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The Sarpang-Zhemgang Debate

The Opposition along with the National Council members are locked in an argument with the ruling Government on replacing Zhemgang with Sarpang for implementation of the tourism flagship program during the 12th Five-Year Plan.

Their argument is that since the budget has been passed as a bill with the inclusion of Zhemgang for this program, the Government cannot amend the bill. On the other hand, the Government feels that it is within the law to decide on the focus of any development program that it wishes to execute including this one. The matter has been more complicated by the Speaker’s intervention advising the Government to honour the recently passed law and resolve the matter in consultation with the opponents.

What baffles me is why the Government didn’t include Sarpang in the first place before the bill was passed by the parliament. What were the compelling reasons for the Government to wake up suddenly to this new reality so soon after the decision had been taken? After all, as the chairperson of the Tourism Council, the foreign minister would have been best person suited to make the right recommendation to the cabinet. Even for a layman, let alone the politicians who often want to score points and politicize issues, the Government’s position that Zhemgang would not be left out is not entirely convincing. And if some politicians feel so strongly about Zhemgang (as against other districts), why didn’t they fight for tourism development in the last two development Plans?  The fact is that every candidate including those representing Zhemgang promises the moon while campaigning for votes but fail to walk the talk.

Yet, let us look at the facts. Zhemgang is one of the backward districts and whatever additional development can take place is welcome. The 2017 Bhutan Poverty Analysis Report confirms this point and places Zhemgang below Sarpang in various deprivation indices. Zhemgang however has the potential for performing better both in terms of cottage industries and agricultural outputs. It also boasts for exotic flora and fauna ranging from low to high altitudes, and the home of unique birds and plant species to relish the visitor’s eye. The allocation of Nu. 110 million capital budget in the 12 FYP, Nu. 58 million more than the allocation for Sarpang, should help to exploit some of its growth prospects.

The main problem is accessibility to and within Zhemgang regardless of expansion of feeder roads. The entries to the district are via Trongsa, Sarpang or Assam. Trongsa is already benefitting from tourism, and the option of using Assam to enter Zhemgang is impractical. With the national airport operational, tourists can directly fly from Paro to Gelephu and reach Zhemgang faster by road, as it is only a three hours drive from Gelephu. If Gelephu is connected by air to Guwahati in future, a new tourism gateway will be open in Bhutan. The people in both districts will gain by opening up Sarpang for tourism that has the added advantage of cascading effects into Dagana and Tsirang bringing in developmental spinoffs in the latter two districts as well. Perhaps this is what the Government means when it says that no district should be left behind from the dividends from tourism.

Every one knows that despite rhetoric from different governments, the potential of developing Gelephu remains a far-fetched dream. The decision of the DNT Government could attract investment in the hospitality sector in Sarpang including Gelephu and spur growth in production and service industries. The booming housing industry in Gelephu will also benefit from this move enabling building owners to meet monthly loan repayments

What then is the solution? The Government should be allowed to have its say on major development issues like the tourism flagship program. It enjoys the support and trust of the Bhutanese people at large during its elected tenure. Otherwise, the Government cannot simply deliver. If the law has been breached, it should be possible to amend it in the next session of the parliament to the satisfaction of the detractors. After all, the finance bill is not written on stone.

 

Achyut Bhandari

Taba, Thimphu

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