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Infrastructure, a silent gobbler of arable land
Gyembo Namgyal, July 25, 2013
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As the country sees a fast pace of infrastructure development taking place even in the far-flung villages, there is a corresponding loss of arable land, a study reveals. And given that only less than eight percent of Bhutan’s land is suitable for cultavation, there may be a need for proper consultation and studies in the future for major infrastructure development initiated anywhere to minimise loss of arable land.

“It is important for any development to take into consideration data and statistics available in order to make responsible decisions for a holistic development using available data at our disposal. But unfortunately, this is not happening,” said Bikash Chhettri, the dzongkhag statistical officer (DSO) of Pemagatshel, who has undertaken a case study on the loss of arable land to infrastructure development in the dzongkhag.

He said that in most cases, each organisation is bent on taking care of its own interest and fails to understand future implications site selection for infrastructure. “Almost all infrastructure development has taken place on arable land to suit construction ease, not realising that it will only lead to future expansion, triggering more land acquisition, which will lead to shrinking of non-expandable arable land,” he said.

He said that it is time to arrest this trend and save whatever little arable land there is for food production. “Infrastructure can and must be built on non-arable land,” he said.

The best example of the possibility of building infrastructure on difficult area is demonstrated by Shumar Gewog when it built a two storeyed store on a rocky plot of land, squeezed between its approach roads. “This is how we must ideally go about with our construction,” said the DSO.

Through the case study, he found that the total loss of arable land to infrastructure like road, houses, community centres, RNR and gewog centres, towns, parking, footpath, and drainage, among others, has reduced the total arable land in Pemagatshel by more than 13 square kilometres or about 3,326 acres of land.

“This enables us to understand how fast we are losing limited arable land and whether we can afford to lose more in the face of increasing population and land fragmentation taking place during each generation,” he said.

Bikash said the study will empower the people to make proper decisions on whether to allow future infrastructure development to take place on arable land or have them built elsewhere and save the small arable land for food production.

His report says that out of 1,023 sq km of the dzongkhag’s land area, 89.8 percent is under forest cover, leaving just 10.2 percent or 104 sq km for crop production. The 400 or so km of various roads with 30 metres road’s right of way alone eats up about 12 sq km of the land. Assuming that about 30 percent of these roads cuts across arable land, roads have already gobbled up, up to 3.6 sq km (889.579) acres of land.

Other structures like houses, toilets and community structures like lhakhangs and choetens also occupies substantial arable land even in the villages. But this age-old land use cannot be done away with abruptly. What planners and builders must be cautious about in view of the limited arable land is where modern amenities are built.

Shumar Gup Lepo said that it makes sense to take a closer look at where infrastructure is built in the future. “Land fragmentation will continue to accelerate and thus with every fragmentation within a family’s landholding, some portion is always going to be lost for construction of houses. We cannot change this trend but we can reduce the loss of arable land if government infrastructure is planned to save arable land.”

According to dzongkhag agriculture officer Kiran Subedi, the agriculture ministry is concerned about the loss of arable land and hence has come up with various strategies. “At one time, RNR centre in a gewog alone can hold up to five acres of land but now all structures within a gewog, including gup’s office, have to be accommodated within half an acre. There are other ceilings for infrastructure as well,’ he said.

Bikash said that situation in urban and semi-urban areas, where land is not used for crop production but to build houses and generate cash, is even worse. “Our people may become rich that way but who will feed us and what implications does it hold for our quest for food self-sufficiency?” he asks.

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