Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bhutan's Historic Laser Surgery At The JDWNRH

Dear Rotarians,
We successfully conducted Bhutan’s first laser surgery last week on a patient suffering from precancerous lesion in her oral cavity. She was discharged the following day. I just want to express my sincere gratitude to all the Thimphu Rotarians for doing such a meaningful project. Without the Rotary initiative, the country would never have such state of the art technology at our disposal. The main advantages of laser being precise cutting, minimal tissue destruction, and very good wound healing. It has the capacity to nip the cancerous lesion at the bud when detected early.

Thank you all once again.
Phub Tshering
Consultant Head & Neck Surgeon
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital

Dr. Phub is a Member of the Rotary Club of Thimphu. He is talking of the country’s first laser medical equipment that the Rotary Club of Thimphu donated to the Jigme Dorji National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, in collaboration with some Clubs in Taiwan and the Rotary Foundation. The project cost a whooping Nu.12.00++ million including training course for 3 JDWNRH medical staff in Taiwan, in the use and care of the CO2 laser equipment.

The donation of the CO2 laser is our Club’s latest donation to the country’s health sector. This is also our single largest service project. With the successful delivery of this project, the Rotary Club of Thimphu’s cumulative donation in the health sector totals Nu.26.342 million. But that is still less than half of our support to the Education sector.

Lasers  in ENT and Head Neck Surgery 
Laser stands for Light Amplication by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. There are different lasers in use such as the CO2 Laser, Nd: YAG, KTP, Argon etc. Their main differentiating features is their wavelength which can be used in contact and non contact modes. Out of these many choices, CO2 laser is the mainstay of lasers for use in ENT and head neck surgery.

CO2 lasers is the most widely used, well understood and well studied of the medical lasers. It is used for incision, excision and vaporization of tissues. It has a wavelength of 10.6 micron, which is ideal as a precise cutting tool for lesions located on delicate structures. CO2 Laser is a proven technology that is now adopted all over the world by the department of ENT and Head Neck surgery.

Lumenis  Acu pulse  CO2 Laser system  (the one donated by Rotary Club of Thimphu)  enjoys reputation as one of the leading CO2 laser systems in the world and Lumenis is the leading company for manufacturer of laser systems worldwide.

CO2 laser has the following applications in the Department for ENT and Head & Neck surgery:

1. Oral cavity – excision of early cancerous lesions, benign lesions and precancerous lesions.
2. Larynx – excision of lesions of the such as polyps, laryngeal papillomatosis, cysts, granulomas, vaporization of bulky obstructing, phonosurgery, vocal cord cordectomy etc.
3. Nose – excision and debulking of turbinates. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Imported Energy Cheaper Than Our Own

Wangcha Sangey says it all in his Blog:

“…….. Presently Bhutan gets less than Rs. 2.00 per unit for export to India. And domestic average rate is around Nu: 3 to 4 per unit…..

Many CEOs related to electricity production and distribution in Bhutan have received red scarfs. In return each of them have come up with different calculations of high domestic power rate to oppress the Bhutanese home consumers…..”

He is obviously livid with frustration. So am I … this is precisely the point I have been making for years.

We are supposed to be a net exporter of electricity. We say that we generate thousands of megawatts of electricity. In doing the hydropower projects, we devastate our ecology. We shackle our river systems to eternal bondage. We enslave many generations of Bhutanese with hundreds of billions of loan money at 10% interest. And after all that, we queue up at the fuel stations for hours, to buy imported energy.

Why is our own energy source beyond our reach? What explanation can there be that the owners of the hydropower projects – the Bhutanese people – have to pay twice the amount charged for export? Where is the logic in exporting energy, only to spend more to import? Please do not tell me that we do so to earn Indian Rupees. That reason would be totally flawed. If that were true, Indian Rupee would be oozing out of our ears. On the contrary, the truth is that we are strapped with billions of Ngultrums in Indian Rupee loans, at 10% interest.

Successive governments have suffered paucity of morality. Today the issue of vehicle quota remains sidelined. Each of the country’s regulatory authorities know of the crime that continues to be committed. All the luminaries that make up the Pay Commissions constituted so far did nothing about this shameful and blatant act of crime - because all of them gained personally by allowing this corruption to be perpetuated.

We all look up to our leaders to provide leadership, to lead by example, to do the honorable thing, to work for the good of the country and the people. But when they fail time and again, when they think of their own benefits over national interests, we as a nation is in great danger of peril.

I feel very sad and discouraged.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Looking for Old Bhutanese Coins

The Royal Government of Bhutan struck Thala coins for the first time in 1928. Some 20,000 of them were struck. The design of the coin was done by the Englishman Mr. A. P. Spencer of the Calcutta Mint, India. It is said that this design was his finest work. The following is one of the pieces. Unfortunately, as you can see, the word “DRUK” was wrongly rendered.

Click on the image to enlarge

The mistake was detected and corrected in 1929 when 30,000 of the coins were struck. The following is the corrected version.

