One highway dropped, another deferred

Both are  ADB-funded southern east-west highway projects 

Roads: For security reasons, the government has deferred the constructions of the 68.3km Nganglam-Dewathang highway (NDH) indefinitely, and aborted the 98km Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang highway.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) was financing both the projects.

For the Nganglam-Dewathang highway, ADB has completed the project preparatory technical assistance (PPTA) worth about USD 670,000 between 2011 and 2012.  The department of roads (DoR), in doing the detail design of the road, spent Nu 12.59M (million).

Tender evaluations were completed, and the department was evaluating the financial bids, when the cabinet issued the directive.

The March 2 letter from the cabinet secretariat’s officiating secretary, [Dr] Phuntsho Namgyel, to the works and human settlement secretary, Dr Sonam Tenzin, stated that the government deliberated on the status of the ADB-financed Nganglam-Dewathang road construction under SASEC road connectivity project.

“Mindful of the security situation, and its implementation of the externally funded project components, the government has decided to defer the road construction,” the letter stated.

The letter does not mention as to how long the project is deferred for.

Following the instructions, DoR has returned the documents and bid securities to the contractors.

The highway is among the planned project under the ADB’s South Asian Socio-Economic Cooperation (SASEC) and the 11th Plan.

Works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden, said that preparatory works for the road construction had reached an advanced stage, but the government had to review, following the recent security situation along the southern belt.

The minister was quick to add that the government would however connect the communities along the proposed alignment.

“They’ll not be deprived of roads,” she said. “We’ll connect them within the 11th Plan with farm roads.”

On how a farm road would be safer than a highway in terms of security, lyonpo Dorji Choden said the highway was supposed to go straight along the border, whereas the farm roads would go far inside the communities.

“The highway wouldn’t touch most of the villages, because they have to be straight and shorter, unlike the community roads,” lyonpo said.

The Nganglam-Dewathang highway’s closest point to the border with Assam, India is more than two kilometres, as the crow flies, whereas many points on the Panbang-Nganglam road, which  also shares the border with Assam, runs much closer to the border.

Road officials, however, argue that building the road would actually improve the security situation along the border, with more frequent patrolling along the highway.

But lyonpo said there were other options, such as taking the Nganglam-Pemagatshel road to reach Samdrupjongkhar.

The minister said that the government would now blacktop the gewog road, which runs until Choekhorling gewog centre, and the Rishore road on the other end.

The highway followed about 15km of the existing Nganglam-Choekhorling gewog centre road, and 4.5km of the coal mining and Dewathang municipal roads from Rishore to Gortaap at Dewathang.  It had three bridges over Menchuri, Tshokhiri, and Duiri rivers, and 346 culverts planned.

Local leaders have been under pressure from the communities on the delay of the road construction.  The major settlements along the highway are Nganglam town, Dezema, Yargaywoong, Gazawoong, Chokhorling, Khalatsho, Rishore, Chenari and Dewathang town.

Choekhorling gup Tshulthrim Dorji said villagers were enquiring why the construction wasn’t happening as planned to start from the last quarter of 2014.  In this gewog alone, he said, 126 households would have directly benefited from the highway.

“We’re hoping that the government will resume the road construction within a year or two as the situation improves,” the gup said.

But the minister said that just building the road was not the end goal.

“We need to see whether the roads are actually benefitting the people through improved services or not,” she said.

She said that, even with wide roads built, if people have to travel fearing for their security, it does not serve the purpose.

Meanwhile, sources pointed out that, in a few years time, when Bhutan graduates from the Least Developed Countries category, Bhutan would not be eligible for such loans or grants.

Lyonpo Dorji Choden disagreed, saying the government shouldn’t rush to take loans because they’re available, and must be able to set targets and priorities.

She said the necessary loans should be taken only when needed, and that there would be ways to avail them later if the need arose.

However, Kuensel learnt that Lyonpo Dorji Choden and the education minister Mingbo Dukpa had earlier argued against the decision to defer the road in the cabinet.

