Thursday, May 5, 2016

HeForShe

I was the 1,001st Bhutanese man to sign in to support HeForShe UN Women Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality. You can sign too at the following:


Our primeval census law that denies citizenship to children born to Bhutanese women who cannot name the father of the child, or fathered by none-Bhutanese, is an affront to the Bhutanese women. This law drives our women to such desperation as naming their own fathers as the progenitor of their fatherless children. Thousands of children born to legitimate Bhutanese women are denied their birth right to citizenship and education, because their mothers are unable to name their fathers or that they have been fathered by a none-Bhutanese.

There is nothing dignified or honorable about this law. Every lawmaker - men or women - should hang their heads in shame that such a disgraceful and gender prejudiced law should be allowed to continue to humiliate our women.

Kuensel writes that eighteen Parliamentarians, including the Speaker of the House, signed up in support of the Movement. Now let us watch and see if they will go beyond merely being a statistics, or do something to restore dignity and equality to the long-suffering Bhutanese women.

Free Seeds To Grow Fodder For Wildlife

According to what The Journalist newspaper reported in their 1st May issue, the gewog official of Tashicholing is supposed to have said that the government do not offer any monetary compensation to the farmers for damage caused by wild life but that they do distribute free seeds.

In effect, what the gewog official is saying is – that the government distributes free seeds to grow fodder for the wildlife. Small wonder then that the government is clueless about the nomenclature “human-wildlife conflict”. This is truly appalling!



Rural-urban migration is causing villages to be emptied of young people - old and the infirm now mostly populate the village homes



Villagers are forced to use stuffed tigers from China to keep vigil over their crop during day, while they try and catch some sleep and respite from night-long vigil in an attempt to ward off wildlife


Fertile farmlands are left fallow and whole villages are overgrown with bushes

It is time we forget huge hydroelectric projects and massive road widening works. They are destined to cause us problems that we are in no position to handle. Instead, let us focus on manageable issues that are fundamental to our survival as a nation state.

Lets get serious about the long term effects of Goontongs!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Finally Delivered

Dear Evelyn,

I am happy to let you know that we have finally been able to deliver and distribute the 68 blankets and T-shirts you contributed to the disabled children at the Draktso School for the Disabled in Kanglung, Trashigang. I am sorry that it took so long but your gift was so bulky that it was not possible to send them through friends traveling to the east. On the other hand, we did not want to risk sending them by public transport for fear that they may be damaged in transit. Finally our Community Services Director sent his pick-up truck to transport the gifts.

The gifts were finally distributed to the children last weekend. As you can see from the photos - the children were elated by the gifts.




Draktsho Children bearing gifts of T-Shirts and Blankets

It is our hope that the smiles you see on their faces will more than compensate for your act of charity. The Rotary Club of Thimphu thanks you for your generosity.

By the way the balance 30 odd T-shirts are still with me and will be given out, as and when we come to know of children who may stand in need of them.

You may be happy to know that the Rotary Club of Thimphu will soon embark on a fund-raising initiative to create an “Education & Life Skills Fund”. This fund will be used to support children with academic excellence to pursue further studies and for grown up people to acquire life skills. In due course, we will call upon you to draw on your skills at fund-raising and to seek help to spread the word among your vast network of friends. I hope you will be forthcoming.

Bye and take care

Yeshey

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ada Rachu - any one?

Every one dozen year or so, Bhutan seems to unfailingly go through a phase when we see the assemblage of like minded men who come together to attempt and pass some strange and regressive rule.

Some two and a half decades back, one District Court Judge in Gaylephu actually summoned me to his court and required that I change the color of the ink used in the printing of our official letterhead. That time I was working in the Ministry of Trade, Industries and Forests. There was no rule that prohibited the use of certain color - in the printing of official stationary. The Thrimpon decided to enforce the requirement on his personal whim and fancy. It didn't work.

Then few years later, a rule was passed which prohibited the use of yellow colored vehicles. All those who owned or had ordered yellow colored vehicles had to repaint their cars to something else. That too did not work.

Then came the rule that required every Bhutanese to be in national dress, every waking and walking hour of the day. I was personally fined a few times - for being caught in pants. Some zealous police officials actually went as far as to gather up youth who were caught in pants - drive them and offload them across Dochu-La Pass, strip them of their shoes and socks, and made to walk back bare-foot, as punishment in an attempt to enforce the law. It never worked.

