Friday, July 3, 2015

Tourism Industry's Death Knell

The FINANCIAL -- IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, will invest $3.5 million in Bhutan’s Zhiwa Ling Hotel to support its plans to refurbish and increase room capacity and boost tourism in the country. This is the first ever external borrowing by a private Bhutanese company.

A very encouraging news indeed! Not so much because the IFC’s investment in the Zhiwa Ling Hotel demonstrates that it sees potential in the property, but because, even more important, it is a re-validation of what I have always said - that tourism is Bhutan’s most important industry that gives employment and economic benefit - across the broad spectrum of Bhutanese society.

Obviously, the World Bank sees it. Why then, don't we see it? Why do we fail to recognize how vitally important the tourism industry is to Bhutan? Why, particularly in the face of the reality that is now staring at our faces - that hydro-power - the wolf in sheep's clothing - is slowly but surely leading us down the path of doom and destruction?

It is a strange thing! Despite its potential, scant attention is paid to tourism and its development in the right direction. In fact it is as if there is some sinister conspiracy afoot to destroy it completely. Even our National Council seems to be onto the game of destroying the industry by calling for its liberalization.

In the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, our tourist arrivals are already on the down-slide. The final nail on the coffin is the recently initiated Wangdue-Trongsa road-widening work - a sure death knell for Bhutan’s tourism industry.

The road widening work between Simtokha and Mesina - a distance of 59 KMs - has been going on for over one and a half decades! It is still a work in progress. Regardless, the government proudly announces that the work between Wangdue and Trashigang - a distance of 492 Kms - will be completed in just three years.

The mountainsides will be hacked and dug up; Kms. upon Kms. of mounds of mud and soil and boulders will be piled up by the road side that will hinder traffic flow for hours on end. Road surfaces will be strewn with gaping potholes that will cause havoc to vehicles. Lush green vegetation and millions of trees that have taken hundreds of years to grow and mature, will be rendered asunder. The environment that we have sworn to protect will be devastated. Strings of heavy earth moving equipment will lie idle by the roadside, like zombie guardians keeping watch over empty burial grounds.

The Bhutanese people will wait with hope and mounting desperation - like the proverbial Maheng waiting for its pound of salt from Tibet - but the salt will never arrive.

In the next few years, it will become apparent to the Bhutanese people that this was yet another mistake we had the opportunity to avoid. By then it will be too late - irreparable damage would have been caused and we would have completely destroyed our tourism industry.

All that I can say then would be that - I told you so!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Kolkata, Chennai, Chilipthang etc.

We had a visiting Rotarian from Chhenai, India who attended our Weekly meeting this Friday the 26th June, 2015. The Rotary norm is that any visiting Rotarian can attend any meeting of around 33,000 Rotary Clubs in over 200 countries around the world. Infact, if a Rotarian attends a Rotary meeting anywhere else in the world, it is akin to attending one’s own Club’s meeting. The host Club Secretary would sign a Visiting Rotarian’s Attendance Slip - to authenticate that the visiting Rotarian attended their Club meeting.

Rotary meetings are most often followed by what is called “fellowship”. Once the serious business of Rotary is over and the gong is sounded, Members loosen up and indulge in lighthearted banter and camaraderie - quite often accompanied by copious amounts of boozing. It hasn't happened yet - but I know that there is no escaping it - there will come a sozzled night when yours truly will have to be looking down the barrel of an alcohol breath analyzer. It does not help that our Meetings are always held on Fridays - coinciding with the ZERO TOLERANCE DAY declared by our men in blue.

The visiting Rotarian told us that Kolkata in West Bengal, India was originally a village named Kalikata which was later changed to Calcutta by the British - now, once again, back to being Kolkata. He tells us that his own city - Chennai was originally called Madraspatnam. The British changed it to Chennapattnam. Over time, it came to be known as Madras. Then in 1996, the state government changed it back to Chennai.

So, what about name changes in good old Land of the Thunder Dragon? Plenty - I think we have changed the names of few hundred of our villages, mostly in the South: Kilkhorthang, Rilangthang, Sergithang, Norbuthang, Dzamlingthang, Gawaithang etc. etc. and etc.

But the name of one small place in Chukha has adamantly remained unchanged over the past four decades, since I can remember: AWAKHA!

For those of you who do not know the meaning, the English equivalent of the name is: EATSHIT!

Any chance that this derogatory name will some day catch someone’s fancy and have it changed to something a little bit more dignified? I bet the Brits could have done much better - but history has it that these uppity, uppity chilips found the Bhutanese lot too barbaric, and the land entirely useless for anything! Had they colonized us, we would not have had to suffer this shame - may be they would have named the place - Chilipthang!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pretty Faces Are In Rural Bhutan!

I am not a portrait shooter because the modern faces do not appeal to me. However, as a photographer, I cannot stop looking hard at faces - because I am always looking out for a subject to shoot. Sometimes people think that I am rude for staring :)- They do not know that I am not looking at them but at a potential subject to shoot.

But rural faces I love! Look at what a jewel of a face I found recently - in a village not too far way from the madding crowd of Thimphu.

What a natural charmer she was! The lighting conditions were not the most ideal --- otherwise she would pop out of the screen!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

How True Is The Claim?

"Bhutan sets its first-ever Guinness World Records title
  with Most trees planted in one hour"

I think this claim is not true. I believe that this is not our first Guinness World Record Title. I think we have four earlier Guinness World Records, that I know of:

1. Both our monarchs - His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel
    Wangchuck (listed in 2012) were listed, at different times, in the Guinness Book of
    World Records as the youngest reigning monarchs of a sovereign nation.

2. Late Lyonpo Dawa Tsering as the longest serving Foreign Minister of any country.

3. Goongloen Lam Dorji of the RBA - as the oldest and the longest serving Chief of Army.

And, if it can be considered a record, my photograph of the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) entered the 2012 Guinness Book of World Records as the rarest Heron in the world.

Do any one of you know of any other records the Bhutan holds in the Guinness Book of World Records.

