Next Monday, the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services will be established although the first helicopter will arrive only in November. This will officially herald in the much talked about helicopter service in the country.
The government had pledged helicopter services. While a promise will be fulfilled soon, such a service should be looked beyond a party pledge. It has become a necessity even with the length of roads increasing and farm roads connecting many remote places.
The helicopter service will be used mostly for search and rescue, fire fighting and medical evacuations. Those who enjoyed the service, especially in medical emergencies, will agree how crucial the service is. We have seen images of people with arrows stuck in their necks or chests evacuated within hours of the accident to the national referral hospital. Lives are saved.
Without our own helicopters, it takes time to hire one. In fact, Bhutan is the only country where a helicopter cannot be arranged or hired within a few hours of an emergency. That is even with the Government of India always coming to the rescue.
The introduction of such a service is late, if not timely. We have seen lives of at least a score people saved because they were evacuated on time. When emergencies happen in the rural areas, life is always a gamble in the absence of such a facility.
We have learnt enough lessons. We have had tourists stranded in the mountains giving nightmares to those involved in the tourism industry. A lot of people still believe that the seven boys, who were stranded in the middle of the swelling Wangchu, some years ago, could have been saved if we had helicopters.
The helicopter industry has advanced so much that helicopters can do wonders. When it comes to search and rescue, the primary aim of our service, choppers are the best whether it is at sea or in the Himalayas. And we have warnings from experts that Bhutan could be hit with disasters from glacial lakes or earthquakes. During natural disasters, it is not so much about the loss of property. It is about saving lives.
The need for such a service had long been felt. Affordability had been the biggest hurdle. We are still not rich enough to keep a fleet of helicopters, pilots and ground staff, but this has become a priority.
Paying Nu 459 million for two helicopters is a lot of money. But there are other comparative advantages. To at least recover some cost, commercialising the service could be looked into. The tourism industry could benefit from this service. Big businesses, for whom time is money could use it too if it is made available.
It may be a just case of money changing hands, but the company could make some money if the service is used even by government ministers, agencies and corporations.