Thursday, March 1, 2018

70 days of labor contribution that shaped our economy

When Bhutan finally woke up to the era of modernization in 1960s after centuries of self-imposed isolation, we had to walk an extra mile to catch up with the rest of the world particularly in the field of modern infrastructural development. The construction of Bhutan’s first road, the Phuntsholing-Thimphu National Highway which began in 1960 brought a lot of new hopes and dreams for Bhutan’s economy as people knew that it would pave the way for smooth flow of trade with India. However due to the shortage of national labor force, people had to be conscripted from all corners of the country to contribute to the project. As a result, all the adult Bhutanese got the opportunity to be part of the national workforce that shaped our economy at the beginning of our modern history. Both men and women left their families behind and came forward to contribute to the project as laborers for 70 days after which they were replaced by their siblings or relatives.

My father-in-law, 74-year-old Sukman Rai and his 76-year-old brother, Bal Bdr Rai from Sibsoo under Samtse Dzongkhag still recall how they toiled under the sun and rain when they worked on the road in early 1960s. With no sophisticated machinery in place such as excavators and bulldozers which we see today, people had to carry out the entire work manually. They only had spades, shovels, digging bars and crowbars to work with and they had to push their way through the ordeal, negotiating with the harsh climate and unfriendly topography. The road had to be literarily cut out of the rocky terrains and slopes and in the process, many people lost their lives. It was never an easy job even for skilled laborers. My father-in-law says that it used to take one entire day for two men to drill a rock with a digging bar just deep enough to fit the explosives to blast it out. It was a very tedious work. Even my late father who had also worked on the same road had similar stories to share.

Nevertheless, every inch of space they cleared in front of them every day brought them a great sense of accomplishment and joy. Their daily schedule began early in the morning and went on until late evening. They were paid Nu.2.00 per day which was enough for them to buy their monthly groceries and other supplies. Most of them lived on beaten rice and tea since they did not have enough time to cook special meals. But when they returned home after 70 days of hard work, they had quite a good saving with them for their families.

When the highway was finally inaugurated on May 3, 1968 by the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, the entire nation led by His Majesty the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck came together to acknowledge the sacrifices made by thousands of Bhutanese men and women in the successful completion of Bhutan’s first road. As His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck said during his opening remarks at the inaugural function, this national highway was built on the sweats and tears of Bhutanese people who toiled day and night to complete the project on time. The road marked a major milestone in the history of modern Bhutan since it reduced the travel time between Phuntsholing and Thimphu to just six hours from seven days and formally opened our economy to the outside market.

Today whenever I ply between Thimphu and Phuntsholing, I feel grateful to my late father and all those who had endured hardships in building this road. Had it not been for their hard work and selfless contributions, the road could not have come to shape on time. It is a symbol of pride for all of us whose parents and grandparents were part of the national workforce that built it. “People might think I am a useless old man, but I have built the Phuntsholing-Thimphu road” says my father-in-law’s elder brother, Bal Bdr Rai with a smile. This shows how much he is still proud of his achievement. It was this initiative of 70 days of labor contribution that shaped our economy at the beginning of our modern history. People came forward to contribute their labor in the construction of national highways, bridges and national monuments that are still visible today. Although the government of Bhutan had to seek financial assistance from external sources, we didn’t have to worry about the workforce. Our strength was in our unity.

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