Photo: Kuenga Wangmo, Babesa

Tashi Dema and Chhimi Dema 

When Thimphu was a flat vast land with not many houses and a lot of rice fields, policymakers decided to have an urban development plan for the capital city. They envisioned that the city would expand and consume the paddy fields and the surrounding hills. They came with the professional structure plan 1986-2000.

At the core of the plan was a balanced development that would enhance quality of life even as they build roads, drainage, water supply and sanitation, all in a planned manner. There were several plans drafted and implemented with the grand master plan, a US$1 billion Thimphu Structural Plan (2002-2027) being the main guiding principle for the capital city’s planned development.

Thimphu city had developed, and developed beyond recognition. But questions arise if it had it lived up to the vision of the plans?

Thimphu thromde, that is about to get a new leader, in the form of an elected Thrompon, is in the last few years of implementing the Thimphu structural plan. The balance development with nature, traditions, making the city efficient, convivial and friendly with amenities that the plan envisaged on principles of intelligent urbanism, has been thrown out of the window. The thromde is still grappling with some problems that are as old as the city, like water shortage, stray dogs, while there aren’t solutions to new problems like traffic congestion, mounting waste and urban poverty.

The thrompon (mayor) candidates for the third thromde election are still pledging to provide the same services of constructing quality roads, ensuring continuous water supply and managing garbage.

Many residents are unhappy with delay in service provided by thromde officials and infrastructure development. “Thimphu developed a lot but we are still dealing with the same old issues we faced in the 1980s in an aggravated manner,” a resident, Pema, 70, said. The Motithang resident settled in Thimphu in 1970 and saw Thimphu change from a small town to a rapidly growing urban city. “We had the opportunity to develop the city well but we could not,” he said.

For a house owner in Jungshina, Dechen, who grew up in Thimphu, rapid urban growth of the capital city always worried him. An engineer by profession, the father of three is worried Thimphu is losing the aesthetic beauty through unplanned development.

“This was supposed to be in place years ago.” Dechen said that without parks, green and leisure places and adequate sports facilities in the town, children stayed glued to television and mobile phones. “The children parks in the thromde are in dire need of maintenance. It is not children friendly.”

A Simtokha resident said that planners had put the cart before the horse. “First came constructions and then planning,” he said adding that many houses are not connected to the sewer lines and live with overflowing septic tanks. The thromde’s vacuum trucks cannot meet the demand. There are two. One broke down recently.

Many perceive corruption within the thromde and accuse that services are delayed.  A landowner in Babesa alleged thromde officials do not approve construction drawings, expecting some favors, which force many people to let the officials do the drawings. “Building owners advise each other to approach thromde officials for construction drawings, as they do not come for an inspection.”

He said for all other services, it is a must they know someone in thromde. “This should change.”

Residents and landowners have different priorities.

A resident from Changangkha said it is time the capital city ensures reliable drinking water. She said they have to still wait for days to get water. “It is difficult to maintain hygiene at home without water for days.”

Those with water problems feel that the problem is in unfair distribution. “Some have overflowing tanks and more than one sources, some have to ration water,” said a Pamtsho resident, Kuenga.

One issue that will only grow is traffic congestion. Since the last Thrompon election in 2016, there are 16,780 more vehicles in Thimphu region. On March 31, Thimphu region had 60,432 vehicles.

Residents feel that while efficient public transport service in the thromde is the only solution to decongest traffic in the capital city, there will be no solution to the parking space crunch unless the thromde take bold decisions, at the cost of angering landowners (voters).

There are rules and regulations mandating house owners to provide parking space, 99 percent of houses in the thromde do not have parking areas, forcing people to park along the roads. “This adds to the traffic congestion.”

Building owners or eligible voters sabotaged a plan to pedestrianize Norzin Lam that could have been the capital’s only “walking street.” The two multi-level car parks are not solving the issue.


Why the same old issues?

An urban planner pointed out that Thimphu thromde is an implementing agency without required manpower, data and master plan. He said without the spatial planning act, it is a challenge to implement plans, as landowners with influence and power do not provide land for developmental activities.

The urban planner said there is no transport and environmental planner in the country to plan for transport and environment. “We have been requesting the civil service commission to recruit the special planners.”

He said that there are development sprawls in Thimphu thromde because there is no coordination and collaboration between the agencies that provide services like thromde, Bhutan Power Corporation and telecom companies.

According to the urban planner, since most of the developmental activities under thromde are executed on donor funding, it results in unplanned and haphazard execution of activities. “Funding to provide water to an area does not come together with laying ducts for telecos and electricity wires.”

He explained that development of Thimphu is much better than cities in other developing countries. “But we cannot set limitations and we can do better.”

Thromde does not have an office of its own and it is riddled with issues of irregularities and financial mismanagement. The former Thimphu thrompon has been vocal about the limited executive power. He wanted the thromde to be independent and autonomous, where staff could be hired and fired.

Those working in thromde blame landowners for the slow progress and change in implementation. “Landowners want to maximize profit from their land and the thrompon cannot do anything to irk their voter base,” said one. “Unless the thromde is backed by an Act or some legal tooth, the bigger issues will never be resolved. We will still be talking about water and garbage.”

Many feel while the thromde should have financial authority to raise revenue from taxes, strong political will is important to enable the thromde to make decisions. “There is a clash for authority. The thromde and the works and human settlement ministry does not get along. How will we implement our plans?” a source said. “If Thimphu has to grow as per the grand plans, multiple factors should favor. One man (thrompon) cannot do magic to resolve the issues.”