Friday, March 22, 2019

5T Series III: The Unseemly Tour Guides

To date, I have been invited to speak to 3 batches of guide trainees. On every occasion I have gone to great length to impress upon the aspiring guides just how important they are in the delivery of “high value” component of the “High Value, Low Impact” tourism policy we have pursued since we opened up our doors to tourism in 1974.

I have time and again pointed out to the trainees that guiding is not a job - but a profession that will take them places. That the guiding phase in their lives is merely a stepping-stone to a secure and safe future. That it is a time when they have the opportunity to build network, acquire knowledge and skills and establish relationships on which to build their lives. But alas, despite all that, I have come face to face with some truly deplorable and woefully incompetent guides. Quite alarmingly, it wasn’t that some fly-by-night tour companies employed these guides - some of them were guiding for some of the top ten tour companies of the country.

Two evenings back I was in the company of a tourist group being guided by a young cultural guide (one of the Rotarian group members had wanted to meet me). The guide was drunk witless, either with alcohol or with substance, due to which he couldn’t simply comprehend what his guest was asking him to do. Worst, he had about him the foul stench of doma. Once in Punakha, I saw a guide sitting on a sofa in a hotel’s reception area - with his legs up on the tabletop, completely oblivious of the many guests milling around him. In Bumthang a guide was so drunk that he couldn’t remember why he and his single-person group were in Jakar! After great difficulty he remembered that they were there for a festival - but he just couldn’t remember which one.

The custodians of Bhutan's tourism industry - each of them seem to have failed to keep the guides on the narrow and the straight. The regulator failed to regulate and the MBO's were clueless about self regulation.

How did our guides get this way? At what point in time did they acquire such shabby and unbecoming attitude and behavior? In an environment where they have to compete with 4,244 other guides (as of today, there are 4,245 licensed guides), how did they allow themselves to degenerate to this level of un-employability? And yet, they are obviously getting employed! How and why? I can think of following reasons:

1.  They are available at cheap rates - commensurate with their quality
     and level of competence and ability.

2.  Tour operators are unmindful of the quality of guides they employ - most
     likely because these guides accept rates far below the going rate. These
     tour operators likely fall within the bracket of those who are known as the

3.  The regulatory authority - the Tourism Council of Bhutan - is obviously failing
     to monitor, regulate and enforce their rules that are already firmly in place.
     There is a detailed Letter of Undertaking (LoU) that each tour guide is required to
      sign before they are issued their guiding license. This LoU is explicit about
      the DO’s and DON’T’s. And yet, many guides fail to adhere to these rules.

 TCB requires every tour guide to sign the above Letter of Undertaking before they are issued their guiding license - then promptly forgets to enforce the rules.

The reverse side of a tour guide's license issued by the TCB. The prominently printed rules require that the guides must display their guiding license but not all do.

The guide is the single most important person in the service chain of the tourism industry - even more important than the tour operators themselves! The responsibility on the guide’s shoulders is immense and all encompassing. The selection of the guides should, therefore, be most crucial - because they are the first and the last person the tourists will see, from the day of their arrival to the day of their departure, including every single day in between. The guides set the all important and lingering first impressions - all other impressions are secondary and incidental.

There should be no compromise in the selection of the guides. The guides’ training and grooming must be rigorous and first rate. Their social grace must be impeccable – they must be knowledgeable on the country’s history, culture and tradition. In order that they can be sensitive to others’ cultural and religious sentiments, the guides must have a fair knowledge of most of the world’s important cultures and religions.

All these qualification requirement means that the guides are highly trained people with special skills. In other words they must be treated with respect and paid much better than some of them are believed to be. I hear that some tour companies pay them as low as Nu.700.00 per day - thereby, on occasions, forcing them to sleep in buses - because they are unable to afford lodgings with what they are paid.

We need to improve the quality of our guides. Their knowledge base must be regularly updated - their training course must include some bit of history, culture and religion of the major countries of the world. We need to ensure that the tour companies are employing knowledgeable and disciplined guides, and paying them well. They must not employ delinquent guides.

The guides are our ambassadors - they project the face and soul of Bhutan. The TCB must immediately assume responsibility over the stewardship of this segment of tourism service. The TCB must step up monitoring in order that the rules already in placed are enforced so that the guides remain vigilant about their responsibilities. TCB inspectors must make surprise inspections to tourist sites, restaurants, hotels and airports - on a regular basis to ensure that the guides are performing as they are expected to. This should not be a problem since TCB has record of what groups are in the country, and where each of them are at any given day.

If need be, we must empower the RBP, Immigration and Cultural Officials, hotel/restaurant owners and others to regulate the guides' behaviours. 

We must all realize that the guides are an important element in guiding the tourism industry’s journey to the top. The metaphor that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys is a funny allegory, but its implications are serious. It is no laughing matter.

What it means is that whole lot of monkeys is ruinous for business.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Is This A Compliment Or What?

