Monday, 5 January 2009

Bhutan : Enough is enough, say South Thimphu farmers

5 January, 2009 - Farmers in south Thimphu are frustrated. And with good reason.

It’s been four years since they stopped cultivation, after the government promised to develop their land into the model town planning. Farmers pooled land towards the plan and awaited developments. Four years down the line, farmers are still waiting and their wait will have to be longer.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank project, which agreed to fund the development, needs the signatures of landowners, saying that they agree to voluntary land contribution (land pool) for the plan, in other words, that the plan is not forced upon them. Except for few, all farmers have signed the agreement.

In the meantime, Thimphu city corporation (TCC) is after the few landowners, who have not signed. “We couldn’t trace them because they’re either abroad or in other parts of the country,” said a town planner.

TCC chief urban planner Tshering Phuntsho said, “The ADB project is through but we require signatures from all the landowners. Only then will ADB release the fund for development.”

Many farmers, on being informed of the City’s justification for not starting the plan because of their being unable to trace a few landowners, expressed their concerns. “How can TCC come up with a reason like that?” said a farmer. “These unsigned landowners are rich people, who can wait because they have other sources of income.”

Another farmer said, “The reason stated by TCC is not at all valid. Even if these landowners aren’t around, there must be people who pay the land tax in their absence. Why can’t TCC contact them?”

Farmers said that their livelihood had been affected, after the government stopped them from cultivating their land. The local area plan was developed in 2003 for five zones in South Thimphu - Lungtenphu, Chang Bangdu, Semtokha, Babesa and Serbithang. Following this, landowners in these areas had to contribute up to 29 percent of their holdings for the development.

Many farmers, Kuensel met, were apprehensive of the government’s policy. They said that, with the rising cost of material, every farmer would not be able to build houses if the matter drags on.

After years of procedural delays and negotiations with TCC, farmers like Gyeltshen, 57, have lost all hope. “It affects farmers like us, who are totally dependent on whatever we’ve inherited from our ancestors.” Said Gyeltshen, “Today, the only option I’m left with is to sell some of my land. But again that’s not a solution altogether, since I have many children and must think of their future.”

Tshering Bidha, 42, a farmer, said that the wait is getting longer than they had expected. “Instead of further delays, they should at least, start demarcating roads so that farmers can start building.”

“Even if they can’t provide electricity and water supply immediately, we would go ahead with the construction,” said Tshering, adding that they would proceed with temporary arrangements.

Another farmer, Karma, 42, is doubtful if the scene will ever change. “During the political campaigns, politicians agreed to look into the issue and we voted accordingly. And now, even with the new government, there has been no conclusive decision as yet.”

Speaking to Kuensel, the minister for works and human settlement, Lyonpo Yeshi Zimba, said, “I’m very concerned, not just as the south Thimphu representative but as a part of the government. And now I’ll personally intervene in the matter.”

Lyonpo Yeshi Zimba also said that talks with ADB and World Bank are at an advanced stage. Once the matter is settled, everything will be carried out in a transparent manner.

When asked about the reason cited by TCC for the delay so far, Lyonpo Yeshi Zimba said, “It shouldn’t be impossible to trace these individuals. Just because of a few individuals, we can’t hold back things.”

Meanwhile, the farmers say that TCC is taking advantage of the limited options available to landowners. “The whole planning process is questionable,” said farmer Gyeltshen’s son in law, a civil servant. “If they thought it would take four years, they should have allowed farmers to cultivate.”

By Kinga Dema

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