When the bridge over Gongri River was launched to connect the long-awaited Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam highway in February this year, residents of Gyalpoizhing, Lhuentse and Mongar arranged refreshments for road officials.
The people were at the bridge to express their gratitude to those involved in building the highway. For them, infrastructure development such as roads and bridges are signs of being connected to modern Bhutan. It makes those apart a part of the whole.
But often the presence of officials invited for such occasions overshadow their modest yet heartfelt arrangements.
We saw similar excitement among the people of Chukha when the Damchu-Chukha road opened to traffic this week. Farmers hung up their tools to witness the opening of the road that took eight years to cut through. For one, the satisfaction of seeing the road was akin to seeing the completion of his house’s construction.
The opening of Amochhu Bridge connecting Phuentsholing with Samtse and Haa, which took nine years, was also seen as a historic event. Such satisfactions to the community make these official events personal just as it becomes a private affair every time a project gets delayed.
Infrastructure development is the backbone of socioeconomic development which for Bhutan began in the 60s. Roads and bridges are the basis for transformation and communications. It enhances mobility and is considered a catalyst for development. All agencies and personnel involved in bridging communities, under harsh weather conditions, should be commended for making the country more accessible.
The construction frenzy that has caught Bhutan has led some to say that the country has today become a construction site. With about 80 percent of the total budget outlay allocated for procurement of construction works, the sector is bound to grow. It employs about 3,866 contractors and contributes about 17 percent of GDP.
But the growth has not created enough jobs. Most workers at the construction sites are foreign workers. Of the 49,041 foreign workers in the country, 40,379 workers are in the construction industry. Thimphu alone, which has about 10,000 unemployed youth, has 9,329 foreign workers.
Bhutanese should wake up to this reality. Foreign hands and funds build our infrastructures. Against the growing issue of unemployment and shortage of local workers in the sector, it is time we make efforts to employee more of our jobseekers at home.
Employing thousands of foreign workers also means huge outflow of money. Of the INR 7 billion the central bank remits, INR 5.76 billion is for the construction sector. The draft construction policy’s implementation would need political will and the support of all stakeholders to intervene and revert this trend.
Here is the bottom line: the construction sector has built many infrastructures but has failed to build local capacity.