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
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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But the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope.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.”


Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

Updated 4 min 36 sec ago
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Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

SRINAGAR, India: Security forces used tear gas against stone-throwing local residents in Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar on Friday, after a third straight week of protests in the restive Soura district despite the imposition of tight restrictions.
Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a center of the protests, as hundreds of locals staged a protest march against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5.
Posters appeared overnight this week in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region’s main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), to protest against India’s decision.
This was the first such call by separatists seeking Kashmir’s secession from India. India’s move was accompanied by travel and communication restrictions in Kashmir that are still largely in place, although some landlines were restored last week.
The UNMOGIP was set up in 1949 after the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a Himalayan region both countries claim in full but rule in part. The group monitors cease-fire violations along the border between the countries.
In a narrow lane of Soura, blocked like many others with rocks and sheets of metal, residents hurled stones at the paramilitary police to stop them moving into an area around the local mosque, Jinab Sahib, which had earlier been packed for Friday prayers.
The police responded with several rounds of tear gas and chili grenades but were beaten back by dozens of stone-pelting men. Some men suffered pellet injuries.
The locals said the security forces had been repeatedly trying to move into Soura, often using tear gas and pellets.
“We are neither safe at home, nor outside,” said Rouf, who declined to give his full name. He had rubbed salt into his face to counteract the effects of tear gas.
The afternoon had begun peacefully, with men and women streaming into Jinab Sahib for afternoon prayers. A cleric then raised a call for “Azadi” – Urdu for freedom – several times, and declared Kashmir’s allegiance to neighboring Pakistan.
“Long live Pakistan,” the cleric said, as worshippers roared back in approval.
TRUMP OFFERS TO MEDIATE
US President Donald Trump plans to discuss Kashmir when he meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in France this weekend, a senior US administration official said on Thursday.
Trump, who has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, will press Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy, and stress the need for dialogue, the official said.
Some Indian media reports on Friday said “terrorists” were trying to enter India from Afghanistan, citing unnamed government officials.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan responded on Twitter on Friday that such claims were being made to “divert attention” away from what he called human rights violations in Kashmir.
“The Indian leadership will in all probability attempt a false flag operation to divert attention,” Khan said.
Khan’s comments came a day after United Nations experts called on the Indian government to “end the crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests” in Kashmir, saying it would increase regional tensions.
“The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offense,” they said in a statement.
At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets since security forces launched their crackdown, data from the Himalayan region’s two main hospitals shows.
Large swathes of Srinagar remain deserted with shops shut except for some provision stores with shutters half-down. Police vans patrolled some areas announcing a curfew and asking people to stay indoors.
On the Dal Lake, long rows of houseboats, normally packed with tourists at this time of year, floated closed and empty, as police patrolled its mirror-calm waters in boats.