Thursday, August 27, 2015

Our Rivers of Doom II

So, tell me, how many of you know of the existence of a Master Plan for the number and location of hydro-power projects in Bhutan? Don't look crestfallen - I too did not know. May be our government never spoke of it to us or may be there really isn’t one. The one I am showing you below has been conceived and plotted on the drawing boards of the Central Electricity Authority of India. The map outlines the planned projects, projects under construction and those already commissioned.


The above map was sourced from:

https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/flow-for-worship-flow-for-money-water-wheels-and-hydropower-in-bhutan/ 

Quite obviously the master plan is of recent conception. That is evidenced by the fact that the map used is the most recent official map - the one with the truncated Northern border. What is amazing is that this plan envisages a total of 80 hydro-power projects, overall.  These planned projects poke-mark the entire length and breadth of the country - worst than a Chinese Checkers Board, which has only 60 marbles at full house.

Is this really going to happen? Has this plan been drawn up in consultation with relevant authorities in the Royal Government of Bhutan or has this been conceptualized by a delusional person at the Central Electricity Authority of India?

If this is really true, can you believe what it will do to the landscape and ecology of Bhutan? It calls for damming every single river, every single tributary and, perhaps, even some of our irrigation channels, to turn the turbines of that many hydro-power projects!

If the debt burden from two disastrous hydro-power projects - the Punasangchhu I & II is debilitating enough to sink us to the 14th position among countries headed towards debt crisis, can you imagine what 80 hydro-power projects will do to us?

Please reconsider - let us not dam every single river we have. Let us be responsible to future generations and leave some of our rivers free flowing in perpetuity - because there are other alternatives to generating electricity. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE TO WATER.

Let us be more imaginative about what we do with our rivers. We certainly have other more profitable and environmentally safer ways of benefiting from our water resources.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Our Rivers of Doom

The emergence of the earliest human civilizations dating back to 8,000 BC can be traced to banks of rivers. Unfortunately, some of these very rivers that have for centuries supported and sustained human settlements are now nothing more than geographic memories, to be found only in outdated maps.

While the human population is exploding, water supply around the world is shrinking. The Himalayan glaciers are receding, causing rivers to dry up thereby condemning hundreds of millions of people in the lower riparian states to hydrological poverty.

Need for increased food production to feed the exploding human population means that we need more water for drinking and irrigation. Unfortunately ground waters are drying up and the available river waters have become unusable for irrigation because of the level of pollution caused by dumping of industrial and other waste into them.

The Tibetan plateau is the world’s largest fresh water tank, out of which flow the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong. On these rivers depend the livelihood of over 2 billion people including those in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Construction of dams and major diversion projects on rivers of Tibet would severely impact the lower riparian countries, thereby causing situations of conflict and disharmony.


Even as I write this post (26th August, 2015: 9:24 AM), the world population has hit a staggering 7,362,537,781. Satiating the hunger and quenching the thirst of 8 billion people by 2024 is going to put tremendous stress on our water resources.

In times to come, water is going to be the scarcest resource over which wars are likely to be fought! Even scarier, WATER HAS NO SUBSTITUTE.

Nature has been bountiful with Bhutan. We have five river systems that collectively contribute to a total renewal water resources estimated at 1.15 million Cu. Mtrs. per year - among the highest in the world. Even more fortunate, our dependency on cross-border water flows is virtually zero since only two small rivers, Amochu in Haa and Kurichu in Mongaar, originate in Tibet China. Unlike most other countries in the neighborhood and else where such as in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, we need not fear upstream riparian states causing us desperation as a result of their damming the rivers or diverting water flow.


But alas, this is where the dream stops and reality strikes. This generation of Bhutanese has squandered away our nature’s gift through irresponsible and reckless mismanagement of our rivers and water resources. Caused by disastrous and unimaginative investment decisions and financing model in hydro-power projects, we now know that our river systems will be the cause of our bankruptcy and failed statehood. And yet, successive governments have been adamant that the hydro-power projects will help us pave our streets in gold, even while we are aware that we are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and mismanagement. As of now, our unserviceable hydro-power debt is in excess of our total annual GDP!

Even as we grandiosely declare, time after time, our commitment to ensure the safety, prosperity and the future of our children, we unfailingly engage in an enterprise that we know will enslave, not one, but many of our future generations to a life beleaguered by debt and poverty.

Although it may be already too late, there is still an URGENT need to rethink our policy on water use.

Foot Note:
It would appear that our hydro-power projects are executed under great secrecy - here is an interesting read:

http://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attached-files/punatsangchhu-ii_cdm_comments-714.pdf

................... to be continued

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bhutan Parliamentarians on a funny trip

A friend in India just sent me the following news clipping. It is my ardent hope that our Parliamentarians were too thick skinned to have not learned anything from their Indian counterparts :)-


Imagine our patang bearing Parliamentarians turning violent!

Bhutan's Tourism Industry Under Attack!

Bhutan and the Bhutanese people are slowly but surely falling into the dragnet of some evil power that is masterminding some strangely unbelievable occurrences that defy logic. I am convinced that some sinister force is at work: some one or something that is not immediately apparent is on an overdrive to scheme and plot the cause of our golden goose - the tourism industry - to bleed to death.