We have this terrible habit of making untrue claims. I remember Bhutan Today newspaper claiming that they were the first private newspaper in Bhutan. The truth is that the first private newspaper was started by a person popularly known as "Kuenphen Karma". I think he started his failed paper sometime during late 70's or early 80's.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

WATER: Thinking Beyond Hydro-power Projects

In recent times, both the KUENSEL, as well as the BBS, have been unfailing in the regularity with which they reported on our hydro-power projects and how there is a need to review the hydro-power policy that has obviously failed to meet our expectations. It would appear that the realization has finally begun to dawn on a number of people that the much-touted egg, whether in a single basket or multiple baskets, is turning out to be nothing more than a thoroughly rotten egg!

Unfortunately, the writing on the wall is that reviewing or even reformulating our hydro-power policies isn’t going to help us in the least bit. By now it is obvious that what is needed is a complete reversal of policy.

As I hinted in my earlier post titled; “WATER: The Next BIG Trouble: III”, there is a need to look at our rivers as something more than merely a force to drive turbines to generate electricity. There is an URGENT need to move away from our traditional thinking - of using our river waters merely to turn turbines - and explore other possibilities the waters hold for us. The reasons are simple:

1.  The hydropower projects are becoming a dangerous tool in the game of attrition that is
     being played out.

2.  Over time, we may loose right of ownership over our own river systems.

3.  Something that is rather strange is that imported cooking gas (LPG) and kerosene are currently found 
     to be cheaper as fuel for cooking and heating - rather than electricity or wood. In a
     country that claims to generate thousands of megawatts of cheap electricity, how did
     we allow such a situation to develop?

4.  We pride ourselves as a net exporter of power. Shamefully, we are required to import
     power from India during the winter months.

It is becoming increasingly clear that water will, one day, be one of the most sought after resource in the world, over which wars are likely to be fought. At a time when the world community is experiencing shortage of drinkable fresh water due to global warming caused by climate change, we need to be judicious in the management of our river waters which are mostly fed by the melting glaciers. Once the glaciers recede and turn to moraine, we are in trouble because there is nothing that will substitute water. Unlike other countries in the world, we do not have access to saline water that we can desalinate. When our river systems dry up, we are in serious trouble.

A plan needs to be put in place - to ensure that we have a long-term strategy to guarantee water security. However, that isn’t likely to happen if we allow hydro-power plants to be installed on every one of our rivers. If we allow that, it is clear that they will all be turned into factories designed to manufacture hundreds of billions of debt, which will be the end of us.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi will surely rest in peace because her long-term foreign policy objectives towards Bhutan would be so much closer to realization. It was her, soon after her second coming to power in 1980, who clearly spelt out India’s ultimate objectives in engaging Bhutan. She was explicit in her directives to her people: “come up with a plan to execute a final assault on Bhutan to make it completely beholden to India”. Her reason: "even a Lilliputian Bhutan has become a security threat for India" - as she declared during one of her campaigns in the general elections of 1980.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Minor Revolution In The Making

Away from the clamor and din of hypocrisy that is the order of the day in the nation’s capital city of Thimphu - a cauldron simmering with broken dreams and dashed hopes - a quiet revolution has been taking form in the remote villages of the country’s poorest and least served Dzongkhag - Zhemgang.

A chance encounter during my recent trip to Zhemgang gave me both hope and despair. Hope because what is afoot is nothing short of revolutionary! Despair because I suspect that they do not have the wherewithal to pull this through successfully! The idea is monumental! If this succeeds, it can be replicated all around the country.

In what must be a first in the country, a small group of sixteen unemployed youth have come together to form what they call the “Khengrig Ngamsum Cooperative”. These youth, both men and women, in the age group from 18 to 38 years have all gone back from the urban cities to their villages in Zhemgang - to be members of this cooperative conceived and initiated by an enterprising Khengpa named Thinley Wangdi.

 Thinley Wangdi, the spirit behind the movement

Fourteen of the sixteen founding Members of the Khengrig Namsum Cooperative. They were attending a training course at the Rural Development Training Center, Zhemgang - the construction of which was funded by the HELVETAS.

These youth have a simple business idea: to be a bridge between the farming community in Zhemgang and the consumers. They have taken a Nu.3.2 million loan from the BOIC and disbursed the money among farmers - to till fallow lands, to provide fencing, water supply, for seedlings and to purchase and supply farm tools.

They wish to encourage mass production of food grain, vegetable, poultry, piggery, diary farming etc. - to achieve certain amount of economy of scale, so that these items can be marketed at competitive prices to consumers. Initially, they hope to target what they consider a captive market - schools, the Dratsang, the armed forces, vegetable vendors etc. They hope that in the next 3 years, they will create a situation where not a kg. of vegetable need to be imported in Zhemgang Dzongkhag.

They hope to create a market for farmers, thereby encouraging them to grow more, for economic gains. This, they hope, will help restock the villages with able-bodied men and women to produce more to meet the growing demand for food in the urban centers.

They hope that the same business model will be followed elsewhere in the country: to help reverse rural-urban migration, to generate employment opportunities, to curtail imports, to help achieve food self-sufficiency over a period of time.

This group of sixteen is fired by hope and determination and a will to do something for themselves, by themselves. They have a dream for the country. Unfortunately, successful ventures are not always brought to fruition based on determination and idealistic dreams. They need finance, experience and expertise, knowledge of marketing and distribution, collection and storage, sorting and packaging skills and the ability and network for timely delivery to buyers and consumers. They need to understand the concept of costing. Above all they need to understand and work within the concept and ethics of cooperative partnership.

This is a phenomenal idea and every Bhutanese has a responsibility to help make this idea a success. We cannot stand by and allow such a revolutionary idea to come to naught - because the concept holds great promise for Bhutan.

I will be devoting a portion of my time and resources to try and make this endeavor a success. Please let me know if you wish to be a part of this groundbreaking movement. You can contribute in many ways - expertise and monetary. Please write to me at: I will be approaching my friends with philanthropic bend of mind to take part ownership of this initiative that has the potential to revolutionize farm production in Bhutan.