I need to take a breather from this 5T fixation for a while. Moving away, I want to post the following ---- part of a mail I received 10 minutes back - from a very accomplished friend in the US.

Hi again —

I am really heartened that you like the current government. I understand that they are inexperienced, but I was very impressed during the campaign, and am no less impressed now, by their platform and heartfelt intentions. 

I want to write about this Prime Minister, Yeshey, and I think I am the right person to do so. He is a medical professional with a deep public health orientation—and I have been a highly-published public health journalist for 30 years, and editor of &^%$%$ &^*&! magazine for the last 10 years. I feel that I understand where he is coming from, and frankly I am inspired by his vision. I hope that I can interview him for a thoughtful profile in a national magazine here. I am confident that I can accurately translate his ideas and ideals to a wider audience.

The DNT government should feel very pleased about themselves - coming from this person, it is no small matter. I also commend the incumbent government on the unswerving position they have taken on the currently brewing storm in a tea cup.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

5T Series II: Menace Of The Strays

Reproduced below is part of an article that appeared in 1965, in “The D’Xer Magazine” published in Cordova, South Carolina, USA:

“……….. Then there were all those dogs running around, and very often there was a big dogfight.  All the people bring their food with them and since there is never any sort of an intermission during the day they just eat when they want to. Now, when there are a lot of loose dogs running around, some funny things happen at times. A dog will run up to some one’s dinner and grab a mouthful of food and away the dog scrams with some rocks being thrown at him, and a lot of yelling, etc., etc.”

The lone Chillip during the Paro Tsechu on 13th April, 1965 who submitted the above report to the magazine was none other than Mr. Gus Browning, a celebrated ham radio luminary from USA. He was in Bhutan in April of 1965, accompanied by his wife Peggy. To this day I am clueless as to how he managed to get into Bhutan - it is a mystery I tried to unravel - with no success.

From the above remarks of Mr. Gus Browning you can comprehend that the problem of “lot of loose dogs” was there as far back as 1965 - most likely even before. More than half a century since, the problem is even more acute, to the point that it has now reached a tipping point. But the issue continues to be ignored. I do not know what it will take for people to wake up and do something. But I do know that unless the stray dogs problem is sorted out, the tourism industry’s 5T aspirations will come to naught.

On Thimphu's most crowded thoroughfare, dogs outnumber vehicles and pedestrians

A stray dog attempts to bite a youthful passerby who is engrossed in music

At the core of this debilitating stray dogs problem is a select group of pseudo-religious people with a misguided, skin-deep sense of compassion. Their act of kindness is limited to paying lip service. Tell this lot to put their money where their mouth is – to feed the dogs, to house them, to care for them, to medicate them ---- and they will all feign ignorance and wail uncontrollably about financial incapacitation. If this lot were truly compassionate and have the dogs’ best interests at heart, the stray dogs would not be on the streets suffering scabies and pack brutality and all sorts of diseases related to neglect, hunger and old age. They would not have to resort to cannibalism.

But those public servants who haven’t performed their duties must also share the blame. This is nonchalance at its highest! Such irresponsibility cannot be condoned. It is for this reason that I had said in one of my earlier posts that if the 4th Pay Commission recommends a pay increase for the public servants on the grounds that they deserve it, the Commission should be charged in the Courts for treason to the Tsa Wa Sum. The only justifiable reason the public servants warrant a pay increase will be on humanitarian grounds; on grounds of inflation. These same public servants and their nonchalance have allowed another perennial problem to fester for decades, with devastating results - Goongtongs (now the term in vogue is "Yuetong"). The unseen face of this malice is that today Thimphu and other urban centers are filled with public servants who are forced into petty thievery - arising out of the economic pressure brought to bear on them, because of the ever increasing incidences of Goongtongs/Yuetongs. To be able to make ends meet, I have heard of civil servants claiming DSA for tours conducted on tabletops, pilfering office stationary such as photocopy paper and copier toner cartridges, and wheeling away pool vehicle tyres, to augment their income. It is a sad situation, but what is a man to do?

But for the tourism industry, the stray dogs problem has the potential to derail our march towards the top. The tourism stakeholders need to wake up to this very real threat and bring pressure to bear on the government, the religious institutions and the pressure groups - to address this issue and resolve it - before it causes irreparable damage. So far, despite worsening stray dogs menace, all that we have done is send out a travel advisory: visitors wishing to visit Bhutan are advised to bring along ear-plugs. Is this the best we can do?

A consistent question that a tourist wishing to visit Bhutan asks is this: Is the hotel where I am staying away from barking dogs? If the tour operators have answered yes, that would be a lie in most of the cases - because, once again, in typical Bhutanese fashion, very few of our hoteliers soundproof their windows, even while being fully aware of the nuisance of dog barks keeping guests awake half the night. They even ignore the fact that insulated windows help them reduce cost of heating.