Click on the image to enlarge

I have been trying to locate the above corrected version but cannot find them. They seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I fear that whole lot of them have been melted down and turned into Chakar or Trimi or Koma or Koma Jabtha. If you posses any, please let me know so that I can take a photo of it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Vehicle Quota - A State Sponsored Crime

The KUENSEL of 6th June, 2019 reporting on the issue the Vehicle Quota writes as follows:

“The Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and equivalent positions, members of parliament, and term-based appointments also have an option to monetize their vehicle quota for Nu.1.5 million (M).

The introduction of such options comes with certain conditions. The finance ministry will strictly enforce that the vehicle quota shall not be transferred/sold, the quotable holder shall be liable to pay the applicable taxes and duties on the original CIF value of the vehicle……..”.

I am not too clear on what is being said – but I get the sense that what this means is that the above named posts are being allowed vehicle quota with an option to monetize them, should they choose to. But what is coming through very clearly is that these select beneficiaries will be monitored by the Finance Ministry and the vehicle quota rule will be enforced “strictly”.

We already have a vehicle quota rule in place, since many decades – the most recent one being the one that was revised in 2014 under the PDP government. Therefore it is not correct to speak as if the rule was never there. Please read about the rule at the following:

Since the vehicle quota came into being from the mid 70’s, thousands of vehicle quota entitlements have been issued. And we all know - the RAA, the ACC, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, the Chief Justice, the Chief of Police - even the rat catcher in the streets - that the bulk of the quotas would have been sold with impunity. These people knew very well that they were breaking a law - but that did not prevent them from committing the crime. And yet, think of one incident where a criminal has been charged for the crime of selling the vehicle quota - not a single one to date!

Therefore please do not say that the Ministry of Finance will this time be able to curtail this shameful crime that is becoming a state sponsored corruption. If you think this “strict Finance Ministry enforcement” will change anything, you are mistaken. Please read the following and wisen up!

During the talk I gave to 48 guide trainees few weeks back, I had said that it is simple to be yourself – you cannot make a mistake in being what you naturally are. It is when you try to be someone else whom you are not, the trouble begins. Let us therefore understand ourselves and design our regulations accordingly.

It is for this reason I believe that the only way to effectively fight “fronting” and “undercutting” is to bring some morality into our value system. If not our endeavors will continue to remain a challenge forever. Remember that the malice that is fronting has been in existence since the advent of modernity. The battle to eradicate fronting is not new - we have not succeeded so far because the most unexpected of them are into it.

Consider this:
The first thing the lawmakers - the MPs - do is begin their law making journey by committing an act of crime - selling their vehicle quota. The first thing the civil servants do when they attain a P3A level, they start by breaking a law. Obviously not all do it - but more than most do it.

You know it would be interesting to go through the records of the Ministry of Finance and find out which of the quota receivers have received how many quota vehicles and where they are now. In fact it would be quite revealing to know which persons took how many quota allocation letters in their life time - nothing of malice - merely an exercise in academia.

We would all provably be shocked at the findings!

I urge the DNT government and the present set of law makers to monetize all the vehicle quota entitlements - if they believe that we have the financial resources to do so. But there should be no quota system at all.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

DNT’s Daant: Khaane Ke Ya Dikhaane Ke?

The present set of lawmakers need to seriously consider what they will be imperiling – should they choose not to be responsible – when they discuss the issue of vehicle quota in the coming days.

I spoke about this on this Blog some four years back – but I want to speak about it once again so that the issue remains in the public attention.

I believe that not many of the Hon’ble Members of Parliament of the NA & NC are aware of the fact that the payments for the hydropower projects – both 70% loan at 10% interest and 30% grant – do not come into the coffers of either the GNH or the Ministry of Finance. It goes directly into various bank accounts of the power projects – most likely in the Indian banks in Hasimara or Alipur Duars.

Against the above backdrop, consider that almost 70% of the fossil fuel imported by Bhutan is said to be consumed by various hydropower projects around the country. So, what is the implication here? The implication here is that this scam has long term implications the impact of which we have already felt in a variety of forms – energy trade imbalance, Rupee crisis, depleting foreign currency reserve, poor control over project fund disbursement, poor stewardship resulting in rampant corruption etc.

The vehicle quota exasperates this problem further - because every vehicle quota generates two vehicle imports - the more you import the more you compromise the hydropower benefit, if any.

In Bhutan’s context hydropower is not an end to a means – it has to be seen as a means to an end.

The Parliamentarians will do well to remember what the World Bank's economist Dr. Martin Rama said about Bhutan’s duty exemptions and tax holidays:

 “…… the decline in tax revenue in relation to GDP is not due to a change in tax instruments or in tax rates, but because of policy decisions of tax holidays and exemptions. Sales Tax exemptions result in 50 percent of foregone revenue. Further around 63 percent of all imported commodities are exempted from Custom Duties.”

