It is inching closer, the road to Laya. About three kilometres of the road is even blacktopped. If all goes well, Laya will be the next remote highland to be connected by a road in the next few years.
The road until Tongshida, around an hour’s walk from Koina, has already cut distance by a day much to the relief of the Layaps. The road will, like Layaps say, reduce the hardship and drudgery of transporting goods including essentials from Gasa. Layaps carry everything from salt to cooking oil to washing machines on their back or on horses and yaks.
A road has been the priority and the best bait for votes during elections. All the candidates from the constituency had pledged a road. Even with the road reaching only halfway, Layaps are reaping the benefits. They feel that it will now bring developments to the remote gewog.
But what difference would the road to Laya make besides shortening travel time and reducing hardship? What developments are the people thinking?
Laya is a beautiful place with rich and unique highland traditions and customs. It is a must-visit place for even Bhutanese, given its beauty and serenity. Besides agriculture, they depend on yaks and horse which is a good source of income. Laya is a tourist hotspot and without a road, porter and pony services provide good business to the locals. Laya has already developed a lot. They have all the basic amenities like electricity, mobile connectivity, and health and educations services. Since Cordyceps collection was legalised, hard cash is also not a problem.
A road reaching Laya could be the beginning of the end of a lot of things the remote hamlet is known for. The unique tradition is already under threat. Young Layaps feel embarrassed to wear their traditional attire. Products made from yak hair like tents and cloak have become a rarity, as cheap imported goods are readily available.
Recognising the importance of the highlanders and their tradition and culture, His Majesty The King initiated the Highland Festival. The festival celebrates and preserve the rich cultural traditions of the highland communities in the country. With so-called development, things could change. Eastern Bhutan’s Laya, the picturesque Sakteng village has lost its remoteness with the road connecting the Dungkhag.
Highlanders are already feeling the impact. Without the need for horses to transport goods, a good number of men are jobless in Sakteng. Laya is a stopover on the several popular trekking routes. Some are already benefiting from farmhouse business, locally made products, porter and pony business. With a road at the doorsteps, they will see these opportunities gone. Tourists could drive away to Punakha or Thimphu from Laya after a tiring day of trekking. Layaps will realise the impact soon.
Highlanders are also important in many other ways. The yak herding tradition plays an important role in balancing the eco-system. As more people stop yak rearing for other business or move out, under-grazing could disturb the eco-systems. Besides, it is also a strategic national importance for highlanders to live in the mountains.
It would be unfair to treat highlanders like a museum, but there are several ways to compensate for the sacrifices. Interventions, for instance, in yak rearing tradition through innovation and technology could help highlanders stay back and continue the tradition.
With technology, the harsh climatic conditions can be made bearable. There are organisations looking into technologies like heating and lighting. Subsidies like in the helicopter service during emergencies will make highlanders not dependent on a road at their doorstep.
Today, the only bump in reaching the road to Laya is the clearance from the home ministry. This provides an opportunity to rethink if Laya should be like any other town in the country.