For the second time, the Lhuentse dzongkhag tshogdu discussed the delay of Shingkhar-Gorgan highway construction. The dzongkhag tshogdu resolved to write to the government to seek clarification.

However, the National Environment Commission secretariat (NEC) rejected the Department of Roads’ (DoR) request for an environment clearance to construct the road. The commission found the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the road, a key-determining factor in issuing the environment clearance, was inadequate.

The report doesn’t meet the NEC requirements, NEC secretary Chencho Norbu said adding that the commission secretariat couldn’t treat this case differently. According to the secretary, most of the information in the EIA is from deskwork, and that the officials who conducted the EIA did not go to the field themselves to assess.

For the commission to assess anything and as per primary baseline data, it requires at least two seasons report for winter and summer. But the EIA report is claimed to have secondary data sourced outside the project area.

Without data on these two seasons, it’s difficult for the commission to know the situation of area in either season. “Our observation is that it is based on only one season,” Chencho Norbu said. “We have not directly asked them to redo but informed them that the EIA report they submitted dates back to 2012 or 2011. It was never updated or reviewed, so, if somebody reviews the document, one would ask for a kind of detailed study.”

For instance, the road is located as high as 4,000 meters (m) and the land features show it is steep. But the EIA had little description of the land features and there were no geotechnical studies carried out.

It was also found that some of the metrological data were not clear. The data used was of Bathpalathang, which is about 2,000m above sea level and incomparable to Shingkhar.

“The information is not complete for us to make any call, forget about issuing the environment clearance. We need detailed information prescribed in the terms of reference,” he said. “We’ve already written to them explain why the NEC can’t issue the clearance.”

Secretary Chencho Norbu said that the road is going through a protected area and it demands a comprehensive EIA. “Primary data is a necessity and we’re demanding a complete package of report.”

The secretary said that his office received a response from DoR requesting the commission to consider the work based on the first report and the forest clearance.

He said that NEC couldn’t issue an environment clearance based on forest clearance although it is one of the pre-requisites. The forest clearance, he explained, looks at the flora and fauna sensitivity or whether it is in the protected area. It doesn’t talk beyond that on the geology and overall environment impact, he said.  “It is not a guarantee that once they have the forest clearance, we’d issue the environment clearance because the process is different,” he said.

Forest director Phento Tshering, however, said that there is no issue of whether the road goes through a core area.

“By definition, the core area has to be an undisturbed area or natural habitat,” he said. “The revised alignment goes through areas where the old mule track and pasturelands existed and falls under multiple use area.”

He said that the forest clearance only gives clearance from the flora and fauna point of view.

The first EIA report still states that the road passes through the core area, while the DoR has the forest clearance stating that it is not the core area.

“This has confused people,” secretary Chencho Norbu said. “It is not that we are against the road, or limit developmental activities. We just want to see that the decision is an informed one.”

According to a report by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment Research (UWICER) the request for the road was submitted by Mongar and Lhuentse dzongkhags in 1997.

It was also discussed in the 75th and 84th sessions of the National Assembly where it was resolved to realign the construction of the lateral national highway from Shingkhar in Bumthang through Gorgan in Lhuentse.

The Cabinet approved the road construction in July 9, 2011. A month later, the special advisor to National Environment Commission, the WWF Country Representative, and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature’s executive director called on the Prime Minister to express concerns over the proposed road.

The road was also included in the 10th Plan. However, construction could not begin for lack of budget. Between 2006 and 2010, officials made two visits including the one to survey the road alignment.

The forestry department declined to issue forest clearance for the road in 2007, and 2012 after the DoR hired a consultancy to conduct the (EIA) for the road. The department issued the clearance in 2013 but withdrew it within days.

The then government issued an order to accelerate the process on issuing forestry clearance and environment clearance and to start construction by end of 2013. The officials also resolved to realign the road.

In 2014, on submission from Lhuentse dzongkhag to construct the road in the 11th Plan, the Parliament resolved to continue the construction with minimum environment impact.

In October 2015, the works and human settlement ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with Project DANTAK to construct the road within three years. However, the forest department refused to issue the clearance that year.

Yangchen C Rinzin & Tshering Palden