“Instead of losing the tax revenue to exemptions that are not rational, management of taxation could also play a vital role in attaining fiscal self-sufficiency.”

The vehicle quota debate has been going on for a long time – nothing has come of it so far. Look at what the Ex-Prime Minister had written in 2009, when he was the Opposition Leader:

There is a very nice Indian saying that goes, Hathi ke daant dikhaane ke kuch aur khaane ke kuch aur. Meaning: The elephant is equipped with two sets of teeth – one for display and the other to chew with.

During PDP’s five years tenure, the RSTA reported that the country recorded the highest percentage increase in new motor vehicle registrations. Obviously the PDP’s teeth that were on display was the display set.

Lets see what the DNT will display.

Friday, June 7, 2019

No More IDEC For Import of Private Vehicles

I became entitled to a Vehicle Quota in 1979. I wanted to buy a TOYOTA Corona sedan. The CIF Phuentsholing price then was Nu.64,000.00. The problem was - I did not have the money. However, the Bank of Bhutan was offering 50% of the cost price as loan which meant that I needed Nu.32,000.00. I did not have that either. So I travelled all the way to Gelephu to speak to my favorite uncle to ask him for a loan. He looked at me and said; "You are asking the bank for 50% loan of the cost … and you are asking me for the other 50% as a loan. This means you are buying your famous TOYOTA Corona car with 100% loan. Tell me, how are you going to be able to repay the loan?" I said; "I do not know."

He said; "Forget it – I will give you the asking Nu.32,000.00 free – go and buy your car." Nu.32,000.00 in 1979 was a whole lot of money – but my late uncle loved me dearly.

When I returned to the STCB in Phuentsholing to make my portion of the down payment of Nu.32,000.00, I was informed that I need to put in Nu.34,000.00 and not Nu.32,000.00, because the price of the car had appreciated since I last spoke to them. I was crestfallen – I did not have the additional Nu.2,000.00. Thus my chance to use my vehicle quota to import a car slipped away and that was the first and last time I ever attempted to use a vehicle quota in my life.

Those days the civil servants were of a different vein – they never misused the vehicle quota entitlement for monetary gains.

Much later, after I resigned from the civil service and became successful in business, I became financially capable to own a car – I did own few of them over the years - but I never bought a vehicle quota. I do not intend to begin to do so now.

Truth be told, the most significant segment of my life’s journey began as a consequence of this vehicle quota and my inability to use it – a story to be told another day.

Having posted my article on the Vehicle Quota issue yesterday, I learnt from the KUENSEL that the vehicle quota is being proposed to be monetized. I am encouraged – but not entirely happy with all of the proposals.

It seems that some will still be allowed quota and import of vehicles. It is said that the Ministry of Finance will monitor and enforce the rules strictly. Is this a joke? Are we saying that the rule that the vehicle quotas shall not be sold or transferred was not there already? Has it prevented the beneficiaries from selling them with impunity? In fact the talk going around sometime back was that the MPs had formed a syndicate and had fixed a TOYOTA Prado’s quota selling price at Nu.2.5 million.

I urge the government and the lawmakers to forget this import allocation to some select group of people. I can guarantee you that it will continue to be misused, as in the past. The morality of the Bhutanese people has not undergone a sea change in the last year or so. Recall the shameful incident that occurred with respect to vehicle quota, at the start of the PDP tenure. If the government is in the mood to be generous, allocate a fixed sum of vehicle allowance to this select group of people – but please do away entirely with the quota. No IDEC should be issued ever for import of private vehicles – everyone should pay the duties and taxes. The select group of people for whom import quota is contemplated can use the allowance to pay for the duties and taxes.

Let us begin the process of mending the moral decay that has set in into the Bhutanese morality.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Begin The Journey Of Restitution Of Our Morality

Yesterday a Member of the Parliament called me to say that the 4th Pay Commission’s recommendations have been tabled for discussion. Thus I believe that it is time that I make one more attempt to urge the ruling government and the present set of lawmakers to do the right thing. I urge them not to let this great opportunity for service to the Tsa Wa Sum pass them by.

There is no doubt that they want to do great things during their term in the government and the Parliament. The responsibility on their shoulders is heavy – they have sworn to serve, to bring ease and comfort in the lives of their constituents. But the promises they made will remain nothing more than promises for, to translate them into firm actions depend on a variety of things that is outside their control. Paucity of funds, geopolitical realities, and lethargic civil service – all of these will constrain them to deliver on their promises that would have been lofty. They will be left severely wanting – not because of their own failings but because they are nothing more than a number that go to make the sum total.

But achieving greatness does not necessarily have to do with being able to build a thousand KMs of farm road, eradicate Goongtong, halt environmental destruction, and render all of our cities free of garbage. We all know that the lawmakers do not come equipped with magic wands. We understand.

But there is another way of achieving greatness - by having the courage and selflessness to dismantle great evils that have been percolating into our system for decades. By being able to remove the rot and decay and the gangrene that are beginning to define our very moral turpitude.