And, I dare say that the two-pronged assault on the tourism industry - the concerted push from some quarters to liberalize the tourism business and the road-widening initiative, coming one on the heels of the other, CANNOT be coincidental. I suspect that some sections of the Bhutanese society are being puppeteered, willy-nilly, as puppets in a Machiavellian scheme to demolish the only success story that is the torchbearer of Bhutanese spirit of enterprise - the tourism industry!

But it is now under siege.

All at once, everybody seems to be experts in the field of tourism - the National Council, members of the BCCI and, supposedly, some hotel owners. All these captains of Bhutanese trade and industry do not realize that on the world stage they are less than half a strand of sand, waiting to be snubbed out of existence when the behemoths of the world come trampling. Recent ACC investigations reveal that Phuentsholing’s one-room operation called JPLCP is ten times bigger than the biggest Bhutanese retail operation. This is how minuscule the biggest of the big Bhutanese business operators are. Thus, the Bhutanese interest groups will do well to keep their personal greed in check for the sake of the greater good of the lesser fortunate people of Bhutan. It is not good to rock the system that has worked fine all these years.

The tourism industry has grown from strength to strength primarily because the industry had dual ownership - government and private. Remove government control and stewardship and we have a world in which personal greed and self interest will run amok - ruining the industry and handing it over on a platter to the carpetbaggers of the world. The Bhutanese operators will be reduced to accepting pittance while the big boys from outside will usurp the tourism trade. Inward foreign exchange remittances will dwindle while profits will be siphoned off to offshore accounts. Tourism will no longer represent any significant contribution to the economy. Trained workers from abroad will fill high-end jobs. Bhutanese will end up at the bottom rung - without any scope for advancement.

I am happy that the governments of the past have successfully fended off the greedy overtures of the powerful few. It is not as if such attempts were not made in the past. This government too must not buckle under the pressure of the rich and the powerful. After all, if Sa Wa Sum is to be served, it is the Sa Wa Sum we must serve - and not few individuals who cannot see beyond their noses.

Look at the wanton filth and muck that is being uncovered by the ACC in Phuentsholing. It is enough to make one puke in disgust - at the level of how low the Bhutanese will stoop to satiate their greed. As a long time Bhutan observer tells me, the Bhutanese people’s “me, me - now, now” mentality will one day turn this land of GNH into a failed State.

The tourism industry is under attack. This government must do everything it can to ward off the assault. After all, the PDP government would not want the failure of this most vital industry on its conscience, should it fail during its tenure.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Tourism Industry: The early warning signs of imminent disaster: II

I just returned from a quick trip to Phobjikha and Gangtey Goenpa.

The road widening works between Semtokha and Lobesa has been going on for over 15 years and yet, most of it is still in complete shambles. From the looks of it, it will not be done in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, the road widening works have been started between Wangdue and Bumthang. According to the Hon’ble Minister for Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, the project will be completed in 3 years.

A stretch of road between Semtokha to Lobesa - a distance of 59 KMs - couldn't be completed in 15 years. How the stretch of road from Lobesa to Bumthang - a distance of 197 KMs - will be done in just 3 years is something to be seen to be believed!

However, this post is not about achieving the impossible or procrastinating on the possible. It is about what the road widening work is doing to our vitally important tourism industry.

At Gangtey Goenpa, I had lunch at a restaurant whose owner is a contractor of sorts - for a tour operator in Thimphu. He tells me that he had a lunch order to serve lunch to 50 tourists due to arrive Gantey Goenpa/Phobjikha on the 8th of August, 2015. On the appointed day, he got a call from the tour operator telling him of the cancellation of the lunch order.

The reason: the tourists, all three busloads of them, arrived below Nobding on their way to Gangtey Goenpa/Phobjikha. The tourists looked at the condition of the road and refused to go any further. They cancelled the trip and turned back. In the process the poor restaurateur in Gangtey Goenpa was stuck with the lunch that was already prepared and ready. He tells me that his refrigerator is now overflowing with the prepared food and he has been overfeeding his family in an attempt to save the cooked food from going to waste.

Some discussions are already taking place among tour operators that it is no longer safe to use Hyundai H1 and Toyota Hiace buses to transport tourists between Thimphu and Bumthang, because their undercarriage clearance is too low and unsuitable for the slushy road conditions.

They are now actively considering the use of Toyota Prados and other high-clearance SUVs in place of the mini buses. However, it remains to be seen whether their tour pricing is able to absorb the more expensive hire charges of the SUVs.

This is one of the many faces of the road-widening project that is destined to kill our tourism industry.

Only in Bhutan it happens that the Tourism Council declares the year 2015 as the “Visit Bhutan Year” to boost tourism while, at the same time, the government introduces something that is designed to strangulate it completely!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tourism Industry: The early warning signs of imminent disaster

It does not take a Nostradamus to predict that the recently initiated haphazard road widening work is going to cause irreparable damage to our tourism industry. But I am shocked by the alacrity with which the problem has already set into motion the wheel of doom.

It began with the recent landslide and flooding in Trongsa that caused severe damages in Trongsa town. People put the blame squarely on the road widening works.

A week back, three irate travelers driving towards Thimphu from Trongsa beat up a truck driver for hindering smooth flow of traffic. This was clearly a case of a malaise known as “road rage”. Irritated travelers stranded on the road for hours on end suffer this malaise that give rise to violent anger caused by the stress and frustration of having to drive under difficult conditions.

