In pursuit of Gross National Happiness, as mandated by our Constitution, the State has the duty to minimize disparities, fostering equitable distribution of public resources, and formulating policies that prioritize the welfare of its populace. This week, we embarked on the ambitious Kuri-Gongri Hydro-Electric Project, which will be the country’s largest hydropower initiative. This project is an important economic driver for the country. However, it is important to uphold these constitutional mandates and guarantee the protection of affected communities’ rights through robust legal frameworks.

Media reports indicate that the commencement of the project will entail repercussions for people from 10 gewogs in Mongar, Pemagatshel, and Trashigang, mandating relocation of some families while some will lose their inheritable family land. While public consent has been obtained to facilitate the smooth execution of the project, experiences from prior hydropower undertakings, notably the Punatsangchu Projects, underscore the importance for comprehensive legal protection that safeguard the rights of affected communities and ensure equitable compensation.

The ordeal encountered during the Punatsangchu Project serves as a reminder of the vulnerabilities confronted by displaced households, many of whom endured protracted waits for land substitutions, inadequate compensations, and precarious livelihoods subject to the discretion of project authorities. It serves as a sobering testament to the susceptibility to rights infringements and underscores the exigency for robust legal safeguards.

This time, there is an opportunity to uphold the constitutional pledge to protect the rights of affected by engaging the affected families in negotiations and execute agreements to fortify their rights as the construction is yet to start. These agreements must establish definitive timelines for land substitutions, incorporating provisions for equitable allowances and compensation for both economic and non-economic losses in instances of delays, thereby ensuring that affected families are not left in a state of uncertainty. The agreement must encompass the provision of economic incentives, such as hydropower bonds, employment opportunities, access to markets for agricultural produce, and funding for essential infrastructure for educational, health, recreation, transport, internet connectivity and free electricity, thereby fostering the long-term economic sustainability of affected communities.

The agreements must enforce stringent measures to ensure the environmental and social ramifications of the project, encompassing provisions for addressing health-related concerns, community disruptions, noise pollution, and constraints on mobility, thereby preserving the quality of life of affected communities. Recognizing the profound emotional and cultural toll exacted upon affected communities, particularly the elderly, measures must be implemented to safeguard their age-old traditions and cultural identity from the influx of foreign labour and rapid urbanization.

The agreements must also incorporate rigorous provisions pertaining to breaches of contract by project authorities, encompassing not only compensatory damages but also punitive damages, thereby serving as a deterrent against contraventions of the agreements’ provisions and upholding the rule of law.

The failure to institute these legal safeguards risks perpetuating the cycle of exploitation and rights violations witnessed in antecedent hydropower projects, disproportionately impacting poor families, and undermining our commitment to GNH.

It is incumbent upon local leaders, parliamentary representatives of those affected families and communities to advocate for and negotiate these indispensable legal safeguards on behalf of them. By enshrining equitable compensations and stringent legal protections, we can uphold our constitutional principles, safeguard the rights of its citizens, and ensure that Kuri-Gongri augments the collective welfare and prosperity of the nation.


Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.