In the coming days I will be going back to Zhemgang to study this project a little more in-depth - to see that they are on the right track.

Friday, May 22, 2015

To “Meat” a Huge Demand II

Early yesterday morning I was lying in bed and watching the movie “Diana” on TV. Something the Princess Diana told her lover - the Pakistani Dr. Hasnat Khan - touched me deeply. There was this scene where the Dr. was quite clear that he would not be able to face the constant attention they would get from the media and the public - if they married and lived together and yet, he confesses that he loved her very much. To which the Princess quite visibly distressed, declares:

“I have a billion people out there who say they love me - but I need one person to love me enough to stay with me”.

Today we have the same heart-wrenching situation in Bhutan. Of the eleven Cabinet Members, we need one Minister who will take a stand for the good of this country. Unfortunately, it seems like we have all of them walking away from their responsibilities - like the Pakistani Dr. who shied away from making a commitment that Princess Diana was so passionately seeking from him. It is a pity - for once I thought that the PDP government was going to make a bold statement. No such luck!

I wonder if Princess Diana could have avoided that tragic and fatal accident in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, had Dr. Hasnat not shied away from marrying her as she had wanted him to?

The Home Minister says that he is heeding the petition submitted by the Lopens of the Central Monastic Body. What does this mean - that he is handing over the governance of the country to the Dratsang?

The Agriculture Minister says that there will be no killing to feed the meat processing plants that have been proposed. That the plan is being implemented to improve the hygiene of the meat imported into the country - for consumption by the Bhutanese.

Was that our problem, ever? How is importing millions of Ngultrums worth of meat processing plants going to improve the economy of the country? How is it going to make it economical for the people of Bhutan to splurge on their meat eating habit? How is that an act that is in conformity to the religious sentiments of the Dratsang?

I am saddened and disappointed that such a forward looking and progressive plan has been allowed to be throttled by an organization that has no business in governance. This makes me reminiscence on a remark made by the late Dasho Rinzin Dorji - a person with exceptionally brilliant mind. Some of you may remember him as the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Trade & Industries. You may recall that towards the end of his time, he had authored a privately circulated article titled “The case of the missing Joint Secretary”.

One evening, over a drink in his house in Changangkha, he told me:

“You know Yeshey, if nothing works in this country, I have an idea what to do. “

I asked; “What do you propose?”

“Simple: I would hand over the governance of this country to G C Bhura - at 10% commission.”

I wonder if that time has come? Ofcourse G C Bhura is long dead. Perhaps we can consider Lhaki Group - one of modern Bhutan’s most astute business conglomerates.

Monday, May 18, 2015

To "Meat" a Huge Demand

The Royal Government of Bhutan’s recent announcement to encourage rearing of animals for in-country meat production was bound to generate debate. Debate is good - but debates emanating from minds that espouse toxic beliefs are not good.

The government’s proposed animal farms and meat-processing plants are not activities that are anti-religion or, specifically, anti-Buddhism. It is not even an economic activity to amass wealth and affluence. In Bhutan’s context, I believe that this is a desperate act of rescue and recovery - an act akin to clutching at the straws to save this country from falling off the pulpit of doom, where we now stand.

Buddha, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ, Laozi, Padmasambhava, Prophet Mohammad - none of these great founders of various religious belief systems have ever said that the act of food gathering for self-preservation is an act NOT sanctified by religion. In any event, I believe that we have by now evolved to a higher plane from those people and from a time when people believed that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin mother and the Buddha delivered from the crack of Queen Maya’s right ribcage!

For once, let us shed our delusions and fallacies and look reality squarely in the face. We are in serious trouble! You and I know that when we are done with religious zealotry, we will be left groping in the dust – sans Buddhism, sans identity, sans the Kingdom of GNH. In the name of religion, please do not torpedo a perfectly necessary endeavor that the government had the courage to try and implement.

The so-called Bhutanese religious peoples’ hypocritical interpretation of the “middle path” to mean, “eating meat is OK but killing is not” is so irrational. This belief is flawed at various levels. For one, how will you eat if you do not kill? On the other hand, the idea accepts killing by others - but not of your own. How can any credible religion promote such a viewpoint? By the way, which religion says that you cannot kill for food? Obviously, I don't have to be a Buddhist to know that mindless, meaningless killing is not right.

You want to eat and yet you do not want to kill? You do not want killing and yet you do not propose a ban on import and consumption of meat? Is this being religious? How hypocritical can you get?

However, in Bhutan’s context, this goes way beyond religion. When you have the courage to remove that veil of hypocrisy and vanity and shed that cloak of religious fervorism from behind which you speak with sugar-coated tongues, you will realize that it has to do with preservation of our national identity, our nationhood.

I am amazed that grown up people like the President of Foundation Brigitte Bardot (refer letter to Kuensel) has the cheek to get involved in our affairs. What does she know of Bhutan’s compulsions and realities? Does she know that Bhutan spends 1.37 billion Indian Rupees every year on import of meat and meat products? Does she know that such wanton import causes the noose of debt and liability to tighten around our neck ever more tighter? Does she propose that we continue to imperil our nationhood and continue to import meat that we can produce within our own country?

Does she know that the tin can that the meat is packaged in is much safer to eat, than the meat that is contained in the tins?

If she cares about Bhutan then she should know that Bhutan is way past that phase of idealism. We are in serious trouble. She has not been able to impose her will in her own country. Therefore, she does not have the moral authority to come and preach us.

Think of Sikkim; think of Tibet. Remember: it was a million monks murmuring religious Hymns in the sanctum sanctorum of thousands of temples - that contributed to the DELETION OF TIBET AS A NATION STATE.

If you know your Buddha then you ought to know that it was him who said:

“You cannot attain Nirvana on an empty stomach.”

Trust me, this land of GNH and a thousand Buddhas is running quite empty! Do not allow religious fanaticism to come in the way of the well being and preservation of the Bhutanese state and people.

