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Bhutan Memoirs

Building a road to a better economy in Bhutan

Lisa Napoli Feb 9, 2011
Bhutan Memoirs

Building a road to a better economy in Bhutan

Lisa Napoli Feb 9, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is, as you may know, an economically interesting place. It doesn’t have much use for traditional measures of progress. It tracks Gross National Happiness, not gross domestic product. Until 40-odd years ago, it didn’t have any paved roads at all. Even now a quarter of its population doesn’t live anywhere near a road, paved or otherwise. But they’d like to.

Over the past couple of years, Bhutan’s first democratically elected parliament has been making good on a promise to build roads to the most remote of mountain villages. Lisa Napoli explores at how a single smoothed-out strip of dirt has changed life for residents one village in eastern Bhutan.

Lisa Napoli: For centuries, to get to the village of Chali, people had to trek several miles up a steep mountain path. A tiny hamlet of 2,300, Chali’s main landmark is a 14th century Buddhist temple.

Sound of prayer wheels ringing

But about six months ago a new sound started to compete with these sacred prayer wheels.

Sound of car rumbling

Trucks and cars. Government officials cut a dirt road into the side of the mountain. It’s bumpy and winding and no wider than an SUV. But it’s given Chali an economic boost. It’s much easier now to get basic supplies to the village.

Ugyen Norbu is the district administrator of Chali. He says now people don’t have to walk like they used to.

Ugyen Norbu: Originally, they had to carry everything on their backs, now they drive it here.

Miles from the village in the valley below, Chali residents can now sell their abundant produce at a small farm stand. Instead of lugging it down the mountain, they pool resources and hire a car.

An elderly woman named Chuki is peddling lemons and squash.

Chuki: I’m old now, the road makes it more comfortable.

The road to Chali is part of more than 100 miles that have been graded for vehicle traffic in this district alone. All around Bhutan, the government’s trying to stem the tide of migration from rural areas to towns by making life easier and more prosperous in the villages.

Chali mayor Sonam Tshering says the mobility the road allows has certainly been a boon to his people.

Sonam Tshering: There’s been improvement after the road. People are getting richer everyday, 100 percent better day by day.

District administrator Ugyen Norbu says it’s not just financial. The more people who visit the village, and the more the villagers can travel, the broader their thinking will be. For himself, the first thing he did when the road was finished was to get a friend with a car to drive up and bring him a television.

Sound of music on TV

From Chali, Bhutan, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Lisa first went to Bhutan while she was working here — she used to be a reporter for us — and came across the village of Chali in her travels through the more remote parts of that country.

You can see a video of the village and an excerpt from her new book, “Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth,” on our new book blog, The Big Book.

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