Yangyel Lhaden

I retired to bed on the night of August 10. I am still resting. The lockdown has given me a good rest. If you ask me, I would want this lockdown to continue.

At the four-way intersection on the Norzin Lam, I had spent years since the early 1980s when I was born. Dressed in traditional attire, I had provided shelter to the traffic signal man for decades. Now, I am alone and deserted. The pride I had as the home to the traffic signal men, which made Thimphu the only capital in the world without traffic lights is slowly fleeting away. Where are you my policeman?

I heard that there is a nationwide lockdown, which means restriction on movement. I pinched myself to ask if it’s a dream and if the busy traffic and the policeman would return. But it has been days, none of them have returned.

The city is dead, so I see and so I reflect.

From boring days of waiting for a few scooters, Mahindra jeeps and Ambassador cars, whose drivers I knew by name and address, this city has become crazy. They say it is the fastest growing city in the region. I take no pride in it. I saw how the capital city’s main thoroughfare had changed.

I used to laugh when visitors told me about traffic jams. I thought it was another variety of jam. But here, I stand to see it happen. The number of vehicles increased. It pains to feel the pain in the arms of my policeman who starts signaling for direction from 8:30 am to 6:30pm, seven days a week. There used to be one. It was increased to two. Now we need four man to control the traffic.

Covid-19 came as a relief to me. When the first case was reported on March 6, I laughed at the frenzy. Some eyeballed my policemen as they rushed to hoard essentials. The number of cases increased, so did those coming out. Just before the lockdown, traffic was back to normal.

Norzin Lam, where I stand has always been a problem. There was a plan to do away with parking spaces when the two multi-storey parking were completed. There was also Pedestrian Day planned to reduce the traffic once every month. None of them worked. I would love to wave to kids and families strolling around without the worry of speeding vehicles and rowdy drivers. We would have provided the best public space for the town that is increasingly getting congested.

For decades, I have heard planners talk about making Thimphu as a different city. I feel sad, none kept to their words or to the plans readied after numerous study tours abroad and millions spent in consultancy fees.

I am happy to see my friend, Pala, who bought a Maruti van after selling momos on his rickety Bajaj scooter for years. It was a good mode of transportation, a necessity. But I am angry with the growing number of vehicles and shrinking space. I am also sad because owning a car is a pride, not a necessity. Bigger the car, the bigger the pride. I know from how they look at me when they pass by.

Covid-19 seemed to have affected some families hard but I saw hundreds of new cars since March. I could make out from the registration plate. From BP-A, it is now BP-E. We were saying that soon it will be BP-Z or BG-Y.

Across the Thimpchhu, at the road safety office, I heard officials talk about numbers. This pandemic year, five months to be precise, they saw 3,386 new vehicles. As of July 31, there are 58,143 vehicles in Thimphu. “Wow. That’s almost one car for three people in the capital!”

I question myself. Do all members of the household own or need a car? The answer is somewhere else, with smart businesses and smart marketing people. Banks compete to avail cheap loans to buy cars, vehicle dealer have competitive schemes to lure the stupid residents. I felt sad when 20 percent of old Dorji’s meagre salary was deducted as “vehicle loan.” He is not. Driving around his new Baleno twice a week is enough for him.

While I am enjoying the peace at Norzin Lam, I am also breathing in the cleanest air for years. I would not age, but I was sick of the smoke and the carbon monoxide at Norzin Lam. We have been breathing the cleanest air in many years since I was born.

I wish for the lockdown to continue, but it is not fair. Livelihoods are affected, development plans are derailed and the economy is bad. The reality is when life returns to normal, everything is forgotten as we chase after income, profit and economic growth. Nobody will pause to reflect what we have learnt from our first nationwide lockdown.