Phurpa Lhamo and Sonam Jamtsho
In the 2018 National Council elections, Athang gewog in Wangdue was the last to declare the vote count. When roofs of two houses in Rukha were blown off by a windstorm in April this year, help came only the next day. When a fire broke out in a shop in the locality, residents could report the incident that happened at 2pm to the disaster team only about 6:30pm.
Poor communications network has been the biggest problem for Athang’s most remote chiwogs, Rukha and Lawa-Lamga. The two chiwogs have 78 households altogether.
According to a resident, Cheten Tshering, his son, who completed his class XII, got to know about his results from friends three hours after the results were announced. In cases of medical emergency, the situation is so bad that calling an ambulance service takes days.
“We cannot even send documents when gewog officials demand from us,” said Cheten Tshering.
Today, a solar-powered tower in Domsang in Daga gewog reportedly provides 2G (voice) network to the people in the two chiwogs. But the service, provided by T-Cell, is erratic.
Come monsoon and the connectivity problem becomes even more challenging. The chiwogs are totally cut off.
The two chiwogs are located 57kms away from the gewog centre on Wangdue-Tsirang highway in Kamichu and more than 90kms away from Bajo.
Athang gup, Khandu Dorji, said that with network issues, relaying information in times of disaster was a huge challenge. “We have to go to Harachhu area, which is almost four hours’ walk away.”
The gup and the tshogpa raised the need for internet and reliable communications network to the two telecommunications operators.
The Domsang tower was installed in January 2012 through Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority’s (BICMA) rural communications programme (RCP) by TashiCell.
Wangdue’s TashiCell extension manager, Karma Dorji, said that there were plans to provide 3G network through the Domsang tower this year. He said that although the tower in Domsang was solar dependent, it had a diesel generator (DG) to keep it running.
What about schools and education?
Bhutanese education is moving online, based almost entirely on technology and internet. When lockdown happened last year, students had only self-instruction materials. Now with something called a new normal curriculum, challenges are expected to only grow in these villages. The ministry of education has been told to hold the plan of giving tablets and such devices until further notice.
Teachers of Singye Namgyal Primary School have to walk about four hours to get internet access. The issue of connectivity, or the lack of it, has been deliberated several times in gewog and dzongkhag meetings.
Interestingly, MP fore Athang Thedtsho, Kinley Wangchuk, said that the lack of internet may be due to rigid mountain terrain. He said that Bhutan Telecom had promised a serviceable network in the villages. But then, according to the regional director of Bhutan Telecom, the company had no plan to install internet services in the chiwogs.
There are villages here that need telecommunication services desperately and there are telcos that have no plans to connect the villages with the broader networks system. Politicians have their own rosy narratives.
In all of these theatrics, the biggest losers are the children, Bhutan’s future.