Construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan Road in Eastern Bhutan
Construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan Road in Eastern Bhutan (A case study on the problem of dirty hands in politics)
Bhutan became constitutional democracy in July 2008 almost after a century rule by the monarch since 1907. It was during their political campaign; the party began making pledges for votes. One of the main political parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT)’s core campaign promises was the building of new road networks to bring economic benefits to the community of eastern Bhutan. Later, the party went on to win the first democratically elected government. And It’s the Shingkhar-Gorgan road which drew a lot of controversies as the road runs through the core area of the Thrumshingla National Park (TNP), a prime habitat for the endangered Royal Bengal Tigers. Without commissioning any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the park, the government indicated to the Department of Roads (DOR) to begin the construction of the road. The normal procedure for any project that comes up is to first obtain clearance from the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS), and then it has to pass the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). However, in this case, the Department of Road bypassed the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NEC) and gone ahead with just the forestry clearance that was obtained from the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS). Another contradictory point stated in the Forest and Nature Conservation Act (FNCA) 1995 is that all forests in Bhutan are Government Reserved Forests (GRF), and any development activities in these areas are forbidden except with a permit and also that this Act will be applicable to Shingkhar-Gorgan road. Although the new road is going to decrease the distance by 100 km and reduce the travel time, it generated lots of criticism from public, NGOs, development partner and concerned conservationist. This affected the freedom of every individual and organization to voice their concern, which are the fundamental principles in a democratic form of governance. Thus, the party encountered with moral dilemma to make a decision on building a new road which is going to benefit people and at the same time to ignore the rights and concern of those environmentalists and other parties. They were challenged with making judgments, as some decisions are straightforward, but others can be tricky where one’s individual moral principles are questioned. They were met with a much greater burden where their choices have dramatic influences on the people. It became the national issue, and the new government was faced with enormous difficulty to balance between the development and the environment. It was an issue of dirty hands where fundamental individual and organizational rights were violated for the interests of the greater good of society. This case study will explore how the concept of dirty hands in politics was applied in the decision making on building new road in the eastern part of Bhutan. The two ethical approaches of consequentialism and deontology will be applied to examine the case and see the outcome.
Bhutan is a small landlocked country (38,394 sq.km), with approximately 735,553 (NSB 2017) inhabitants. About 8.2% (PAR 2017) of the population lives below the poverty line. The economy is predominantly agrarian, with agriculture providing the main source of sustenance, followed to a large extent by animal husbandry. Bhutan Vision 2020 envisages all-new road built cannot be justified on economic criteria alone, and that our road-building programme will need to take account of other considerations derived from the principles of social justice and equity. The road connectivity is necessary to provide access to essential services and markets, to bring those communities out of their isolation and to enhance their opportunities and choices, and creating conditions required to promote rural industrialization.
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Bhutan has been making steady progress in providing road network throughout the country. The road length has increased from 5,362 km in 2008 to 11,177 km by June 2016 (RSMP 2007-2027). About 2,654.4 km of District roads (Feeder roads) was planned in the RSMP 2007-2027 in 2007, and about 2,621.29 km has been achieved as of June 2016, thus surpassing the planned coverage.
The current road passes through the highest point in the national park, and the accessibility becomes difficult in winter during heavy snowfalls. The new Shingkhar-Gorgan road will connect Bumthang and Lhuentse districts, and significantly lessen the travel time for the travellers between these two districts. Lhuentse District is the most remote area and has the highest population under poverty. There has been tremendous pressure on the newly elected government to deliver their campaign promises. To address the issue, the DPT government instructed the Department of Roads to fast track the process of obtaining the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) clearance, as they need to fulfil their pledges. It was during this period when government protocol for getting permits and clearance for the new project became a topic of hot discussion. The general consensus was to conduct a thorough scientific study before any clearance can be issued. The problem led to live TV debate between environmentalist, NGOs versus the development agencies, and also online voting for and against the motion by the public.
Recognizing Bhutan’s conservation significance and high biodiversity values, it is a signatory to several International Conventions and Protocols. The constitutions mandates to conserve 60 per cent of the forest covers at all times. At the same time, it’s the responsibility of the state to provide equal access and balanced development to its people. However, due to its unique geographical locations, the steep and rugged terrain makes it difficult to construct the new road with minimum destruction. On the other hand, there are stringent forestry bylaws and regulation to regulate the developmental activities taking place abruptly. In 2008 when Bhutan transitioned from monarchy to democratic form of governance, the new DPT government without conducting any proper scientific study in the park, and also not following protocol of obtaining EIA clearance, they began constructing the road from Lhuntse side.
