The Shingkhar-Gorgan road drew a lot of controversy as it cuts through the core area of the Thrumshingla National Park, a safe haven for the Royal Bengal Tigers
Inspite of the forest department’s express reservations on the road, the Department of Road (DoR) has gone ahead with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) presentation and discussions last Thursday.
The normal procedure for any project that comes up is to first obtain a clearance from Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS) and then it has to pass the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
A conservationist said that the EIA was biased and that it was designed as such to convince that the road should go ahead. “It is not that we want to stop the development of the people of Lhuentse. But due process of law cannot be avoided at the same time,” he said.
As per the EIA report the project gains include shorter (by about 100 km) and safe connectivity between Bumthang and Lhuentse. Other benefits are fast transport of agriculture produce from remote areas of Lhuentse to Bumthang and rest of the country, overall economic development in the region and poverty eradication in Lhuentse.
The major impact identified is noise generation due to construction activities and controlled blasting for rock-cutting. The entire length of project road which lies inside TNP will have impacts on wild life in the forest. Irreparable damages include loss of 1080,000 square meter of forest area for road construction and vegetation removal of 780,000 sq meter of forest area.
Another conflicting point is stated in the Forest and Nature Conservation Act (FNCA) 1995 that all forests in Bhutan are Government Reserved Forests (GRF), and any development activities in these areas are prohibited except with a permit and also that this Act will be applicable to Shingkhar-Pephu farm road project.
Having pointed out that the area mentioned under TNP is not a GRF, the consultant has agreed to make the changes.
The report also mentions that the project area is a habitat for Tigers and Red Pandas. But the cattle herders and local have not seen any Tigers in the area for the last 10 years and were not captured by camera traps set up at the Park since September 2011.
“This statement contradicts the reported cases of six to seven cattle killed in Tang area by a tiger reported by Wangchuck Centennial Park and TNP,” said a forest official.
According to a Wildlife Conservation Division official, several depredation cases in recent times have been reported from the adjoining areas of Bumthang and Trongsa which indicated that TNP still forms key connectivity to the distribution of tigers in Bhutan.
Works and Human Settlement Secretary, Dasho (Dr.) Sonam Tenzin said it is not final so once all the components are included, the final report will be presented to the National Environment Commission (NEC) and the Government.
“The NEC will also present their findings to the Government,” he said.
In a meet attended by several stakeholders including the Director of DoFPS, the Chief of Wildlife Conservation Division, Sonam Wangchuk said that given the proposed development which falls within the National Park, technical justification was given and reservations were made clear.
He said the department made their stand clear hoping it will be further deliberated during the final consultations and ultimately come to a decision that would address the areas of concern.
Sonam further said, “All protected areas in Bhutan are managed on the basis of sound science and law. In a modern democracy one would assume and hope that decision making is based on the same principals of scientific management and rule of law in order to protect the common national interests.”
Initially, a total of 67 kilometer secondary highway was approved by the Government of which 36 kms passed through the core area of the Thrumshingla National Park (TNP) which is primary habitat for many endangered species. Later due to shortage of budget, the highway became a farm road.
The Prime Minister in a press release of August 22 last year had assured the environmentalists that the Cabinet is aware of the negative impacts of a bad road construction and has agonized over the environmental issues of the proposed road construction.
President of Bhutan Ecological Society, Dasho Paljor J. Dorji said due process of law must be followed, including a thorough EIA. The Executive Director of Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), Lam Dorji (PhD) also said that a thorough EIA should be carried out to mitigate potential negative impacts.
Bhutan Ecological Society, RSPN, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Bhutan Program will be actively involved in the process of EIA to monitor the road construction.