A little over a week back, I was sitting at the Ambient Café drinking tea when I overheard a conversation among four tourists sitting few tables diagonally to mine. They were an agitated lot. One could not believe that their journey from Bumthang to Thimphu took 17 hours. One of them felt that their tour operator was stupid to send them to Bumthang even while knowing that the roads were in terrible condition and would take them 17 hours to drive to Thimphu. One felt that they should sue the tour operator for mismanaging and spoiling their expensive holiday trip.

The above are clear signs that our tourism industry is headed for a disaster. There will be hundreds of incidences of road rage. Hundreds of landslides will occur over the coming years, as a result of digging into the fragile mountainside. Stretches of roads will slide down into the ravine and disappear - leaving travelers and tourists stranded on the road for hours and days. Essential supplies and travel will be disrupted. In the meantime, disgusted tourists will return home to spread the word. In the coming years, tourist arrivals will plummet.

Already, tour operators complain that bookings for this year is way down compared to earlier years - because of the Nepal earthquake disaster.

Happiness is a place” will cease to be our brand name slogan. Instead it will be etched on the tombstone - an epitaph to the demise of Bhutan’s tourism industry!

I suspect that flow of tourists to the Central and Eastern parts of the country will dwindle to a trickle. It does not seem like tourists in their right minds will want to travel to Bumthang and the East - over bumpy, muddy roads that go on for hundreds of kilometers. Quite rightly, no tour operator in his/her right mind should suggest it. The prospect of being stranded for hours on the road is not any body’s idea of holiday.

If tour operators are smart, they will avoid booking tours to Bumthang and the East. Even if they must, they should take their tourists by air to Bumthang and back. They should avoid planning their tours based on overland travel, or be prepared to face the wrath of their guests.

While in some parts the country the tourist infrastructure will remain underused, in places like Paro, Thimphu, Haa, Punakha and Wangdue the facilities will come under tremendous pressure. Phobjikha could still remain a tourist destination but it does not offer appropriate accommodation and, in any event, it does not have the numbers to accommodate the diversion from other destinations.

In all this, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines could benefit - they should already anticipate increased air traffic to Bumthang airport and back. They ought to prepare for the influx. Boom time is inevitable - if the tourists will still come, despite the bad press.

No one seems to be able to explain why we need to widen our West-East highway. It is madness given that it imperils the only industry that can effectively counterbalance the economic disaster that is being caused by the hydro-power projects. In my opinion we do not need to widen our West-East highway. All that we need at this stage is to repave them and resurface them properly. If at all there is a need to widen the West-East highway, for whatever mysterious objectives, we must first improve the roads from West to South, South to South, East to South and South to Central. Once that is done, we can then redirect our tourist traffic through them.

The government cannot fail to understand that the West-Central-East national highway represents the backbone of our tourist traffic. Any impediment on this route will mean disaster for our tourism industry. There is a need to rethink on this issue, before it is too late.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Punasangchhu Project I & II right on track!

I am truly encouraged by what Mr. Abhay Thakur, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Governemnt of India told the Kuensel on 4th August, 2015. He is quoted to have said:

“ ……. the revised cost of Nu 93.75B, which the union cabinet approved last month, was justified”.

I am encouraged because if the Government of India feels that the revised cost is justified, then the onus of justification shall be on them. As far as Bhutan is concerned, it cannot be justified that a project estimated at Nu. 35.00 has now escalated to Nu. 93.75 billion. This level of cost over-run throws all calculations to the wind. But if the Big Brother says so, then so it shall be.

However, his next statement is in the strain of what Mr. R N Khazanchi said about a week back - a curiously twisted logic. Mr. Abhay Thakur is supposed to have said:

“I think we are on right track and we are optimistic that the projects would complete on time with the approval of revised cost”. 

Complete on time? I thought the project completion date was further shifted to 2019??? The project was scheduled to be completed in December 2016.

Mr. Abhay Thakur has some more good news for Bhutan. He states:

“….. even after cost escalation is less than Nu 80M per Mega Watt and the PHPA II, after the proposed expected cost escalation would be in the range of Nu 70M per MW. These rates are extremely competitive and anywhere else in South Asia …..”.

Right! While Mr. Abhay may be right in stating that our unit cost of construction is competitive compared to those in the region, what he ignored to tell us is whether our income from those costs will be equally competitive. If not, how does it matter?

Madam Sujata Mehta, Secretary of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India confirmed that the media report that India has surplus electricity, is untrue. I believe her, 100%. But she left her next statement - half complete:

“There is an inter government agreement which exists that the power generation at these joint projects would be purchased by India."

She failed to tell us at what unit price they will buy the electricity generated from these two doomed projects. Cost+?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Neither Greed Nor Corruption

In the ongoing debacle of the Punasangchhu Projects I & II, some are baying for the blood of Khazanchi. I wonder how that is going to solve our problems? In any event, how can a single person be responsible for the loss of tens of billions - perpetuated over many years? It is impossible that one single person can mastermind and be responsible for such a catastrophe. Neither can it be borne of greed and corruption. I am unprepared to believe that a disaster this monumental is the result of one single person’s greed - R N Khazanchi’s. The reason has to be something else.

And what of the Board Members of the PHPA? What were they doing? How is it possible that persons sitting on the Board allowed such disaster to happen? How did they allow mistakes of this scale to be made? How did they approve the shifting of the dam site, even while GSI clearly pointed out the possibility of geological surprise at the new site? If they knew of the problems and yet did not stop it, then they too must be held accountable, for complicity.

