Choki Wangmo

Wanakha village in Paro is reputed for growing vegetables on a large scale. Hardworking villagers take pride in exporting vegetables every year.

However, their main source of cash income hit the rocks when falling debris from the construction of Damchu-Haa road damaged their agriculture fields. Villagers depend on vegetables, mostly potatoes and cabbages.

About two years ago, 27 households complained to the Paro dzongkhag administration seeking substitution for their fields buried under debris. Villagers claimed that their land got covered more than five feet under boulders and muck pushed down carelessly from the road construction.

Wanakha Tshogpa, Jampel Dorji said that, it had been four years since the land couldn’t be cultivated. The road construction started in the 10th Plan.

The dzongkhag administration forwarded the application to the department of agriculture, who is expected to assess the severity of the damage. Although 20 households got land substitution, seven households are still awaiting decision from the authorities concerned.

Nagya gup Kinley Wangdi said the damage and loss of land in Wanakha was severe and unaccounted for, because further damage is expected from the ongoing construction.

“Once the construction is complete, we will survey the loss and then compensate accordingly,” Kinley Wangdi said. 

The road construction was undertaken by project Dantak. According to Jampel Dorji, the dzongkhag administration wrote to Dantak several times about the need to clear the debris from the land, but to no avail.

When asked about the issue, Dantak said that the construction was already handed over to the department of roads. They didn’t comment further. Today, Dantak is building the 204-metre bridge over Wangchu, which connects Damchu to Haa. The bridge is 71.32 percent complete as of last month.

At the site, Kuensel found that the debris excavated from the road construction was pushed downhill and to the Wangchhu below.  A patch of degraded land is brightly visible from the highway. A motorist on his way to Phuentsholing, said, “The damage to the environment is apparent from the other side. It is wounding the earth.”

 He said that if all road constructions across the country were carried out in a similar manner, it was a concern. 

Studies have shown that degradation of native vegetation, both on land and in water disrupt essential ecosystem processes such as pollination, seed dispersal and regeneration, making it vulnerable to invasive species.

Another commuter said there could be other measures such as transporting the debris in a truck and dumping it elsewhere rather than degrading and making the area unsightly.

However, a specialist with bridge division in MoWHS, MN Lamichaney, said that some amount of environmental damage during new road construction is inevitable because construction depends on the terrain– steepness of the slope and geological factors.

Senior environmental officer with Paro dzongkhag, Ngawang Tenzin said that the area was steep and huge rocks required cuttings in the initial phase. “Materials falling into the forest and river were unavoidable due to steepness of the site and deploying carrier trucks was impossible for the same reason,” he said.

Prior to the construction of new highways and roads, National Environment Commission (NEC) issues an environmental clearance (EC) after series of environmental assessments and procedures. A project can be initiated only after obtaining the clearance.

MN Lamichaney said that NEC officials visited the site during the construction period to verify whether it was carried out in line with the Environmental Management Plan (EMP).

“If provisions are violated, NEC would penalise the defaulter but for Damchu-Haa road, conclusions can be drawn only after the construction is complete,”  MN Lamichaney said. In case of violations, project Dantak would be responsible for the regular maintenance as well as major restoration works, he added.

New road constructions in the country are guided by legislation such as the Environmental Assessment Act, 2000 and its Regulation, 2016, National Environment Protection Act of Bhutan 2007, and Environmental Codes of Practice Highways and Roads, 2016.

Meanwhile, the travel time for commuters plying through Damchu-Chukha bypass, which opened to traffic last year was reduced by an hour or two.