Some one dozen years later, the Thimphu City Corporation passed a ruling that required every business signboard in Thimphu to be uniform: paint, ink, lettering, format, and physical size. That didn't work either.

Then another one dozen year or so later, the same City Corporation required that all building roofs in Thimphu City be painted uniformly in one single color - blue. That didn't work either.

Now comes this Ada Rachu rule. Lets see how long this stricture will last.

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors,
we borrow it from our Children.
We are more than the sum of our knowledge, we are the products of our imagination."

Ancient Proverb

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Shingkhar-Gorgan Road - Yet Again!

FLASH BACK: Vancouver, CANADA: 19th February, 2016; 9:30 - 12:10 PM (Pacific Standard Time) 

Our Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was the first speaker of the Session 12 on the concluding day of the TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada (15th - 19th February, 2016).


Within hours of his riveting talk at the conference, a friend sent me a link to the TED website where his talk was featured on the front page. It was heartwarming to see our Prime Minister speak with such skillful eloquence - nary a hint of hesitation nor of faltering - notwithstanding the presence of the assembly of people who, in his words:

“….. some of you here are worth more individually than the entire economy of my country”.

He spoke of our Gho and Kira, of our flourishing culture and of GNH, and free education system and the smallness of our population and economy - all of them with the deftness of an accomplished orator.

Amid laughter and applause, 7 minutes and 14 seconds into the talk, he declared:

“Of the 200-odd countries in the world today, it looks like we are the only one that's carbon neutral. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Bhutan is not carbon neutral. Bhutan is carbon negative”.

Then, 12 minutes and 55 seconds into his total 18 minutes and 47 seconds speech, the Prime Minister proclaimed:

“But it is our protected areas that are at the core of our carbon neutral strategy. Our protected areas are our carbon sink. They are our lungs. Today, more than half our country is protected, as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. But the beauty is that we've connected them all with one another through a network of biological corridors. Now, what this means is that our animals are free to roam throughout our country. Take this tiger, for example. It was spotted at 250 meters above sea level in the hot, subtropical jungles. Two years later, that same tiger was spotted near 4,000 meters in our cold alpine mountains. Isn't that awesome?

We must keep it that way. We must keep our parks awesome. So every year, we set aside resources to prevent poaching, hunting, mining and pollution in our parks, and resources to help communities who live in those parks manage their forests, adapt to climate change, and lead better lives while continuing to live in harmony with Mother Nature”.

The Prime Minister then went on to talk about another of Bhutan’s conceptual ideas - Bhutan for Life - an environmental conservation effort intended to improve our environment even better than it already is - for the benefit of the earth that is growing sicker by the year.

FAST FORWARD To: Lhuentse: Mid-Term Review Meeting


Shingkhar-Gorgan road to commence this year
 
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay assured the people of Lhuentse that construction of the much-awaited and controversial Shingkhar-Gorgan highway will commence this year. Lyonchoen said:

We will look into the reasons why the clearance was delayed and if the road is not illegal, work should start this year”.

His Excellency the Prime Minister was clear on this day that the construction work on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road will start this year - “if the road is not illegal”.

A great relief to those of us who know that the construction of this road is not only very, very illegal but also environmentally disastrous!

FAST FORWARD To: Lhuentse: Mid-Term Review Meeting




Dantak to construct the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway
 
The construction of the 56-km Shingkar-Gorgan highway has been awarded to Dantak, according to the Prime Minister in the mid-term review held in Lhuntse yesterday.

For the construction of the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway, the government has allocated a budget of Nu 779mn and the project was awarded to Dantak because they have more machineries. The authorities are waiting for an environment clearance from the National Environment Commission (NEC) to proceed with works.


A rather disconcerting report - that the construction of the road has been awarded to the DANTAK. It is also confusing that “The authorities are waiting for an environment clearance from the National Environment Commission (NEC) to proceed with works”. The procedure is that they must first obtain clearance from the Department of Forestry and Park Services, which I know have been denied them, time and again, based on the rules that are in place.

FAST FORWARD To: RCSC Website: Same day: March 23, 2016




Secretary for National Environment Commission Appointed….
 
In line with the 56th Commission Meeting held on March 22, 2016, Chencho Norbu, Director General for Department of Forest and Park Services, Ministry of Agriculture & Forests has been appointed as the Secretary for National Environment Commission with effect from April 1, 2016.