All journeys must begin at a point of departure - for Bhutan’s tourism industry, the point of departure will be when the country is rid of stray dogs problem. The government must act immediately. However, even if we are to act now, the problem is unlikely to be solved within a year or two. Thus we need to look at a quick-fix solution. The answer to me seems to be: clad windows. To address the problem in the short term, I think the TCB should require all certified tourist lodgings to convert their windows to those with insulation - to provide soundproofing against dog barks. While this will not ensure physical safety, atleast the guests can be assured of a sound night’s sleep.

I do not know what the law says - I don't even know if there is a law at all. But it is a fact that stray dogs have bitten people in the past - they continue to do so. Thus, nobody should be in any doubt that they represent a threat to human life and activity. Now, knowing that the stray dogs represent a clear and present danger to human life, it should be legally expedient on someone or some institution to ensure that they are prevented from entering public spaces. So, in the event of a claim being filed by a tourist for getting bitten by a stray dog in a public space, who must accept responsibility and make good the compensation sought?

1.  The central government?
2.  The local government?
3.  The municipal authorities where the incidence took place?
4.  The Tourism Council of Bhutan as the apex body that has the 
     overall responsibility to oversee comfort and safety aspects
     of tourists visiting the country?
5.  The tour operator for exposing the tourist to a setting that
     they were fully aware was unsafe?

So far we have had it good - I have not heard of a claim being made by a tourist as a result of dog bite. But that is not to say that it will not happen. If and when it does, we need to be prepared as to on whom to fix the responsibility.

If there is currently no one agency on whom to fix responsibility to keep the strays off the streets, then we must designate an agency that should be made responsible. The Judiciary and/or the Parliament must legislate a law that will fix accountability on an agency, in the event of people suffering dog bites in public spaces.

This will be the first step towards solving the stray dogs problem in Bhutan.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

5T Series I: Culture & Tradition – Knowing What To Preserve And What To Borrow

The Bhutan Tourism Monitor 2017 records that 89.8% of the tourists came to Bhutan on a cultural trip. This means that our culture and tradition find appeal among the tourists. This is perhaps why some Bhutanese are quick to claim that we are unique, although my own view is that we are as unique as everyone else. Whether fact or fiction, the numbers tell the story. Our culture and tradition are the undisputed crowd puller - at 89.8% of the total tourist arrivals. Thus, if we are to Take Tourism To The Top (5T), we must strive really hard to make our culture and tradition accommodative, appealing and welcoming to the visitors.

Unfortunately we are doing just the opposite. Instead of showcasing our culture and tradition in the most pleasing manner that will arouse curiosity, give the visitors a sense of fulfillment and satiate their hunger for wonderment, we are doing everything to make our most popular tourism product, restrictive and out of bounds for the visitors.

It is clearly evident, going by a number of rules that are in place, that we are in a state of utter confusion as to what constitutes culture and tradition. If we do not change the mindset of the culture vultures, nothing we do will Take Tourism To The Top.

For instance, what logic is there in banning river rafting along Pungthang Dechenphodrang Dzong, when thousands are permitted access inside the Dzong itself? How does this help preserve culture and tradition, if the ban was imposed for such a purpose? There are a dozen culture related restrictions that make no sense but nitpicking isn’t going to help. Instead, let us grab the bull by the horn.

To me it is clear that the champions of our culture and tradition are clueless as to what really is culture and tradition - they confuse between what needs “preservation” and what needs “borrowing”.

A brilliant mind - I do not know who - had said that “culture and traditions are NOT something that are inherited from ones ancestors - it is something that are borrowed from ones children”.

There is so much wisdom and pragmatism in this concept. In very simple terms what it means is that a progressive culture/tradition is one that is dynamic and evolutionary. In other words, a society that hangs on to inherited culture/tradition runs the risk of turning into a decadent society.

We all agree that the world belongs to our children. Thus it is only correct that the most valid culture and tradition are those espoused by our children. Most often one hears children talk of being “old fashioned”, “out of touch with reality” “stuck in a time warp” - all these terms do not refer to clashes between multi-racial, multi-national conflicts in tradition and culture. It simply refers to the generational gap that exists - not because of differences in age, but because of differences in belief and thinking.

Not all inherited cultures and traditions are useful and valid - but not all borrowed ones are beneficial either. Thus, let us be smart in what we impose and what we adopt. But most important of all, let us accept that we operate in a different time warp – what worked a hundred years ago will not work in these modern times. Let us accept that and move forward. Let us not remain tethered to an era whose time has passed.

Let us innovate, adept and invent - let us shed the shackles that bind us to decadence and primitivism. Let our culture and tradition be the vehicle that will help catapult our tourism industry to the top.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

On The Wings of The Dragon V

Bhutan the land of GNH is a much-coveted place - as a tourist destination. People yearn to come here - I know of a person who pined for 52 years to come to Bhutan - and he actually lived to fulfill his dream. Some come for bird watching, some for trekking and most of them come to observe our peculiar culture and tradition that is getting even more peculiar. But for the airline operators around the world, the land of the Drukpas is the last place they want to be in. Paro international airport is ranked among the most challenging airports of the world. Only a handful of pilots are certified to fly in and out of this airport.