NOTE: The title of this post: "To 'meat' a huge demand" is borrowed from the KUENSEL.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Finally, Some Good News IV

During early 70’s the Royal Government of Bhutan embarked on a program to encourage farm production and the cultivation of what was popularly known as “cash crops” - such as apples, oranges, potatoes and brown cardamom. While subsistence farming was obviously seen as adequate to meet the food requirements of the rural population, the villagers were cash strapped. Thus, cultivation of “cash crops” was seen as a means to supplement the farmers’ income through generation of cash that they could use to purchase/acquire their requirements for none-food essentials.

To make it even more attractive for the growers of these “cash crops”, particularly brown cardamom, the government offered a ready market - in the form of Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB). As the specialized marketing arm of the Government, the FCB was charged with the responsibility to purchase and market the cash crops. In particular, brown cardamom was singled out for special treatment - both by the government as well as the farmers. The reason: it was high value, low volume item that had enormous export potential and fetched very attractive price for the farmers. This was also the only spice grown in Bhutan that had no domestic consumption. Thus, whatever was produced was shipped abroad to earn precious hard currency.

The consignments of our cardamom took a strangely snaky route - it was first dispatched to Calcutta port in India where it was stuffed into containers and loaded on board ships bound for Singapore and from there on to Pakistan and then on to its final destination: the Middle East where they ended up at the bottom of some poor Arabs’ tea cup. The rich Arabs did not use brown jacket cardamom in their tea - they preferred the more expensive green cardamom grown in the Western Ghats of India.

Why the cardamom consignments had to take such a long serpentine route is another interesting story.

The Bhutanese cardamom growers not only had ready market for their produce - the deal was further sweetened by the offer of what was then called “cash incentives”- over and above the attractive prices offered by the FCB. The FCB was mandated to buy up every single Kg. of cardamom brought to their collection centers, located in every exit points such as: Phuentsholing, Gaylegphu, Samchi and Samdrupjongkhar.

During those days (late 70’s and early 80’s) I was heading the export section of the Export Division under the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Forests. During our time there was a strong push for exports - I don't hear of them now. We use to export fresh fruits, potatoes, limestone, gypsum, timber logs, canned fruit products, women’s kera, milled wooden rods, textile shuttle blocks, gum rosin, crystallized menthol etc. etc. I suspect that some of you don't even know what they are and how they look like.The following images should help you understand better:


Wood Shuttle Block

Bhutanese Lady's Kera

Milled Wooden Rods

Raw Coniferous Logs


Brown Cardamom

Crystallized Menthol

Gum Rosin

Canned Fruit Juices


Mandarin Oranges

Our biggest export in monetary terms was: brown cardamom. I remember that at one time I negotiated an export order for which a Letter of Credit was opened in our favour - valued at over a million dollars! I dare say that even to this day, that Letter of Credit has got to be the single highest value negotiable instrument.

Then, as the Americans would say, shit hit the fan!

I wont go into the gory details of what happened. But to give you a hint: my organization failed to fulfill the export order - and nearly got sued in the international court of law. Consequently, I was nearly forced to resort to blackmailing the Managing Director of the FCB (an Indian by the name of Hadi Ali) with revelation of certain impropriety that I discovered in his organization, for which he could be held personally responsible. This came to pass because for obvious reasons, he would not part with the stock of cardamom the FCB was holding in their godowns across the country.

Fortunately, it didn't have to come to that because the MD realized that I was prepared to go to any length for the sake of my organization’s reputation. He agreed to release a substantial amount of cardamom stock to us. However, it was too little, too late - it wasn’t enough to meet our export commitment. We had to resort to purchasing from the open market. One unethical supplier (he is now dead) had poured hot water into the dry cardamom - to increase its weight before delivery to us. That resulted in fungal growth in the cardamom by the time it reached Singapore, in addition to loss of weight as a result of loss of moisture during the long ocean journey. My organization lost money and I was handed a long, long Audit Memo - not by the RAA but by an organization even more draconian that existed those days called: Royal Advisory Council - with auditing mandate.

I was in no mood to take anything lying down - not for something that I wasn't responsible for. So I responded to the Note with uncharacteristic candor. My Audit Reply ended up on the desk of the late Finance Minister D. Tshering who was incensed by the audacity of my reply. He wrote to my Minister and sought his permission to throw me out of my job :) My Minister was rock-solid in his support for me and thus informed the Finance Minister that the Trade Ministry was quite capable of taking action against its erring officers. Given my unblemished reputation for honesty and hard work, my Minister did not even ask me for an explanation. Instead he called me into his office and laboriously explained to me that I need to be level headed about any future Audit Memos and that they should be responded to in the humblest of tone and tenor - with folded hands and imploring humble words.

In the middle of all the ruckus, something totally incredible came to light: to mine and every one else’s consternation, Bhutan was, that year, declared as the biggest grower and exporter of brown cardamom – IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!

How that came about is truly ticklish!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: III

One other good news that has not yet grabbed the headlines but one that deserves it, is the recent Cabinet decision to operationalize the Ministry of Agriculture’s concept of “Farm Shops”. In a nutshell, this concept is going to be implemented through the collaborative efforts of: Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education. It is an endeavor that never saw the light of day - during one earlier attempt made during the tenure of Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuck who was then the Director of Agriculture. Hopefully it will succeed this time through the concerted efforts of the parties involved. We need this to succeed.

There is nothing complicated about the concept of “Farm Shops”. Simply said, it is an attempt by the PDP government to boost local production of: kharang, tengma, rice, soya, chickpeas, lentils and oil - to supply to a market that is readily available. The ready market being the School Feeding Program sponsored by the World Food Program and the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB).

In 2013, a staggering 53,307 students, or 31% of the total student enrolment in the country received free food from the WWF and the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB), under the School Feeding Program.

From 2014 through 2018, the WFP has earmarked a budget of US$8.6 millions (Nu.551 million) that it will pump into school feeding program. During the same period, the Royal Government of Bhutan is expected to spend upwards of Nu.1,200 million, to feed school children.

And where would all this money go? To India! As of now not even 10% of the overall expenditure on School Feeding Program is met from local production!

