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Increased vehicle numbers and adverse effects

Ugyen Zangmo can catch her daily assembly at 7am if she wakes up at 6:30am. But she chooses to get up at 5am. By 7am she would be facing her commander with her colleagues.

At 7:30am people in Thimphu will witness Chuma Ugyen Zangmo and 38 traffic police deployed at various areas in Thimphu on duty to keep the traffic smooth.

Unlike in the past, keeping the traffic going is tough today, Ugyen Zangmo said. “The traffic is jammed from 7:30am to 9pm. And we have to do what we are assigned to do. That means standing all day long to direct the traffic.”

Ugyen Zangmo recalls an increase in the number of vehicles around 2016. Today, the roads in Thimphu remain jammed almost throughout the day.

Ugyen Zangmo joined the Royal Bhutan Police’s traffic division in 2014.

Despite various measures, vehicles in Thimphu have increased sharply. In April 2015, there were 71,681 vehicles in the country, of which 37,991 vehicles were in Thimphu. Today, Thimphu has about 46,000 vehicles.

Pelpon Gyeltshen, with over 15 years in service, is among the many traffic police who have witnessed the adverse affects of increased vehicle number on the Thimphu roads.

Both Ugyen Zangmo and Pelpon Gyeltshen today have eye problems. Ugyen Zangmo said that when she first joined police force,   she did not have any vision issues. “Today, I cannot see far off things. Because other police personnel in other divisions don’t have such issues, I am sure it is because we are exposed to sunlight and pollution.”

According to the Bhutan State of Environment report 2016, the concentration of particulate matter particles with a diameter of 10 micrometre (PM10) has crossed the World Health Organisation (WHO) and European Union (EU) guideline values in 2015.

Particulate matter (PM) consists of complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances in the air.

PM10 is defined as health-damaging particles that can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Exposure to high concentrations of PM10 can result in a number of health impacts from coughing and wheezing to asthma attacks and bronchitis to high blood pressure, heart attack, strokes, premature death and can cause eye irritation.

Air quality measurements describe PM concentrations in terms of micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3).

The report shows that Thimphu has more than 40 μg/m3 of PM10 concentration. The concentration is twice the WHO guideline limit of 20 μg/m3 of PM10. The European Union limit value is 40 μg/m3.

The police personnel also feel the need for masks and sunglasses for protection from the sun and pollution.

Gyeltshen says that his eyes remain watery in the morning.

Gyeltshen joined the police force in 2002. After his first posting in Gedu, Chukha, he was taken aback with the number of cars in Thimphu on his return in 2017.

“So much has changed. I looked after accidents when I was here in 2002 and 2003. After I returned, I was on the same duty. The number of accidents reported is really huge today. We get about four minor accident cases everyday,” he said.

Ugyen Zangmo has witnessed a range of vehicle models ply the roads of Thimphu today. “New vehicle models arrive in Thimphu almost every month. We have to either know the vehicle model or number to identify them. It is difficult for us to remember the new models.”

The increased number of vehicles in the city has also resulted in increased responsibilities of the police personnel.

Unlike in the past, parking limitations at Changlimithang  Stadium is an emerging issue.

“Today we have to book parking space for the guests before the event,” Gyeltshen said.

Parking violations and accidents are frequently witnessed due to vehicle congestion in Thimphu.

Ugyen Zangmo recalls apprehending about 20 people for various traffic offences on her 6-hour shift once.

Going about educating people about traffic rules is challenging for Ugyen “Once, people had also posted a picture of me saying that I fined them. It is difficult dealing with people when they are drunk.”

In 2015, led by the former chief of police, taxi drivers made aware of zebra crossing rules following increased road accidents cases involving pedestrians. About 12 traffic police with bikes inspect Thimphu area everyday.

During the home ministry’s midterm review of the Annual Performance Agreement (APA) on February 7 this year, chief of police asked for electric patrol cars and additional budget to install CCTV cameras in Thimphu city. The proposal was aimed at reducing crime rate and also to reduce traffic-related offences.

Phurpa Lhamo

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