The operating conditions are difficult. Depending upon the season, dipping temperatures and windy conditions, coupled with high altitude impose limitations on the operating hours of the aircrafts. At times aircrafts are able to carry only half their carrying capacity. Flight diversions and cancellations due to adverse weather conditions are a norm. Thus, notwithstanding the prevailing myth that Druk Air has a monopolistic situation in airline business in Bhutan, no international airline operators are willing to come to Bhutan. If that were not true, under the bilateral ATA/ASA agreement with the countries where Druk Air flies, other airline operators from those countries have the right to fly the Bhutanese airspace. But they don’t - because the passenger flow is minuscule and the operating conditions are extremely difficult, and the operating costs are prohibitive.

Thus, only a national flag carrier with a social mandate has the compulsion to operate in Bhutan’s existing conditions. This also means that we have to accept that Druk Air cannot be mandated to make profits - there is simply no way it can, UNLESS IT DOES SO AT THE COST OF OTHERS, AND OUR NATIONAL INTEREST. Therefore, the next best thing for the government and for the airline company is to focus on up-scaling carrying capacity, service, safety and security - to work towards creating the enabling conditions for others to generate jobs and income. In other words: support the tourism industry - by rationalizing their fares and increasing carrying capacity. What the airline cannot make, the tourism industry will augment a hundred fold.

Druk Air has a total of 4 aircrafts. It operates to 3 domestic destinations and 9 international ones. Each of their aircrafts costs hundreds of millions. Their insurance and depreciation costs are huge. They have, by virtue of necessity, abnormally high operating costs. But this is something that is not within their capacity to control. There may come a time when Druk Air can operate as a commercial entity - but that time is not now. For now Druk Air must focus on complementing the vitally important tourism industry - help it grow and contribute to nation building.

Today, the Druk Air’s airfare is a deterrent to the growth of the tourism industry. The following is a demonstration of how expensive their airfare is - prospects terminate discussion the moment they hear of the fare - they say that they can fly from USA to Bangkok and back - and yet it will not cost as much. They say that we are taking advantage of them.

Druk Air's airfare as a percentage of total tour cost at the TCB designated Minimum Daily Tariff of US$ 250.00 per person per night halt

Druk Air's airfare as a percentage of total tour cost at the discounted rate of US$150.00 per person per night halt, at which some tour operators are rumored to be selling at

The Druk Air should take pride in the fact that from day one of its creation - the national flag carrier has achieved one very, very important national objective - it has unshackled Bhutan from the bonds of landlockedness. It has given wings to the Bhutanese people - to traverse the world beyond. That is an incomparable achievement - way beyond monetary gains - simply priceless!

But there is a failure that needs pointing out. Now I do not know who must bear responsibility for it - DHI, Government, BOC/BOD or the airline.

Druk Air started domestic flights on 19th December, 2011 - to Bumthang and Yonphula. It started its service to Gelephu on 25th October, 2012. More than seven years after the domestic flights began, Druk Air’s services in the domestic sector remain pathetic. There is a huge demand for domestic flights from tour operators - but the airline has not been able to meet the demand.

Druk Air's inaugural flight to Gelephu on 25th October, 2012. I had the privilege to be on board this flight.

At the core of their failure, I suspect, is one single factor: BOWSERS.

Bowsers are fuel tankers that deliver jet fuel to the aircrafts. This is an essential service that every airport must be equipped with. Gelephu airport does not have one. Yonphula airport does not have it either. Batpalathang does have it - but it is a leaky one. Because of this leaky condition, the aircraft’s Captains refuse to accept fuel from it - for fear that the fuel may be contaminated - a safety measure that cannot be compromised.

A Bowser refueling an aircraft

What is the implication here? The implication here is that for the past more than seven years, the Druk Air’s aircrafts have been required to carry tons and tons of extra jet fuel for the return flight, rather than passengers. As it is the load factor is less than half its carrying capacity, due to altitude and weather conditions. So you can imagine the loss the airline would have suffered - a loss that has been exacted on the Bhutanese people and the tourism industry.

Whose decision was it NOT to equip the airports with Bowsers, knowing the financial and safety implications? On whom must accountability be fixed?

................. End of Series

Friday, March 8, 2019

On The Wings Of The Dragon: IV

Taking Tourism To The Top - a very catchy slogan. But for the slogan to be translated into reality, it needs a vehicle to ride on. To be more precise, the industry needs to ride on another even catchier slogan - On The Wings Of The Dragon. And there is where it hits a cul-de-sac. The journey ends even before it begins. Taking Tourism To The Top is a non-starter; unless the controlling interest - the government - sheds the accountant’s mentality and begins to get a grasp of the pivotal role the national flag carrier must play in the tourism industry’s journey to the top.