The Royal Government of Bhutan’s recent “Farm Shop” initiative that is still on the drawing boards is aimed at encouraging local production so that most of the requirement is met from home grown supplies. Can it be done? Yes, it can be done. All that we need is a proper coordination among the agencies involved and a will to work hard at achieving the set goals.

We need to up the scale of production - in order to attain a certain economies of scale. Without mass production, the prices will remain to be uncompetitive. This will call for heightened rural production, which, as I said in my series of writings (in Kuensel) will ultimately contribute to the reversal of the malady called “Rural-Urban Migration”.

I wish the government all the success in its endeavors.

One word of caution: Beware that the Indian traders at the border towns do not do a repeat of the 80’s fiasco. There was a strange case relating to the FCB and how they allowed the RGoB to be royally DUPED - in their effort to buy up the farmers' produce under the "Farmers' Cash Incentive" program! This is a long and complicated story to be told another day - but a very, very interesting one. :)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: II

Second in this series, lets talk of the Kuensel news article of 18th April, 2015, headlined “To ‘meat’ a huge demand”. And, this article I want to start by offering my congratulations to the PDP government to have had the guts to do this!

The article concerns the Royal Government of Bhutan’s plans to establishment a meat processing facility along with setting up of a number of animal farms around the country. This has been long overdue!

The Kuensel reports that the government has allocated Nu.675 million to establish the facilities spread over a number of locations - Serbithang and Yusipang in Thimphu, Relangthang in Sarpang and Samrang in Samdrupjongkhar.

For a country that has the highest record of per capita meat consumption in the whole of Asia, why wasn't this thought of earlier? Kuensel reports that last year, Bhutan imported 10,336 MT of meat products worth Nu.1.37 billion from India and Thailand! For a population size of 700,000 people, that is a bellyful of meat! And we wonder why we are suffering Rupee shortage?

This makes fantastic economic sense! I hope the PDP government will stay the course and not be waylaid by some section of society with pseudo cause based on some redundant belief that has caused this country to remain, what one Japanese scholar calls - in a state of social fermentation! This decision of the government indicates that they are willing to be courageous about what they know is good for the country. Let us move away from the misconception that we are any different from others - trust me, we are as unique as anyone else!

Next, I hope the government will do something to solve the stray dogs problem - once and for all. Enough of this pussy footing around the issue and getting nowhere while spending millions, year after year. By now we ought to realize that our attempts so far have been ineffective in eradicating this dangerous problem. One day something serious will happen and, true to character, we will be drawn to offering a thousand butter lamps, while the problem will go on to persist, unabated. Let us for once ensure that the tourists visiting Bhutan remove that one critical item in their packing list - earplugs - to deafen the dog barks that go on all night long.

Talking of which, it seems like the dog problem has been going on since the past 50 years! Look at what a Chilip visitor of yore, wrote:

“ …….. Then there were all those dogs running around, and very often there was a big dog fight. 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. This was certainly some get together. Just think, for five solid days from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM there is one event following another with no intermission at all.  Not one moment is lost, and never any repeats. ……… " 

This is a graphic rendition of a scene from Paro Tsechu of 1965. The account was originally published in the DXers Magazine published by Gus Browning Enterprises of Cordova, SC. The deviously famous American ham radio operator named Gus Browning was a hero of sorts among the world ham radio community. His radio calls from a number of exotic destinations enthralled the ham radio enthusiasts. According to his own admissions, and those of his wife Peggy who supposedly accompanied him to Bhutan in 1965, he is supposed to have operated from Bhutan twice - once in 1963 and once in 1965. However, going through his QSL’s, there are some serious inconsistencies. Some of his supposed operations from Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet are rather unbelievable and, at times, simply impossible. I am currently in the process of gathering information surrounding his logged but unverified operations from Bhutan. Unfortunately all his contemporaries are mostly “Silent Key” - meaning dead! He himself went SK in 1990 - aged 82 years. But for sure I will have something for you - before I myself go Silent Key :)-

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: I

I am not sure that my fellow Drups have been paying attention - but there have been a spat of good news that have been doing the rounds in recent times. By no means in the scale of the devastating news of the Wangdue-Trongsa road widening project – but good news nonetheless, and long overdue too!

For those of you who missed them, let me list them out for you.

First in the series, let me start with the latest: an inconspicuous report in the Kuensel of yesterday: 4th May, 2015 that is headlined “Another milestone for MHPA”. Part of the news report says:

“In concreting the foundation of the dam, which will block the Mangdechu and divert it through the tunnels, chief engineer, Karma Chophel, said about 0.45 million cubic metres or 80,460 truckloads of cement would be poured to build the dam, a piece of good news for marketless Dungsam cement.”

So why does this qualify as a good news worthy of space in my Blog? Very simple:

For the first time one hydro-power construction project in Bhutan is actually going to use cement produced in Bhutan!!

I hear that other projects - such as Punasangchu I & II are not buying Bhutanese cement. For that matter, market report has it that they don't even buy vegetables from our local vendors. They import them by the truckloads on a daily basis from Birpara and other Indian border towns. Neither do these projects buy sand and stone chips from Bhutanese miners - with the net result that 4 of the Bhutanese miners have gone bust, loosing hundreds of millions in the process.

By the way, the Kuensel is so grossly mistaken when it writes “marketless Dungsam Cement”. It is not that Dungsam Cement has no market - they have a market way beyond their capacity to meet the demand!!

Their problem is that they have been denied their just market - Bhutanese hydro-power construction projects. Now, if the Kuensel news can be trusted, Dungsam Cement is finally going to see the light of day.

Dungsam Cement Project was initiated in 1982. For reasons that are not common knowledge, the project never really took off as envisaged. It got bogged down for one reason or the other. Three to four CEO’s changed even before the factory’s foundations were laid. The project was a pet project of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo who intended it for the benefit of His subjects in the East.

After 32 years of its initial start and at a staggering cost of Nu.10.5 billion, the Dungsam Cement finally came into production in January of 2014. Its current installed capacity is more than 4,000 MT of cement and 3,000 MT of clinker, per day, using state-of-the-art technology from Germany.

