Monday, July 26, 2010

Thimphu: Making (Breaking) of our dream capital city

(This is an article I wrote as part of my course in RIM and had been published in the institute's newsletter afterwards)

Thimphu City is a melting pot of people, culture and ideas. At least five different ethnicities live here harmoniously. They weave their lives around a central national theme while acknowledging their diversity and rejoicing in it. It is located in along the flat fertile Wang valley. It is said that when modern governance was introduced in the country, some of the most learned Gurus said that Thimphu must be the capital if it has to work. Today, it is the seat of the Central Government and our much revered Monarchs'. “The way we build Thimphu is the way we build the image of the country… It defines the idea of the Bhutanese Dream” (TCC, 2005). One might add that it will determine the fate of our much vaunted Gross National Happiness. It is a reflection of the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the people. If a capital declines and decays, so does the nation. Ancient Rome disintegrated when its people could not agree on its capital’s future while the dynamic United States of America emerged around Washington D.C.
Realizing this, the Royal Government introduced an ambitious plan to make Thimphu “the dream city of every Bhutanese” and, indeed, that of the world’s. The Thimphu Structural Plan was initiated in 1998 in line with His Majesty’s far sighted vision for the country.
It is a living plan, not a static document that will guide the numerous incremental projects and improvements, such that the small parts assemble into a beautiful and efficient whole. The Structure Plan identifies investments in the form of projects which can be taken up when they are prioritized (ibid).
The structure plan, if implemented, should see through the development process of Thimphu as a progressive capital city. Bhutan’s future would be secured with its capital’s.
Unfortunately, today the plan is going through a rough phase. For the residents of the city (which amount to one fifth of the nation’s population) and other well wishers of the country, the plan would not take place well enough. Then, there are some interest groups who grumble that Thimphu is getting a disproportionately high share of the nation’s resources. They would rather divert all the resources to the countryside, which in itself is arguable. And we have yet another group which cannot get over its nostalgia of having seen Thimphu as a hamlet with jungles and paddy fields, though they conveniently choose to ignore its impoverishment.
In this conflict of interests, there can be no winners. But we risk putting at stake the future of our capital city and with it, the country’s very survival. If its capital falls, the country will too. After all, Thimphu is Bhutan in nutshell. We have the best of Bhutan here, in all its diverse spirit, not to mention the people of all its twenty Dzongkhags.
The sooner we accept that our future as a nation depends on a dynamic Thimphu, the better it will be for all of us. Self interest, regional biases and dogmatic principles can only lead to ruins. If we trust the judgment of our visionary Monarchs, which of course all the doubting Thomases swear by, then we should have no doubt that Thimphu is the best possible place to build our capital city. After all, they were the ones who chose it.
I would love to relocate the capital in my home town, or better still, where my entire land holding is registered. If that happened, my family possesses enough property to last a life time, and more. But that is exactly the feelings that we must fight against, in ourselves and in others. Our country will be the best it can be only when it makes the best choices based on our real potentials. Thimphu has been established beyond reasonable doubt to be the best choice available to us.
There is often an argument, no doubt playing to populist views that Thimphu get more resources than any other Dzongkhags and that the further you are from Thimphu, the lesser your share gets. It is claimed that not enough is being done for the remote places located days’ away from the nearest road head. It is also popular to say that still more resources need to be poured in to our marginal farms. To a great extent, these are all true. But the choices that we make must be to give ourselves the best chance to be competitive in this world which has no place in it for any second bests.
Any reasonable policy must identify areas of strength for a country and invest in it, at the cost of others, if necessary. Areas that got little potential and are financially unsustainable must necessarily be forgone. Its population must be moved to places where they would stand to be productive, not just receivers of state freebies.
These are hard decisions and would be made only by those governments which have popular backing of the masses. Sadly, our decision makers are now getting bogged down by populist politics and do not always make decisions which are seemingly in our best interest. Pressure is on to divert more funds towards the country side. So, while the city’s area has increased from 8 sq km in 2003 to 26 km sq km today, it still functions with the same amount of staffs and resources (Lamzang, 2009).
It is a serious concern as we are still dependent on aid and do not have enough resources to satisfy every whim. We are spreading our resources too thin. While the countryside is no better with a few extra lakhs, the infrastructure in our capital and other strategic hubs are not able to keep pace. As a result, Thimphu today has potholes for roads, dust bowls for town centres, shacks for government headquarters, dogs for guard and lacks most urban facilities for our youth. We do not get to host even basic international events in spite of our potential as the most peaceful country. The AFC Cup qualifiers which were scheduled in Bhutan and which would have given Bhutan much needed investment opportunities got cancelled because we did not have even the basic infrastructure.
The most shameful thing in this whole affair is the fact that Bhutanese opinion leaders (mostly mid-level academics and civil servants) condemn Thimphu for its urban degeneration. They instigate foreigners in believing that Thimphu is not Bhutan. They either fail to see or are too biased to see that their hate campaigns are bringing about this degeneration in the first place. They fight for farm roads in their villages, but for rare visits, they never use it. This is a drain on the limited resources we have, not to mention the environment.
One gets a feeling that when people come to believe that they will never own a property in Thimphu, they become prejudiced against it. It soothes their jealous souls to spoil the party for everybody else too. It would be brilliant if we could tell ourselves that we will ensure that when we are able to afford it, Thimphu’s real estate is still worth having and that, in fact, it would be the best in the world.

PS. Since the time I have written this, Thimphu has changed. The nation's future depend on it more now than ever. But not all the changes have been pleasant. And with the imminent withdrawal of foreign aids confronting us, we can no longer be wasteful in our actions. We got to put our money where our mouth is, and make the best of our limited opportunity. It's all very well being romantic about our countryside and the folks who inhabit them. But come to think of it, and their real strenght always laid in their uniqueness, tranquility and integrity. The monster of develpoment that we are taking there now will destroy everything that is good just like the tortorous raods that bring only destruction, of every kind. The benefit will never quite match up to the investment we make except for the politically minded. Every other dzonkhags must find their own niche development projects and should not hope to become another Thimphu. Thimphu must always remain the seat of power and every thing that comes with it. We must earnestly help in building that wherever our allegiances are.
We are less than seven hundred thousand of us. We don't need to irreparably scar every nook and corner of our fragile land...It's much better we consolidate our blessings, stay close and develop where it is much better suited. I know people will differ from me on a lot of things, but please try thinking along my lines if you can.

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