Ugyen Penjor

Vision 2020:   Urbanisation: The rapid rural to urban migration since the early 1990s, the change in the population dynamics and the implications it could bring along was long recognised. It was seen a major challenge.

A vision was drawn.

The Vision 2020 document, a strategic document with a 20-year perspective, identified the need to give “greater priority to achieving improvements in the quality of urban design and planning.” It cautioned, 20 years ago, that our urban planning could reach a stage where, from an urban planning and design perspective, they would be gone beyond repair.

Developing rural Bhutan was seen as a strategy to urbanisation. It even identified development of a growth centre in eastern Bhutan, ‘where the distances to Thimphu and Phuentsholing are great and the density of population high, giving the region a high potential as a ‘sending’ area’ was spelled out.

Concepts like ‘rurabnisation’ were also to be explored. It was to target townships in the vicinity of the towns as future focal points for a pattern of urban growth in which the benefits are more broadly-based and equitably shared.

Emphasis were laid on reducing the push factor by making farming activities profitable and attractive so that young people would not associate it with ‘backwardness’, but as a field of opportunity.

The vision cautioned of not repeating past mistakes in urbanising areas.

When the vision was launched in May 1999. Thimphu’s population was 28,000. The capital city as we know today was half the size with the Chang and Barp area largely being paddy fields and its hills full of pine trees and apple orchards.

Plans were made, polices and strategies deriving from the Vision were launched. In 2008, a national urbanisation strategy was launched touted to be an indicator of how our decision makers were serious and committed in achieving balanced and equitable development.

Before that in 2003, the Cabinet approved the master plan for Thimphu. Called Thimphu Structural Plan 2002-2027, the grand master plan was to guide the development of the capital city.

Did we live up to the vision?

With 114,551 people as of 2017 in Thimphu thromde alone, the capital city is crowded. Its residents are going through the fears that were apprehended in the vision document. The rapid urban growth and the unchecked rural urban migration have already created severe pressures on services like water, sanitation and waste.

Growth in infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the pressure. The capital city is known for lack of affordable housing, efficient public transport, parking space and everything that is against what was envisioned.

A construction frenzy has gripped the capital city which is evident from the loss of greenery, as construction of concrete structures penetrate the once pine tree forest. Growth has been haphazard and confusing. Thimphu growth pattern has been deduced to a ‘study relevant for government and international development partners for understanding policy implementation failures,” according to a 2013 study, Thimphu’s Growing Pains, challenges of implementing the city plan.

Planners attributed the administrative decisions of locating government offices in the capital for the strong pull-factor. Spatial distribution of government offices was looked at as a solution for mitigating migration to cities. Since the launch of the vision document, more offices, including ministries were added  – not many looked beyond Thimphu adding to the congestion and the pull factor.

When the priority is decongesting the city, more government and corporate are rushing to open new offices in the already crowded city, allowed without second thoughts. From the businesses operating in the core of the city, it appears that everybody loves rushing to Norzin lam.

“This happens when everything is concentrated in a place,” said a former urban planner. “We recognised developing other towns. The question is how serious were our decision makers?”

Those analysing the situation blame the lack of employment and economic opportunities in other places except Thimphu and Phuentsholing for the current problem. “These two places were like magnet drawing people, especially those with some education from the country side,” said a researcher.

Migration, it was envisioned will slow and may even reverse trends of fragmentation of land holdings, thereby helping to defuse the forces that give rise to landlessness and sharecropping arrangements. It was expected to encourage land consolidation, facilitate greater mechanisation and increased agricultural productivity.

Lack of innovation, commercialisation (deterred by topography) in agriculture and the promise of better lives attracted people, young and old to the towns. Many prefer working in a bar or restaurant in Thimphu and live in a basement of a house than working in the open fields in their village. Apart from a handful of farmers’ cooperatives and youth groups outside Thimphu, the interest is still in urban areas for the want of market and opportunities.

If the vision was to make agriculture attractive and keep people in the farming sector, it had not happened. Successive governments have prioritised agriculture, some giving away freebies. But agriculture couldn’t attract youth. An irony to the vision of making farming attractive is evident in the increasing area of fallow land from as far as Trashiyangtse to as close as Punakha.

Today, the size of fallow land (wet and dry) in land scarce Bhutan is more than 66, 120 acres, an increase of about 5,000 acres from 2009.

Since the transition to a democratically elected government, the focus on regional development received emphasis. But there was not many governments could do except for building farm roads, a priority of the people and a promise elected governments fulfilled. Today, 91.6 percent of houses all over the country are within 30 minutes of a road head. It has not stopped migrating to towns for greener pastures.

A former chief urban planner attributes the mismatch between the vision and the reality to the lack of substantial intervention of regional scale to provide employment and facilitate economic opportunities.

“Major establishments such as government, corporate, civil societies and private offices including medical facilities continue to be in Thimphu. Because of connectivity, Phuentsholing reigns as the commercial capital. In terms of weight, there is no town equivalent to these two to counter or attract population,” he said.

“In terms of studies and strategies there are enough done and subsequently recommendations provided for regionally balanced development, but was it actually implemented?”

Critics blame the problem of not turning visions into reality to the lack of coordination. “At the moment all agencies work in silos and are in race to showcase what each has done to contribute to nation building. There is no coordination and cooperation,” said a former planner.

The next attempt would be through the Comprehensive National Development Plan launched last year. The plan is yet another strategy about regional economic vitalisation, employment creation, and vitalisation of tourism through efficient connectivity, which needs to be dealt holistically.

Sounds familiar?