In all likelihood, if Kuensel report is to be believed, MHPA is going to stand out as the hydropower project that has been completed in the shorted period of construction time. Great! Then some celebration is in order.

The late Mr. G N Rao - one time Managing Director of Chukha Hydropower Project - worked in Bhutanese hydropower projects from 1977 to 2000 - all of 23 years. The CHP suffered full completion delay of close to 10 years. The Government of India awarded him Padma Shri medal for distinguished contribution, in 1992. He was awarded the Druk Thuksey in 1999.

The Punasangchu I & II has seen endless “geological surprises” and cost overruns in the billions - almost three times its initial projection as of date, and the projects are no where near completion. Its reigning Managing Director Mr. R N Khazanchi was awarded Druk Thuksey in 2012. In all provability the Government of India will award him the ultimate civilian honor by conferring on him the title of Bharat Ratna - Jewel of India.

So then, tell me, why wouldn't Mr. A K Mishra, Managing Director of MHPA deserve a medal of achievement?

Boss, kuch toh banta hai!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part IV

Recently I was twiddling my thumbs at the Tekezampa road closure when I was returning from Bumthang, when something struck me:

Why do we need to widen our roads to the size of an airstrip that can accommodate a commercial jetliner?

Has the East-West vehicular traffic increased so much that we need to expand the width of our roads? Has there been some sudden explosion of commercial/manufacturing activities in the East that we need to widen our roads leading to, and from there?

If not, what mammoth vehicles are we planning to ply over the East-West highway that we need to widen the roads, in preparation?

In my view, the roads we have are quite fine for the volume of traffic it has to carry at the moment - except that they are riddled with potholes, poorly paved and maintained. If the government wishes to improve our roads, the way to go is to resurface the existing roads in a much better way and ensure that they are maintained properly. A well-paved road can certainly shorten travel time and improve road travel experience for the tourists and locals alike.

Even if widening of the roads to the size of an airstrip is necessary, for whatever reason, there is a need to do it with better planning and foresight. What is being done currently is a total mess that will imperil our vitally important tourism industry.

I propose:

Stop the road-widening project between Wangdue and Trongsa for the moment.

Complete the ongoing road-widening project between Thimphu and Wangdue, pave it well and resurface it and let the traffic flow without any hindrance. By the way, why is this stretch of road taking so long to complete? It has been going on for nearly a decade since the work started. If a mere 60 KMs of road is going to take us a decade to do, imagine what time will be taken to complete the road from Wangdue to Trongsa - a distance of 130 KMs.

Once the Thimphu-Wangdue segment is completed in all respects, start the Wangdue-Trongsa segment. However, do it in shorter stretches - and not all the way to Trongsa all at once. Undertake no more than 20 KM stretches at one go but employ a number of contractors to work on the stretch all at one time. Complete the stretches in the shortest possible time, resurface is and allow traffic to flow on the completed stretch, unhindered. Then move to the next segment.

Extend the road opening time to atleast one and a half hours - so that people can better time their travel hours.

Simultaneously, work on improving the road condition between Wangdue-Gaylephu and Trongsa-Gaylegphu so that tourist traffic can be diverted.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part III

At one time during my various trips within the country, I started my journey from Bumthang at the ungodly hour of 3.30AM. This was necessary because I had to make it to Nobding before 9AM – when they open the road for traffic until 9.30AM – only to be stranded at Tekezampa road closure.

There were occasions when I required my guests to get up at 4.00AM in the morning so they can start their journey from Thimphu at 5AM – in order that they can beat the road closure at Lamperi. I offered the excuse that they needed to cross Lamperi before 8.00AM after which the road would close for traffic until 10.00AM. That is a lousy excuse for visitors who pay US$250.00 a day and more, to be asked to get up at 4AM - merely to beat a road closure.

And we think we are doing them a great favor!

A few days back, I heard of a tour group that started from Phobjikha towards Paro. By the time they reached Wangduephodrang - a distance of around 60 KMs - they were so fatigued and tired and frustrated by the roadblocks that they did not wish to proceed any further. The tour operator had to accept an unplanned night halt at Punakha, at great expense.

Another group traveling from Phobjikha to Haa also ended up night halting at Thimphu - because the tourists were so tired and frustrated by the numerous stoppages at road closures - that they refused to go beyond Thimphu. The tour operator had to arrange hotel accommodation in Thimphu and pay for the cancellation at Haa.

A few days back, a tour operator providing bird watching trips arranged for camping at Pele-La so they could do early bird watching in that area. Unfortunately he found that the road closure at Nobding opened at 9.00 and gave him only half hour to pass Tekezam before the road closed for traffic. Thus he was faced with a choice: either do bird watching in the area and be prepared to be stranded for hours at Tekezampa or beat the road closure at Tekezampa and miss bird watching in that area which was the sole reason for camping at Pele-La.

I can bet my last Chettrum that these are not stray incidences – there must be many such horror stories out there.

What kind of experiences are we giving the tourists? What horror stories will be told other prospective visitors, when these beleaguered tourists go back home?

The road-widening project has been a source of great worry for the tour operators and the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) - the regulatory authority that oversees tourism in Bhutan. About two weeks back, some members of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) and the officers of the TCB made a joint/separate representation to the National Council of Bhutan - to do something about it. I have no idea if something has come of it. However I have been witness to a gathering of the following luminaries at Lamperi, on Sunday the 12th April, 2015 when I was on my way to Trongsa. I am encouraged to believe that they were on a field trip to make amends, hopefully:

Lyonpo Dorji Chhoden, Minister of Works & Human Settlement
His Excellency Indian Ambassador Gautam Bambawale
Dr. Sonam Tenzing, Secretary, Ministry of Works & Human Settlement
Aum Chhimmy Pem, Director, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB)
Aum Tashi Wangmo, Eminent Member, National Council of Bhutan
And many others I didn't have the time to see or recognize.