Druk Air is key to the success of the tourism industry. On The Wings Of The Dragon must ride the tourism industry, including every one of its ancillary services. Like His Majesty said in his 111th National Day Speech; “If, in the next 10 to 15 years, we achieve all our national objectives, the credit will go to our public servants. However, if we fail, it will mean that the public servants have failed.”

In the same vein if the tourism industry soars to the top, the credit will go to the Druk Air but if it fails to do so, the blame must go entirely to the carrier as well.

Bringing Druk Air into the DHI fold was a clear case of missing the forest for the trees. DHI is a conglomerate of commercial entities whose sole mandate is to generate profit. By the very nature of its function, the Druk Air is a breed apart - from other entities that go to make the DHI group. The Druk Air has a responsibility that is at a higher plane than those of other DHI companies.

If the tourism industry’s journey to the top must gain momentum, the first step will have to be to de-link the Druk Air from the DHI group and declare it a non-commercial entity. It must be called upon to carry out and perform its primary responsibilities - The3S: Service, Safety and Security. Thereafter, we must require the Druk Air to rationalize its fares.

The Druk Air has the capability to single-handedly thwart every effort the country makes - towards taking the country’s most vital and progressive industry to the top. By the same token, it also has the potential to be the major driver in the industry’s march towards the top. Sadly, the airline is currently going through a period of misguided perception. It is made to believe that it must make profits - even if it has to come at the cost of our national interest.

There is a need to make the airline realize that the pursuit of one single entity to make profit stands in the way of the progress of a dozen other entities. That is not correct - not particularly when the airline is a national flag carrier.

The Druk Air must act as the strong, able limb that strengthens the body - which is the tourism industry. Because if the limb fails, the body will wobble and fall.

My next and final article on this series will show how, in the pursuit of profit the airline and its master - the DHI - hampered the growth of the industry and even negated the improvement of service delivery by the airline.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

On The Wings Of The Dragon: III

Druk Air is without doubt a state-owned enterprise with a commercial orientation in the way it operates. However, as I have demonstrated in my past article, it is sufficiently clear that the entity was established to pursue non-financial objectives - and not as an enterprise of profit. Not all enterprises that the state creates are profit-centric. In 99% of the cases, they are service oriented - they are either required to engage in areas that are sensitive, or they are required to perform a service that no commercial entities are willing to venture into.

A case in point is the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) - another state-owned enterprise of the RGoB. This organization has a different mandate - it is not expected to make profit for the state. Its existence is solely for the delivery of essential foods to remote and underserved locations where enterprises of profit will not venture into. Through government subsidies, the FCB is expected to ensure food security - to deliver essential foods at affordable prices. Try and imagine FCB trying to make a profit!

Similarly, fighting a war is not the purpose behind the establishment of Bhutan’s RBA. It was created to make a statement. Royal Bhutan Army cannot be considered a war-like apparatus - it serves a national objective.

So, do airlines serve national objectives? They do - and in a variety of ways. Countries around the world have used their national flag carriers for a variety of reasons - some even for espionage, as the following will demonstrate!

Formed in 1924, Britain’s erstwhile Imperial Airways was specifically created to provide air links between Britain and its far-flung Empire. No profit motives here.

KLM followed suit - to provide air links to the Dutch East Indies. The Belgian Airlines - SABENA serviced the Belgian Congo. Air France’s predecessor - Air Union was floated to fly to French colonies in West Africa. Profit making was furthest from the minds of these governments.

The Malaysian government considered the Malaysia Airlines (MAS), “an essential instrument in the nation-building process”. Consequently, the carrier’s primary focus was in servicing domestic routes, rather than international ones. The reason was that Malaysian government’s focus was in integrating different regions as one nation - national integration. Profit wasn’t in its scheme of things.

All these airlines were established not as institution of profit - but as instruments aimed solely at providing control and prestige, and national integration. But ofcourse, some were also created as state apparatus for espionage.

During the Cold War era, the US government used the flight attendants of the defunct PAN AM – its unofficial flag carrier – to perform espionage duties.

Mossad regularly used the El Al, Israel’s national flag carrier for the same purpose. KGB agents infiltrated the state-owned airline Aeroflot to carry out intelligence and counter-intelligence activities. Even the South African Airways was used by the Bureau of State Security for espionage work.

Whether for espionage or for connectivity, national flag carriers were created solely to serve a national interest. Druk Air cannot be an exception - infact our national flag carrier has every good reason to remain a service apparatus in the service of the nation - because of all the airlines named here  - Druk Air is the only airline that CANNOT operate as an entity of profit. It is impossible!! Unless it does so at the cost of someone else.

Unless it does so at the cost of our national interest.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On The Wings Of The Dragon: Part II

One might wonder what was a minuscule Bhutan doing - entering the air transport business, and that too with one solitary, even more minuscule, 18-seater Dornier aircraft. Would Druk Air assist the country in the expansion of its foreign trade, through carriage of export cargo? With a payload capacity of less than 2MT??? Impossible! Did the airline hope to cash in on the burgeoning tourist arrivals? Not by a long shot - even two years after the commercial operation of the Druk Air began, the tourist arrivals  for the year 1984 was recorded at 1,900 persons. So then what was the reason for the start of the airline?