I was crestfallen by this announcement but after a fretful sleep, I woke up to realize that the transfer is not so bad after all. As the Secretary of the NEC, he has even more teeth - to ensure the protection of our nature and our environment.

Forestry Director General Chencho Norbu has been admirably unshakable and steadfast in his opposition to the construction of the illegal Shingkhar-Gorgan Road.

Bhutan’s promise and declaration at the COP 21 and that of our Prime Minister at the TED Talks in Vancouver are based on the premise that they are good for humanity. It is now time to transcend the spoken words and demonstrate to the world community that those promises and declarations were made in complete sincerity and with the intention to translate them into action on the ground.

Our conservation and environmental protection laws that are in place explicitly do not permit the construction of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road, not through the areas it is proposed. Thirty six Kms. of the total 56 Kms. of this road goes through complete wilderness. Even worst, the road has to pass through Singmala Pass that is at an elevation of over 4,000 Mtrs. - which is even higher than Thrumshing-La which is at 3,780 Mtrs. In fact, if this road is done, it will be the highest elevation road in Bhutan - even higher than the current highest point - Chele-La Pass at 3,988 Mtrs.

If the government has 779 million ngulturms to spare on a road that is illegal as well as useless for anybody, I would like to suggest that they spend it on building a bridge over the Mangdechhu in Rindibi, Zhemgang - where nine men died during May of 2014, trying to cross the river on a poorly equipped and unauthorized ferry service.

Since 2011, I have been opposing this road - on the grounds that it is not beneficial, illegal, and environmentally disastrous. The Agriculture Minister of the erstwhile DPT government, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, offered to resign from the Cabinet, should this road happen. The DPT government finally abandoned the foolhardy idea in 2013, realizing that they were acting against the law. And yet, this road keeps popping up, time and again.

Is there something that the Bhutanese people do not understand about the need for this road? Why is there such pigheadedness about this road, in spite of being fully aware that its construction is illegal, it passes through geographical conditions
and landscapes that are perilous, and will not contribute to the economic or social betterment of the people in the area?

What exactly is the matter?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Strange Problems Of Our Hydropower Projects

Indian newspapers report that in the past two years, Jaypee Group has been selling off their assets - cement factories and power plants - in a bid to bring down their Rs.75,000 crore (US$11.00 billion) debt to lenders. Most recently, they sold one of their cement units that would help them shrink their debt by Rs.16,500 crore. But that is not enough - not by a long shot. Lenders to the group are jumpy and want more done. They want to see some more assets sold. Considering that almost two-thirds of the group’s debts are in default, the bankers have called the situation “grim”.

The "grim" picture of one of our biggest hydropower contractors.

Strangely, while the Indian media and the judiciary are on a blitzkrieg hounding away at poor Vijay Mallya the liquor baron for his bad debt amounting to Rs.9,000 crore, there is an eerie hush on the hefty borrowings amounting to Rs.75,000 crore by the Jaypee Group - two-thirds of which are said to be in default!

So what does this mean for Bhutan? In case you did not know, Jaypee Associates - part of the Jaypee Group for whom no dream is too big - is among the biggest Indian contractors hired to build many of our troubled hydropower projects. They have contracts that run into thousands of millions, awarded to them by many of our ongoing hydropower projects.

In addition to the fact that our self-liquidating hydropower projects have been contracted out to contractors whose financial standing is now proven to be in serious doubt, if not downright dangerous, we have recently been informed of some seriously inexcusable disasters in the hydropower sector.

It was reported that the Dagachhu Hydropower Project - barely a year old - had to be shut down for two months!! The why for is not important - what is appalling is that a brand new plant is required to be shutdown - as a result of design/construction flaw.

There was a major mudslide at the Mangdechhu Hydropower Project site - causing loss of life to some workers.

A cave-in occurred at the surge chamber of Punatsangchhu-II’s powerhouse - killing six people. How does such a thing happen? How can any one - sane or insane - explain away such a terrible occurrence?

What is the probability that, in future, entire roof of the powerhouse of one of our many projects will not cave in, for whatever reason? Imagine the consequences of a whole mountain coming crashing down on top of a power plant!

Not to forget that the mountainside of the PHPA-I dam site is sinking and sinking and sinking.

And, as if we did not have enough misery dogging us, the Bharatiya Rashtrawadi Party (BRP) State president Ajad Ali of the Indian state of Assam has some mouthful to say about our hydropower projects.