It is my hope that something useful has emerged from the above people gathering at Lamperi. They need to do something URGENTLY - or see the tourist arrivals dwindle in the coming years. All that hard work for the past many years would have gone down the drain if we allow the only industry that has any chance of redeeming this country from the stranglehold of debt and despair that we now find ourselves in, to be run into the ground becuase we are incapable of better planning and foresight.

And for what? For the cause of a wide, wide road that we do not even know we need? be continued

Monday, April 20, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part II

Today, and for the foreseeable future, tourism remains Bhutan’s most profitable and vibrant economic activity. It is the biggest employer, giving jobs and livelihood to every segment of Bhutanese society - cutting across all religion, gender, social standing, geological boundaries, level of skills, educated and uneducated, the aged and the young. Tourism also brings in the highest amount of foreign exchange - untied and without any interest bearing loans - estimated at about US$73 million annually, out of which close to US$21.00 million is net Royalty that goes into the national exchequer.

From its initial start sometime in 1974 when the tourist arrivals were a mere 287, it has now grown to over 133,000 arrivals in 2014. From a single tour operator in 1974, there are currently over a thousand companies that are engaged in tourism related businesses. This does not take into account the ancillary service providers that number in the thousands.

Since the past close to six decades of our planned development activities, tourism industry is the only industry that has grown from strength to strength. Over the years we have built up in-country capacity and capability to run this business without having to play second fiddle to outside forces. This success can be attributed to sound policies of the successive governments of the past that have remained focused on nurturing it with farsighted policy guidelines and through creation of enabling conditions and conducive atmosphere – within which to foster and develop, unhindered. This industry has now entered that phase in its evolution when it no longer needs or requires government intervention. It is a girl child who has been groomed into full womanhood and is now ready to breed a multitude of opportunities for a variety of economic activities.

Over the past many decades, donor countries led by India have been generous in pumping in hundreds of billions of Ngultrums in aid money, to help contribute to our nation building. Sadly, we have squandered most of it in activities that did not contribute to real growth - in economic terms. We spent all the aid money in social sectors such as building schools, hospitals, roads, mithun farms and lavish structures and Dzongs that we do not need, with the net result that today we have no manufacturing base of any kind that generate jobs or contribute to economic health and wealth creation. Instead, we have hydro-power projects that help us to be enslaved until the end of time.

Tourism industry has the potential to liberate Bhutan from the clutches of the monumental debt that is being accrued from debilitating projects such as hydropower and Dungsam Cement. Unfortunately, indications are that the industry is now headed for a disaster in the next one or two years - if we do not take stock of what we are doing, and make amends immediately.

A tourist destination that is the envy around the world - a holiday experience that used to be filled with distinctive cultural marvel and pristine natural beauty, is fast turning into a loathsome experience that the tourists are coming to detest and abhor.

I am talking of the ongoing ROAD-WIDENING activity that is about to cause irreparable damage to our reputation as a coveted tourist destination. The hurried implementation of this poorly planned and executed activity is almost as if it is being done to throttle the Tourism Council’s declaration of the year 2015 as the “Visit Bhutan Year”. The horror stories the tourists tell of their sufferings as a result of hours of being stranded on the road as a result of road closures at more than 5 locations is something that does not bode well for the tourism industry.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part I

What is it with our roads? All of a sudden, our roads are at the center of our focus and, trouble!

Note the following media reports in Bhutan as well as in India:

“Construction of 68.3 Kms. Nganglam-Dewathang  highway: deferred indefinitely”.

“The 98Kms. Lhamoizingkha-Sarbang highway aborted”.

“Project Dantak will execute the 52km widening from Trashigang-Yadi”.

“The 546km Thimphu-Trashigang road widening work begins next month”.

“Chazam-Duksum road widening work well on track”.

“Shingkhar-Gorgan road makes it to the 11th Plan”.

“India seems not to have lost its hope of building a road through Bhutan to have an easier access to Tawang, near the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh, from the plains of Assam. Bhutan is not willing to allow the construction of the road because of objections from China”.

“Quoting official sources, the report said that the issue was raised by Narendra Modi during his trip to Bhutan as Prime Minister—“

“The PTI report said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been requested by political representatives from Arunachal Pradesh to convince Bhutan about the benefits it will bring to the economy of that country besides curtailing travel time between strategically important Tawang and Guwahati”.

Clearly, what is emerging is that our roads, like our hydro-power projects, have the potential to bring about our eventual doom. There is something terribly amiss - at the manner and the haste with which we are going about our road widening initiatives.

........ to be continued

This one is funny too!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Funny Signage

What do you understand by the following signboard put up at the entrance of Lamperi Cafe?

For those of you who are photographers, tell me - what is the flaw in this photo, taken with my iPhone. I wont make this mistake if I was using a proper camera ... but shooting with a mobile phone is rather cumbersome.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Gleeful KUENSEL

KUENSEL’s Editorial of the 7th April, 2015:

For a bigger and safer airport

"It was quite a spectacle for the thousands of people, who visited Paro over the weekend. The Paro tshechu, the Royal flower exhibition and, to the surprise of many, all the seven aircraft operated by the two Bhutanese airlines were on the ground at the same time.

It was a beautiful sight, as hundreds waited, stranded in a terrible traffic jam on the single lane road that runs beside the airport."


Friday, April 10, 2015

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) - with a target capital of US$100 billion, is promoted by China, to free itself and its member states from the control and influence of the overlords who control the IMF and the World Bank. Already, 30 countries have been approved as Founding Members that include India and most European countries. Some more may join by the April 15 deadline. Unfortunately, there is no talk of the Land of the Thunder Dragon being part of the consortium.

Take a look at the following map that shows the countries that currently form AIIB membership. Poor Bhutan is a blotch of grey within a sea of color.

May be it is still not too late - today is only the 10th - we have 5 more days to make it to the list of Prospective Founding Members (PFMs) of the AIIB.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

‘Not a Single Neighbour That India Doesn't Have a Problem With': National Security Advisor of India Mr. Ajit Doval

Recently our firebrand Blogger Wangcha Sangey of Haa posted a withering article that supposes a number of assumptions behind the abrupt stoppage of the construction of a number of critically important roads in the Southern parts of the country.

