In 1999, the government under the newly formed CCM decided to create the “Thimphu Structure Plan” (or TSP), the supposed mother of all master plans for the city. This plan introduced a new environmental concept for Bhutan known as the ‘green belt’ river buffer.

The concept drew its ‘legitimacy’ from the Forest Act that disallowed the extraction of any forest natural resources from within 30m of the river bank on. The TSP expanded on the rule by disallowing any development within 30m from major rivers and 15m from streams. It defined ‘development’ as basically anything man made from buildings to electric poles to roads.

The justification for this was to protect the ‘delicate riparian eco-system’. In addition, based on sound environmental logic, many other areas were reserved as protected areas within the city limits.

The primary problem with the new rule was that it made no proper rules for dealing with compensating for land that fell within the greenbelt. It seems to have simply assumed that all land near the river would be government land. It also seems to have assumed that the government land would automatically respect the new rule. As it turns out, they were wrong on both counts.

The other troublesome aspect of the rule is that it impacted on the rights permitted by the Land Act, a nationally legislated law through a new regulation simply written up by a consultant and approved by a non-legislative body, the Council of Cabinet Ministers or CCM.

During implementation, where possible, the plots of land falling within the greenbelt were shifted out of the greenbelt without loss to the land owners. But there was no solution when this wasn’t possible. The benefit of developing land was denied without any compensation. This was made worse from 2011 when the revised urban land taxes were applied even on land that fell within this no-development zone.

After a decade long period of implementation since the TSP was passed however, the track record can only be described as checkered. The government, which is the major landholder along the riverbelt, has been the primary breaker of the rule, doing everything the greenbelt rule did not allow.

The logic of the green belt has been totally forgotten even by the planners themselves. The expressway for example, which is a road and clearly not permitted within the greenbelt by the TSP, is in parts actually built inside the river. Electric poles are regularly planted without any fuss along the river. This necessitates the regular trimming of riverside trees by the power corporation’s linemen whenever branches are seen to threaten the electric lines. The linemen demonstrate keen foresight by skipping the process of climbing up and trimming the offending branches by simply lopping the entire tree down. This is not permitted even by the Forest Act but happens regularly. In fact, one could argue that it is due to the electric lines that every tree within x metres in either direction of the lines are cut without a second thought.

Although easily falling in the definition of ‘development’, roads, drains, sewage lines etc are all freely installed within the green belt.

What also deserves greater scrutiny is the benefit that having a greenbelt 30m wide provides. There seems to be an assumption that there is such as protecting the river edge as mentioned already, keeping the sewage out of the water system, keeping rubbish from the settlements, protecting the natural vegetation of the river bank etc etc.

We know now that these are all assumptions. When the government itself is building concrete retaining walls along the river bank and even claiming river flood plains for children’s parks, this logic is clearly flawed. Kitchen waste from every house in Thimphu as far up as Motithang, flows into the storm drain system, which ultimately flows into Thimphu Chhu. Why? Because the two are conveniently connected. Many sewage waste lines open directly into the river, and 30m is no great distance to cover for those aiming to save on a septic tank.

More examples available in this article Cherry Pickin’ Environmentalism.

The reality is that the greenbelt rule has become, like many other rules, a dead regulation that exists just because nobody has the wherewithal (brains, common sense, sense of responsibility etc) to sweep away public inconveniences that serve no purpose.

The lessons from Thimphu have now been exported to all other Dzongkhag’s of Bhutan with new structure plans cropping up everywhere. As expected questions are raised again. While Sarpang’s structure plan also mandates the requirement of a greenbelt with all the inconveniences associated with it, their ‘green belt’ is bound by a concrete belt along the river edge destroying the very ‘delicate riparian ecosystem’ they are purporting to protect, and by design no less. And nobody seems to notice.

The irony is that while the greenbelt rule is iron-clad lacking in any flexibility, the forest act, from where the greenbelt rule draws its justification, is actually very flexible if permits are properly processed. So why doesn’t the municipality introduce a degree of flexibility when they are clearly unable to compensate the people? It is possible to ‘ecologically’ develop the river bank, as they are now doing beside Thimphu dzong.

An ecological memorial??
Where are the Green Zones
Cherry Pickin’ Environmentalism
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