The Gasa-Tongchudrak farm road between Gasa and Laya was Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley’s promise to the people of Laya during the Mid-Term Review.
It so happens, the PM just might not be able to keep his words, that is if the National Environment Commission (NEC) has its way.
Conservationists through a recent Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) discovered that the farm road which would start at Gasa near Gasa Dzong and end at Tongchudrak in Laya gewog with a total length of 26 kilometers (kms) cuts right across the migratory route of the national animal, Takin and the entire Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park (JDNP).
The proposed road will benefit more than 200 households and connect the only farm road-deprived dzongkhag.
One of the conservationist said, “We recognize the need for the road but the consultants must re-look at the choke points (a point where the Takins might not be able to move up and down)”.
He said that if the road falls on the choke points there might be a drastic change or disturbance in the population dynamics of animals which may be confined to those areas.
Takin is the keystone species at the JDNP and the National animal of Bhutan. It is listed under the Schedule I of FNCA which means that total protection must be given to it. Also the annual tourist festival takes place with Takin as the flagship species.
“Instead of the farm road, it should be called a park road which would be guided by the Park Road guidelines,” said the Chief Forest Officer with the Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD), Sonam Wangchuk.
He said the ministry recently decided any road that has to come up inside the park should be called ‘Park Road’ and has to follow the guidelines.
Ironically the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS) had already issued a forest clearance to go ahead with the road.
The project cost estimated to Nu 31.80mn involves formation width of 5.1 meters. The pavement width is 3.5 meters and the length of drain toward the hillside is 26kms, which is equal to the length of the projected road. There is also a proposal to construct two bridges with a length of 50m each.
As per guidelines for construction of Park Roads, the park has the authority to monitor and also there is a speed limit of 10 km per hour and other specifications.
According to the Park Manager of JDNP, Phuntsho Thinley, there is one major migratory route and not nine. “We wanted to come up with an amicable solution so that the Protected Area is not a hindrance to the development of rural villages,” he said.
It was therefore agreed that the utility of the road would be controlled by the Park Management. During the migration season, the road would be closed and permanent forest personnel would monitor the place.
A two-page terms and condition was drawn between the Gasa Dzongkhag Administration and the Park Management.
“If there is any breach of the terms and conditions, we can immediately halt the construction,” he added.
However, another forest official said that the road cuts through nine corridors as mentioned in the field report of JDNP.
Gasa Dzongda, Sonam Jigme said, “The road is called Gewog Connectivity Road. It is a big concern as the whole stretch is their route. But it won’t be much of a problem as we are abiding by the conditions laid out by the Park”.
He said that the budget mentioned in the EIA is for the first phase of construction which would be 10 kms of the 26 km road length. “We have to achieve that much by this financial year,” he added saying that the Government will carry out the major maintenance works.
Goenkhatoe-Laya MP, Damcho Dorji said, “I am worried it would take time. But if we had to bulldoze, it would have gone through very easily.” But he said that for the road, a lot of mitigation measures are incorporated and the park guidelines would be followed. He said that he is personally involved.
On the budget front, the conservationists say that it would take more than the estimate amount, if rules are to be followed.
A National Environment Commission (NEC) official said that as far as they are concerned, it is best to avoid construction and if it cannot be avoided, try to minimize the damages caused to the environment, if not try to mitigate, and finally if there is no other solution, then it should be decided what is next that needs to be done.
“Budget shouldn’t be the question while carrying out EIA,” he said adding that the Terms of Reference drawn by the promoter was approved by the NEC.
A forest official clarified on the issuance of forest clearance saying that it was issued on the basis that ‘area of concern’ pointed out in the field report of JDNP would be addressed, that is, realignment of the proposed road would not touch upon the identified several corridors.
According to a source, while it is desirable to give the green signal to go ahead with the farm road construction, previous experiences of the same leading to bad implementation is a lesson good enough for us.
The EIA report concludes that the road will not result in any long-term significant adverse environmental impacts and the implementation of the Environment Management Plan (EMP) will ensure all the impacts within the acceptable levels. “There is no requirement of any additional study,” it stated.
The EMP is estimated at Nu 10mn.
The major impact identified by the consultants is the blasting and vehicular noise from construction activities which will disturb the fauna. To mitigate the noise related impacts, related activities will not be taken up during night time and blasting should be controlled.
Contradictory to its initial clauses, the report states that irreparable damages will be caused to the environment which includes 780,000 sq meter forest area for bypass construction and vegetation removal from the 780,000 sq meter area.
Plantation will be taken up on slopes to prevent this, full cut-method will be used for hill cutting and necessary budget provisions have been made in EMP and project cost for plantation.
During operations the bioengineering provisions adopted for slope stabilization will be monitored and any damage noted will be rectified immediately.
One of the biggest challenges cited in the report is to adopt the environment-friendly road construction.
The project gains include connectivity between Gasa and Laya, facilitation for implementation of Thorthormi lake draining to avoid Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, easiness in transport of essential goods to Laya from Gasa and rest of the parts of country, and overall economic development in the region.
The consultancy is to study the points raised by the conservation sector.
“The next presentation would be some times in September,” said the consultant.