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Geley Norbu, Thimphu Municipality, Bhutan – Land Pooling and Readjustment – A success story in Bhutan

By on September 30, 2016
Lecturer - profile

Geley Norbu


Main affiliation
Thimphu Municipality, Bhutan






Mr. Geley Norbu is the chief urban planner at Thimphu Municipality. He was a Fulbright fellow at MIT where he studied a special course in Urban and Regional Studies. He holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the National Indian Institute of Technology, Bhopal, India. He has worked as a senior urban planner for the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement from 2002-2009. During the transition period of establishing the municipal local government he served as the Executive Secretary of the Thimphu Municipality. He is passionate about urban planning and management systems, policy analysis, land, housing, poverty, socio-economic inequality, and issues related to environment and climate change.

English Proficiency

Previous experience of recording video lectures

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Frequency of lectures

Recording opportunities
Habitat III attendance and availability
October 2016


Main themes
Urban Management

Land Pooling and Readjustment – A success story in Bhutan

To share the story of land pooling and readjustment in Bhutan: Success, challenges and the way forward (applicable to most developing countries)

Issues which the lecture addresses
Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, has been grappling with a number of issues that impact its ability to achieve its vision to make the city “the best of what the country can be.” Significant rural-to-urban migration has led to population increases, land fragmentation, and ad hoc development. The already inadequate urban infrastructure and services are overwhelmed by increased demand. The sub-urban areas are characterized by haphazard developments that constrain proper planning and add to urban challenges. The planning, administration, and management of the city is entrusted to the Thimphu Thromde (municipality), which is also working under immense constraints given limited legal frameworks and weak institutional arrangements.

In 1999, the urban area of Thimphu was expanded from 8 to 26 square kilometers. The first comprehensive master plan was prepared in 2000 and was approved by the Cabinet in 2003. Before the approval of the 2002-2027 Thimphu Structure Plan (TSP) by the Council of Cabinet Ministers in February 2003, the TSP went through around 20 rigorous public consultations with various stakeholders including land and property owners.
The implementation of the TSP required the preparation of Local Area Plans (LAP) which would show the details of infrastructure networks and other amenities. Accordingly, 14 LAPs were prepared for the extended areas using the land pooling technique. Each LAP encompasses an area of about one square kilometer that is expected to accommodate a population of around 12,000 people with all the convenient services and amenities accessible within walking distance. Currently these LAPs are at various stages of implementation.

Short analysis of the above issues
Prior to the preparation of the TSP and the drafting of subsequent LAPs, the government acquired lands from farmers for the development of urban centers and public facilities. This would involve the creation of regular-shape plots that were then serviced and allotted to the business community. As the time passed, this process was criticized and contested by the property owners citing the reasons listed below:
• The compensation offered by the government was unfair because it was always less than the prevailing market value.
• The lands were acquired from the farmers and were allotted as serviced plots to the business community.
• The educated, rich, and the powerful were advantaged in their access to information.
• The planning process was not transparent.
• Plans were prepared in a top-down fashion, and there were hardly any public consultations.
• A few people owning a vast expanse of land kept their land idle for speculative purposes, leading to distortions in the land and housing markets.
• Urban life was deteriorating due to limited and/or lack of funding sources for infrastructure investment.
• All too often, development plans were prepared hastily by the consultants without a complete understanding of the reality on the ground.
• Reviews of plans were also prepared quickly, and their recommendations were normally ignored.

In view of these inadequacies and challenges, the government introduced land pooling as an alternative tool for urban development. Simultaneously, during the preparation of the master plan for Thimphu, the government initiated rigorous public consultation and detailed assessments of the socio-cultural, traditional, and environmental aspects of the localities.
The most important aspect of Thimphu’s experience was the introduction of land pooling to help reduce the cost of implementing the LAPs. It is important to note that land pooling did not have legal “teeth” until the passing of the Local Government Act (2009, 69), which defines land pooling as “a planning technique to redefine ownership of land in such a way that: (1) the shape and configuration of plots is more appropriate for urban structures and uses, and (2) the size of all plots is reduced by an agreed proportion to create sufficient public and planned provision of roads, infrastructure, social facilities, open space and reserve plots.”

The landowners within the land pooling area contributed between 15 to 30 percent of their land for the construction of roads, footpaths, open spaces, schools, neighborhood nodes and other public amenities. This arrangement provided land for local infrastructure development without resorting to eminent domain to acquire private land. The Thimphu Municipality was responsible for building the infrastructure, which was financed mostly through loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
After the completion of the LAPs for Thimphu, other towns in Southern Bhutan such as Damphu, Gelephu, and Samchi followed suit. By 2004, Thimphu completed the planning of twelve LAPs that are currently at various stages of implementation. All of these LAPs are equally unique and worthy of discussion independently. The case study focuses on Lungtenphu.

