Rajesh Rai | Samtse

Given the vast and fertile plains of Tashichholing and Norbugang in Samtse, continuous effort and investments have been made to realise the huge agricultural production potential of these gewogs.

The agriculture ministry (MoAF) invested in two major irrigation schemes in Tashichholing and one in Norbugang together amounting to Nu 128 million (M). The MoAF awarded the construction projects of these schemes to contractors and managed them centrally.

However, today the schemes have failed to deliver for many reasons.

Pemaling irrigation schemes

In Chhusilgang-Dramedsa village of Pemaling gewog, the 8km open (drain) channel, which was supposed to irrigate fallow lands of Tashichholing remains idle.

At many points, the drain is covered by thick bushes.

The channel, built at a cost of Nu 62M in 2016, was supposed to draw water from the Biru river and distribute it in Tashichholing.

Heavy monsoon rains caused flash floods and damaged the channel rendering it useless. Its renovation cost an additional Nu 9.6M. Still, the channel could not benefit the end-users.

And today, another irrigation project worth Nu 44M is underway to replace the 8km defunct channel.

The new project will lay pipes inside the defunct open channel and cover it.

But what about the Nu 62M? The additional Nu 9.6M repair budget? The residents of Chhusilgang-Dramedsa are saddened by the country’s loss.

It’s not just that. About 11 households of Chhusilgang-Dramedsa are waiting for compensation for damages the first construction caused to their land and cash crops.

A Chhusilgang-Dramedsa resident, Sherab Choden said the government availed clearance from the villagers in 2014. 

“Then, we were told we will be given seedlings and monetary compensation. The officials said our land won’t be affected,” she said.

During the construction, she told imported workers not to damage the land but due to language barrier, they didn’t fully understand. 

“I told the contractor and he said he will look at it,” she claimed.

Sherab has neither received free fruit seedlings nor any compensation for land and crop damage.

She claimed more than 50 orange trees were lost and about 70 decimals of land damaged. Countless cardamom plants were spoilt due to land and mudslides from the channel construction.

The then agriculture minister had visited the place once and promised to send officials for inspection. Two officials had come for inspection but after that nothing happened, she said.

Another resident, Jag Maya Rai said construction works affected her two plots. 

“One plot was covered with stones and mud from the construction,” she said. “The other saw a landslide. We had to hire labourers to clear off the debris.”

She said both plots, measuring up to 30 decimals, remain useless.

Chhusilgang-Dramedsa tshogpa Yeshey Wangdi said they were told heavy machinery won’t be used during the meetings for public clearance.

“Once they got the clearance, heavy excavation machines came,” he said. “We appealed right up to the ministry but in vain.”

While the construction damaged land and fruit trees, the project also didn’t benefit Sipsu farmers as expected, Yeshey Wangdi said.

Tshogpa said the public initially refused clearance for the second channel. 

“Again, a public meeting was held, the clearance was given,” he said.

Pemaling Mangmi Sangay Penjor said the gewog highlighted the issue at two dzongkhag tshogdu sessions. 

“But we were told it would be discussed separately.”

Agriculture engineering division clarifies

An engineer from the MoAF’s engineering division said after the Pemaling irrigation channel construction, the public demanded the project to be handed over. The former agriculture minister was supposed to do the handing-taking.

“But before Lyonpo could visit, the monsoon rain had caused a landslide at a small but critical portion, which then delayed the handing-taking of the project,” he said.

While the damaged portion was waiting for repair, another landslide occurred. Despite a completion report of the channel from the contractor, the project couldn’t be taken over and rectification works were also left out.

The project remained without rectification until 2017-2018 financial year, when a rectification budget of Nu 9.6M was approved from the Remote Rural Communities Development Project (RRCDP). The damages were then repaired and the channel handed over to the public.

Irrigation water was also supplied after some maintenance work but it had not benefited the majority of the beneficiaries in Tashichholing.

However, less than a month after it was handed over, another landslide hit its intake tank. The gewog was well-informed this time.

The engineer said the landslide further hit the project and crippled it.

Learning from the experience and the soil conditions of the channel area, a cover channel was approved.

“We have proposed for pipes this time to be laid inside the channel.”

However, the intake point will have to be raised at least by half a km further upstream to have enough force. The new scheme will cost Nu 44M.

“Even if this one doesn’t benefit 100 percent, we expect at least 90 percent will,” he said.

The engineer said that usually pipe irrigation channels would be more expensive than open channels. But with an open channel already there, the pipes could be directly laid upon and covered, the engineer said. There is no requirement for excavation which has reduced the cost.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely Chhusilgang-Dramedsa villagers will get compensation as there are no provisions in the National Irrigation Policy to compensate for damages from the construction of irrigation schemes.