Constructing Singkhar-Gorgan road by not abiding the pre-existing environmental bylaws and regulations was a moral dilemma for the DPT government. They were confronted with a condition where if they go ahead with the road-building they were ignoring the rights of concerned individuals and conservation NGOs rights and their voices which they have been fighting in order to save the main habitat of the tiger besides other environmental destruction. At the same time, it was also not wise to allow people of the six eastern districts to suffer because of not having all seasons connectivity and having to spend more hours in travelling. They are being deprived of good livelihood economic development. However, the government began building the Shingkhar-Gorgan road taking into consideration the overall benefits that are going to provide to the people of six eastern district and other travellers. Undeniably, this was a real case of dirty hand, since it was a dirty act intended to achieve a good outcome toward the end.
Similarly, Coady (2007) also indicated that such decision of the house was part of unique political ethics although it disputes with individual rights as the outcome was more important to political interest taking into account the impacts of environmental destructions and other detrimental effects to the ecosystem. Illegal collection of forestry products and unlawful land clearing for construction in Bhutan is nothing new. It happens sporadically in areas where there are hardly any people to guard against it.
The government had to balance economic development vs the environmental protection. In Bhutan, religion plays a central role in people’s lives and to their culture. The ethical and aesthetic roles of biodiversity are important components of culture. The fundamental Buddhist beliefs are to offer back to nature whatever has been taken away and to revere all forms of life. It’s the responsibility of every individual and the environmental agencies to have ethical concern for the environment. However, in order to provide all seasoned connectivity and to fulfil their pledges to the people, the government had to get their hand dirty by declaring go-ahead in constructing the Shingkhar-Gorgan road. We now consider how successful consequentialist and deontological approaches were used to the road-building project.
The Shingkhar-Gorgan road was given the go-ahead by the then government since it was going to bring several economic benefits to the people of six eastern districts and other general population whoever uses the new road. From the consequentialist prospect, the new road is justifiable because it is going to reduce the travelling distance, provide all seasons connectivity, save energy and decrease pollution even if it brings adverse environmental effects as it cuts through the core area of the national park.
The construction of a new road will include blasting, as it has to pass through rocky areas and with heavy equipment, in operation, the disturbances to wildlife habitat will be significant. Most water catchment will be impacted because of runoff from fresh cuttings and dumping of the soil. Not just the national highway, Bhutan has seen unprecedented growth of farm roads built since the beginning of 2008. Rural connectivity being the central theme of developments, the building of rural farm roads has been extensively promoted by politicians and prioritized. Over 5240 km of farm roads have been constructed in the country as of 2016 (UWICER 2018). Like a national highway, farm roads has been one of the most important initiatives for enhancing the livelihood of the rural community. However, besides bringing economic advancements in rural regions, constructing rural farm roads also accelerates deforestation, habitat destruction and interfering natural ecological movements in natural environment. Due to extensive networks of roads including farm roads being constructed in the country, numerous poor quality works have been recorded leading to widespread environmental degradation to the natural environment. With all negative consequences it’s going to have in the pristine areas due to road construction, it is morally correct to sacrifice some environmental harm caused to the natural environment from consequentialism point of view since maximum population are benefited.
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On the other hand, the theory of consequentialist is founded on utilitarianism, where the action is believed to be right when it maximises the benefits such as the quality of life of the people, even if someone’s moral principles are questioned. Moreover, the integrity of an act is defined by its outcomes. So, politician normally acknowledges the utilitarian approach, according to Walzer (1973). In this event also, the government took the decision considering the positive implications would offset the negative consequences of the natural environment. Shingkhar-Gorgan road was a classic consequentialist argument as it emphasizes the positive impact of the new road construction while organizational and individual rights of environmentalist were not considered. In order to achieve the goal of providing expedient drive, besides delivering an economic boost to the people of six eastern districts, the government thought that it was morally correct to forgo all government environmental bylaws and to begin building the new road.
The Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 and Forest and Nature Conservation Rules 2017 clearly states that any developmental activities in the government reserved forest shall not be carried out without the prior approval of the royal government. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is mandatory regardless of how big or small the project is, and any violation is an offence punishable with imprisonment, or a fine and confiscations of plants and equipment. An organization such as World Wide Fund (WWF), Thrumshingla National Park (TNP), Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) and concerned environmentalist were resentful with the government move. It quickly became the hot topic discussion on social media and people started accusing the government on not following the environmental law even for the government projects, forget about the private ventures. The question on the credibility of the government was raised, and there are instances when common people, even with a small misdemeanour, were imprisoned, and their licence cancelled. The annoyance and discontent voiced by those responsible organizations, general public and environmentalist in case of Shingkar-Gorgan road are justifiable and a rationale one, in a democratic form of governance which they were ignoring, bypassing and depriving their right to voice their concern is absolutely undesirable. Such occurrences indicated the absence of political insight by the DPT government to conduct through science-based feasibility study rather than relying just on secondary information and purely on desktop analysis. The fight was between the then government vs the environmental organization and individual concern. However, in this case, the government had the upper hand in the beginning.