I agree with all of the points raised in that article. Given India’s monumental paranoia about China, the road connectivity to Samtse is bound to be perceived as a threat to India’s security. Until India sheds her inferiority complex in relation to China and learns to have faith in her own greatness, Bhutan will continue to suffer.

Samtse’s proximity to the “chicken-neck” area at the tri-junction of Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, is its undoing. It is also for this reason that India will never do the Amochu Hydropower Project - in India’s view the proposed project has two problems with it: it is too close to the "chicken-neck" area and, of all the hydropower projects that have been planned and executed so far, the Amochu Hydropower Project will be the most profitable for Bhutan and that, fellow Drups, is not in the scheme of India’s long term strategy.

Take a look at the following map to understand and sympathize with India and why she behaves the way she does - at the possibility of a all-season highway reaching Samtse.

Mr. Wangcha Sangey of Haa needs to think on another issue that bewilders me. I can understand India’s paranoia concerning the road that leads up to the chicken-neck areas. But what is India’s interest in the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway?

I am told that recently DANTAK and RGoB officials numbering close to 20 people, led by the Secretary of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, visited Shingkhar in Bumthang to survey the areas. It is my belief that it has to do with the reported resumption of the construction of the infamous Shingkhar-Gorgan highway. I had reported about a similar survey conducted by DANTAK from Gorgan side, in conjunction with the CDCL people – read my post “Where In The Name of DANTAK Is This Road? – II” dated November 14, 2014:

Our Prime Minister recently returned from USA with promises of millions of dollars based on our commitment to conserve and preserve our environment. The Shingakhar-Gorgan highway is a meaningless road, does not benefit the Bhutanese people in any way and will cause huge environmental disaster. As far as Bhutan is concerned, this highway is NOT needed and its construction goes against every law and has the potential to cause grave damage to our reputation as a champion of environmental conservation. How will Bhutan justify to partners around the world - why an environmentally disastrous road that cuts through a national park and has no social or economic benefit to the Bhutanese people, is a useful and necessary endeavor? Is this the way we demonstrate our commitment to environmental stewardship, in whose cause we seek funding from the world community?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My New Year Wish

Here is wishing a Very Happy Lunar New Year to all my readers.

New year resolutions and wish lists are not my thing - resolutions get broken and by now I know that not every one may realize all that they wish. But there are always exceptions to the rule and this year I am making an exception: I am making a New Year Wish:

I WISH that the two governments of Bhutan and India would get together and take the only sensible decision they can - a decision to abandon the Punasangchu Hydropower Projects.

In his interview to the Kuensel of 21st September, 2013, Dasho Chhewang Rinzin of Druk Green Power Corporation has said that “indecision” in the case of Punasangchu Hydropower Project I should be avoided. I would like to go one step further and add that “correct decision” is even more important, than a hasty incorrect decision. And, in the face of what is increasingly becoming obvious that the geological surprises that are being thrown up in the Punasangchu I & II project areas are insurmountable, the only correct decision, in my view, is to cut our losses and scrap the projects entirely!

Is this a preposterous idea? Not if you consider that given all the “geological surprises” that are being “discovered” in the project areas, there is every likelihood that the Punasangchu Project I & II may eventually end up in the Bay of Bengal. What then? The gravity of the situation cannot escape any one - if one considers that the final cost of the two projects will be 3-4 times bigger than the country’s entire GDP. If these two projects fail, Bhutan can never recover from the ensuing debt!

Apparently, it is not just the Punasangchu I: Kuensel also reported in their April 16, 2014 issue that even Punasangchu II is faced with “geological surprises”! To add to all that, Kuensel on 5th February, 2015 reported that the projects are now running out of budget!

Even if the two governments do not agree to scrap the Punasangchu projects, they should accept that WAPCOS (consultants to all the hydropower projects in Bhutan) has proven to be anything but competent to undertake any further investigations in the case of these or future hydropower projects in Bhutan. Thus, while we must ensure that WAPCOS is barred from future involvement in our hydro power projects based on their terrible record so far, we should now look at engaging consultants from third countries to investigate if the geological make of the Punasangchu areas is suitable for large hydro power projects. Through the engagement of better-qualified consultants, we should ascertain whether it is wise to continue with the projects - or scrap it, to prevent further losses. If the government of India has the best interest of the projects at heart, they should agree to a second opinion from an independent consultant from a third country.

The Punasangchu Hydro Power Project I started with an initial cost estimate of Nu.35.00 billion, in 2006. By 2013, the cost had escalated to Nu.98.00 billion - almost three times the initial estimate.

The project was supposed to be completed by 2015. Latest date of project completion is now deferred to 2016. Regardless, if past records are anything to go by, we can be sure that the project will not be completed even by the end of 2018. And, in all likelihood, the cost will escalate to over Nu.120 billion.

In my view the project is no longer economically viable. No one can convince me that a project that has seen cost escalation almost four times its original projection - can still be considered feasible and profitable.

The famous cost+ pricing concept is no consolation at all. Have we considered the likelihood that the Indian state electricity boards that purchase our electricity may at some point turn around and tell us that the unit cost of our electricity is too high for them to purchase and redistribute to their consumers? This is most likely to happen - given that our cost of production has gone up so high. What then?

The Bhutanese people have long been mislead into believing that the hydropower projects will make all of us rich. So far, that has remained a pipedream. On the contrary, the Punasangchu I & II have already caused a number of our mining companies to go bankrupt with losses running into hundreds of millions. Another one is on the verge of heading the same way.

One simple question: If these hydropower projects are for the benefit of the people of Bhutan, how is it that even small ancillary services like quarrying for sand and stone for supply to the projects is being allowed to be monopolized by the Indian contractors? Why is this being allowed by the RGoB even while our laws are explicit that only Bhutanese people can engage in mining activities?

There is a need for Bhutan to take a serious look at where we are heading with our hydropower projects. If we don't, it will be the cause of our doom.