I am talking of the very base, very vile and unjustified Vehicle Quota System.
This is a case of lawmakers turning lawbreakers.

It is a case of hundreds of millions of ngulturms lost in undeserved quota benefits, shamelessly claimed by those who usurp it as a matter of right – not as a reward for a job done well in the service of the Tsa Wa Sum.

It is a tax relief that is not afforded to those who are underpaid and who deserve it – but automatically granted to those who are over paid and do not deserve the preferential treatment they are rewarded with.

The quota system is all about immorality, blatant encouragement of corrupt practices, and official condoning of an act of crime.

I have spoken to lawmakers, politicians and even a Member of the 4th Pay Commission, to rescind this shameful quota system. I have pleaded that someone with guts has to take a stand on this corruption and end it, so that the journey of restitution of our morality may begin.

We do not need WFP for food – we need eradication of corruption. We do not need UNICEF for education – we need upright parents to teach the values of discipline, righteousness and service. We need leaders who will not whine away about their helplessness to do things that are beyond them - but certainly we expect them to act with fortitude, in the interest of the Bhutanese people and the nation.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Of White-bellied Herons and Chagsi Pangkhep

A brand new society came into being yesterday – to coincide with the birth anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan. Bhutan Birdlife Society is formed by a group of young Bhutanese birding enthusiasts. I am not certain of the demographics of the society – but yesterday at the launch, there were young Foresters galore. I had the honor of speaking few words at the launch – but I did not give any talk – I made two requests. One, that the society should endeavor to start a naming convention for our birds. Bhutan is host to nearly 750 bird species – that is a whole lot of birds – lot more that most bigger countries.

The other request I made was that they should educate the Bhutanese people on our national bird - locally known as the Bja Oro - Common Raven (Corvus corax). Majority of Bhutanese mistake the bird for the Bja Ola - Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos).

I also took the opportunity to point out something that needs to be studied further. I made reference to Bhutan’s most famous bird – the near extinct White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). Although this bird’s global population is estimated at around 200 individuals, only 60 sightings have been confirmed of which 25 are in Bhutan. Bhutan is today ranked as the most import habitat of the White-bellied Heron (WBH).

It is generally accepted that this bird’s first sighting in Bhutan was reported in 1974, in Sonagasa areas of Punakha. However, in the process of photographing the textile exhibits of the Royal Textile Academy, I stumbled on to something that points to the possibility that these birds may have existed in Bhutan few hundred years back, and in much larger numbers.

I produced the Royal Textile Academy’s catalogue of exhibits – it was released on 5th June, 2013. The catalogue is titled “THAGZO: The Textile Weaves of Bhutan”. There is a hardcover and a softcover version of the book. Some of the most rare images of Bhutan’s ancient and modern textiles can be seen in the book.

In the process of photographing the collection of textiles, I came across a very intriguing piece of textile called Chagsi Pangkhep – a multipurpose ceremonial cloth used in olden days. This piece of textile was donated to the Academy by Dr. Frederik Paulsen, Chairman of Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Switzerland.

As I trained my camera on the textile, one of the motifs on the textile caught my attention – that of a large bird with slender neck, long beak, hunched back and gangly legs with long claws. There was something very familiar about the motif – it resembled something that I knew I had seen somewhere before. I removed the camera and looked at the motif with naked eyes. Then it hit me – the motif had a striking resemblance to our famous bird – the White-bellied Heron. For four long years, I had chased the bird all over the country – to get a good image of it – Punakha, Wangdue, Berti, Changchey, Burichhu etc. Thus, the bird’s body shape was firmly imprinted in my mind. Take a look at the following two images placed side by side – one that of the motif on the Changsi Pangkhep and the other live bird photographed in Basochhu, Wangdue:

If the motif depicted on the Changsi Pangkhep is really that of the White-bellied Heron, then it may be true that the birds may have existed in Bhutan hundreds of years before 1974, the year it was supposedly first sighted in the country. The Chagsi Pangkhep is an ancient textile no longer in use these days.

Not only that the bird may have existed in Bhutan many hundred years back, the fact that a weaver had been able to render it on textile with such accuracy could also mean that their numbers were large so that the weaver sighted it so often that she managed to capture the body shape with such exacting accuracy.

Now, if it is not true that the birds existed in Bhutan many hundred years back, then there is another possibility. The possibility that the Chagsi Pangkhep is not Bhutanese in origin. It could be that the textile is from Cambodia or Burma or Laos. Don’t forget, both Burma and Cambodia are recognized as countries within the WBH range. Look at the similarity of the Cambodian weaves, with that of ours. The following photographs were taken by me in an eatery in Siam Reap, Cambodia in 2013:

If the Chagsi Pangkhep is actually Bhutanese, it is most likely that they would have been woven in Eastern Bhutan - most likely somewhere in Mogaar or Lhuentse. These regions do have the type of habitat preferred by the WBH. Unfortunately, these birds are not recorded to be occurring in Mongaar or Lhuentse. And yet, the most authoritative book on Bhutanese textile titled "TEXTILE ARTS OF BHUTAN" edited by Diana K. Myers and Susan S. Bean says that the Chagsi Pangkhep that I am referring to originates in Eastern Bhutan and dates it to somewhere between late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Very complicated.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Can Someone Throw Some Light On This, Please?