Lyonpo Dorji Choden said the government had a ‘good talk’ with ADB last month.  While the highway’s construction is deferred, the other components of the project, which are construction of a mini-dry port in Phuentsholing and Allhay, construction of a land customs station at Allhay, a 2.7km bypass at Phuentsholing and the 1.2km Pasakha access road would continue.

The overall cost of the highway project is Nu 69M, of which 73 percent was supposed to be ADB soft loan.

The finance minister Namgay Dorji and ADB president last September signed the fund agreement of USD 50.35M for the South Asian Sub-economic Cooperation (SASEC) Road Connectivity Project in the presence of the prime minister in Manila at the bank’s headquarters.

The construction of the 68.30 km of south-west highway between Nganglam and Dewathang was one of the major components of the project.

One of the ADB’s credit terms is that the loan of USD 31.39M be used exclusively for the construction of the Nganglam-Dewathang road.

As part of the project, the government was required to spend USD 18.65M as counterpart funding to cover the cost of land acquisition, project management and other costs not covered by the ADB financing.

Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang highway

Construction of this highway was still in a preliminary stage when an order was issued to drop the project.

The March 2 letter from the cabinet also stated that for similar reasons, “… the government has also decided to drop the Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang road construction, proposed under the SASEC transport, trade facilitation and logistics project.”

“The government has decided not to initiate any externally funded project components along the Assam border until further notice,” the letter stated.

The government also asked the finance ministry to discuss with the ADB to drop the Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang road construction, and propose alternatives for the SASEC transport trade facilitation and logistics project.

The Gross National Happiness Commission issued the policy clearance for this highway on May 19 last year, as the road was passing through Phipsoo wildlife sanctuary.

The GNHC letter stated the road was a priority in the 11th Plan and approved by the prime minister, agriculture and the MoWHS ministers.

It had stated that it would not only improve the socio-economic opportunities for the communities living along the road but also help improve conservation activities in the sanctuary.

Sources said the road was planned to be an exemplary environmentally friendly project.

A team from ADB will be in the country next week for a two-day meeting to discuss alternative investment proposals in place of the 98km Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang road.

Through the ADB initiative, SASEC was established in 2000 with Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal as members, to promote project based economic cooperation by enhancing cross border connectivity and facilitation of trade.  The transport sector is identified as one of the key areas for cooperation.

Tshering Palden

6 replies
  1. Development practitioner
    Development practitioner says:

    I was never a big fan of 717 km Southern East-West Highway (SEWH) mainly because

    (i) I found the rationale and economic justification for SEWH far too stretched even if it is eventually connected to Asian Highway 48 at Jaigaon ;
    (ii) the analysis does not take into account SEWH having to compete with improved four-lane Indian NH31 to meet Bhutan’s southern corridor transportation needs;
    (iii) benefits due to use of SEWH by Indian traffic will accrue on the other side of border unless SEWH is made a toll road (ouch!);
    (iv) Bhutanese trade mainly is north-south, not so much west-east. It will be more so with GOI’s massive transport investment plan in the north-east and north Bengal;
    (v) Bhutanese GDP is hydropower-centric. With assumed average GDP growth rate, during 2013–2018, of 8% per annum in the economic analysis of SEWH, the economic activities along SEWH corridor will likely be very limited; and
    (vi) therefore SEWH will most likely remain underutilized for a long time eluding economic benefits to be derived through vehicle operation costs and time savings.

    Can we afford Nu 8 billion loan without tangible economic return? And then….

    Aside from transport economics national highway networks, need to take account of other important considerations. The normal Bhutanese simply thought SEWH would, once for all, relieve them from Assam kidnapping and Alipurduar extortion, and looked forward to safe in-country travel along southern corridor. So the government’s argument for dropping portion of SEWH on security ground, while situations in Assam and North Bengal are improving, is baffling everyone. The country’s national highway network is never planned based on neighbourly events unfolded from time to time.

