Last year, I had to travel around Bhutan twice, once in June and once in August – both within the rainy season. For my second travel in August, I first tried taking the domestic flight. We took off happily, but we had to return after hovering over Trashigang for more than two hours due to the all too common bad weather in Yonphula airport. Then I decided to travel by road as I could not risk another flight cancellation the next day. These experiences made me realize how badly our internal transportation network need to improve if our aspirations to become a high income nation were to be realized within the stipulated timeframe.
Transportation network and economic growth
The transportation network is the economic lifeblood of any nation. “The transport system may be likened to the blood circulation system in a living organism. Without it the organism dies”, said Bogdan Mieczkowski in his 1978 book. This still holds true. Despite the scientific advances and the emergence of such new technologies as machine learning, AI, blockchain and the metaverse, the need for the physical movement of people and goods will always remain.
Transport is and has been a basic and essential part of daily human life throughout history. And its importance in the economic development was realized early on by the developed nations, be it the Great Britain, Japan, Korea, the USA or China. One of the most common features of high income developed nations is efficient transport infrastructure, be it roads, rail, water or air.
Bhutan’s transportation network and issues
The primary mode of transport in Bhutan is roads given the mountainous terrain. The construction of roads in Bhutan begin in 1961 with the start of the First Five Year economic development plan. According to sources, we have around 12,000 km of roads composed of about 2,000 km of primary national highways, 650 km of secondary national highways, 350 km of Thromde roads and remaining as farm, feeder and access roads.
While this achievement is laudable, we should not remain complacent if we are to advance further and achieve our vision to become a high income nation. In this light, some of the current issues that we need to review and improve are as follows:
1. Highways should follow the most efficient and geologically stable route
Building and maintaining roads in our terrain is a difficult task. Every effort should be made to build and maintain them in the most cost-effective manner. On top of that, it should connect the two destinations using the fastest and the most geologically stable route. But if we look at some of the highways built in the past, they do not conform to these principles. Instead, they were built to connect villages on the way. While that made sense in the past, connecting villages are now taken care of by the farm roads or Gewog roads. In this light, all critical highways should be re-alinged and bypasses built to make them shorter or avoid geologically unstable areas and very high passes prone to snow and ice in winter. This would make much more economic sense than maintaining the same old meandering landslide prone roads.
2. Balance our environmental zeal with the need for more efficient transportation network
Our country is a champion of environment and we have many Bhutanese who would rather protect the forests than build a road through them. But I think there are ways to strike a middle ground. We can have the roads and also protect the environment using available technologies and ideas such as building tunnels for wildlife crossings. We should choose this middle course rather than foregoing our own economic needs for the sake of the environment. In any case, building roads is not one of those things that severely destroy the environment. If we are so afraid that roads might destroy the environment, what about the roads that have already been built? 12,000 km of them? Should we undo them too and go back to our old ways?
A proposal to re-align east-west national highway from Ura to Lingmethang
The east-west national highway is one of the longest and the most important highways in Bhutan. But it is also one of the most dreaded. People would avoid travelling it unless it is absolutely necessary. In winter, we have to cross passes covered with snow and ice. In summer, we have to pass through many treacherous landslide prone areas. Accidents are all too common on this highway. It is especially very bad from Ura to Yongkala. I had a very scary experience on this stretch in August 2022.
Preliminary Google Earth survey shows that it should be possible to build a bypass from below Ura in Bumthang to Lingmethang in Mongar avoiding both the Thrumsingla Pass and Namling cliff. From below Ura, the bypass can follow the Chamkharchu until a certain point and then make the crossing towards Lingmethang. There is a small plateu of about 3100 m where the crossing can happen as compared to the current Thrumsingla pass crossing which is 3780 m (See Figure). The current Thrumsingla pass crossing is not only too risky in winter due to ice and snow, but it is also mostly made of loose unstable sandy soil on one side. In addition, the much feared Namling cliff and the landslide prone areas around it can be totally avoided.
This bypass will also help connect the upper Kheng region of Shingkhar and Wamling directly to Ura rather than the tedious journey all the way to Zhemgang.
Research confirms that an efficient transportation network helps increase production, reduce travel times, increase employment, improve accessibility, reduce regional disparities and improve the competitiveness of regions by facilitating trade, the movement of labour, and economies of scale. We should review our road sector master plan vis-à-vis our new economic aspirations, and aim to connect all the district headquarters of the country by the most efficient and geologically stable route. The master plan should take it as a challenge to make it possible to travel from Thimphu to any district within one day (12 hours) safely and comfortably.
In addition, as air travel is becoming more affordable for the masses and is only going to pick up more in the future, it would be crucial to have an alternative domestic airport in the east. The number of flights that need to be cancelled for Yonphula airport seems to pose too high an economic and opportunity cost for the government as well as the passengers.
The author is the former CEO of Thimphu TechPark. Views expressed are his own and do not represent that of any organisation he is associated with.