He recently said, “After commissioning of the Kurichhu Hydro Project (60 MW) in 2004, people of Lower Assam are the worst victim every year. Just imagine the disaster that will come upon us, if all the dams (over 80 planned) are commissioned at some point in time,” said Ajad Ali.

This is a clear indication that Assam views our hydropower dreams as a threat to the Assamese people downstream.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

On this International Day of Women, Give Bhutanese Women Equality

On this International Women’s Day I would like to offer Greetings to all the Women of Bhutan, and to those all around the world.

There are huge moral and social issues that challenge women around the world. In Bhutan, the issues are not as varied or as condemnatory. In fact our social and religious beliefs make no distinction between a Woman and a man.

But one of our laws do - it vilifies our Women! This law is an insult to our Women - it degrades them to someone lesser than a man. Our primeval law that disallows citizenship to children born to Women who cannot name the father of the child, or fathered by none-Bhutanese, is an affront to Women of Bhutan.

It is a law that has forced many Women in Bhutan to resort to unlawful acts of deception. This law has forced hundreds, if not thousands of Women around the country to name their fathers (grandfather of the children) as the father of their fatherless children, so that they may qualify as a Bhutanese and be entered into the national census records. At one level this could be branded as incest and, at another, it forces a citizen to commit an act of willful crime. Thousands of children born to legitimate Bhutanese mothers are denied their birth right to citizenship and education, because their mothers are unable to name their fathers or that they have been fathered by a none-Bhutanese.

There is nothing dignified or honorable about this law. Every lawmaker - men or Women - should hang their heads in shame that such a disgraceful law should be allowed to continue to humiliate our Women.

Therefore on this International Day of Women, let us make a promise to make the abolishment of this law our defining issue for this decade.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Bhutanese Children of Unknown Fathers

Here is something that should bother every Bhutanese with a conscience:


This is an issue I have been bringing up once in a while. One of my 8 Lunar New Year Wishes this year concerns this issue. No self respecting society should allow such gender inequality - not particularly in a country that prides itself as a GNH country.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Rural-Urban Migration: The Impending Crisis II

One and a half decades back when a Thimphu-based UN Consultant requested me to do a paper on “How to be prepared for Rural-urban Migration”, one of my principal recommendations was that all government schools in Thimphu municipal area - Primary to Higher Secondary - should be auctioned off to private operators and the money raised from it should be used to establish large central schools in remote Dzongkhags. My paper never saw the light of day - it got dumped in the digital dustbin, on grounds that it was too radical.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, but my recommendations are as valid today as it was fifteen years ago. The situation hasn’t improved - infact, it has gotten worst. Today the pace of rural-urban migration has increased by leaps and bounds. As a result, every classroom in Thimphu schools are packed like cans of Sardines. The situation is so bad that some Head Teachers of Thimphu schools resort to switching off their phones during admission time. And yet, succeeding governments refuse to be decisive about the issue and, instead, continue to take the bull by the rump. Schools after school are built in Thimphu Thromde to keep pace with the burgeoning demand. As a result, Thimphu Municipality today outstrips every other Thromde, Gewog and Dzongkhag - in number of schools and student enrolment. Take a look at the following:

Thimphu Thromde (municipality) has a total of 32 schools (whole of Thimphu Dzongkhag has 45). By contrast, whole of Zhemgang Dzongkhag has only 31 schools. The overall student strength of schools under Thimphu Thromde outnumber all of Bumthang, Dagana, Gasa, Haa, Lhuentse and Trongsa Dzongkhags put together!

Trashigang, Bhutan’s most populous Dzongkhag has student enrollment of only 11,598, while Thimphu Thromde has a staggering enrollment of 24,067 students – that is more than double the student strength of entire Trashigang Dzongkhag. As a percentage of enrollment, Thimphu Thromde is miles ahead of every other Dzongkhag - at 13.9% of the national total, while the next highest - Samtse Dzongkhag - trails at 9.1%.

So then, why am I bringing up this issue? Trust me it is not to expose the colossal investment in educational facilities in one city, as opposed to the rest of the country, although it beats me why our planners and lawmakers do not see this immense disparity. My father did - when he visited Thimphu few years back. Ten minutes of being driven around the town, he exclaimed:

“My God, I now understand why there is no money for developmental activities in the rest of the Dzongkhags. There cannot be enough money in the Gyalpoi Baangzoe to finance all the fanciful activities that are happening in and around Thimphu”.