Propositions for addressing the issue
(a) When land pooling was initially introduced in the 14 LAPs of Thimphu, there was strong resistance from the public. Several people even took the government to court. This was primarily due to a lack of trust in the government. Thimphu had a history of using eminent domain to acquire private land for urban development. The property owners of Thimphu had to give away their land for the construction of the expressway, sewer lines, sewer treatment plant, Changjiji housing project, schools, etc. The landowners were reminded of the bitter past. The limited awareness and dissemination of information to the public also led people to be suspicious of the government’s intention. This, in turn, was attributable to the lack of capacity and knowledge in the bureaucracy. In 2007 the entire country had less than ten professional urban planners. To make matters worse, there were no actual examples of land pooling in Bhutan. The case of land pooling in Thimphu was an example of learning by doing. It was an exercise where every stakeholder was working together amidst an atmosphere of suspicion and constraints on building trust between the government and citizens. Keeping the project on schedule would have helped engender trust.

(b) Land pooling in Thimphu was also a process of building neighborly and friendly relations among people. The process helped build a foundation of strong democratic principles – participation, collaboration, responsibility, transparency, accountability and enriching the culture and tradition through interactions during public consultations and meetings. The numerous public consultations and meetings followed by several site visits and one-on-one discussions helped the Municipality build a culture of good governance that was almost nonexistent during the inception of land pooling in 2000.

(c) Bhutan did not have any legislation that would guide or legitimize the planning functions of the government. The only legislation that existed at the time of preparing the TSP was the Municipal Act of 1999, which was deficient in guiding the planning process. This Local Government Act also deals more with the administration and management of the local governments and is deficient in guiding the plan making process. The Land Pooling Rules were approved only in 2009. By then, 12 LAPs were already approved for implementation. Despite the lack of any legal framework and the High Court ruling against land pooling, Thimphu went ahead with the project. Leadership played a crucial role, supported by enthusiastic consultants, government officials, and community representatives. The then-Deputy Minister was thoroughly convinced of the benefits of land pooling, and he led the team of government planners and city managers in conducting numerous public meetings, consultations, and open house discussions. This effort slowly took root and helped convince the public, so much so that even the ones who took the government to court became staunch supporters of land pooling.

(d) Implementation of the LAPs was delayed due to aspects of centralization of the land administrative and management powers (such as: prolonged bureaucratic procedures of surveying, transfer of plots, issuance of new titles) and lack of trust in the local government. The central land agency often conducted independent surveys without the knowledge of the local authorities and created new problems. Sometimes an entire plan had to be redone. A case in point is the complete re-planning of the Langjophakha LAP, where everything had to be revised because of excess land regularization by the Land Commission. Decentralization of powers of land administration and management to local authorities may expedite the implementation of land pooling.

(e) It is important to have qualified and trained people to work on land pooling. Regular training sessions for staff dealing with land pooling are needed. If land pooling is to be treated as a trust-building process and a relationship builder at local, neighborhood, community, and individual levels, people working for this process need to be motivated. The simplest form of motivation that does not cost much is proper appreciation and recognition of the work done by the government officials.

(f) It is also important to form a dedicated team to work on land pooling. Thimphu’s LAPs suffered from the lack of a devoted multi-disciplinary team from the very beginning, resulting in implementation delays. At a minimum, the core team should comprise a dedicated local project manager (preferably a planner), an urban planner, a legal officer, a survey team, and a few representatives of the landowners.

(g) Conducting as many public meetings as possible helps people become aware of the benefits of land pooling. Although it is quite taxing for the staff and the general public, it will ultimately pay off. Public meetings held during the weekends generate more attendance from the property owners because most people do not have to go to work. It is also advisable to use different mass media (e.g., television, radio, national and local newspaper, panel discussions on television, internet and open house discussions) to educate the public about land pooling. Numerous site visits, with meetings at local government offices and face-to-face discussions with landowners, are also very useful for information dissemination and education.

(h) It is always easier to deal with a smaller number of landowners. It is advisable to divide the area into sub-sections for implementation purposes, with areas having greatest land-owner support for land pooling identified as a top priority for implementation. When the property owners of the remaining or adjoining areas see the physical improvements, they will be willing to go along with the proposal (or at least give it a second thought). However, in the process of negotiation, it is advisable not to make many commitments or compromises that deviate from the main objectives of the master plan. The master plan needs to be followed carefully. Land pooling is not just about creating plots accessible to roads and other infrastructure but also a tool to implement the master plan.

