Until the first decade of 21st century (pre-democracy) Bhutan definitely needed infrastructure to leverage development. As required a huge capital investment was made in building infrastructure with funds obtained in the form of grants and soft loans from development partners and international development banks since the inception of development programs in the sixties.
To build infrastructure, technologies were required and today we are able to employ required state-of-the art technology, for instance the deployment of sophisticated equipment for Roads, Building and tunneling works and the human resource capability where necessary skills and competence are in place. These resources that we have today are adequate in terms our country’s physical features, geopolitical scenario and socio-economic situations.
Bhutan therefore has enough in terms of quantities of basic infrastructure to drive socio-economic development for its population of less than 800,000. For instance we have over 12,000 kilometers of roads, but not even 30% of these roads are black topped. Even the black topped ones are rendered unsafe, let alone be sustainable. This demonstrates that we have been talking of quality only but have not walked the talk in absolute seriousness. Therefore the quality of infrastructure should be the order of the day. Time had already come and it is even late that government of the day needs to focus on consolidation of the assets created instead of promising to meet people’s demand that will require expansion programs to be put into plans which will only create demands for huge resources for not only capital investment but also for the O&M which will never be sufficient.
Education and literacy levels are on the rise steadily and we will soon be 100% literate, but with that ever increasing demands on amenities will only grow.
Given the scenario, what is seriously required of every Bhutanese and its government today to reflect upon ourselves is to question ourselves: Do we still need to expand our infrastructure? Can we afford expansion? What are our strengths for achieving self reliance? To this my thought is simple – for any country to develop and sustain the development there are a few basic things only to go for:
1. Provide a network of goods and passenger transport that are reliable, safe, and short in distances; No more roads of any category to be constructed for some period of time. We need to take a breath to let economy catch up with the cost of construction, operation and maintenance. Maintenance of roads especially the periodic ones (resurfacing by black top surfaces and today less than 30% of road network is black topped) is a recurrent expenditure which cannot be avoided if economic activities has to take place and should continue to take place and that too at minimal cost if sustainability is to be achieved. With the growth of population and economic activity picking up progressively these roads need to be upgraded as we do now-the Northern East West highway project.
2. Adequacy in the agricultural produce; (to be self-reliant in food stuff – with consolidation of infrastructural assets imported labors can be significantly minimized)
3. Adequacy in healthcare and education systems; (Bhutan should emphasize on knowledge economy as an alternative / additional economic venture)
4. Pristine environment and culture & traditional values preserved. Tourism being the second largest foreign currency earner today will require our environment and the traditions to be further protected and preserved respectively to ensure that this trend continues. This will need a continuous investment both in infrastructure and human resources.
5. Balance the development between Urban centers and Rural communities – minimize differences as far as possible. To ease out spaces in urban centers to accommodate migrating population urban centers must spread out to neighboring districts and available areas in proximity. For example Paro, Wangdue and Punakha valleys must become part of capital Thimphu through construction of tunnels for motor roads and trains. Congestion with pressure on the urban amenities and cost of living in Thimphu should drop significantly. Shortening distances between dzongkhags / communities by tunnels, long span bridges and ropeways (selectively) will bring in socio-economic growth with much efficiency & effectiveness.
In all above sectors Bhutan seems to have gotten enough by quantity in terms providing the basic infrastructure. Putting in place a professionalized operation and systematic care and maintenance of assets created at huge cost over the past 4 to 5 decades is the call of the day, I guess.
In the transport sector we can focus on improving quality of roads by improving the width, geometrics and shorten them wherever possible for the safe, comfortable and reliable transport for goods and passengers. We can capitalize only on roads or highways as railways, waterways or seaways are beyond our bounds and means. May be airways, and ropeways could find their places provided that economy affords them. Today even to maintain roads at satisfactory level is a daunting task and almost not feasible and therefore definitely not sustainable. Despite the odds, the future of Bhutan lies solely in the success of providing and maintaining a very efficient network of reliable, safe, comfortable and shortened highways system.
Amongst a few, tunneling will be one of the answers to future of Bhutan’s sustainability and enhancement in her socio-economic endeavors to come closer to the principles of GNH.
In short – a Drive towards Consolidation
Quantity V/s Quality. To the best of my opinion Bhutan has enough in quantities – be it the Roads, Schools, Health, and Housing infrastructures. Having built a structure is only the starting point for a life time expenses in operation, maintenance, rehabilitation and finally reconstruction. In order to minimize cost on these recurrent expenditure components, it is in fact too late to focus on the consolidation of the assets created across the Kingdom at enormous cost.
