SPURS/Humphrey Profile: Latha Chhetri

Interview with Latha Chhetri, 2013-2014 Humphrey Fellow, Bhutan

What do you do in Bhutan and what does your work involve? 
I work as Chief Urban Planner and head of the Urban Planning and Development Division in the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. My office is responsible for studying and proposing Urban Development Plans and recommending planning interventions and strategies for developing specific urban centers in Bhutan. We provide technical support to all the municipalities in the country in terms of planning, development, implementation, land management and other municipal affairs. We are responsible for coordination with all relevant stakeholders and agencies to see this through.

What brought you to planning? 
I did my undergraduate degree in civil engineering. After graduation we normally go through the civil service commission for our appointments, and I received my post not in engineering, but in planning. I was confused at the time, and didn't understand why as a civil engineer I was put in planning. Only later I realized they wanted to strengthen human resources in the Urban Planning sector. I began to work with the UN volunteers in Bhutan at the time, and came to understand what planning was all about. I slowly started developing an interest and worked as the counterpart with a consulting firm, which was preparing the Development Plan for the capital city of Bhutan. This experience working in the capital gave me more insight into the planning and design process, and this was when I realized that I really wanted to be a planner and designer. I then had the opportunity to do my masters in Urban Design and Development in Australia, and there was no looking back after that. 

What are some of the major challenges and opportunities for planning in Bhutan?
Bhutan in rapidly urbanizing and is undergoing rapid socio-economic changes.  Although we are a small country, suddenly we are seeing this unbalanced urbanization taking place, with very rapid rural-urban migration. This is a major challenge for a country in terms of balanced regional development, provision of services, and infrastructure. In terms of opportunities, Bhutan is still in its infancy in terms of development compared to other countries. Our development process started only in the 1960s, and urban development in effect began only in the 1970s. We still have a lot of opportunity to learn from other countries and make rational decisions, because most of our areas are still virgin and unspoiled. We hopefully still have the chance to protect our natural environment. 

What are some of the major questions or issues you are engaging with through SPURS? What does your program of study here involve? 
My focus at SPURS in on the challenge of rapid urbanization. I would like to see what other countries are going through during rapid urbanization and understand the challenges they are facing and what interventions and strategies they are using. I am taking courses on urbanization and land policies. Also, in Bhutan we use a tool called land pooling, or land readjustment schemes, where you pool the land from the land owners, put in services and amenities, and give it back to the land owners to develop in a propoer manner. This is also one of the schemes that MIT is exploring. We are required to do a 6-week professional affiliation, and I am planning to do this with Professor Hong, working on a project about the possibility of using land readjustment schemes for an areas in Cairo to determine if this is a feasible tool for resolving land issues in the context of Egypt.

What has been the most interesting part of the SPURS expeirence so far? What are you hoping to take back to Bhutan?
A lot! I really enjoy the program. I love my courses and the seminars such as the American Planning seminar we have every week. It's giving me insight about how American planning has developed, what we can learn or avoid from the American experience and where other countries could learn from us. The SPURS fellows come from many different countries and backgrounds and we have lots to learn from each other. Anything that I can learn from best practices, I'd like to document and take back home to see if it can be adapted in our situation. The site visits to organizations we have every Friday are also amazing for understanding how things happen on the ground. I look forward to taking all of these experiences, and the networks and collaborations we are building here, with me when I got back home and I hope to be able to make some difference in my organization.