For some time now a theory has gained some traction in the social media that the 2015 deferment of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded 68 km Dewathang-Nganglam highway project and the 98 km Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang highway was due to pressure from the Indian government.
However, the Prime Minister Lyonchhen Dasho Tshering Tobgay, responding to a question on this issue in the meet the press meet, categorically denied any foreign pressure or influence on the project.
In fact the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues pointed out that the construction of the 68 km Dewathang-Nganglam highway has already started with 6 km already being constructed.
“It is absolutely not true that any country other than Bhutan influenced the decision then and that too considering the security of the country. It is not true that the government of India did not want the road constructed,” said the PM.
The PM said that the earlier security situation was very dangerous with Bhutanese being kidnapped by some militants coming into the country and then taking them across the border.
The PM said that such a situation would also pose a risk for the foreign contractors as the project as per ADB was supposed to be an international tender that would inevitably lead to foreign contractors.
Lyonchhen informed that the construction team of the Jomostangkha-Samrang highway stretch has already requested for security while building the road.
He said that with such a security situation in the areas the government came to the conclusion that in such a security environment it would not only be an issue to build such roads but also securing it would be challenge once it was built. This is because it would have to pass through thickly forested sections where Bhutanese passengers would become sitting ducks for militants.
The PM said this would lead to less Bhutanese using the road or not using them at all. In a frank admission the PM said that then the question would also have to asked if RBA soldiers are to guard the highway along every stretch or secure the country’s borders.
The PM said while the Dewathang-Nganglam stretch construction had started it was still not safe to start the Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang stretch as it passes mainly through the thickly forested Phipsoo wildlife sanctuary where there are still some occasional movements of some ‘miscreants’.
Lyonchhen said that the government is monitoring the situation and that the highways would be built based on the security situation with Bhutan’s own resources.
Meanwhile a senior government official, on the condition of anonymity, said that apart from the security reason another equally compelling reason was also the financial security of the country.
Without naming anyone the official said that excessively large dollar loans were secured for the projects which would have wiped out a chunk of the foreign reserves and also made it a long term economic challenge to pay it back.
It was felt this coupled with the security situation would make the road project an unviable mega white elephant for now. This is one reason why the government is undertaking the Dewathang-Nganglam construction with its own funds and equipment despite repeated offers by the ADB to offer loans to Bhutan.