Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

This photo taken on April 19, 2019 shows traffic backed up on a road in Bhutan's capital Thimphu. (AFP / Upasana Dahal)
Updated 24 July 2019

Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

  • Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades
  • Congestion and lack of parking now makes driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic light

THUMPHU: Famed for valuing Gross National Happiness over economic growth, Bhutan is a poster child for sustainable development.
But booming car sales may impact efforts to preserve its rare status as a carbon negative country — and an increase in traffic is testing the good humor of its citizens.
Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades, according to transport authority director general Pemba Wangchuk with capital Thimphu hardest hit by the influx of vehicles.
Phuntsho Wangdi, a media consultant, says the congestion and lack of parking now makes driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic lights.
“I wish there were fewer cars. It wasn’t like this before,” he adds of life in Thimpu, which is home to half the cars in the country.
The nation’s economy has grown 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to the World Bank. Officials estimate there is now one car for every seven people in Bhutan, which has a total population of 750,000.
But the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope. A lack of infrastructure, along with poor driving etiquette — some simply leave their cars parked in the middle of the road — compounds the problem.
“Every year the number of cars and the number of people are increasing, and the roads have remained the same, and it’s a problem for us,” Lhendup, a taxi driver, tells AFP.
Morning rush hour journeys that once took five minutes now take more than half an hour.
This may seem a small figure compared to the hours of gridlock faced by commuters in Manila, Jakarta, and Bangkok, but it is a step-change for the Bhutanese who say the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the past year.
“Its chaotic. I eat my breakfast in the car now to save time,” says Kuenzang Choden, who drops her four-year-old daughter at school every day before heading to work.
The traffic jams are a sign of the wider economic changes the nation is facing. Bhutan is renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over GDP, and has captured tourists’ imagination as a tranquil, idyllic land, but there are signs of malcontent.
According to the World Bank’s 2018 report, the youth unemployment rate is high, as is rural to urban migration, which puts a strain on the resources of towns and cities. And despite it’s reputation as a place where well-being is prioritized — it ranked 95th out of 156 countries in the 2019 UN World Happiness Report.
The proliferation of the Internet and smartphones are fueling modern desires, while dealers are filling their showrooms with new brands and models from Japan and South Korea to lure buyers.
And while taxes have increased and restrictions put on vehicle loans, car buyers are not discouraged.
Local financial institutions gave 3.2 billion ngultrum ($46 million) in car loans in 2015, but by last year the amount had reached 6.7 billion ngultrum ($96 million).
The figures please local businessmen but worry environmentalists keen to ensure Bhutan remains one of the world’s greenest countries.
Environmental activist Yeshey Dorji explains: “As a nation that prides itself on being a carbon-negative country, the increase in the number of fossil fuel vehicles speaks poorly of our leadership position in environmental conservation.”
Bhutan and Suriname, both with lush forests, are the only two countries to claim they are carbon negative, absorbing more carbon pollution than they give off.
Methane from cows, the burning of crops and other farm activities used to be Bhutan’s main source of greenhouse gases. But that has changed in recent years to industry and cars.
Bhutan’s constitution dictates that at least 60 percent of the country must be forest and the figure is currently above 70 percent.
But Bhutan is now importing more in fossil fuels than it exports in hydropower to India — the country’s biggest revenue earner.
Public transport is poor, particularly in Thimpu, which is home to 100,000 people but barely 40 buses.
The capital’s mayor Kinlay Dorji plans to introduce bus-only lanes on city roads and wants to buy more buses.
“Its time for radical measures,” he says.
“We have to make public transport more attractive and discourage owning cars,” he adds, warning that unless action was taken Thimphu risked grinding to a standstill.
To ease congestion, the city is also constructing its first two multi-story car parks that will each take about 600 cars.
The National Environment Commission insists Bhutan is still carbon negative despite the traffic jams and vehicle boom, but wants to stop things worsening.
Commission secretary Dasho Sonam P. Wangdi explains: “We cannot stop people from buying cars, but we can introduce alternative, less polluting cars such as the hybrid and electric ones to reduce carbon footprint.”


Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

Updated 14 November 2019

Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

  • Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined a sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks
  • Firebrand cleric leading the protests called for nationwide demonstrations

ISLAMABAD: Anti-government protesters in Pakistan blocked major roads and highways across the country on Thursday in a bid to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign.
The demonstrators — led by the leader of opposition party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), the firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman — have taken to the streets as the start of their “Plan B” to topple the government and ensure a general election after failing to push Khan out through a fortnight-long sit-in in Islamabad, which ended on Wednesday.
That same day, Rehman told his party workers to spread their protests to other parts of the country.
“This protest will continue not for a day but for a month, if our leadership instructs,” said JUI-F Secretary-General, Maulana Nasir Mehmood, to a group of protesters who blocked the country’s main Karakoram Highway — an important trade route between Pakistan and China that also connects the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province with its northern areas.
The JUI-F protesters also blocked other key routes in KP and a major highway connecting the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. The party’s Balochistan chapter also announced its intention to block the highway connecting Pakistan to neighboring Iran.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined the sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls in the country following allegations of electoral fraud last year and the mismanagement of Pakistan’s economy. The government denies both charges.
Rehman is a veteran politician who was a member of the National Assembly for 20 years. He enjoys support in religious circles across the country. His party has yet to share a detailed plan regarding which roads will be closed when, or how long this new phase of protests will continue.
The JUI-F and other opposition parties have been trying to capitalize on the anger and frustration of the public against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ruling party, which came to power last year promising 10 million new jobs for the youth, 5 million low-cost houses, and economic reforms to benefit the middle class.
Since then, Pakistan’s economy has nosedived, witnessing double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment. The government signed a $6-billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan has stabilized the deteriorating economy, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman ‘Plan B’ will fail like his ‘Plan A,’” Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, said in a statement to the press.

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