It is estimated that there are about close to 2,450 roadside workers as part of the national workforce in the country, which is 0.32% of the country’s population.  This group of the national workforce that is scantly spread across the country continue to form the cornerstone workforce fervidly engaged in their own style and share of contributing to the nation-building process. The principal mandates reserved with this group of roadside workers are found to be the maintenance of the overland road conditions such as clearing road obstructions, culverts, cross drainage structures, side drains, minor slides, road surface repairs, masonry work, and clearing of vegetation.

The national workforce in the country has been established in the 1960s. To this day, the national workforce with the department of roads has vehemently evolved and continued to maintain the nation’s road to prosperity. The Department of Roads is reportedly seen to employ roadside workers at the rate of one man per kilometre for road maintenance across the country.

Road improvement and maintenance is intricately seen to be hazardous work. It is perceived to endanger workers’ physical safety, health, and overall well-being.  Undoubtedly, from a geographical standpoint, the difficult topography coupled with the extreme climatic conditions across the country is viewed to make the road maintenance activities challenging and the life of the road workers harsh and debilitating. All-round the year, our mountainous terrain with deep and narrow valleys, steep cliffs, heavy monsoon are visually identified to be the hallmark of life associated with our roadside workers.

Predictably, as it appears, retention of the NWF is also integrally perceived to be a challenge apparently due to the harsh working conditions of our road workers. This situation, however, is found to be different for the NWF workers in the capital. By and large, the composition of the national workforce engaged in road maintenance today is basically found to be elderly and physically challenged workers with most of the productive age group opting out into the greener pastures elsewhere for higher paying jobs.

The findings of the 2010 survey for the gross national happiness index elucidate that happiness amongst the national workforce members has been found lower than for any other occupational group including farmers, military and the unemployed in the country. While it may appear not alarmingly intriguing to discover the underlying reasons, the naked truth apparently seems to expound that happiness to these group of the roadside workers appears to be a distant reality and a foreign matter if the GNH survey is anything to go by.

All along the lateral highways across the country, it is not unusual to find the living conditions particularly the homes of the roadside workers pathetic and pitiable. It has been learnt that the construction of the initial dwellings for road workers in the country was started in the mid-1980s with the primary objective of improving the living conditions of the road workers. However, to this day, the existing dwellings are seen to have given ways and are now virtually found to be in a dilapidated state. The repair and maintenance of these dwellings seemingly appear to have eluded for long. Most of the temporary camps and dwellings of the roadside workers are not found to fulfil the basic requirements of keeping out rain, wind, sun and the animals let alone the comfort of a house. Housing shortage amongst the roadside workers still appears to be prevalent.

It is not unfamiliar a sight to spot groups of young children playing near their parents working on the roadside and workers with their little ones on their back engaged at work for travellers across the lateral east-west highways in the country.  More electrifying and soul-wrenching scenes are seen on the roadside where infants and babies are laid to sleep and rest on the sides of the road inches away from the road and the zooming vehicles under the blanket of roadside dust. A close dig at such scenes is usually forced upon in the absence of choices at hand. The lack of adequate air quality monitoring equipment in the country is seen to limit data on air quality and pollution from the vehicular combustion on roads and dust from the worksite for both the workers and their children.

Both the working and living conditions of the roadside workers are perilous and perpetually exposed to hazardous conditions through all time and seasons. Some studies done in the past found out that roadside workers and their children are the most vulnerable sections of society.  Against all these oddly patterned backdrops, it is increasingly being felt that the working and living conditions of our roadside workers not only merits review but solicits long overdue attention in the wake of the conjuring call for narrowing the gap of its citizens candidly pledged by the government of the day. The measure of a vibrant government is often gauged by how it looks after its most vulnerable group of people.

The absence of safety cognizance, moderate implementation or enforcement of safety standards, and poor attitudes towards safety and health seemingly appears to be loosely associated with this group of the roadside workers. As it is found, the use of personal protective equipment (PPEs) amongst the roadside workers is singularly limited to the use of high visibility reflective jacket devoid of other essential protective kits such as safety shoes, helmets, glass, etc. Although statistics reveals that the likelihood and rate of occupation-related accidents and injuries are found to be lower than that of the construction and other sectors, it is paramount that the safety standards are continually addressed and strengthened in order to improve the overall health and safety of the workers.

In the recent times, the initiative for the establishment of the early childhood care and development centre (ECCD) targeted for the children of these roadside workers across different centres is something to be appreciated and admired. This move is expected to bring about a latent transformation and a rippling effect in the lives of the roadside workers and their families in a myriad of dimensions.

It has been learnt that the wage rate of the NWF in the country has been revised in 2015. While the revised wage has been expected to secure and improve the wellbeing of workers and their families, the revision viewed to be long overdue however has been felt to be less considering the inflation and rising cost of living in the country. Beyond this, any measures devised and tailored towards elevating and ameliorating both the standard of living and life of the roadside workers across the kingdom from any development corner will be a welcome move. Somehow it appears that the quality of focus and attention this group of workers merits seems to elude them for reasons not exactly known to all.

The existence and the contribution of these roadside workers towards maintaining the nation’s roadways are inevitable and central to the unhindered socio-economic expedition of the country in particular and the nation-building process in general. In the absence of such workforce in the country to take care of this public asset, it is felt that the speed of our socio-economic development will not only be slowed but jeopardized too.

Contributed by: Kezang Namgyel (BHSL)

Bhutan Hydropower  Services Limited

Jigmiling, Gelephu