The agriculture minister then had made verbal promises to send officials for inspection in regards to compensation and people are still waiting.

“Unofficially, they were verbally told to at least connect a half-inch or one-inch pipe to the channel and use the water for their fields and crops,” the engineer said.

“But we had made it clear that compensation in cash was not possible. They were also told that orange and cardamom seeds would be first provided to them as a priority. No other compensations were agreed upon.”

Singeygang lift irrigation

For more than 30 years, Pukar Chhetri from Singeygang village, Tashichholing has not cultivated paddy in his three-acre paddy field.

When Jitti river was connected with a lift irrigation, which cost Nu 20M, to cater to fallow lands in 2017, he became hopeful. But not for long.

“Today, I just keep clearing the bushes and let cattle graze there,” Pukar Chhetri said. 

“Nothing happened with the lift irrigation.”

The irrigation committee’s chairman, KN Sharma said some repair and maintenance were done last year—but fields still remain parched.

“People from 106 households had even contributed labour. But it has not benefited a single farmer today,” he said.

With the channel without water, hopes of winter farming faded too, KN Sharma said. Most of the land is fallow.

The lift irrigation system was constructed primarily for winter vegetables and areca nut trees.

An electric pump system was supposed to pump water from the Jitti river uphill to Singeygang.

Singeygang residents said that the power bills came to about Nu 1,500 per hour when the pump was used fully. 

However, after the repairs and maintenance last year, the bills were expected to be around Nu 5,000 to Nu 6,000 per month after replacing the motor.

MoAF’s engineering division clarifies

The engineer said the division doesn’t have an electrical engineer or motor-mechanic.

Initially, the understanding was that once the pump was installed in the river system, it would work, as long as there was electricity. 

“We’re working for the first time on such a scheme,” he said.

When the time came to start the pump system, it was discovered it needed a three-phase electricity line. Immediately, the MoAF asked Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC). However, BPC said their planned works were still not complete, the engineer said.

“However, they said they had the provision for the three-phase line at Singeygang,” he said.

After the three-phase line and a new transformer were in place, they learnt that a separate and specific wiring system was required depending on the pump specification.

It was also found that the river systems in India and Bhutan were different and that the pump filtration system manufactured in India was not feasible here.

The engineer also said that there is a need for a specific skilled worker who can handle the pump system.

“That’s how it is left out. We tried our best, with the best of intentions,” the engineer said. “We are still trying our best.”

Singeygang lift irrigation was funded by the Indian government.

Tashichholing Gup Sameer Giri said the two irrigation schemes would have benefitted about 600 acres of fallow land every year in winter. 

“In my gewog, at least 70 percent of the land remains fallow.”

For paddy, people depend on rainwater and river irrigation.

Sameer Giri said land in Tashichholing is favourable for winter vegetable cultivation. Tashichholing would produce vegetables when the high altitude dzongkhags stop production.

Sameer Giri said concerned agencies must observe and research at the local level. 

“These projects were planned at the desk and directly brought here for implementation,” he said.

Tharaykhola irrigation scheme

The artificial lake irrigation scheme in Norbugang gewog would have revived more than 100 acres of fallow land and benefitted more than 300 households.

Located above Bhimtar village, the project, which completed in early 2020, was constructed at a cost of Nu 36.8M. It is a World Bank-funded Food Security and Agriculture Productive Project (FSAPP) under the agriculture ministry.

The problem with the irrigation scheme, villagers say, was between the water source and the lake. They say the pipe joints break and water leaks and doesn’t reach the lake from where the water is distributed to farmers.  The ground where the pipes have been laid was not dug properly.

As the project was awarded and carried out centrally by the ministry, Norbugang villagers claim they have no idea how the management was done.

MoAF’s engineering division says

The engineer with the agriculture engineer division said the construction of the main channel was completed. The project is incomplete without the internal system, which is the distribution network to the beneficiary households.

“After completing the main channel, it was handed over to the people,” he said.

Norbugang Gup Kuenga had earlier told Kuensel that the gewog office had written an appeal to the Samtse dzongkhag, Prime Minister’s Office, agriculture ministry, audit and Anti-Corruption Commission about the channel.

Works for water distribution, worth Nu 7M, for the scheme had also started about six months ago and is yet to complete.

Without significant local production, the country depends on the import of fruits and vegetables in winter. Bhutan’s import in 2019 increased by Nu 144M compared to 2018. Bhutan imported Nu 308.75M and Nu 97.16M worth of fresh vegetables and fruits in 2019, as per the Bhutan RNR Statistics 2019.