In 2003, when much of the Thimphu valley we know today were paddy fields and our planners had a grand vision for developing the capital city, there was an obstacle. Planners needed landowners to contribute land to create public amenities. Some agreed. Others resisted tooth and nail.

Those who agreed, especially farmers, were convinced by the greater good a planned city would bring. Those who did not were smarter. They knew the value of land and loopholes in the planning process. The city corporation, as it was known then, didn’t have the legal teeth. Nor did the parent ministry, the works and human settlement ministry. Six Thimphu residents filed a case against the land-pooling plan. The High Court ruled that the concept was in violation of the law.

The urban development and municipal authorities suffered a blow to their credibility after losing the case. It was not a total loss. Planners became wiser. They wanted an Act to implement the grand Thimphu Structural Plan 2002-2027. Without legislation, it was difficult to push the rich and the powerful to agree to the concept of a well-planned, beautiful city, the capital city.

Nearly two decades on, we are still talking about the same issue. In the meantime, the capital city has become the opposite of what many dreamt of. The grand master plan for the capital city, some concluded, is an example of policy implementation failure. Nothing much could be done. The plan based on what is called intelligent urbanism remained on papers.

The works and human settlement ministry drafted a Bill in 2015, the Spatial Planning Bill. It was to guide urban development and prevent a planning disaster. It never made it to Parliament to become an Act providing  planners with a basis to implement and stick by the grand plan envisioned.

Without an Act, planning it is said, is sabotaged by the  landowners. The landowners don’t want to part with their land. The land is a valuable asset in the land-scarce capital city and those who know the loopholes resist urban planning, notwithstanding the general benefit. Today, some of the harshest critics of the ill-planned city are those who outrightly resisted the plan knowing there are loopholes. 

Without an Act, the thromde or the ministry couldn’t do anything. The farmers believed in the Zhung (planners).

Ironically, we needed an audit observation to point out the flaws. Still, a legal backing for planners is not ensured. The Spatial Planning Bill should have been an urgent Bill if our decision-makers were wiser. It was drafted in 2015. Even today, it is not sure if it has caught the attention of the policymakers.

Such a Bill has become a priority. We see no reasons to stop planners from having legal backing in implementing their decisions. Thimphu, it is said, has been damaged beyond repair. We have several other towns. They should not repeat the Thimphu mistake.

We see no reason why such a good idea should be stopped. An elected government need not worry about not making a populist decision for enacting an urban planning Act. For instance, in the capital city, only 2,557 people voted for the Thrompon whose decision affects more than 100,000 people in the capital city. For an elected government, the same number should be insignificant to make bold decisions for the larger interest of planning urban development.

There is but one more chance to give planners a legal backing. If we delay, our valley will be filled with people and there will be no room left for decisions. There will be no space left for choices, for debates, or for planning. This is it. It is now or never!