readers. He has also included almost 100 photographs, most of which show what Thimphu, and Bhutan, looked like in the 1960’s. Lovely. As we would expect, Thimphu has grown and changed beyond recognition, but the rest of Bhutan, luckily, has not changed very much.

So what is the connection between cardiology, Dr Leatham and Bhutan? The doctor was invited to Bhutan in 1963 and again in 1964  on a very important mission: as a physician to His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo. He nursed the Father of Modern Bhutan, and claims to have extended our King’s life by more than a few years. The significance of his service is not lost on the author who writes:

My patient, the King, with premature coronary artery disease (before the days of coronary artery surgery, dilatations and stents), survived for eight years, giving time for his son to take over; he died whilst on safari in Africa. I was presented with the Order of Bhutan by the Queen for restoring hi to health until his son was ‘of age’.

His Majesty the King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck passed away on 21 July, 1972. His son, the Crown Prince, ascended the Golden Throne to become the Fourth Druk Gyalpo at the tender age of 16.


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

DPT leaders

Allegations that Dasho Chang Ugyen had illegally acquired 10 acres of community and government land in 1987 has drawn widespread outrage and public condemnation. The allegations come even as the Gyelpozhing land grab case is still being investigated.

Both the land cases involve the senior most DPT leaders. The president, both vice presidents and several senior members of the DPT are alleged to have acquired large tracks of land illegally.

Some commentators here have pointed out that the land was acquired many years ago, much before DPT was established, and that, as such, DPT should not be linked to the allegations. They are right. The DPT party should not and cannot be held responsible for what their members did long before the party was established. But the members, if they broke the law then, must be punished now, even if it has been many years since the misdeed.

Instead, DPT leaders seem to be using their party to shield themselves from scrutiny. First, after the Gyelpozhing case was reported, the prime minister went on record to suggest that the allegations were politically motivated as they had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”.

And now, after Chang Ugyen’s case was reported, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba has asserted that, “… It is sad to see that a personal issue is being politicized.”

I agree. The cases should not be politicized. But for that, DPT leaders must accept that they, like everyone else, must be investigated for alleged wrongdoings. And when that happens, DPT leaders must themselves refrain from misleading the public to believe that the allegations are politically motivated.

Good governance

The Thimphu Thrompon recently ignored the “attic rule” by allowing the attics on 31 buildings to be replaced by an additional floor each. The government, which had earlier not responded to the Thrompon’s proposal to nullify the rule, reacted by quickly approving the proposal last Friday.

On Monday, members of Dagana’s Dzongkhag Tshogdu, led by their Chairman, reported to the Home Ministry to complain that their dzongkhag didn’t have a fulltime dzongdag, a dzongrab and several sector heads. They had traveled to Thimphu to request the government to appoint fulltime staff to these important positions.

What’s the connection between these two seemingly unrelated events? They show that our local governments have come of age. What’s obvious is that the newly elected local governments are taking their responsibilities seriously. But what’s not so obvious, and yet is very significant, is that they won’t hesitate to demand that the central government also fulfill their responsibilities.

Now that’s good for our democracy. And very good for our people.

Is Thimphu fine?

My son is fine. But I’m concerned that Thimphu is not.

Today, from Bhutan Today:


Great expectations

Tomorrow, registered voters in Thimphu, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar and Phuentsholing will elect their respective thromde tshogdes or city councils.

As we discussed in my last post, the Thimphu city council – the new mayor in particular – will have to sort out the capital city’s water problems.

But the mayor and his council will also have to attend to many other competing priorities. Sewerage, solid waste, public transport, roads, traffic, housing, schools, fire, parks and income generation are some of the issues that should demand the city council’s immediate attention.

The thrompons of Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar and Phuentsholing will find that they too will have to address more or less the same issues.

But the biggest and most important responsibility of all four city councils will be to consolidate the powers and authority granted to them by the Constitution. Without these powers, the city councils will not be able to fulfill their Constitutional duties and obligations. And stand little chance of improving our cities.

The banner features the Thimphu City Corporation building, which will house the offices of its new mayor.

Water pipes

Pipes for peace

Thank you for taking part in “Big picture – 10”.

Your responses were varied, and many of them were deliberately funny. Answers ranged from electrical, telephone and TV cables; to branches, roots and stems; to serpents, TMT bars and organizational charts!

But most of you knew the answer – yes, the picture showed water pipes, and yes such pipes, carrying water to individual houses, can be seen all over Thimphu.

“namgay”, “Tshewang” and “dodo” guessed that the picture of the water pipes was taken in Hejo, Langjuphakha and Taba respectively. The picture was actually taken above the “RICB Colony”.

The pipes – I counted about 150 of them – are installed and maintained privately, and carry water from a small stream to the houses below. I was told that some of them deliver water houses in distant Changzmatog!

The pipes are there because Thimphu City Corporation’s water supply is woefully inadequate and unreliable.