It is an honor to be on the Board of such an important project. However, one has to believe that one has been put there because one has a level of competence to do a job well. It is completely a different matter if one were put there because it is expected that one will NOT do his/her job.

Particularly for the Bhutanese Board Members, you should now realize that you are party to an enterprise that is destined to destroy this country.

I put in my letter of resignation - to be relieved as a Board Member of the RSPN before time, because I realized that I had nothing to contribute there - neither the time. Thus, the honorable thing to do was to resign so that someone else more competent and able can fill the slot so that the organization can grow for the better.

Remember, Bhutan is a small place and nothing, I repeat nothing, is a secret in this country. Eventually, the truth will all tumble out. You can then bury your heads in the sand, in shame. Unfortunately by then you would have imperiled the future of this country and the many generations of Bhutanese who will follow. The only solace in all this is that you will still get off scot-free - to talk of service to the Sa Was Sum, with valor and conviction.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Khazanchi Doctrine: Cost + Revenue = Income

In the article by Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) dated July 29, 2015, headlined “Deadline extension could cost the government time and money”, the reporter writes:

The government could lose a revenue amount of more than Ngultrum 47.7 billion as a result of extension of completion date of the Punatshangchhu I hydropower project to 2019”. (http://www.bbs.bt/news/?p=52407)

In response, R N Khazanchi the Managing Director of the Punasangchhu Projects I & II states:

“The plant would operate for 35 years and even if the project is completed three years later, it would earn the government the same amount of revenue, only the time was being delayed. It cannot be considered revenue loss; it is the same amount of income being deferred to a different date”.

Now, what the person responsible for managing and overseeing Bhutan’s two biggest hydro-power projects costing over Nu. 200.00 billion is propagating is too complex an economic theory, above and beyond the understanding of people of lesser intelligence. This intricate and conceptual philosophy needs to be explained in plain English so that people have a grasp of what is being said.

What the Managing Director is saying is simple:

1.  Cost over-runs and mounting interest costs is inconsequential and has no bearing on the profitability
     of the projects.

2.  Completion of project in time is not important - as long as it is completed - even if ten years later.

3.  That the government of Bhutan will derive the same amount of “income” from Punasangchhu-I even after

     three years of delay and project cost escalating to Nu. 120.00 billion, from its initial estimate of
     Nu. 35.00 billion.

4.  The Managing Director talks of “revenue” and “income” in the same breadth meaning that he wants us to

     believe that they are one and the same.

Wah re wah Khazanchi Bhai, kya dialogue mara!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Neither ill will nor malice

Omair - a friend and an author based in Delhi wrote an interesting article today, on India-Bhutan relations and what ails it:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/prime-minister-narendra-modis-historic-visit-to-bhutan/article7480714.ece

Omair has visited Bhutan a number of times and traveled extensively within the country. He understands, more than some Bhutanese, the principles on which India-Bhutan relations is founded.

In his mail to me informing me of his article in The Hindu, he reassures me that the ongoing disaster with our hydro-power projects “….. has more to do with dysfunction within India's foreign policy apparatus rather than any ill will - mistakes rather than malice - …..”

I would like to think so too and I am tempted to believe him. However, as they say in the comic books - the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Thus, if malice were not intended, the Big Brother will prove it in the manner in which they go about correcting the mistakes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Yet Another Disastrous DPR In The Planning?

Even while the country is still reeling under the shock and frustration of discovering the pathetic quality of DPR carried out in the Punasangchhu-I project, resulting in losses amounting to billions of Ngultrums, the ugly word has yet again resurfaced - this time related to the ecological and environmental disaster that is being contemplated - in the form of Shingkhar-Gorgan highway.

KUENSEL (issue dated 20/07/2015) reports that: “DANTAK hopes to complete DPR for Shingkhar-Gorgan highway by October”.

This is very strange - how can a DPR (Detailed Project Report) be done on a project that still hasn't been cleared for implementation? The erstwhile DPT government scrapped the project - because they realized that they would be breaking a law if they went ahead with the project.

The proposed Shingkhar-Gorgan highway passes through the core areas of the Thrumshingla National Park (TNP). Our laws prohibit any construction within a protected park area. Additionally, the Thrumshingla National Park is an important habitat for the near-extinct Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) - that the whole world is trying to save and salvage.

The world will not be sympathetic to a country that professes to champion the cause of environmental conservation, and yet, vandalizes an important habitat of a species that is nearing extinction.

We can certainly do without this road - it benefits no one, it passes through complete wilderness and, above all, the Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD) of the Department of Forests and Park Services who must give environmental clearance before this road can happen, has sworn never to allow this project to take place - because it will be the very antithesis to their being - should this road happen.

One environmentalist I spoke to few days back is aghast at the idea of doing this disastrous road. He cannot think of anything else - except political gimmickry. In his opinion, since the road passes through Lhuentse which is where the Agriculture Minister’s constituency is, he thinks that the highway may be in partial fulfillment of his campaign pledge. The environmentalist is of the view that the Agriculture Minister hopes to be able to influence the WCD (a Division under the Ministry of Agriculture) to issue the environmental clearance that is required before work on the road can begin. Such a charge is premature and can only be proven - if and when, the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway happens.