If some of you read my 10-articles series on rural-urban migration published in the Kuensel few months back, you would have read that I blame our education system as the No. 2 cause - after wildlife predation - that trigger rural-urban migration. However, I also believe that same school system can come to our rescue - not only to halt rural-urban migration, but to reverse the trend and, over time, restock the villages with farmers and farm hands who will go on to bring about a revolution in farm production.

But for that we need the will to take the bull by the horn, and set into motion the first baby steps! The baby steps can begin at schools, colleges and other institutions of learning.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rural-Urban Migration: The Impending Crisis

The spectacle of the avalanche is a sight to behold - it starts with a fluffy ball of snow coming dislodged and rolling down the mountainside. As it cascades downhill, the ball grows bigger and bigger while at the same time gaining velocity and mass. Within minutes, the whole mountainside begins to hurtle down with a thunderous roar that can be heard hundreds of miles away, in the aftermath, bringing ruin and destruction to everything in its path. The landscape is laid asunder and the geography of the land is altered beyond recognition.

That is exactly how the rural-urban migration starts: it begins with a trickle but slowly builds up into an exodus, in its wake, altering demographics and turning producers into consumers.

While porcupines merrily raise families in a labyrinth of burrows built underneath the ground of fertile lands abandoned by migrating farmers, most of these migrants end up eking out a living by the roadside - inside shanty ramshackles, tinkered together with metal sheets salvaged from castaway asphalt drums. Equal numbers of these escapees become burdens to relatives in urban centers, who are themselves buckling under a lifestyle and a system that denominates everything in terms of money. Some are forced into that shadowy zone between the honorable and the doubtful. Young, muscular hands that should be commandeering plough handles in rural farms, now don water spray guns in carwash centers and grip and navigate steering wheels of trucks and buses. At the end of day, they lumber back to their shanties and crawl into their beds - tired and spent - to dream fretful dreams of their urban dreams gone sour. But I fear that they still think that they are better off - from a life that is even worst than that they have now.

The allure of the glitz and the glitter of life in urban centers is not the reason why the strong and the mobile have chosen to move away from their traditional rural homes and way of life. It wasn't a choice that they made willingly. It was an option that was open to them - an option they chose to prefer over the meaningless toil and struggle that had become their daily, and nightly routine.

This swelling number of forced migrants to the urban centers represents an important and critical human capital gone to waste. From being producers, they have now become consumers thereby putting pressure on our already scares resources and infrastructure. Over time, they will lose their most important life skill and their inherent strength - farming and farm work. Their locked and barricaded homes in the villages will rot and crumble - their fallow lands will be overgrown with trees and bushes. The possibility of reverse migration will become harder, if not entirely impossible. A whole lot of homeless, landless floating population will be created that will see no reason for hope or optimism.

The old, the infirm and the weak occupy most of the village homes that are still inhabited. They grow what little they can but there is no guarantee that they will harvest the yield of their toil and hardship. They will bang empty tins and rattle bamboo bells all night long – to ward off wild boar and deer and porcupine. During day they will holler and howl curses at the marauding monkeys. They will buy stuffed tigers from China to scare off the monkeys, which will eventually get shredded to smithereens, once they become wise to the falsehood. The monkeys are reported to have become so daring that they walk into village homes in broad daylight and walk away with bundles of corn hung out to dry. All that the old ladies in the homes can do is shriek with fright.

This pathetic and almost surrealistic condition in the villages and urban centers is caused by a malady called “rural-urban migration” - a man-made sickness brought about and perpetuated by a misnomer called “human-wildlife conflict”. It is the result of a conservation policy that is out of tune with the changing times and one that got stuck in a time warp.

Rural-urban migration is not a trend that is unique to Bhutan. It happens elsewhere in the world. But what causes it in the land of the GNH is pretty unique and unparalleled!

Bhutan's case of human displacement as a result of encroachment by wildlife must be the first of its kind in the world. It provably goes down well with the chilips - in tune with our unfailing claim to uniqueness, in everything we do or say. Elsewhere in the world opposite it true - human encroaching into the habitat of wildlife, thereby causing conflict and endangerment. Bhutan's record of shrinking cultivation of farmlands is proof that there is no encroachment into wildlife habitat.

