I have consciously signed the petition "Keep Chamkhar Chhu Free-Flowing" initiated by Bhutan's alpha professional photographer Aue Yeshey Dorji and shared it on my Facebook wall. But I didn't know my post was immediately going to become a platform for a very serious debate. It gave me deep insight into both side of the argument. However, I when I signed the petition for saving Chamkhar Chhu I wasn't against development in Zhemgang. I felt sorry that the last river had to be the very river flowing through Zhemgang.
It's evident that most people in Zhemgang have been betting on Chamkhar Chhu project to change the course of their lives and it's obvious for them to feel offended when people who don't have to live their lives sign a petition against their dreams. A high school friend from Kheng, Pema Letho summarised Zhemgang in few lines to put forth his point on why the project should happen;
Zhemgang has the highest poverty rate among all the districts, it has highest number of school drop outs, highest infant and maternal deaths, lowest safe drinking water coverage, lowest farm road coverage, lowest electricity supply coverage, lowest primary school enrolment...
And their representative, honourable Member of Parliament, Lekey Dorji joined the debate and made his stand clear;
I have personally been pushing for Chamkharchhu hydropower project because it could be a game changer for the poor people of Kheng. Upon the resolution of the Dzongkhag Tshogdu, I moved a motion in the NA to expedite the implementation of this project. I have also been meeting the minister for economic affairs and the senior officials of the Ministry as well as DGPC to request early implementation of the project because the people of Zhemgang want it. The project promises to open up remote and rural areas of Kheng to mainstream economy and people are excited about the project. I appeal to all those people who have signed or plan to sign to first understand the project. My stand has always been clear, if what you do is going to benefit our poor people deprived of all amenities in the villages, please support the petition. Otherwise, please support this project which will open up whole of the remote Kheng and provide them better economic opportunities.
While I still like to believe in the myth that hydropower project will some day stand on its own feet and fix the damage it has cause to the national economy, I have genuine doubts on it holding promise for rural prosperity, which social activist, journalist, and educationist, Aue Dorji Wangchuk shared from his experience;
Do not fall under illusion that Chamkhar Chu project will pull Kheng out of the current state. None of the villages in Chukha dzongkhag has enriched through Tala or Chukha Project. Ask our MPs from Chukha who are now more attuned to the plights of our local people. I have worked in Chukha Project (1982) when it was being constructed. We are treated worse than Indian labourers. Similarly, I have covered the entire project phase of Tala when I was in BBS from 2000 to 2005. Unfortunately I was never allowed to go deeper into the project. Similarly I have been working in three gewogs of lower Wangdue - Athang, Daga and Gaselo as volunteer for Tarayana and villagers there have not been able to sell even a bunch of fruits to the four mega projects.
I had this conversation with my dear friend from Kheng, Nawang Phuntsho, personally last month, and his expectations were practical modest when he said that "The development activities need not come directly to people's doorstep, but infrastructures like road will come by default. Kheng rig nam sum have been neglected and kept in the darkness for a while now." He shared that a 30 Km road in Zhemgang tool seventeen years to build, and he was very serious when he added that even a dung beetle could have covered the distance in so many years.
At this point I was intrigued as to why the development in Zhemgang has to be a byproduct of a project, shouldn't it be the right of people of Kheng to demand from the government? Are roads in all other Dzongkhags built because of the projects? Since when did development of infrastructure in a Dzongkhag become hydro project bait? If Zhemgang was treated at par with the rest of the Dzongkhags from early on would they ask for the project, having seen what happened in Punatshangchhu? I feel that Dasho Lekey Dorji should ask for roads and other infrastructures without strings attached and leave the hydropower project mess aside for the sake of larger things at stake.
Aue Yeshey Dorji in his article 'The Dark Side of Hydropower Projects' revealed the scary facts and sad realities that would break many of the popular myths. He concluded by stating why he started the petition;
...my cause is still not that of environment because I know that when you have a gaping hole in your tummy, environment will not fill it. My cause is still the economic devastation that we are already suffering as a result of these hydro-power projects that have gone horribly wrong!
My cause is still about keeping at least one of our rivers free flowing - for the cause of our future generations. My cause is about bequeathing that river to the name of a giant of a man whose private angst at the destruction of the environment is well known.
Article 5.4 of the Constitution of Bhutan states that, “Parliament may enact environmental legislation to ensure sustainable use of natural resources and maintain intergenerational equity and reaffirm the sovereign rights of the State over its own biological resources.”
"Intergenerational Equity" means not exploiting every river during our time, and "the sovereign right of the State over its own biological resources" means not letting a foreign force decide for us. If it was really about electricity and not about invading our waters then why don't we dam the Punatshangchhu two more times? After all our rivers are mostly fed by rain, which means the more southward we take our dams more the water. Why exploit another river?
When I signed the petition it was never about the choice between Chamkhar Chhu over Zhemgang, it was about our Country. Therefore I urge all the people who signed the petition to raise your voice for development in Zhemgang too. Zhemgang should get its fair share of development with or without any project. It will only be fair if you fight for the people of Zhemgang as you fight for the river.