As the construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan road began, various controversies and government loopholes surfaced which were not known to the public. Firstly, the Environmental Impact Assessment was not conducted properly, the road which was supposed to be the main highway converted to the farm road, and the biggest issue was the budget constraint. The people of six eastern district was not benefitted from the new road initiative, and the construction which started from Lhuntse side just left a scar on the natural environment. Had the road been built with proper investigation, it would have been largely helped the poor farmer and people of six eastern districts.
The issue was again repeatedly raised in the 74th — sessions of the National Assembly by the elected representative on the progress of Shingkhar-Gorgan road. The Minister for Works and Human Settlement apprised that after numerous discussions with the National Environment Commission Secretariat, an environmental impact assessment was scheduled to be conducted immediately and construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan road to be taken place. However, again, the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) denied the Department of Roads’ (DoR) appeal for environment permission to construct the road. The commission found the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the road, a key defining feature in allotting the environment clearance was insufficient (Kuensel, 2017). Since the initial survey was based on secondary data and desktop analysis, it was not accepted, and the DoR was again instructed to conduct at least two seasons survey for summer and winter to get the complete picture.
However, the then government was successful in building the road at least 20 km from Lhuntse side. But then they were not able to construct beyond that distance, and even though, it was again politized during second term election. The same road was being pledged by both the political parties during 2013. Once more NGOs and enthusiast environmentalist had to question the integrity of the government on their empty promises, which was a national issue before. Unlike in the past, this time, environmental parties were in a better position to criticise the government and defend their position technically. The ultimate loser is the people of six eastern district who waited for almost ten years to have a new road so that their livelihood is improved, yet, still, the new road just remains on the paper.
In this respect, from the deontological ethics point of view, the act is unacceptable, because the concerned voiced by the three biggest environmental NGOs and individual rights of those who have dedicated their lifelong service to conservation were not regarded. However, according to the government’s deontological position, the construction of the new road was actually a bold initiative for not just improve the lives of those travellers but also provide fundamental rights to have basic universal access to developmental activities.
The discontinuing of Shingkhar-Gorgan road construction in Bhutan due to lack of comprehensive feasibility study may seem to be a decent initiative by the Government seeing its effect on the natural environment and the subsequent financial burden it has on the government coffer. However, aside from its objective, a number of hostile occurrences have been unfolded since the government began the construction of the road, which obviously shows that there were ethical decision-making issues that raised lots of blame by the environmental NGOs and individuals. In what is categorized as the utmost contentious government policy, the construction of the road by then DPT Government without following proper EIA protocol nor without conducting any public consultation with relevant institution and stakeholders was also in complete contradiction to the values and moralities of democracy.
Though most Bhutanese make use of a portion of natural resources for their livelihoods, and for a majority of the rural folks, the large portion of their livelihoods use natural resources. In Bhutan the natural resources (forest, wildlife, pasture, water and ecosystems) form part of the common natural heritage and has right to be part of our civilization, irrespective of what parliament or decision-makers ponder. Providing road accessibility is seen as one of the utmost significant contributions that would hugely benefit the people. However, besides advancement of economic growths in rural zones, building of roads also triggers deforestation, habitat destruction and interrupt normal ecological movements in a natural setting.
However, in this event, consequentialist would contemplate the construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan road is for good purpose and as such there seems nothing immoral by just simply ignoring necessary EIA process and undermining its own government institutions. But the hasty construction of road and disregarding prevailing environmental bylaws has gone against the will of those conservationist groups thus rejecting their very fundamental rights to express their concern, regardless of worthy intents behind the choice, deontologists would still claim that the action is ethically wrong.
In conclusion, while acknowledging the adverse environmental impact that may be caused if they continue building the road, there is also a concern where people would be deprived of their economic opportunity and would be further marginalized. From the aforesaid discussions relating to the construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan road, it is obvious that in an incident of dirty hands, legislators are prone to condemnations. The case was pure dirty politics, and on the one hand, it was deliberate and misled decision makings followed by many institutional lapses. The issue was again deliberated in the 75th and 84th sessions of the parliament where it was committed to realigning the building of the new road from Shingkhar in Bumthang through Gorgan in Lhuentse. So far, about 20km of road have been built during their tenure and no major progress has been made even during the second term government. It is a false political promise still not delivered despite several rounds of government intervention.
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