In Bhutan whole villages are emptied as a result of rampant and uncontrolled predation by wildlife. And conflict is not allowed - by law! Our laws give primacy to wildlife, over human life and well-being. The country is already paying the price - and it will get worst over the years.

It is time that we end our apathy and do what we must - to halt, if not reverse, the rural-urban migration. We are in no position to afford the consequences that are not too difficult to imagine. If we do not do something now, it may be too late for us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Lunar New Year Wishes

I wish a VERY HAPPY LUNAR NEW YEAR to all my readers around the world.

Exactly three hundred and fifty five days back, on the 19th of February, 2015 last year, I had made a New Year wish - something that I have never done before. I had wished that the two governments of Bhutan and India would get together and decide to shut down the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-I (PHP-I). That didn't happen - the project authorities continue to dig deeper and deeper into the core of the earth, to find stable ground on which to start building the dam’s foundation. Unfortunately, despite years of digging, solid rock eludes them. In the meantime, the unstable mountainside to the right of the river continues to slide and sink - pointing to horrendous consequences, should we continue to ignore and defy nature’s warnings.

Eight years since construction started, the state of the stalled PHP-I dam construction as of 7.10.2015

WISH I 
First on the list of my wishes for the year is the reiteration of my last year’s wish: closure of the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-I. As bizarre and fantastic as it may sound, I believe that this is the only way out to avoid irredeemable loss - both environmental as well as financial. The fallout from the failure of this dam is simply inconceivable. Such an eventuality could be the cause of the end of Bhutan’s hydropower dreams.

Is another dam being planned for the PHP-II that is happening downstream of the PHP-I? If so, the preponderance of the near certainty of the failure of PHP-I dam would be cited - to justify the costly fortification measures to withstand the effects of dam burst of the PHP-I, if such a thing is possible. In all this what is certain is that the “self-liquidating” Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-II too will see between 400-500% cost escalation. Regardless, the project authorities and the government will not bat an eye-lid. They will assure the people of Bhutan that “geological surprises” are a norm and that the project will still reel in money, guaranteed by the “cost plus” pricing arrangement with government of India.

WISH II 
My second wish for the year is still about hydropower projects - Bhutan’s most efficient factories of debt and enslavement. I wish: NO FURTHER HYDROPOWER PROJECTS - beyond the three that are at varying stages of planning and execution - Nikachhu in central Bhutan and Kholongchhu and Nyeramari in the east. And, as recommended in the first Bhutan Hydropower System Master Plan, that all future hydropower projects be located in one or two of our five major river basins, instead of shackling all of our river systems, to eternal bondage.

Playing Chinese Checkers: Bhutan's Hydropower Master Plan as of now

WISH III 
Yet again my third wish has to do with hydropower projects. I wish that all future hydropower projects be located closer to its ultimate market - India - towards the south of the country, instead of way up in the north bordering the alpine regions. What is the logic of locating the projects far away from the market? Other than to increase project cost and thereby bring down profitability, it makes no sense to locate projects far away from the market. Even a kid can understand that transportation of construction material and delivery of the product to its market will be lot more cheaper, if the production facilities are sited at locations that are closer to the market. There is something sinister in the way this simple logic is ignored.


Bhutan's Hydropower Master Plan according to my wish. No hydropower projects above the red line

WISH IV
Once again, my fourth wish has to do with hydropower and electricity. Our government and the hydropower sector are shameless in declaring that hydropower is the mainstay of our economic activity. We claim that we produce electricity in abundance and that our biggest export is electricity. We claim that we are the cheapest in the region - in terms of unit cost to the consumers.

If all these were true, how is it that our factories in Pasakha are shutting down one after another, for want of power? How is it that the common man is required to queue up for hours at the gas station, to buy and use imported LPG and kerosene for cooking and heating, instead of the supposedly cheap electricity? How can the government and the power sector be so brazen as to claim that we are the cheapest in the region? How does it matter? I repeat, how does it matter when, in the face of all this gloating, the reality is that the Bhutanese people are unable to afford our own electricity - neither for cooking nor for heating homes?

Therefore, my IVth wish is that instead of the Economic Affairs Ministry trying to organize and streamline the long queues at the gas stations, the government and the contended mandarins at the power sector put their acts together to ensure that there is no need for long queues at the gas station. One sure way is to make electricity affordable to the Bhutanese people. What we lose in Rupee earnings as a result of making electricity affordable for the Bhutanese people will be more than made up through reduced import of LPG and kerosene. Please do some mathematics.