Not certainly for profits - it simply couldn’t be. The answer is simple: its establishment was necessitated for a purpose far greater than mere monetary gains. The airline was started to serve a national objective - to serve as a national flag carrier - as the country’s aerial ambassador - to strengthen national sovereignty - to make a statement of Bhutan’s nationhood. Since our territorial boundaries did not have a coastline, it was not possible for us to have a sea-faring vessel to fly our national colors over the international waters and spaces. Thus we choose to go with an airline to carry our national flag beyond our borders - to announce to the world that Bhutan exists as an independent and sovereign country - with independent territorial boundaries, a standing army, a national flag carrier, a national flag, a group of people, and a set of languages - the essential attributes of an independent state.

This assertion was vital. Just one year after his coronation, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo saw the state of Sikkim being gobbled up, unceremoniously. That brought clarity to what His Majesty must do – to save a kingdom for himself and his successors; to safeguard the continued existence of a nation state.

Bhutan’s first membership to an international body was to Colombo Plan - in 1962, followed by UPU in 1969. We became a Member of the UN system in 1971. Then followed IMF, the World Bank, and the SAARC in 1983. Then came the Nonaligned Movement, the Group of 77, ADB, the EU and host of others. Bhutan’s pursuit of international relations was relentless and dogged - so much so that by 1990 - nineteen years after being crowned King, Bhutan had membership to 119 international, regional, and special interest organizations.

It is clear that Druk Air was created as an apparatus of the state - to make a statement - not to earn profit. It just couldn’t make profit - not even now after 38 years since its creation. It is understandable - it simply does not have the economies of scale in its favor. Worst, nature is its indomitable adversary.

The following tell the tale.

The daily aircraft utilization rates in hours per day for US airlines in 2014, is recorded as follows:

JetBlue                 11.77
Frontier                11.45
United                  11.37
Virgin America 11.33
Southwest            11.01
Delta                    10.55
US Airways         10.01

As opposed to the above, what are the numbers for our own homegrown airline? - between 5 to 5.5 hours until few years back. Under the new management headed by Mr. Tandin Wangchuk, it is now said to be 7 hours – a quantum jump! But not enough - not by a long shot! Unfortunately, given the geographical setting under which the Druk Air has to operate, I am told that daily aircraft utilization rate of 7 hours is provably the best it can do.

But it is not just nature - the efficiency of Druk Air is further hampered by manmade calamities - of the most bizarre kind. Thus, given the adverse conditions prevailing, if ever the Druk Air makes a profit, IT WILL HAVE TO EXACT THE COST ON SOMEONE ELSE!

And that is exactly what is happening right now - the cost is being born by the tourism industry.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

PHPA I Seeks Divine Intervention

Incredulous, a friend of mine in the US wrote to me a while ago, as follows:

Yeshey —

Is this for real? Divine intervention sought at PHPA1?

PHPA I seeks divine intervention

My reply to her:

Hahaha .... basic human nature..... when everything fails, they turn to God for deliverance.

Bye and take care ..... I posted my article on Druk Air ... I will be doing few more.

For the past 4-5 years, I have been asking for the shutting-down of the doomed PHPA I project, to no avail. Now it seems like the Project authorities have nothing else left to do - other than seek help from God, to prevent it from falling.

Global warming is real - the kind of snow we have seen this year has never been seen before, not in a long, long time. Personally I like it - it is good. It is good for the farmers, it is good for restocking the depleted ice deposits on the high mountain peaks that are beginning to look naked. This will translate into more water to  turn the turbines of our many hydropower projects. But I fear that there is a clear warning here.

What kind of monsoon are we likely to have? Are we going to see unprecedented flooding? Are we going to see massive landslides? Are our roads and bridges going to be washed away? Are communities going to be disconnected for long periods of time?

Are we preparing for such eventualities? Does the Department of Disaster Management have the wherewithal to handle calamities at such scale?

I think this is a time to be wary.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

On The Wings of The Dragon: Part I

The year: 1981. The location: Tivoli Court, 1A, Ballygunj Circular Road, Calcutta 700 019, India.

In a small dingy room without windows, sits an elderly sweat-ridden man, stripped down to his waist, hammering away at the keyboards of a battered Godrej manual typewriter placed on a low table. By the typewriter stands a half empty bottle of Bhutanese Changta Whiskey along side which stands a half filled glass. A rickety fan is swirling overhead - creaking furiously and churning out gusts of hot air. The man types away furiously, even as he sweats profusely - but he is oblivious to the oppressive conditions - he keeps smacking away at the typewriter all day long.