However, I do not believe that to be true. Political brinkmanship of this magnitude is still not something that our politicians are capable of - not as yet - I mean I hope not. Also, even beyond being the Minister of the Department that must do all it can to uphold the law, His Excellency the Agriculture Minister cannot forget that he is one of the trustees elected by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, under Article 5, to protect and safeguard the environment:

“Every Bhutanese is a trustee of the Kingdom’s natural resources and environment for the benefit of the present and future generations and it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of the natural environment, conservation of the rich biodiversity of Bhutan and prevention of all forms of ecological degradation including noise, visual and physical pollution through the adoption and support of environment friendly practices and policies”.

In defense of his opposition to the foolhardy idea of this road, all that the Minister need do is quote the relevant laws that are already in place. The then Agriculture Minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho offered to resign from the Cabinet - should the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway happen!

Ancient Fir forest that will be desecrated if the highway goes through


It is said that the highway will require 26 zigs before it can reach the Singmala top giving us an idea of the geological make of the area

Total wilderness between Singmala and Pelphu Goenpa - there is not a single village in between

Total wilderness between Shingkhar and Singmala - there is not a single village in between

 Total wilderness between Singmala and Pelphu Goenpa. Additional 30 KMs climb from Pelphu Goenpa to Singmala. They have already built a road (16 KMs) from Gorgan to Pelphu

 Total wilderness at the top of Singmala


 No villages between Shingkhar village to Singmala
 
It will take another 30 KMs of digging into the mountain side before the road reaches Singmala top from Pelphu Goenpa


Saturday, July 25, 2015

India Finds Bhutanese Electricity Too Expensive!

TheBhutanese newspaper reports that Tata Power Trading Company (TPTC) is facing hard times selling electricity generated by Dagachu Hydropower Project. The company is unable to sell our electricity in India at the contracted rate of Nu. 2.90 per unit. TPTC has a 15 years contract with Dagachu Pydropower Project to purchase and sell electricity in India.

So, are we expecting inflation in the Indian energy market to go up by 400% - as in the case of the construction cost of Punashangchhu-I project? If not, how are we expected to profitably sell our electricity to India when the cost of generation will touch close to Nu. 6.00 per unit by the time the Punasangchhu-I is done?

If this is the situation we are faced with, how can we say that “loans from hydro-power projects are self-liquidating”?

Given this bleak scenario, it means the government’s decision on the financing modality of upcoming hydro-power projects at 70:30 debt to equity ratio is also unsound. In fact, it is time that we now suspend all further loans for new hydro-power projects - until all the projects that are currently in the pipeline are completed and commissioned.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Punasangchhu-I: Nu.93.75 Billion and Rising!

BBS, Bhutan’s national broadcaster reports:

India approves PHPA I’s new cost estimate of Nu 93.75B (http://www.bbs.bt/news/?p=52340).

That is very bighearted of India. But what of Bhutan, the bigger stakeholder in the project? Bhutan’s share is 60% - so what does Bhutan say? Does Bhutan approve too? Does Bhutan accept the cost escalation from its initial estimate of Nu. 35.00 billion to its current Nu. 93.75 billion?

And what of the losses? Is Bhutan required to bear the losses resulting from decisions made by the Indians - even while they were categorically pointed out by the Geological Survey of India that the new dam location was geologically unstable? The relocation of the dam site has not only delayed the project by years, it has also taken up the cost of the project by Nu. 4.5 billion. This does not take into account losses running into billions - through loss of revenue as a result of delayed project completion. The project completion date has now been moved to 2019! If past records are anything to go by, this too will be further pushed back.

The other issue I have been raising is that of the unit cost of generation of the Punasangchhu-I. How can anything remain profitable when its cost of production has gone up by 400%? The Punasangchhu-I was started with a cost estimate of Nu.35.00 billion. It has now gone up to Nu. 93.75 billion. By the time the project gets done, if ever it gets done, the cost would have escalated to somewhere around Nu. 120.00 billion.

Already, the cost of generation - at the estimated project completion date of 2017 - is said to be around Nu. 4.00 per unit. The project completion date has now been pushed back to 2019. An educated guess would be that the project would not get done even by 2022. This means the unit cost will go upto something like Nu. 6.00 per unit.

By contrast, Bhutan’s electricity is currently sold to India at an average rate of Nu. 2.00 per unit.

One does not have to be a mathematical wizard to understand what is happening with our famous hydro-power projects!

Even worst, because of the unstable nature of the mountainside, the Punasangchhu-I project will now be using a new and, ENTIRELY UNTESTED, atleast in the Himalayan region, technology of dam construction called Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC). A complete departure from the tried and tested method of Conventional Vibrated Concrete (CVC).

As of now, it is anybody’s guess - may be it will work, may be it will not. However, even if the dam holds up, we still need to pray to God to come to our rescue - because looking at the figures, it is simply impossible to pay off the loans - from selling electricity generated by this doomed project, if ever it will.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Surprise about the Geological Surprise in Punasangchhu-I

In his most recent post on his Blog: www.kbwakley.blogspot.com, K B Wakley makes some shocking exposĂ©, pertaining to the oft-quoted “geological surprise” in the Punasangchhu-I hydro-power project.

It has now been proven, from records secretly filed away in some dingy corner of one of the offices in the Economics Affairs Ministry building, that the now famous “geological surprise” was actually “envisioned” and a foregone conclusion!

