The recent call by the Prime Minister to share ideas in formulating an economic roadmap for Bhutan has woken me from the typical disease of the Acquired Initiative Deficiency Syndrome and laid-back attitude that the future of my nation will be decided by the Government. The good thing is that the call woke me from some of the distant dreams that have been disturbing me in the recent past. So here I am trying to navigate into Bhutan 2050 with only my intuition and imagination as a guide and risking an error of judgment in my opinion.

Urbanisation in Bhutan: 20 years on and 30 years ahead

Urbanization in Bhutan which accelerated at the beginning of this century has been responsible for the profound physical and societal changes. The story and evidences of how the fertile paddy fields of Thimphu valley have become concrete jungle is a story of a modern Bhutan closely linked to loosing of prime agricultural land, rising of imported vegetables and dilution of traditional architecture. 

The Thimphu Structural Plan 2002-2027 prepared based on the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism (PIU) which is closely related to the national conscience of GNH became a flag bearer for most of the other town planning schemes to follow. The preamble of the plan is so lyrical that it makes one cry at the vision crafted for our city.  However, the reality of the settlements that have come up as a result of the plan makes one wonder what went wrong with the visions or the master plan. 

A 2015 CBS study titled “Thimphu’s Growing Pains, challenges of implementing the city plan” concluded that lessons are relevant for government and international development partners for understanding policy implementation failures. That city planned with Intelligent Principles does not even have proper pedestrian facilities in many areas and it took a historic event to develop public spaces like the Coronation Park.

All over the country, the new, as well as extended urban centres provided hope for every Bhutanese and it opened the floodgates of rural-urban migration. Every landowner wanted his plot to be under the city and under the commercial zone and many left rural homes to own a shop to sell imported goods and foods in these towns causing an informal but impactful socio-economic turbulence for the nation. These were further compounded by the accepted practices of inexperienced expatriate masons and carpenters building the copy and paste traditional architecture in cement concrete diluting the charm of new towns. 

Considering these urban forms of the last 20 years, the call by the PM provides an opportunity to policymakers and settlement planners look at urbanisation in Bhutan with a more holistic perspective and make them more productive, cohesive and less dependent. What is the future of urban Bhutan? Is it another trial and error with Intelligent Urbanism or the smart city concept or a Bajo like the model township? Can the concept of Agricultural Urbanism take the future Bhutanese settlements to a greater height? Can the concept of Agricultural Urbanism which suits Bhutanese values take the future Bhutanese settlements to greater heights? Agricultural urbanism (AU) is an approach to settlement planning that focuses on all elements of the food system across all parts of a city thereby creating more productive, cohesive and sustainable settlements.

The government ought to look at these issues and evaluate the pros and cons of a Sarpang- Gelephu Agricultural Corporation where human settlement planning is complemented by sustainable agriculture plans. 

The government needs to explore the possibility of a Thimphu Paro Agricultural Corporation to mitigate the imported and inorganic vegetable flooding in the markets of Bhutan.  The investment arm of the government DHI should be interested to invest in these projects with the help of FCB and BDBL to expedite the aspiration of a 100 percent organic Bhutan.

The New Amochu Township which is under construction has all the elements for a smart city like the riverfront zone, special development zones, helipads and green zones however there is no plan on the other side of the border. Will the investment in the Amochu and Phuentshoing planning be compromised by the squatter type of settlements just next to it as it has happened with so many of our border towns? Can the concept of Cross Border Planning Strategy (CBPS) bring more benefits to Bhutanese towns? CPBS is a successful concept that had facilitated cross-border integration in cities located on the international borders of different countries in Europe. Experiences in South African city of Cape Town shows that unequal development defeats the planning on one side simply because diseases like bird flu, dengue and malaria air pollution and social diseases will not be contained by the municipal or international boundaries. Amochu Township and other border towns must avoid such a situation with long term planning and cross border coordination.

Education: School facilities vocational and technical education 

Education and institutions of learning are regarded as the soul of communities and societies as per the celebrated theories of socio-spatial planning of the last century. Bhutan’s context is no different. It is more sensitive given the fact that our education system is deeply woven with age-old values and the visions for modern Bhutan and her soul is enlightened by its social institutions with His Majesty the King as the Chancellor of the Royal University of Bhutan. 

However, the academic ambience inside many of our classrooms is much to be desired. Are the lighting and the colours and furniture inside our classrooms induce a sense or learning or are our classrooms still lit by the few dysfunctional tube lights and have the minimal furniture procured or build by the lowest bidder through the “blessing” of our procurement system?

 The proposed Bhutan Institute of Technology by the Prime Minister recently holds a promise to revamp our Vocational Institution. However, its location and linkages with the tertiary technical institutions will hold a key to its relevance, recognition as well as sustainability. Today, the tertiary technical institutions like CST and JNEC are under RUB while the Technical Training Institutes (TTI) are under MOLHR. Subjects like Engineering, Building Design and Technology are taught at the tertiary institutes but the complementary courses like masonry, carpentry, plumbing, wiring and welding are taught at TTI’s.

 Can the proposed institute be a part of a second campus for CST or JNEC that could optimise resources and complement the courses? Will it help to change the mindset that TTI’s are looked down by the society and parents alike projecting a poor image and tarnishing the dignity of the institutes and graduates? 

 It is hoped that issues of urbanization and education are researched jointly by a team of experts from relevant agencies and academicians from RUB and not decided by a high-level committee of mere opinions. Opinions are free but the future of Bhutan is scared.

Contributed by,

Dhrubaraj Sharma 

2nd year PhD student

Design Lab

Queensland University of Technology, Australia