From within this dingy little room inside Flat No. 47 of Tivoli Court, Calcutta started the journey of the Kingdom’s "Aerial Ambassador" - Druk Air Corporation. The man was no other than Mr. P S Joseph, Resident Director, Druk Air Corporation. He was an uncommon man - difficult to like but easy to admire. He was brisk, hot-tempered, impatient, hard drinking, driven and dedicated - and feared. When he walked into the Calcutta International Airport Terminal building, airline and Customs and Immigration officials inside the building scurried off to hide behind pillars - so they may be spared his barks.

This is how the Druk Air started. The commercial operations began only in February of 1983, two years later. The management team of the newly formed national airline were:

Chairperson                       : HRH Ashi S. C. Wangchuck
Managing Director            : Ugyen Namgyel
Resident Director              : Late Mr. P. S. Joseph
General Manager (E&O)   : Dasho Sonam Tshering (retired Secretary, MoEA)
Commercial Manager        : Late Pema Tshering (Pema Sen)

The only aircraft it had then was the 18-seater German made Dornier 228-200. It made its epochal touch-down at Paro international airport on January 14, 1983.

I was then posted in Calcutta, as the Head of the Export Section of the Export Division, Ministry of Trade, Industries & Forests. My office was on the 3rd floor of Tivoli Court, Flat No. 51. I became good friends of Mr. P S Joseph.

Before the airline commenced its commercial operations, there was a long period of test flights between Calcutta and Paro. During those times, Mr. Joseph needed passengers to fill the aircraft. He came to me to help out. I volunteered to be on board those test flights. Not only me, I convinced my office clerks, peons, drivers and gatekeepers, even my personal cook to come on board ---  for a free ride to Paro and back. One day I even convinced Professor Kurita of Kobe University, Japan to take the test flight. Upon landing at Paro airport, the flight Captain asked us not to disembark the flight but invited us to take the flight once again so that he could test out different approaches and take off to and from the runway. I declined the offer --- I needed to use the loo. But Professor agreed. What he did not realize was that the pilots would be trying all sorts of maneuvers and landing and taking off - to be prepared for all eventualities. When the good Professor limped out of the aircraft at the end of the test flight, he was a miserable wreck - he was puking - his innards were tied in a knot and his head was a whirlpool - from all that twists and turns and dips and heaves the aircraft was subjected to.

Years later I realized how dangerous those test flights could have been. The aircraft was flying in areas that it had never flown before - the route was untested, the cabin was not pressurized, there was no flight guidance system to direct the flight to safety. But what the hell, youth was on our side and we were bursting with dare-devilry!

I have seen the birth and growth of the Druk Air - the one and only airline in the Kingdom that has the singular privilege and honor to wear the national flag on it’s aircrafts’ rudders. No other aircraft - whether national or international - will ever have the right to wear the national colors of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Because only the Druk Air has the distinction of being called THE NATIONAL FLAG CARRIER OF THE KINGDOM OF BHUTAN.

Druk Air Corporation's jet wearing the national colors only a national flag carrier has the right to wear.

………………… to be continued

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Are We a Thinking Society?

The self-appointed guardians of compassion and empathy - the religious and the righteous - will have you believe that the purpose behind imposing a ban on selling meat during the holy month (we are currently into one) is to reduce the slaughter of animals. Alas! They achieve just the opposite - it causes thousands of animals to be slaughtered days and weeks before their time. The meat lovers are coerced into buying a whole month’s stock of meat in advance! So what? The religion vultures are too ashamed to admit their folly. The rule stands - while rationalism takes a beating. This world is being taken over by the pseudo-religious!

A learned friend tells me that the term Goongtong is now passé - he says that the catch-phrase should now be Yuetong. According to him, it is no longer village homes that are being abandoned and left empty - in his view, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that whole villages are now being emptied of human habitation. Wildlife predation is at the root of this problem.

But the authorities fail to see it that way. In recent times, there have been reports of elephants marching through human habitat - in some cases even close to urban centers. In one incident, an elephant crushed a villager to death - by trampling.  You cannot believe this - but the authorities called the cause of death a “human-wildlife conflict”! A hulking behemoth saunters in and crushes the helpless farmer to death. Pray, explain to me, how does a cowering farmer mount a “conflict” against a hulking colossus?

The popular belief is that the country’s Ministry/Department of Agriculture has the highest number of doctorates and researchers. And yet, recent reports in the media point to the fact that the forestry and agriculture sectors remain the most neglected and untended.

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel is a forestry expert and analyst. In his recent article in the Kuensel dated 26th January, 2019 (, he actually opines that our forest is overstocked, that there is no cause for us to be proud of the fact that we have 83.90% forest coverage. In his opinion, this supposedly abundant natural resource is more of a burden than good. He in fact thinks that we should cut down our trees, if we are to save our forests.

Dr. Phuntsho points out that in 2015, we exported wood products worth Nu. 0.35 billion. As against that, we imported wood worth Nu. 2.60 billion. For a country with 1,001 million m3 of timber reserve, it is irresponsible to import so much wood, while our own are left to rot away.