The project authorities were well AWARE THAT THERE WOULD BE GEOLOGICAL SURPRISES at the dam site of the PHPA-I. And, yet, they went ahead with the dam construction and caused losses amounting to tens of billion of Rupees.

Going by the audit report submitted by the Royal Audit Authority (RAA) to the Ministry of Economics Affairs, it becomes clear that:

a.  The Geological Survey of India (GSI) had clearly pointed out the “presence of weak
      geological features in the new dam axis and envisioned geological surprises” at the
      Punasangchhu-I new dam site.

b.  In spite of the GSI’s recommendation to extend the right bank drift at least up to RD 135 m - 140 m,

     the project authorities ignored the GSI’s recommendations.

c.  The work on the dam construction should have been started only after GSI’s thorough investigation,

     which began on 29th April 2009. Shockingly, the project authorities had already
      awarded the work to the contractors on 27th March 2009 - even before the investigation began!
     The GSI’s final investigation report was submitted only in November 2009 - seven
       months after the work on the dam started!

It is now clear that the dam construction of Punasangchhu-I was done in great haste and without proper investigation. The unstable geological make of the location was clearly pointed out by the GSI. And yet, they went ahead with the construction.

One can see that the project authorities have been blatant in their irresponsibility. The two governments of Bhutan and India should now have no problem in fixing accountability on those responsible for this disaster that is still ongoing. And, it is still not too late to heed my New Year’s Wish:

http://yesheydorji.blogspot.com/2015/02/my-new-year-wish.html

For Bhutan, the cheaper way out is still the closure of the projects.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

MARG: Magazine of the Arts

The following is the cover of MARG, a magazine published in Mumbai, India. The cover features my photograph of a novitiate monk shot at Dechenphodrang Lhakhang in 2003.


One of the articles inside titled A Passion for Preservation: Photography of Yeshey Dorji is on me and my photography, authored by Ms. Madeline Drexler, Editor of Harvard Public Health magazine and fellow at the Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

This special Volume 66 Number 4 of the magazine is entirely dedicated to the arts of Bhutan. It will be launched in Bhutan during the upcoming Mountain Echoes literary festival to be held in Thimphu, during third week of August, 2015.

About MARG

Friday, July 17, 2015

Lessons in Photography

Well, I think I will take a break from forever playing the messenger of doom. Acting the perennial soothsayer is no fun, particularly when one is most often reminded that the dogs may bark but the marauders will march on, regardless.

Lets turn to photography for a momentary respite from all the gloom and doom.

As usual, I woke up early only to find that whole of Thimphu valley had been blanketed under an all-encompassing swath of white mist. I quickly brushed, washed, brewed tea, gulped few sips of the steaming hot tea, grabbed my camera bag that is forever packed and ready, and ran out the door to start my car. Looking at the surreal scene in front of me, I was sure that there would be great photo opportunity at the Kuenselphodrang where the Buddha Dordenma statue sits in solitary bliss, surveying the valley below, with a look of infinite kindness and compassion.

Buddha Dordenma under construction at Kuenselphodrang, Thimphu: 17.07.2015

When I reached Kuenselphodrang, the statue and everything else was completely covered in mist. Nothing inspiring there. I parked my car by the roadside and waited and waited and waited. The mist adamantly hung on - like in animated suspension - concealing everything. In the meantime, my throat was getting parched from lack of the customary four mugs of hot black tea. I looked at my car dashboard to check the time - it was 7:33AM. I decided that I would quickly run back to my house and get my flask of tea that was sitting on my office desk.

As I reached Motithang, I saw an elderly man wiggling up the desolate road leading up to the Motithang gas station - with a empty gas cylinder strapped on him back. A most fitting scene, to be included in an article that I plan to do soon - on the common man's hardships of getting cooking gas refill. I was tempted to stop and photograph the person: the brilliant virginal morning light striking the solitary man wobbling up the desolate road, the downcast sweeping branches of the weeping willow shimmering tender green in the mini park to his right, made the whole scene even more alluring. But heck, I needed to grab my thermos and get back to Kuenselphodrang or I will miss my photo opportunity.

Thus, even while the temptation was great, I refused to stop to photograph the person. I rushed back to Kuenselphodrang - only to find that the darn mist had completely lifted and exposed the Buddha in all its stark nakedness!!! I cursed a foul “J----a” and sat down to drink tea, in complete defeat.

For those of you who are into photography, this is an IMPORTANT LESSON in the pursuit of photography - NEVER EVER BE DISTRACTED. If you are on to something - stick by it. Don't move away - let the hell freeze over - but stay put and get your shot. I was distracted when I ran off to get the flask of tea, in the process I missed a great photo opportunity. My loss was further aggravated by my second mistake - that of not stopping and shooting the gas man. In an attempt to get what I did not know was already a lost cause, I lost that other opportunity as well!

Despite a disastrous morning with multiple missed opportunities, I was still intent on getting something out of the morning’s sojourn. Even with the harsh light, the Buddha statue looked imposing in the morning sun. So I photographed a few frames. In the following photographs, there is another lesson for those of you who are aspiring photographers: a subject may look pretty all by itself … and yet, sometimes including something else in the frame can hugely improve the image. Notice that in the second photo of the Buddha, I included three morning joggers in the frame:







As you can see, the image is much more interesting - and the Buddha is no longer lonesome!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Self-liquidating Geological Surprises

On 14th July, 2015, our national broadcaster - BBS makes the following extremely alarming announcement:

Bhutan heading towards a debt crisis?

