For long, it was a dream for thousands of Bhutanese for an internal road network, connecting Daifam in the east to Sipsoo in the west.
There were all the reasons for such a big dream, an alternate route connecting the length of the country. Travelling along the Assam-Bengal highway was not safe, reliable or convenient.
Ruffling through old files, chimis, then members of the national assembly, had repeatedly voiced the need for a road. It was not only people’s representatives from the beneficiary dzongkhags or gewogs. There was a unanimous voice led by the business representative. The government, even if it understood the importance, couldn’t take it up. There was just no money for such a huge project. There were other priorities, more important.
Times have changed. Most places in the country are now connected with roads. We have found a funding agency. The Asian Development Bank agreed to fund the construction under its South Asian Socio-Economic Cooperation. Preliminary works were in full swing. But the project has been nipped in the bud.
What hurts most is that a lot of money has been spent and a lot of work done. There is no indication if at all construction will start after committing so much.
The irony is that the government is deferring the two crucial roads for security reasons, the same reason why people asked for it.
People had asked for the road, as it could also strengthen the long-term security of the nation. The logic was that, with roads, settlements come, which would stop illegal activities from across the border, including poaching and illegal logging. Harassment and attacks on Bhutanese travellers along National Highway 31 (Assam-Bengal highway) are not rare. We are still experiencing it, while what happened when militants attacked a Bhutanese passenger bus is still fresh in our memories.
People also expected the road to uplift the economic status of those living along the length of the border. Industrialists expected alternate and safer routes between markets and industries. In today’s context, it will help decision makers solve the ever-increasing problem of gungtong and villages getting empty.
For the private sector, it was a project that wanted to hire only local contractors, so that they would gain experience in major projects and build their capacity. Environmentally, some of the roads planned were the best-designed environment-friendly ones, where donors committed extra funds to save parks and protected areas.
The abrupt decision of the government to suspend works has made everybody ask the same question: “What is going on?”
What we know is we have good relations with our neighbour. And that includes local governments across the international boundary. The already good ties got a huge impetus in recent times with the visit of top most Indian leaders. There is commitment from the Indian government for Bhutan’s progress and happiness.
Security along the border is a priority for both countries. Without security, there can be no progress or happiness. We have to pursue security as a top agenda on the B2B (Bharat to Bhutan) mantra so that we can continue to connect the country.