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Kenji Sano (Left) and Udai Pradhan at the Chuzomsa bridge construction site
Kenji Sano (Left) and Udai Pradhan at the Chuzomsa bridge construction site

Bridging Japan – Bhutan relations

When I arrived in Bhutan in September last year, I was informed by many Bhutanese officials of their appreciation for the bridges that were granted by the government of Japan, and how they stand out as a testament of quality and aesthetics for bridge construction in the country.

Prof. Kishore Mabhubani, former dean of the Lee Kwan Yu School of Public Administration in Singapore, in his book “The Great Convergence,” generally expresses skepticism on the effectiveness of the development assistance of the OECD member countries, primarily due to prioritization of the donors’ interests rather than the recipient’s needs. He makes a few exceptions where he writes “In Bhutan I saw a beautiful Japanese bridge traversing a deep gorge, no doubt helping to connect communities and save travel time.”

The reputation and trust of constructing quality bridges has been established after the hard work and experience of over two decades in the country. Dai Nippon Construction (DNC) has played a great role in Bhutan as a Japanese contractor in its own way. It has been engaged in all the bridge construction projects that have been provided by the government of Japan (GOJ). On June 28, the handing over ceremony for Chuzomusa, Nikachu and Zalamchu bridges was held and a total of 22 bridges have been granted from GOJ.

Kenji SANO is the project manager of “The Project for Reconstruction of Bridges on Primary National Highway No.1” in DNC. His first visit was in 1993 to reconstruct the Jangsa bridge in the Paro Valley Agricultural Development Project. He recalled that he had never experienced such hard work as during those days the communication lines, electricity and life-related infrastructure had not been well developed. Moreover, there were few Bhutanese staff who were engaged in construction work. DNC managed to complete this project successfully, and it became a memorable project for him. After 25 years, he explained that the capacity development of the Bhutanese engineers in reading the construction plan, acquiring the skills of survey and quality control in the site are important aspects of the project. Also, he emphasized that the project is now tackling to ensure technical transfer for safety control at the site.

In April 2018, I could visit the construction site for Chuzomsa bridge, which was almost complete and met the Chief Engineer of DNC, Udai Pradhan, who is familiar with Sano and DNC. He joined DNC in 1991, and has since been engaged in all the construction works of DNC in Bhutan. As chief engineer and the leader of the Bhutanese staff, he is entirely trusted by Sano and all Japanese and Bhutanese staff at the sites. “Learning Japanese construction methodology and high technology was so interesting for me, that I often forgot the time during my work,” he mentioned. After finishing his daily work, he learned the skills and techniques regarding the civil works from Japanese staff when he was young. Now, he is transferring his knowledge to the young generation of Bhutanese in the construction sites. He believes these technical transfers are crucial to build a strong foundation for the future of the construction industry in Bhutan.

Udai has been proud of his work and kept learning the civil work for 27 years in the DNC construction sites. He insisted that having the experience in the sites help acquire the fundamental skills for civil works, and DNC is the best environment to gain the experience in field. Especially, the quality and safety control can help the construction industry in Bhutan, he added. I wish stakeholders from the construction industry could be a beneficiary of learning Japanese construction methodology, especially on quality and safety control from DNC’s project sites, so that it could have a trickle down effect to the construction companies/workers, all over Bhutan in the long run.

Prior to my appointment in Bhutan, I was seconded to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) of Japan from 2015 – 2017. During my tenure there, I learned from my superiors who said, “Before starting work, we need to visit the field. During the paper work, we need to imagine the field. This is the best way to make our work accurate, efficient, and to secure quality.” Almost all the technical staff that entered MLIT is dispatched to the regional offices, so that they can learn how the roads and bridges are constructed in the field. Also the regional offices have a role to grasp the regional needs communicating with the local government and the local people. During my work at MLIT, I organized periodical workshops for the young staff to secure more opportunities to study and learn in the field. Some of the senior engineers in the ministry are nominated as instructors for such workshops.

Another four bridges are now under construction as “The Project for Reconstruction of Bridges on Primary National Highway No.4”. I was happy to learn that Ujjal Pradhan who is the son of Udai Pradhan, is engaged in the reconstruction work of Passang bridge in Sarpang. He started to work for DNC since he was recommended by his father and Sano after his graduation as a civil engineer, from a university in India. For him, it was not hard to understand the importance and the value to work in the DNC construction site as an engineer, because he has seen his father’s work since he was a child. Udai told me his ambition, “I hope that my son will completely acquire necessary skills and knowledge in DNC. Then, my ambition is to enhance the capacity in the construction industry in Bhutan with my son.”

The bridges constructed by the Government of Bhutan supported by JICA are visible and easily remind us of the steadfast relationship between Bhutan and Japan. However, we also need to take some time to appreciate not only the visible infrastructures, but also a great resource that has been accumulated over the years in the process of building those structures. We need to think about tapping into such resources and the avenues to ensure technical transfer from senior and experienced Bhutanese staff to the younger generations. I believe that such tacit knowledge is one of the irreplaceable fortunes in Bhutan, and that invisible fortune should be taken advantage across other construction sites, to develop a credible construction industry in Bhutan.

We highly appreciate the two engineers of DNC, who have greatly contributed to the development of Bhutan through their own dedication and commitment to their profession.

Contributed by

Kota Wakabayashi

Representative JICA Bhutan

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