The news report carries the following graphics:

 
http://www.bbs.bt/news/?p=52123

Quoting some source based in the UK, the BBS report makes one thing clear - that our external debt is more than our entire GDP and that we are listed among 14 other countries headed towards a debt crisis. We share the dais with the likes of Greece!

But Parliamentarian Karma Tenzin, a member of the Public Accounts Committee of the NA is unimpressed with the report. He is confident that Bhutan would not enter a debt crisis. He told the BBS that:

“……….. most of the government borrowings were concentrated on hydropower, which are self-liquidating.

Bhutan is blessed that Karma Tenzin is a Parliamentarian and not an accountant.

The self-liquidating hydropower projects such as Punasangchhu I & II are suffused with “geological surprises” after “geological surprises”.

The project’s original cost estimate of Rs.35.00 billion has seen close to 300% escalation - to somewhere in the region of Rs.97.00 billion, currently. It is my belief that the project, if it ever gets completed, will cost somewhere in the region of Rs.120.00 billion - nearly 400% cost increase. Strangely, the government is quite content on blaming the delay and cost escalation to - “geological surprises”. The project authority does one better - it says the cost escalation is attributed to “inflation”. Inflation of 300 - 400%??? Preposterous!!!!

Progress on the dam of Punasangchhu I has been AT A STANDSTILL EXACTLY TWO YEARS. In the meantime, interest on the borrowed debt of now close to Rs.97.00 billion Rupees is mounting. Irrespective of all that, no decision is yet made as to what happens to the resumption of the dam construction.

And now listen to this: one knowledgeable person in affairs of hydropower projects tells me: “it is simply impossible - the dam at its current location CANNOT BE BUILT. If they do, both the Punasangchhu I & II are doomed!”.

Cost escalation is not unique to Punasangchhu I & II - all our other projects suffer from it - by the billions. Inflation is blamed for it. Tell me, when estimates are prepared, isn’t inflation factored in? Isn’t that a standard norm - to provide for inflation - particularly where construction of long durations are involved?

This is the state of our self-liquidating hydropower projects. But obviously this is no reason for alarm - we can always pray to God for a miracle!

Koencho Sum Khenno!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Many Casualties of Bhutan's Hydro Power Projects

Business Bhutan’s front-page article of July 11, 2015 headlined “MINING FIRM OWNED BY PDP STALWARTS THREATENS TO TAKE GOVERNMENT TO COURT” finally exposes the hydro-power projects in Bhutan for what they really are - a monumental swindle designed to bring this country to its knees, under the burden of debt and bankruptcy. It is sad. But I know that this is not the end of it - there will be many more dead bodies that will litter the wayside - before we hit the hydro-power cul-de-sac.

The mindlessness and absurdity is simply unbelievable, almost sinister! What manner of insanity and witchery holds sway over us that we allow ourselves to be ensnared into these deathtraps called hydro-power projects?

Even while anyone with any iota of commonsense can see that the country has already sunken neck-deep into the quicksand of debt and destruction, the government still talks of saving the hydro-power projects - supposedly “in the interest of the country”. And how does the government go about saving the hydro-power projects and the country? - in a very ingenious way - by shifting the burden of responsibility on the hapless Bhutanese mine operators!

Only last year I remember that the government had, on the floor of the Parliament - no less - eloquently defended the colossal project cost escalation running into tens of billions of Rupees recorded by the Punasangchu Hydro Power Projects I & II, as “geological surprises” - effectively exonerating the Project authorities of any culpability. The government’s act of chivalry towards the Indian project managers and contractors, despite such colossus losses, is certainly admirable.

However, today the government finds that they had failed to read the fine print in the contract and are obligated to remedy their failure. In its attempt to “fulfill the written contractual obligation” to the Punasangchhu Project authorities, the government does something that no self-respecting government should do - it arbitrarily seizes the Bhutanese owned mines, cancels its licence and hands over the mines to the Indian contractors!

Even worst, to rub salt to injury, the government offers the mine operators compensation less than half what is justly due to them.

Obviously the government has been had - it does not matter whether it is the past or the present government. Government of the day has to take on the onus of remedying whatever fault that needs rectification. It is acceptable that the government has to eat humble pie - but it is lame that it should do so by exacting the cost on a mining company that has been issued a legitimate licence to do a legitimate business.

I can understand that the government may stand in need for a private company to bail it out of a sticky situation. And, perhaps, a private company is duty bound to heed the call of duty and put the interest of the country and the government above and beyond, self-interest. But by the same token, the government needs to be responsible enough to own up to its failures and not act the bully by passing on the cost of its failure to a legitimately licenced business activity. It should do its part - by accepting that the mining company is not at fault and thus, cannot be victimized in the process. The mining company deserves to be given their due compensation. That is the honorable thing to do.

Please bear in mind that Bhutan will be subjected to losses running into more than a hundred billion, by the time Punasangchhu Hydro Power Projects I & II are done. Therefore, it does not seem reasonable that the government is reneging on paying out less than 0.20% of the overall losses that it is willing to absorb, caused by the Indian project managers and contractors. It is particularly unfair, given that the same government seized the mines from the private Bhutanese owners - in order that it can hand it over to the Indian contractors - to fulfill its “contractual obligations”.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bhutan's First QSL Card

It is called wireless and yet, no other communications device uses as much wire, as does the wireless transmitter/transceiver! Even the ground on which the antenna is hoisted is strewn with copper wires running to all directions - for better signal reception.