Could it be that our doctorate researchers and experts in the Ministry/Department of Agriculture left the forests alone with the belief that trees are good for the environment and that it contributes to carbon sequestration? Were/are they clueless about the negative effects of overstocked forests - both for the environment as well as for the health of the forests? Why was such an important and abundantly available national resource allowed to go to waste? What kind of experts are they that they are unaware of the cause and effect of overstocked forests - on wildlife, on ground water stock, on the overall ecosystem?

Then there is this perennial stray dogs problem that we are simply unable to solve. The only solution to the problem that we have been able to come up with so far is: advise the visitors to the country to bring along earplugs. The DXers Magazine published by Gus Browning Enterprises of Cordova, SC, USA gives a graphic description of the stray dogs problem experienced by the radio amateur Gus Browning during Paro Tsechu in 1965. This means that this problem existing during and even before 1965, has been allowed to fester, even compound, since then.

At some point the Bhutanese society needs to start thinking - thus far there is no indication that we are a thinking society.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

One More, For Our Men In Blue

Yet again another solar fencing project for our men in blue - this time at their open-air prison complex at Dawakha, under Paro Dzongkhag.

The Club President and the Superintendent of Police of Chamgang Jail inaugurate the solar fencing project yesterday at Dogar open-air prison facility of the RBP

Few of the proud Members of the Rotary Club of Thimphu participate in the handing-over ceremony of the solar fencing project to the prison authorities which was also attended by the Thrizin and Mangmi of Dogar Gewog. Members present during the ceremony were (from left to right): Rtn. Tashi Rinzing Schmidt, Rtn. Kesang Tshomo, Rtn. Sonam Wangmo, Rtn. Tsewang Rinzing and Rtn. Karma Gyaltsen. Also seen are (from left to right): open-air prison in-charge Dedrim Sonam Tobgay, Dogar Gup, Chamgang Jail SP Sonam Wangchuk and Dogar Mangmi. In the background is the infamous Dawakha Jail - now converted into an institute of learning.

Part of the 6 acres of vegetable farm that is now secured from wildlife predation with solar fencing

The open-air prison concept of the prison authorities is a noble idea where prisoners who have served most of their prison terms undergo a sort of a reintegration process - through gradual and limited access to free movement and normalcy. The dwellings in this prison facility are as normal as normal can be - there are no fortified walls, no ferocious guard dogs, no armed sentinels to keep vigil over the inmates. The inmates here are engaged in very normal and routine human activities such as gardening, weaving, knitting and, on occasions, jaunts to the nearby markets and towns. What is even more out of the ordinary is that 9 children belonging to some of the 25 all-female inmates domiciled in this facility, live within the bounds of this tranquil patch of human settlement.

There is something truly noble about the experiment called open-air prison. It is a dramatic departure from the traditional belief that people serving prison terms should be bound and shackled inside high walls with spikes and guarded by vicious bloodhounds. It is my understanding that this revolutionary concept helps the inmates re-orient themselves with their innate human nature that may have undergone turmoil and disconnection - as a result of many years spent within the walls of shame and dishonor. The permissive environs of an open-air prison helps to reintroduce the inmates to engage in normal human activities, feel emotions that are naturally human, help shed that stigma associated with being a prisoner. The freedom of movement and interaction, even while limited and controlled, help the inmates to realize that they have done their time for their crimes and that they are now on their way to being released into the societal fold, of which they are still an indivisible part.

In my capacity as the Club Secretary I have taken on the responsibility of implementing all of our Club’s many projects. Thus, I have had to visit the open-air prison 5 times since the start of the project - the last one being yesterday when I went along with some other Members of the Club, to hand over the solar fencing project to the prison authorities. 

Every one of my 5 trips have been trips of great emotional unease. In an attempt to be seen as being normal, I shared theirs meals, entered their lodgings, spoke to them, asked them where they were from, saw them weaving, knitting, packing chilies. I laughed with them and shared jokes with them - in an attempt to make them feel at ease. But despite my most earnest attempts, I could never shake off the feeling of being an oddity - a paranormal - among the lot who must be counted among the most normal.

Being in the company of these inmates reminded me of the bigoted nature of human society. The only fault of these inmates has been that they were foolish enough to be caught committing a crime. Had they not been caught, they would not be called criminals. There are more sinister criminals committing even more heinous crimes than these inmates - but they roam free, talk big, dispense religious sermons and give discourses in morality. They are counted among the leaders of society and captains of trade and industry. They pass verdicts on who is a criminal and who is not - while they themselves are bankrupt of morality and goodness.

The Rotary Club of Thimphu cannot hope to change the unfair nature of human society but we can certainly try and make life a little less painful and a little more livable, for some. It is our hope that within the confines of the solar fencing that we provided to the inmates of the open-air prison, they will grow vegetables and other foods that will go on to contribute to rebuilding their lives and restore their dignity - lost through carelessness of being caught in the act.