Transport: Rinchen, a 59-year-old Layap has been waiting in Gasa town since January 5 to take his first bus ride from Gasa to its neighboring dzongkhag, Punakha.

Like Ap Rinchen, many curious locals from Khatoe, Khamey and Laya gewogs in Gasa had gathered to witness the inaugural ceremony of the first public transport service in Gasa yesterday.

After continuously proposing for a public transport service in almost every dzongkhag tshogdu, parliament and even during the mid-term review, the dzongkhag is finally getting one.

In a small ceremony, the information and communications minister, DN Dhungyel  inaugurated the service at the temporary Gasa town.

Ap Rinchen with 29 others were given a free ride from Gasa to Punakha as they were the first passengers. “This bus service will not just benefit us with transportation but also help reduce inflation in both Gasa and Laya,” Ap Rinchen said.

Without a public transport service, the people of Gasa had to pay Nu 600 per head while travelling by taxi, which is rarely available. A resident of Gasa Zangmo said that there are hardly any taxis willing to go to Gasa because of bad road. “We had to pay Nu 3,000 when hiring the entire taxi during emergencies.”

Pema Namgay Transport Service agreed to provide the bus service to Gasa.

However, due to the limited number of passengers, the bus will operate only once a week to Gasa. The bus will operate to Gasa from Punakha every Friday. It will start at 8am from Punakha and return at 1pm from Gasa, said officials with the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA). The service will be available only for six months a year. The service will be discontinued during the summer months.

Pema Namgay Transport Service has agreed to provide the service for five years. The public transport owner Pema Dorji said the bus will operate from May to October. The company also provides transport services between Thimphu and Kabjisa, Punakha and Wangdue.

Gasa was the last dzongkhag to receive public transport services, said Lyonpo DN Dhungyel. “Considering its limited population and road condition, it was of immense difficulty to find an interested public transport service provider willing to start bus services in Gasa despite repeatedly announcing in the media,” Lyonpo said.

“Since every bus owner was aware that starting transport services to Gasa would  leave them in great monetary losses, no one was willing to take up Gasa,” Lyonpo added.

Lyonpo said that since Pema Namgay Transport Service already caters to Kabjisa which is on the way to Gasa and no public transport service providers were showing interest, the government had requested the company to take up the service.

Lyonpo urged the people of Gasa to make use of the public transport service as far as possible as it would help the owner to continue the transport service to Gasa.

“It is indeed a collaborative effort of every concerned official and also the owner of Pema Namgay transport,” Lyonpo said. “We would provide any possible help to the transport service provider to Gasa.”

Owner Pema Dorji said he decided to take up Gasa after receiving several requests from the government. He said that to start this service, he purchased a new 30-seater bus three weeks ago at a cost of Nu 2.63 million. However, he said the plan is to purchase a 20-seater bus for Gasa.

The road to Gasa is bumpy and narrow like a feeder road. It takes almost four hours for the bus to reach Gasa from Punakha. For the round-trip, the bus consumes diesel worth around Nu 3,500. “I am yet to negotiate the bus fare with the RSTA officials, which I expect to be around Nu 150 per person.”

Pema said that while he is doubtful about passenger flow, he is happy of being  able to provide such services to the dzongkhag he worked as a teacher for three years.

After resigning as a school principal, Pema Dorji started the bus company in 2013. His fleet today consists of three buses.

Locals said no one would travel during the monsoon but many would be travelling between Gasa and Punakha in winters.

Both RSTA officials and locals were of the view that a higher bus fare would not be a problem as people would still be saving time and money compared to taking taxis.

For Ap Rinchen, the new bus service is a significant event. “As a young boy, I remember seeing a road in Lobesa, Punakha, and within my life time, the road has reached Takshithang, then Damji and a few years back, Gasa dzong,” he said.

“I am hopeful that one day I will get to see the same bus service coming to Laya, just like the way we received electricity recently,” he said, as he boarded the Punakha bound bus.

The first public transport service was started between Phuentsholing and Thimphu in 1962 as the Bhutan Government Transport Service. In 1990, the transport service was handed over to the private sector.

Since 2009, the government has allowed every interested private individual to start public transport services. There are around 67 identified and approved public transport service routes in the country today. Pema Namgay Transport Service is one of 220 public transport service providers in the country.

Dawa Gyelmo | Gasa