Thimphu has sufficient water. The Wangchhu and its many streams provide more than enough water for the entire valley. But that water must be tapped and distributed efficiently. And that is something we have not been able to do.

So Thimphu’s new mayor – whoever should win the elections tomorrow – has his work cut out for him. The mayor will be expected to improve and expand the capital’s water supply system: to ensure that inhabitants get more than a few hours of running water each day; to remove the need for the water tanks that sit on top of every building; and to make the ubiquitous private pipes redundant.

By the way, the winner of “Big picture – 10” is “namgay” who answered: “Thats a Bundle of Polythene pipes la…conveying water i guess.. common see in places like hejo…”

The picture wasn’t taken in Hejo, but like “namgay” says, the pipes are a common sight in Thimphu.

“namgay”: please contact me by email to claim your prize.

More pipes

Advocating champions

Replace one of these ...

The prime minster, an advocate of cycling and walking to work, referred to a certain setback in his State of the Nation address:

I would also like to report that the government has not given up on its dream to make Thimphu a bicycle and pedestrian city despite the initial setback.

What is that “initial setback” that the prime minister lamented? After all, the government has made no serious attempts to promote cycling (apart from installing a few bicycle stands in the capital) or to encourage walking (besides the agriculture minister’s famous HEHE walks).

Bicycles. In particular the 400 bicycles that were donated by a Buddhist group to the prime minister during his visit to Japan last year. The prime minister had boasted that he would distribute them to civil servants who promised to cycle to work. And they had responded, in overwhelming numbers, for the free bikes.

The bicycles have arrived, some 358 of them. But virtually all of them are not road worthy. Not in Thimphu, at least. All of them are single-gear bikes. All of them are used bikes (bought into the country despite the government’s ban on importing second-hand vehicles). And, most of them have been damaged beyond repair.

The bicycles must be fixed. As many of them as possible, even if two bikes have to be combined to make one. And they should be used, to whatever extent possible.

But, they are not mountain bikes. And they do not have multiple gears. So, they’re of little use in Thimphu. Dispatch them, instead, to Gelephu and Samtse, where the topography is not as demanding.

And close the chapter on that “initial setback”.

The prime minister can do more than “dream” of making Thimphu a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly city. He can lead by example:

  • He can bike to office once in a while.
  • He can walk around town occasionally.
  • And when he must travel by car, he can use fewer of them.

... for this!

Everything else – safer pavements, bicycle paths, educated motorists, bike dealerships, and affordable financing – will then fall into place naturally.

And our prime minister would become a true champion – not just a mere advocate – of biking and walking in the capital.

Saving Thimphu

Clear signs

Clear signs

The International Institute for Environment and Development, in their book Climate Change and the Urban Poor, have identified Thimphu as on of the world’s 15 most vulnerable cities to the effects of climate change. The IIED warns that climate change could cause floods, landslides and fire in our capital.

This, obviously, is cause for concern. We must take the dangerous levels of our exposure to climate change seriously. And, we must do our best to work with the world to reduce global warming.

But, Thimphu is vulnerable not just because of climate change. We, the residents of Thimphu, are equally responsible for making our city vulnerable to disasters. We generate far too much garbage, and we don’t manage our waste properly. We drive too many vehicles and burn too much timber, making the pollution that hangs over Thimphu clearly visible in the winter. Added to that, Thimphu’s population is growing too fast.

So, while we demand the world to take concrete measures to fight global warming, we must also remember to do our part to protect Thimphu from ourselves.

Blooming dogwood

True friends

True friends

If you go to Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square these days, you’ll find the dogwood (phetse shing in Dzongkha) there in full bloom. In the midst of what is fast becoming a concrete jungle, the dogwood trees, though there are only three left, provide refreshing refuge.

The Clock Tower Square, before it was extensively renovated in 2004, used to have many more trees. Maple and dogwood were some of the trees that Friends of the Square, a group of volunteers, planted along with bamboo, azalea and marigold to convert an unkempt, dirty square to a well organized garden with proper footpaths and benches that we could actually sit on.

Friends of the Square consisted of Karma Wangdi (Asha Karma from VAST), Dorji Yangki (architect), Karma Wangchuk (landscape architect) and Art Martin (a Dutch expatriate). These four volunteers, all of them concerned residents who decided to do something about a public problem, mobilized labour, money and their own resources to, as one of them puts it, “reorganize the square”. And the friends did a pretty good job.

In 2004 the government decided to renovate the square. So Asha Karma went to the city planners and requested them to incorporate the existing trees in their new designs. And to make use of the trees – to save them – which by then, with constant care over more than four years, had begun to add real beauty to the square. The planners agreed.

But when the construction started, Asha Karma was horrified to see the builders indiscriminately tearing down everything. So he stood in the square, everyday, to make sure that the builders would not destroy any more of his trees. Damage, however, had already been done: the square lost most of the dogwood and all the maple trees.

So if you go to the Clock Tower Square one of these days, take the time to enjoy the dogwood, a very Bhutanese tree. There are in full bloom. Thanks to their friends.