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Decongesting Thimphu

Thimphu city is still being built and it is growing at an unprecedented rate. The most common sight is the beehive of construction activity from Changtagang in the north to Ngabirongchhu in the south.

But the capital city has not finished growing. In the meantime, there is no space for further construction. The once paddy fields are filled too. Construction is scaling up the hillsides turning Thimphu, once identified to be a model city, into just another hilly town in the region.

The city will not stop growing. The last population and housing census in 2017 found that 48.7 percent of the population was on the move between gewogs and towns. Of that, about 21 percent migrated from rural to urban. Most of them move to Thimphu in search for better opportunities. This influx of internal migration will tax the capital city’s limited infrastructure. What we need is better planning and longer-term policies to decongest Thimphu.

In the heart of the city, there is no room for expansion. Buildings are almost jutting out onto the roads. There is no space for vehicles to park and it has become easier to walk than drive in, say, Norzin Lam.

The government’s decision to put the brakes on 50 new construction plans of government offices, in this light, is a welcomed decision. It is a surprise that the proposals to construct are coming from government institutions that are well aware of Thimphu’s problem. Some of them, even as they draft the plan, could have cribbed about the congestion.

We cannot stop Thimphu from growing, but we can plan its growth. We have learnt lessons, the hard way, of not implementing our decisions in the past. Thimphu’s development is relegated to an example or a study relevant for government and international development partners for understanding policy implementation failures.

How the government would decongest Thimphu will become clearer in five months time when the committee formed to develop a strategy presents their report. For now, the political will to do so is a good start. We need not build dzong like structures to host government institutions. We already have a few that occupy huge space and have become uneconomical. The joke in one such office is that no staff is willing to work late because the building is too huge and creepy to work alone at night.

Given our resources, we need not compete to build bigger and taller buildings at the cost of the government’s coffer. With innovations in construction technology and building materials, the focus is on open workstations where people can interact and work. The closed room huge office with sofa sets should be a thing of the past. Like the government pointed out, we should make best use of the little space available.

Looking beyond Thimphu will complement other policies of curbing rural urban migration and regional balanced development.

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