 The "wirelessness" inside a Ham Radio Shack containing radio sets and other paraphernalia

Bhutan started to take its baby steps towards modernization sometime towards the end of 1950's, and yet, by 1955, someone in Bhutan was already sending voice and data over the airwaves - exactly 60 years ago! A wireless instructor in the employ of the Royal Government of Bhutan by the name of N. Chhawna from the Indian State of Mizoram was happily communicating with people as far away as USA - in 1955, using wireless radio equipment.

Records available in various archives confirm that the following were two of Chhawna’s and, by default, Bhutan’s earliest QSO’s. The top one is a QSL Card logged with an amateur with the CallSign VS2BD - Edward B. Powell - operating from the erstwhile Federation of Malaya that ceased to exist as a country as of 15th September, 1963. Like Malaya, Sikkim was deleted from the countries’ list as of April 30, 1975 and Tibet saw its demise as of May 30, 1974.

Two of Bhutan's first QSL Cards

 The Card at the lower end was logged with an American ham radio operator using the CallSign W8PQQ - his name was Albert H. Hix from Charleston, West Virginia, USA. This Mr. Hix was an enigma in ham radio. This really ancient ham radio operator logged his first QSO on November 9, 1935. His very last QSO was on June 10, 2003 - meaning he remained active on the radio for 68 years! Upon his death on 25th June, 2003, he had accumulated 10 footlockers filled with close to 135,000 QSL Cards! This is an incredible average of almost 6 Cards every single day of his life as a radio operator!

The earliest recorded ham radio operation from Bhutan by a Chilip is credited to Mr. Gus Browning of USA. He is supposed to have first operated from Bhutan in July of 1963. He writes that he was back in Bhutan again in February - April, 1965. Frankly, there are so many inconsistencies in his operations; supposedly made from Bhutan, that I am not quite sure they are all true.

 Gus Browning with his wife and daughter

His wife Peggy writes that she too was here in Bhutan with her husband in 1965 and worked for a while at the Hospital in Langjopakha. I have been showing Peggy’s photo to people who worked at that old hospital of the 60’s - to see if they recognized her. No luck yet. My own aunty was a nurse during that time at the hospital across the Tashichoe Dzong’s cantilever bridge - but she says her memory fails her.

 Mrs. Peggy Browning, Gus Browning's wife photographed around the time she was supposed to have visited Bhutan

NOTE:
QSO : When two radio operators (hams) establishes radio contact, such a contact is called a QSO;

QSL : A written confirmation is required, to validate a radio contact between two operators.
           Such a written and signed confirmation, in the form of a printed Card, containing full details
           of the contact, is called a QSL.

Friday, July 3, 2015

My Progressive Demotion

At the end of day on 30th June, 2015, my term as the Club Secretary of the Rotary Club of Thimphu ended. The installation ceremony of the incoming officials for the year 2015-2016 was held on that evening. On this night, the incumbent Club officials handed over their pins and insignia and the Charter Certificate, and responsibilities, to a new set of Club officials who took over the management and administration of the Club and its affairs - until end of June, next year.

For the outgoing officials, it was a moment for reflection and introspection - on what they have achieved and how they have been able to serve the community and whether they have been able to live up to the Rotary spirit.

For those who have been elected to take up the reins of the Club and its affairs for the next one year, it was a moment to talk of new goals and directions they would set for the Club and its members – and to pronounce their will and determination to reinforce the ideals of selflessness that is at the core of Rotary spirit of giving and service.

As a pivotal mover and shaker in my capacity as the Club Secretary, I was happy to terminate my term of office - happy in the belief that I have made a difference and that I have given the very best that is in me. At long last, I now have the opportunity for a little rest and respite - from the weighty responsibilities of playing the efficient Club Secretary.

Looking back and recalling my involvement in the Rotary Club of Thimphu - from its inception in 2012, I am a little aghast that I have been steadily demoted in my position in the Club! :)-

It began with my appointment as a Charter Member of the Rotary Club of Thimphu, when it was formed on 24th of April, 2012. To this day I am clueless as to who bestowed upon me the honor of being nominated a Charter Member.

Even while I was traipsing in the jungles of Sengore and Yongkala in Mongaar photographing wild birds - without my knowledge, I was appointed Vice President of the Club!

Vice President Pin

In 2014, inspite of my very vehement protestations, I was appointed Club Secretary - a position one notch down the post of VP.

 Club Secretary's Pin

In the same year, I was named a Paul Harris Fellow and received my Pin “in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world”.

My Paul Harris Fellow Pin

Early this year I received my Bronze Pin in recognition of my sponsoring two new Members to the Rotary fraternity.

 Membership Sponsorship Pin

Upon relinquishing my position as the Club Secretary, I am now an ordinary Member wearing the ordinary Rotary Pin :)-

Ordinary Rotary Pin

But that is the way the cookie crumbles :)- I am very happy though - because I am honored to be a Rotarian and I work tirelessly - in the service of my Club and the community! I am glad that we have a bunch of great Members who stand by each other and who make a great team!