(i) It is advisable to get property owners to sign an agreement on land pooling once they have reached agreement after having adequate time to think through the proposals and make their own decision. The agreement should be designed with as much detail as possible to avoid future complications. Seeking advice on this format from a legal professional is advisable. Holding a large number of effective and meaningful meetings (e.g., opportunities for stakeholders to have their questions answered and their opinions heard) with a broad range of stakeholders (i.e., going beyond just the involved land owners to include spouses, for example, and community leaders, etc.) to explain the plan and reminding the people about the larger public interest is a useful investment of time and resources, provided the opinions are earnestly considered as the planning/implementation process proceeds.

(j) Electing local voluntary representatives/leaders (apart from council members) of the group of land and property owners of a locality also can help to broaden awareness and sharing of information and can facilitate the implementation process. However, such representatives/leaders should be well respected and have high integrity. In case of Thimphu, at least three representatives were elected from each LAP. Some modest compensation for their time and effort expended could be considered so that they take the duties seriously.

(k) Thimphu suffered from bad record keeping, especially with regard to public meetings, media coverage, and the signed land pooling agreement forms submitted by the landowners. It was unacceptable that landowners had to sign the land pooling agreement multiple times, simply because the city officials had either lost or misplaced the earlier signed form. This indicated to the participating owners that the public officials were not serious, which further affected the level of trust and confidence in managing the project. Interestingly, few property owners took advantage of such a complacent system by denying their previous agreements with the city. Fortunately, most of these inconsistencies happened in the past. Presently, the process has become much easier and faster because of improvements in record keeping and management.

(l) Although it will entail tremendous time and effort to reach a point where every landowner is comfortable with and agrees to the land pooling, it is advisable to seek unanimous agreement if possible. Even one individual can and may drag the authorities to the court and prolong the implementation process. Furthermore, having universal agreement achieved through a robust and meaningful consultation process would be viewed positively when the project is funded by donor agencies that are concerned about litigation and other complications. Although in the case of Thimphu, the rule required consensus from a three-fourths majority, the municipality had worked hard to achieve 100 percent agreement in many LAPs. In the worst case, the few who adamantly disagree with a plan may be left out of the project in the interest of the majority. They may, however, continue to reap the benefits of the project without contributing to the investment. The government may have to study how to indirectly get everyone to contribute fairly to the community efforts.

(m) The municipality may also explore ways to capture the land value increments generated by land pooling for financing social housing and other pro-poor initiatives. This is important especially in the case of Thimphu because the land pooling projects have not been inclusive with respect to the poor, renters, and underprivileged residents. Self-financing the project, if possible, will offer several benefits, the most important of which is the community’s sense of ownership. The past project did not consider this aspect because getting landowners’ consensus to land contribution was the top priority. Besides funding for infrastructure investment was available from the Asian Development Bank, without which a more aggressive approach to capturing land value would have been adopted.

(n) It is also very important to have clear and updated cadastral maps and land information to facilitate land pooling. Inaccurate information will lead to delay and bring in legal complications at some point in the planning and implementation processes. In the case of Thimphu, one of the delays was caused by the mismatch in the land records and actual situations on the ground.

(o) It is advisable to engage the public — in a meaningful, robust and inclusive way — at all stages of planning and implementation. Such initiatives offer numerous intangible benefits that help build trust, community vitality, and good governance. Planning and implementation of land pooling projects require sustained efforts coupled with patience and perseverance.

(p) It is important to remember that building and nurturing trust begins with small and seemingly insignificant or casual activities such as conducting physical, social, and economic surveys. Therefore, people engaged in these activities will need to be trained on customer care and public relations.

(q) While participation is important, it could prove counterproductive if it is not inclusive. In the case of Thimphu, propertied groups dominated public participation. Although all concerned residents were invited to the meetings and discussions, it was rare for the tenants and non-propertied residents to participate in these events. However, the tenants and those who did not own land were brought more formally into the process during implementation. Based on the World Bank’s resettlement policy, households who did not have a direct stake in the project were provided appropriate assistance in terms of relocation allowance and demolition compensation. This government action came as a surprise to the people. However, it is recommended that they should be included in public participation in the future projects.

All the above points should be incorporated into detailed, yet flexible, guidelines for land pooling. The guidelines should specify what should be done at the inception, planning, and implementation stages. Such a guideline will be immensely helpful for all stakeholders to engage in the discussion of land redevelopment.

Additional Reading Materials

Draft presentation