This morning I was going through the stats for my Blog. I see that between 6th May, 2019 to 4th June, 2019 (8:07AM), there was a total of 9,558 page views. This does not include thousands of other page views that are not listed – remember only hits from 10 most active countries are listed.

What I fail to understand from the above stats is this: why are there so many hits from countries like Germany, Ukraine and Russia? Given the presence of Bhutanese population in countries such as Bhutan, USA, Australia, India and others – I can understand the visits. But what can be the explanation for such regular and large number of hits from countries such as Germany, Ukraine and Russia? I doubt that we have that many Bhutanese people in these countries.

As the Indians would say, can someone throw some light on this please?

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Loading Capacity, or Carrying Capacity, or Something Else?

I have said this before – and I am wont to say it again – we Bhutanese are a society that is thoughtless and unthinking. We simply do not seem to be mindful of what we are saying - even less, what we are doing. I think we are in a perpetual state of confusion – in a zombielike state of mindlessness.

I am referring to the serious issue of the recent suspension of export of boulders. There seems to be a devilish conspiracy to mislead the Bhutanese people by turning the whole thing into one that has to do with, what the Business Bhutan newspaper prefers to call “loading capacity” of the trucks. Loading capacity? What the dang hell is that?

Unfortunately I do not have the time to follow this issue closely – thus I admit that I have not read much about it. However, it is my belief that the issue is not about breach of the rules pertaining to the carrying capacity of the trucks. If it were, the matter would have been simply solved by imposing a fine, to be implemented by the RSTA/RBP – if the offence was committed within the territorial boundaries of Bhutan or, by a parallel authority in India, if the law was broken in the territory of India.

If the RAA and the ACC are involved resulting in the baneful and abrupt suspension of export of boulders, there has got to be something more serious involved. It cannot be simply because the truckers have been carrying boulders in excess of their permissible limit. Thus I urge the fourth estate to be cautious in the way they inform their readership. The RAA and the ACC cannot be oblivious to the serious implications that they know will result from their actions. They would be aware that their actions would impact businesses and livelihoods.

I think we can make an educated guess as to what has been happening. Lets hope that the actors in this misadventure realize that the best way out for them is to be graceful about it and admit that their Geese has now been cooked. Sooner they admit to the fact that they went into it with their eyes wide open, the better for their business. Own up to their mischief and atone for it. Being errant about it will send out a wrong signal and the public sympathy will not be forthcoming.

While I do not want to speak about what may have been and how it might have been, I do want to speak something about the Hon'ble Information & Communications Minister’s generosity to up the carrying capacity of the trucks by 3 MT. Before we accept to do that, it is pertinent to find out the views of the insurance companies, on the issue of revised carrying capacity that is not consistent with what is stated by the manufacturers.

Every class of vehicle has a certain rated carrying capacity (not loading capacity) set by the manufactures, based on a variety of technical qualifications. Will an insurance claim be admitted, if a truck is involved in an accident? What is the chance that the insurance companies might refuse a claim, on the grounds that the accident was caused as a result of the truck carrying a load that is outside the permitted limit?

And what of the financial institutions that fund the purchase of these trucks? Will they have something to say? After all, they finance on the basis of the assurance that an insurance claim can be made in the event of loss through accident. The banks might decide that the arbitrary upping of the carrying capacity beyond what is stated by the manufacturers could open up the possibility that could result in an insurance claim being rendered unacceptable. They might decide that their money is no longer secure.

I remember - long time back there was a fire in one of our timber stock yards in Bhangtar in South Eastern part of the country. The RICB refused to accept our claim on the grounds that it was a case of “spontaneous combustion”. I asked – what is spontaneous combustion? The reply – the timbers caught fire because of over heating through rubbing against each other :( Preposterous!!! - but they adamantly refused to entertain our insurance claim on this ridiculous ground. Even stranger, the case was ruled in favor of the RICB.

Remember, these insurance guys are a naughty lot - they hand you a Policy printed so small that you cannot read what is written. They tell you that ALL RISKs are covered - but in reality nothing is covered. Then when a claim is filed, they will fight tooth and nail - to disqualify your claim.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Bhutan’s Bad Bet: How hydropower became a ruinous investment for Bhutan

Bhutan—a small, independent Buddhist kingdom the size of Switzerland—is located in the eastern Himalayas. Boxed in from the north by China and on all other sides by India, it is endowed with natural and environmental riches that few other countries in the world can match. The country boasts close to 750 bird species, some 500 orchid species, and upwards of 5,600 species of vascular plants, 200 species of mammals, and 800 butterfly species.

