The thromde elections are here. Over the past few weeks, we have been watching the formal debates and forums, we have been watching, hearing, and reading the news, we have been scouring social media sites and, of course, we have been indulging in our own discourse which includes gossip, rumour, speculation, not to forget the complaints and criticism.
The candidates in the three main urban centres of Bhutan have been doing their rounds, sharing their ideas and plans, making their promises and pledges, wooing voters. Their supporters are also on the move, coaxing, urging, pleading, and trying to sway the election towards a relative, friend, neighbour or, in some cases, a future trade off.
This is electoral democracy at work. In Bhutan’s urban elections the mayors are elected by a tiny fraction of the city’s population. So the voter base is not the city but a constituency. A majority of the city’s residents, many who are born, live their whole lives, and will die in Thimphu, have no say.
The discourse lingers around basic amenities like drinking water, incomplete roads and potholes, traffic and vehicle parking. The promise of a by-road in Babesa or Kabisa will earn more votes than a commitment to beautify the entire Thimphu valley.
In short, we have missed the point. We are talking about the governance of urban Bhutan where a substantial proportion of Bhutanese live. But we have lost the perspective.
Why are we not talking about the real issues? During these weeks and months of talk, have we heard the word “corruption” mentioned even once? What is the relationship between corruption in the thromdes and corruption across the community at large? Is it faster to obtain services by rightfully appealing to the thromde or by paying the plumbers, electricians, engineers, and (tragically) officials?
Are we resigned to the fact that laws, rules, and regulations can be blatantly flaunted? How come we have laws that every building must have a car park but very few have them? We were forced to keep pretending that the top floor of hundreds of thousands of buildings are attics? Buildings have come close enough to affect roads.
Theoretically Thimphu comprises commercial areas, office blocks, residential and green zones. In reality, they are largely a mix of apartment blocks, hotels, bars, and shops. No one has tracked how these regulations change or who they benefit.
Why is it that, after decades of city planning, a hundred thousand residents do not have recognised addresses to receive mail, ambulances couldn’t find sick persons, desuups couldn’t deliver emergencies needs during a crisis? Where are the facilities for the young and the elderly?
How come Thimphu’s disabled cannot travel unaccompanied, parents cannot wheel prams, hundreds of school children are treated for dog bites, and it is inconvenient for a race of strong walkers to walk to work?
What are the implications when the ministry of Works and Human Settlement and the Thimphu thromde function like two different entities?
It is not that we are completely devoid of services. But the conscientious public servants have their own horror stories of being obstructed by none other than the most influential residents of the city. The message is “You must serve the city but not at my inconvenience… You must apply rules and regulations but not on my property.”
Fifteen years ago, a concerned visitor said: “When hotels overshadow your dzongs, it is the end of the Bhutan that you have known.” More recently, a city expert looked at Thimphu valley and said: “If Tashichho Dzong, Semtokha Dzong, and the Buddha statue are not there, we could be looking at any city in the region.”
What are we doing to the capital city of one of the most beautiful countries on earth?
A light at the end of the tunnel is that His Majesty The King has repeatedly advised and shown examples that places where we live should not only be well functioning but they must be clean, safe, well organised, and beautiful. We read this as our King’s pledge to serve his people as a son, as a brother… why are we, the parents, brothers, and sisters making that so difficult?