The district is now so networked with roads that walking has become a thing of the past

Connectivity: People in Pemagatshel still remember when travelling to another gewog meant arduous uphill climbs – heavy rations strapped onto their backs – of almost an entire day.

Today, the story is very different. A network of motor roads crisscross the dzongkhag, connecting all 11 of its gewogs, and almost all of its 56 chiwogs. For those chiwogs not yet connected, work has already begun to connect them.

The dzongkhag also boasts a “cut and cover” tunnel built with materials imported from Canada, at a cost of almost USD 129,000. The tunnel in Khar gewog was constructed to preserve the sanctity of a monastery, which otherwise would have seen retaining walls built close by.

The roads have brought economic opportunities and development to what was once the second poorest dzongkhag in Bhutan.

Cash crops are grown, cooperatives have been formed, shops have been opened, vehicles have been bought, and incomes have increased.

All this has happened in the past seven years. Villagers said the former government had pledged improving road connectivity in the dzongkhag. Many said that the government had lived up to its pledge, explaining why the dzongkhag chose to elect representatives of the same party.

Besides being able to reach their gewogs and villages in significantly less time, villagers said they have increased the quantity of crops they grow so that may sell it for cash. Vegetables, oranges, maize, and dairy products are some of the main products, previously only grown or produced for self-consumption or to sell among themselves.

Villagers said that earlier they would have to carry their oranges to buyers, but now the buyers come to the chiwogs to purchase the crop. They also pointed out that they do not worry about demand anymore and that whatever they cultivate is sold. Many have also opted to take loans to purchase vehicles, specifically the ubiquitous Bolero pick-up truck.

Villagers said that they earn more than Nu 100,000 a year from selling their crops today, compared to only around Nu 30,000 prior to the establishment of the road network.

With two roads connecting Mandi in Chongshing gewog, Kinzang Wangdi said that not only is the community trying to double cultivation of potatoes, their main cash crop, but are also experimenting with growing walnut and hazelnut.

But development has also brought with it influences some may consider as negative side effects.

Jambay Gyeltshen, 57, from Khar gewog said purchasing rations before the coming of the roads meant either walking for hours with it on the back, or paying potter and pony. He said that today, shopping for groceries was more convenient as shops have opened in the villages. “But things have been different since the road connectivity,” he said. “Now we’re very much dependent on vehicles even to go to Pemagatshel to get our rations.”

Another villager, Karma Zangmo, 30, said she still remembered how villagers would walk in a group through the thick forest. But today, she said, if a vehicle is not available, they would wait until one appeared and hitch a ride.

“Things were different before, no matter how tired we were we had to walk without choice,” she said. “But the road has made us lazy and now we don’t feel like walking at all.”

Villagers also now face a new problem of landslides and road blocks.

Records maintained by the dzongkhag show that there are a total of 348kms of roads in Pemagatshel today.

Yangchen C Rinzin,  Pemagatshel