Bhutan’s altitudinal range is phenomenal, rising from 97 meters in the south to the highest point of 7,570 meters at the tip of Mt. Gangkhar Puensum, the world’s highest unclimbed peak. This extraordinary topographical scope has created climate multiplicity so vast that Bhutan is listed among the ten global biodiversity hotspots of the world. Its ecosystem diversity is unmatched in all of Asia.

Blessed with extraordinary natural wealth, the Bhutanese were traditionally an agrarian society, engaged wholly in agriculture farming, horticulture, and animal husbandry. The country was food self-sufficient, with the import of food items virtually unheard-of a few decades back. Sadly, with the advent of modernity beginning early 1960’s, that self-reliance has diminished because of a gradual but steady move away from farming and agriculture production to non-traditional economic activities. Accelerated economic and developmental activities saw the proliferation of imported labor to drive developmental activities such as road-building and the creation of infrastructure. As a result, Bhutan has needed to import a wide variety of foods from outside to feed its burgeoning population. Today, the country is firmly set on the road to modernization, at a speed that many citizens believe may be too fast-paced for our own good.

The journey toward hydro-electricity 
As these structural changes were taking place in Bhutan, neighboring India decided to hasten its pace of industrial production. As a result, India’s demand for electric energy shot up. 

Responding to India’s new hunger for energy, Bhutan declared itself a potential source for hydro-electricity, with an estimated potential generation of 30,000 megawatts. Geography alone seemed to be in its favor. Located in the Third Pole region—the Hindu Kush-Himalayan area that stores more snow and ice than anywhere else in the world outside of the north and south poles—Bhutan has a number of river basins that could be tapped for hydro-electricity generation. Thus Bhutan began to take baby steps towards hydro-electricity generation, both as a means of earning revenue to finance its many critical developmental goals and spurred by India’s newfound demand for electricity.

Bhutan’s energy-generating journey began in 1974, with the country’s first hydropower project: the Chhukha Hydropower Project. Subsequent hydropower projects—Kurichhu in 1995, Basochhu in 1996, and Tala in 1999—were all launched before the advent of democracy. Their construction was evenly paced, with each new project completed before the next commenced. All these early facilities were built with care, sound planning, and thoughtful implementation. The size of the projects was kept at manageable levels. In the end, each of these early projects benefited the country as a whole, with minimal or no environmental impact to the ecosystem.

A love story gone wrong
With the arrival of democracy in Bhutan in 2008, however, everything went haywire. Lawmakers felt an unprecedented urgency to accelerate hydropower project development. Groundbreaking for Punasangchhu-I in 2008 was quickly followed by Dagachhu in 2009, Punasangchhu-II in 2010, Mangdechhu in 2012, and Kholongchhu in 2015.

Today, other than the Dagachhu Hydropower Project, all of these massive structures remain incomplete. And all have become financial traps, churning out debt by the hundred of billions of ngultrums (the Bhutanese currency pegged to the Indian rupee).

Put simply, the story of hydropower generation in Bhutan has been a story of economic bondage, environmental destruction, and human displacement. Hydropower promoters have stuck with their story that these facilities are “run-of-the-river” projects (in which little or no water storage is involved), with minimal or no human displacement. Yet after two decades, some displaced families in the project areas have yet to receive substitute land for their property lost to the projects. Dam construction in unstable topography has triggered entire mountainsides to slide into nearby valleys, causing environmental denudation never seen before. Irreparable damage has struck the habitats of some of the world’s most endangered bird and wildlife species. And incessant and uncontrolled use of powerful explosives, such as dynamite to blast away rock formations, has destabilized the already-fragile geological formation of the young Himalayan range where these hydropower projects are located.

Among the hydropower projects dubiously claimed to be run-of-the-river projects—PHPA-I and PHPA-II—diversion dams reaching 86 meters and 130 meters respectively will be built. The water bodies that these giant dams will create could alter weather patterns and trigger earthquakes in an area where the land is already destabilized through blasting. Indeed, the whole of Gaselo village, in the Wangduephodrang district of western Bhutan, could end up in the belly of the Punatsangchhu.

Failed stewardship 
Bhutan’s two largest hydropower projects—PHPA-I and PHPA-II—have also seen what project authorities cynically call “geographical surprises”. In one incident at the PHPA-II, the roof of the main access tunnel caved in, killing an unspecified number of people. Both PHPA-I and PHPA-II projects have seen their cofferdams being flooded repeatedly year after year, causing costly delays in dam construction. It is frightening to realize that if project authorities have not even been able to assure fullproof design of simple and temporary cofferdams, what major design failures will emerge in the future?

Last year, Tala Hydroelectric Project’s inlet valve burst, killing two people on the spot and injuring two others. More recently, a flaw was detected at the Mangdechhu Hydro Power Project—a leak in one of the facility’s tunnel gates—causing a delay in the project’s scheduled May 2019 commissioning. The new date of commissioning has now been pushed to July, 2019. 