    The national highway network has to take into account geopolitical realities including chicken’s neck sensitivities. The PRC’s proposal to extend road and railway networks to its Yadong county and opening of the Nathula pass are realities. But to assume trilateral trade facilitation and extension of such trade in west-east direction with the construction of SEWH is premature and insensitive. Such trade development requires strategic maturity, intensive dialogue, discussions and understanding/agreements with due regard to the territorial integrity of the nations.

    And, the national highway networks must encourage inclusiveness (not inwardness). Inclusion is good governance and good governance implies equitable growth and positive socio-political environment obliterating fault lines!

  2. joker
    joker says:

    I don’t think the roads road constructions are cancelled on security reasons. By now, we all know that this Govt is struggling to get enough funds and many important national activities had to be slashed. For instance, population and housing census which was due this year with all plans and objectives had to be withdrawn on financial grounds. The re-examination of /English paper for class XII also had to be cancelled though it was genuinely necessary. When the govt has short of funds for certain activities, some other excuses are made.

  3. criticalcommenter
    criticalcommenter says:

    Our roads will be more used by the outsiders than the insiders making it look like their territory, and you know the type of attitudes and discipline they have.
    You can think about the subsidized fuel too, alone the boarder more outside vehicles are fueled than all the inside vehicles, although the subsidization has been given on our sake but it actually they who benefit.
    Vehicles come to the fuel station, get them filled, travel for a kilometer or two and they empty the tank and resale our fuel openly…, cant imagine!
    If an Indian is robbed on that highway by a group of Indian people and got away without identification, they will blame us, “a group of Bhutanese have robbed an Indian driver on their highway” and you know it has never happened in our country, a lot of Indian ply on our highways, we never stop the vehicles forcefully and demand them money for national day celebration as they usually do for independence day celebration on their ways. A car can be stopped many times on the same stretch of road for money. Our police dont demand them money and harass the commutators!………..

  4. logical
    logical says:

    For security reasons, the government has deferred the constructions of the 68.3km Nganglam-Dewathang highway (NDH) indefinitely, and aborted the 98km Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang highway.

    Its very disappointing news for the nation indeed. Now ALL INSECURITY REASONS must be borne by Bhutanese while relying on the Indian highways inflicted with unpredictable troubles for themselves and us alike. Not to mention the obvious advantage to the local nationals alone, I am of the opinion that Bhutan’s road would be in DEMAND by non-Bhutanese Business community as well to commute between places in India across Bhutan border with our permission.

    Who saw the problem before it happened to enforce that VISION as problem against the long awaited DEVELOPMENT the nation was expecting to avail? That would contribute to the nation both in economical and social terms for sure… Why was the plan in place and SURVEY conducted without foreseeing the result of the exercise? How can we depend on the VISION of the same PLANNERS that knew not about the result of OWN PLANS, even within the period of the process? Certainly resources has been used, people engaged and emotionally aligned for the work and this news all of the sudden…!

    The national PUBLIC DEMAND to know and share same concerns with the visionary leaders to be in agreement with one mind.

  5. monpasang
    monpasang says:

    So it is now considered safe to travel through Assam and Bengal, where ethnic tensions between Bodos, Bengali Muslims, Assamese and Adivasis continue to linger and flare up at least once a year; where militant organisations like NDFB(S) and KLO, as well as ULFA, MULTA, AANLA and others continue to cause problems; and where kidnappings for ransom are a daily affair. Not to talk of the dangers of driving at speed in the plains with people, bicycles, dogs, cows, goats, buses, cars crossing and speeding without any consideration for fellow traffic, the horrible road side food, harassment by corrupt police and security forces, poor road quality etc. etc. I do not see the logic of the decision to defer or drop a security measure (providing safe passage for Bhutanese nationals along the southern route without having to pass through Assam and West Bengal) for ‘security reasons’. This road has been long overdue. If two thirds of the budget are generously donated from outside, why not use it.

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