Adding value to the assets created would mean adding quality measures of the constructions that are either completed and those on-going ones. For instance the highways and roads in the country needs improvement by widening; correction to grades; increasing the thickness of the pavement; and improve the general geometrics of the road for road user safety; driving comfort and cost-efficient transport of goods and passengers. This is one strong policy directive that has to become the order of the day (top political commitment of successive governments) for both beauracrats and politicians which unfortunately is missing today.
We should call for a program decline in the construction of new infrastructure and increase focus on quality and consolidation of existing infrastructure and give serious thoughts to those that may be built in the near future.
Being less Dependent on Neighbor’s Help may be prudent. I will fully agree with any argument by any Bhutanese or otherwise that Bhutan cannot be Self Reliant in all aspects of modern amenities for decent livability even for a limited period of time and that we should be globalized as any other nation. While that is true we should also be aware of our vulnerability & associated sensitivities and that our sovereignty is not put to stake in the process by overly dependent upon neighbors for almost everything we need. If we depend on donors especially neighbors for capital investments for all times to come than we would be making a grave mistake
Geographically we cannot change neighbors and hence neighbors should respect and help each other with genuine hearts and without conditions. It is historically a legacy that the stronger & bigger ones bully the smaller & weaker ones in a family or community but between nations it is unacceptable if such situations should ever occur. I hope this conveys the message I hold very seriously in my heart. Bhutan should, starting the 12th plan concentrate on consolidation of assets created since early 1960s and refrain from expansion of developmental programs – which I feel we have enough for now given our socio-economic situation.
We may however carry out some flagship programs that are of vital national importance that are objectively geared towards enhancing our security, self sufficiency, economic stability, and social benefits. These few flagship programs must be left to donors and not specify any particular program for a particular donor. No more begging! Especially from big neighbors – may be, I m wrong here but this is my gut feeling because I can feel deeply the long term dangers from soliciting for the short term gains.
Re-Organize Set Ups for Efficiency, Mechanization and Social Integrity. Just an opinion, I feel that major revamping of organizational set ups need to be done based on the professional disciplines and the organizational values that match in technicalities in particular. For example there should be a transport ministry to cater to mass transport system (Roadways and Airways ministry – dealing with all matters relating to transport and their safety etc); (Land and Human Settlement ministry – dealing with all kinds of land uses and people’s settlement issues); and (Information and communications ministry – dealing with all aspects of communications medium, internet system and so forth). So MoWHS and MOIC can give birth to a third ministry if a ministry is to be professionalized. Alternatively lets seek for more efficient organizations with different professional disciplines. One other thing I would emphasize is Right people for right job – a must, if Bhutan should become an efficient country.
4. My opinion the private sector: Private sector that participates in our programs (of MoWHS) is still in a nascent stage. This sector has yet to improve their capability, competence, and professionalism. We have over 4000 contractors and each one assumes to be a jack of all trades. No one contractor is able to get a decent job (a contract work) outside Bhutan. This indicates how immature our private sector is in terms of their capability to compete with competitors outside.
Besides, the contractor who gets a contract normally subcontracts the works – further jeopardizing the quality and integrity of the products that are eventually delivered. Most contracts suffer from either cost or time runs sometimes both for contractors and for the government it takes the final share of the liquidated damages and poor quality product on delivery of contracts. In some cases contracts are never delivered and parties to contract land up in the courts of law.
I have proposed under “Specialization and Professionalization” agenda of the recent conference on Engineers, Architects & Planners of MoWHS – a system of Prime contractors and Specialized Sub contractors as the first step towards improving the contractors’ disciplines and attitudes to works, their competence and professionalism in the construction industry. For instance a contractor for a complex auditorium building, a prime contractor has to subcontract specialized items of works such as foundation specialists; HAVC specialists; Acoustic system specialists; Electrical and Plumbing specialists and so forth. From each of these specialist groups a prime contractor will sign sub contract agreements and these agreements will become part of his mandatory bidding documents. As far as financial arrangements are concerned procuring agency will have little or no say as the prime contractor will exercise due diligence since he has to compete with other bidders.
This will ensure that more people will get involved (employment opportunity) and specialized groups will deliver quality products. A prime contractor can no longer manipulate rates of these specialized jobs and therefore fielding of incompetent resources (otherwise by a prime contractor – which is common phenomenon) is avoided by the system.
There are several other initiatives underway to drive quality products and ensure value for money.
Contributed by:- Mr.P Phuntsho Wangdi Secretary, MoHWS, and is strictly a personal opinion