Meanwhile, the right side of the hill where the PHPA-I dam is being built has seen a number of slides. The result has been not only costly delays but charges that the site is unsuitable for dam construction. Originally planned for completion in 2016, PHPA-I is now scheduled to go into operation in 2024—a far-away target that is still a pipe dream. The truth is that the project will almost certainly never go online.

Unbridled costs and incompetent management
From an initial cost estimate of Nu.35.14 billion, the PHPA-I project by 2016 devoured Nu.93.75 billion. According to a conservative estimate, the last three years have pushed the cost past Nu.110.00 billion. At this rate, the total cost of construction will most likely cross the Nu.200.00 billion mark by the time the project is done—should that miracle come to pass. 

Incompetent project consultants have selected inappropriate project sites. To the horror of many engineers and residents, it became clear too late that Bhutan’s biggest hydropower projects, PHPA-I and II, are located in a seismically active zone. Had a proper pre-feasibility study been conducted by technically qualified professionals, the projects would have never been located in these vulnerable areas.

PHPA-I and II have also seen cost overruns in the region of 400% of their initial estimates. At 70% ownership, Bhutan is the majority shareholder of the projects—yet the Bhutanese have no say in the management of the projects, whether administrative or financial. Even simple decisions such as the choice of cement and aggregate used in the project’s construction fall outside the authority of the Bhutanese managers. The Indian project managers make all the decisions.

No benefits to local communities 
The Bhutanese government and project authorities have claimed for decades that hydropower projects will greatly benefit local communities. They continue to make this claim. But there is not one iota of proof on the ground. Bongo Gewog sits bang in the middle of two of Bhutan’s earliest and largest hydropower projects to date: Chhukha and Tala. As the National Statistics Bureau has revealed, the country’s poorest villages are located in the shadows of these massive projects. Indeed, road access to these villages is so poor that they are often completely cut off during monsoons.

It is not only the Bongo community that has yet to see tangible benefits. The same is true in every other community where a hydropower project has been launched. Worse, serious social ills have sprung up in the communities close to the project sites.

Debt traps and divine intervention
Most alarmingly, perhaps, the Bhutanese nation as a whole has not benefited, as the World Bank’s Economic Policy and Debt Department made clear:

Bhutan’s hydro-power projects have largely been perceived risk-free, and thus rapid hydro-power investment through heavy borrowing has not caused much concern until recently. Yet available information suggests that the sector’s financial performance has been deteriorating since 2007. The net profit (before tax) per unit of electricity sold has fallen sharply since 2007, driven by rising costs and declining revenue. The sector’s regular contribution to the budget has also declined for the past 10 years, from 6-8 percent of GDP during the early 2000s to 2.7 percent in 2011/12, notwithstanding the significantly increased electricity generation capacity. All this indicates that the sector’s “high commercial profitability” cannot be taken for granted. Should the hydropower sector’s financial performance continue to deteriorate, Bhutan’s solvency could be threatened. Although debt service costs are being borne by DGPC at present, after all, the hydropower debt is the government’s liabilities. The source of the performance deterioration has to be identified, and, remedial actions taken soon to avoid debt service difficulties.

A 2015 report titled “The New Debt Trap”—released by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a UK-based company—listed Bhutan among 14 nations that are fast heading toward a government debt crisis.

Is India a boundless market?
As of 30th April, 2019, India has a total installed capacity of 356.100 gigawatts of electricity, generated from a variety of energy sources. This makes India the third-largest producer of electricity in the world.

State Power Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, of the West Bengal state of India, had declared as far back as 2016 that his state was set to export 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Bhutan and Nepal. The fact is, India achieved electricity surplus more than half a decade ago. Their problem is not energy generation, but poor transmission and distribution to the point of consumption in a manner that is efficient and cost-effective.

The “game-changer” myth 
In some sections of the Bhutanese society, people believe that India is dependent on Bhutan—that our small, proud nation is critical for India’s electricity needs. This is a terrifying misconception. Anyone can see that Bhutan’s mad rush for hydro-electricity generation may cause our nation long-term and terminal injury—not only to its economic health, but to its very sovereignty. The mindless rush toward hydropower generation in every one of the country’s pristine rivers runs the risk of shackling all of our river systems to eternal bondage.

In 2016, India Power Minister Piyush Goyal reported in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament that India imported 5.24 billion units of electricity from Bhutan during fiscal year 2015. Translated as a percentage of India’s total power generation in that year, Bhutan’s export of 5.24 billion units of electricity worked out to a mere 0.47% of that country’s total output. In terms of its energy relationship to India, Bhutan must wake up to its own utter triviality.

Hydro-electricity: Bhutan’s failed investment
India, which is landlocked Bhutan’s only market for hydro-electricity, has moved on to achieve an impressive energy surplus. Moreover, India can generate electricity from solar and coal at 4.6 cents per unit—far below Bhutan’s cost of generating hydroelectricity: 6 cents per unit. Given this scenario, it is suicidal for Bhutan to continue to chase its elusive hydropower dream. 

Compounding the problem, the cost of capital is punishingly high for Bhutan. We have borrowed money to build these hydropower projects at a preposterous interest rate of 10% per annum. Meanwhile, for the last three years, India’s hydropower generation amounted to less than 10% of their total electricity generation. The reason: they now consider hydropower generation unviable, compared with other power sources. Recently, ran an article titled “Who will buy Nepal’s hydropower?” That question is even more relevant to Bhutan.

Finally, global warming brought on by climate change will directly affect Bhutan’s hydropower potential. The rate of snow and ice melt in the Himalayan region is greater than in other parts of the globe. With a receding snowline and loss of ice in our mountain peaks, Bhutan’s hydropower potential may be far less than the stated 30,000 megawatts.

In the end, Bhutan must face the fact that its vaunted hydropower industry makes no sense: economically or ecologically.

A glimmer of hope?
Will our country face up to the truth or foolishly try to save face? So desperate are the principals in the PHPA-I endeavor that on February 28, 2019, they resorted to conducting a rimdro—a religious ceremony—for divine intervention. Their hope was that this unorthodox measure would appease the angry gods and local deities and help them progress with the project’s construction. They forget that such gods and deities are figments of the ingenuity and inventiveness of the human mind. Before the gods can come to their rescue, the hydropower authorities need to reorient their professionally-trained minds.

Fortunately, Bhutan’s moment of awakening may be at hand. Late last year, the Hydropower Committee recommended an encouraging shift in thinking, suggesting that Bhutan go slow and smart on new hydropower projects. The committee recommended that Bhutan complete all projects now in the pipeline before starting new ones. Additionally, it recommended that atleast two of our river basins—the Chamkharchhu and Amochhu basins—remain free of hydropower projects.

As a passionate blogger, environmentalist, and a citizen who dearly loves his country, I had called for the closure of the PHPA-I as far back as February of 2016. Regardless, the project still stands. However, recent developments indicate that the project’s managers are becoming increasingly frustrated by their inability to complete their mission. The realization is dawning on them that their technological, scientific, and engineering inventiveness is poor match against the forces of nature.

Is Bhutan finally waking up to the rude reality that tying our future to hydropower is to invite doom? Is Bhutan’s ill-starred romance with hydropower finally over? For the good of the Bhutanese nation and the Bhutanese people, I dearly hope so.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Too Long To Be Worthy

Early January this year I got a mail from someone in Europe asking if I would be interested to contribute an article on Bhutan’s hydropower projects. I said yes but said that I am rather busy and that I may not have the time to complete the article in time. But since the article was going to be published sometime end May/early June, there was enough time. So I agreed to do it.

I completed my article that ran into over 5 pages – the shortest I could do given the multitude of problems Bhutan faces with regard to our hydropower projects. I submitted my final draft of the article yesterday morning. The person came back with an edit of my article – he had slashed my article to less than 2 and half pages – less than 50% of the original. I wrote back promptly withdrawing my article, writing as follows:

I went through your edits - I am sorry to say that if I accept your edits, everything I want to say truthfully would be totally destroyed. It would be one gutless article without the courage to say things for what they are - it would sound so limpid - like a dead snake. Thus for me it is best that I don't say at all.

Here is a case of déjà vu - I went through the same thing more than a decade back when the UNDP asked me to write on "How to be prepared for Rural-Urban Migration". That time I made the point that they are going about it the wrong way - that they should be looking at how to mitigate rural-urban migration and not look at how to be prepared. Being prepared is already a defeatist attitude. More than a decade later, I am right - today the rural-urban migration problem is a burning problem. I took pains to write - but they found it too strong and wanted to tone it down. I disagreed - I said I am the author and I have the gall to write what I wrote .... and I have the courage to accept whatever consequences I have to face. I am not here to pander to some unknown agenda - my objectives is putting the truth out in the open.

As a Bhutanese with a conscience, the issue of the disaster that is hydropower for Bhutan is an emotional issue that perhaps is outside the fathoming of none-Bhutanese people. I accept that. I also condone the fact that you are perhaps not comfortable carrying an article of this frankness on your paper. I accept that too with humility. Thus lets forget my article.

The sole reason why I did not accept your offer of a payment for the article is simply because I am not doing you a favor - you are doing me a favor - by giving me a platform, an audience for my cause. Thus please be assured that I have no regrets about the hard work I put in to put together the article for you, despite my busy schedule. But a toned down article is as good as no article at all. I would like to tell you that I do not contribute my articles to the newspapers in Bhutan because for the same reason that they too have their agenda and will feature articles of their choice. I am not here to speak about their choices - but mine. But I have told the papers - those who asked - that they are welcome to reproduce my articles at will ------ after all they are in the public domain already.

But what I wont accept is if they edit my articles.

I am sorry I am too tired right now ... just retuned from a long day trip to Punakha. Please consider my article withdrawn.


I will post the article in question tomorrow.