WISH V
The most shameful thing about a country that projects itself as a net exporter of hydro electricity, is the fact that we have to import power during the winter months at a price higher than that at which we export during the summer months. This is a most shameful and pathetic situation!

Therefore, my Vth wish is to build dams over the Wangchhu and the Punatsangchhu, so that we can harness the excessive water available during the monsoons, caused by snow melt and rain water which otherwise go on to flood the plains of India. Such storage reservoirs will augment the drastic fall in water availability during winter months, thereby making it possible for our generators in the power plants to work at full capacity to generate electricity, even during the winter months. This will eliminate the need for import of expensive electricity during the lean season.

WISH VI
The meaningless and environmentally disastrous Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway is a ruinous undertaking that is the very antithesis to our reputation as a responsible nation with strong commitment towards the protection of nature and environment. The road cuts through one of the world’s most important high altitude tiger habitats, it infringes on the established laws, while it affords no benefit to the people or the country. On the contrary, doing this road will effectively dismantle our image as a forerunner in environmental conservation and stewardship.

I wish that the government would shelve this project once and for all.

WISH VII 
My wish number VII for the year concerns one of our most shameful census rules: the law that disallows the registration of a child born to a Bhutanese mother as a natural Bhutanese. This law is in stark contrast to our claim that we have no gender prejudice in the country. Not only that, the fact that such a primeval law is still prevalent, is a demonstration that we are not truly a GNH country that we claim to be.

Therefore, my most important wish for the year is that we abolish this law immediately to bring equality among genders. The reason is simple: if one’s claim to Bhutanese citizenship is to be based on the Bhutaneseness of a parent, the mother is the only true parent that needs no verification in 100% of the cases, while a father may not necessarily be the claimed biological father. Thus, the law is flawed and it relegates the mother to the position of a second-class citizen. If we claim that we are not a primitive society then this law must go!

WISH VIII
My last wish is a call for the amendment of the Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan. This law is the principal cause that has contributed to the creation of Gungtongs in the rural villages. Some of its provisions go against the concepts of conservation, which is all about maintaining a balance and not about according primacy to one species over the other.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Birth of the Crown Prince

The birth of Bhutan’s long awaited Crown Prince has at last been announced this Friday the 5th of February, 2016. Her Majesty the Queen as well as His Royal Highness the Crown Prince are reported in perfect health.

The news of the Royal birth was reported worldwide

Monday the 8th February, 2016 has been announced a public holiday. To celebrate the happy occasion the Prime Minister announced plans for the full restoration of the Drugyel Dzong in Paro.

Their Majesties the King and the Queen will grant soelra to every child born on Friday the 5th of February, 2016.

The sense of apprehension that the people of Bhutan felt over the delayed birth of the Crown Prince is finally put to rest.

I wish His Royal Highness the Crown Prince good and healthy growth.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thimphu City's Charming New Bus Stop

In the last decade, exterior designs of our buildings and other structures - both public as well as private - have seen subtle but marked departure from the traditional architectural design that use to be replicated in every new house construction. Houses constructed using traditional building materials and following strict traditional design guidelines of the old look beautiful, in addition to being aesthetically charming and visually pleasing. However, over time, modern architects and designers began to marry the old with the new - most often producing garish monstrosities that neither appeal nor contribute to the overall aesthetics of the surrounding.

Modern towns such as Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue and Mongaar are filled with these grotesque structures that attempt to retain the beauty and appeal of the traditional Bhutanese design, but fail miserably. And yet, we have to accept that in the times that we now live in, traditional method of building and design is no longer efficient, nor economical.

Although I am not an architect, I have realized that the beauty and the charm of our traditional houses and structures can be attributed to one principal factor: SYMMETRY! I noticed that in order to maintain symmetry, our traditional structures grow broader, as they grow taller. There seems to be some unwritten rule that is applied that ensures symmetry (Bhutanese builders use no drawings to construct houses!). This was OK during times of plenty. However we are now at a time when the only way to grow is vertically - one is limited by lack of space to grow horizontally, thereby unable to maintain symmetry. Thus modern Bhutanese buildings are a far cry from the traditional ones. For an understanding of what I am talking about, take a look at the following structure:


Times have changed - you cannot imagine how radically! Take for instance the rule that requires that only a person with a degree in architecture - regardless of his age or experience - can design and draw building plans. A master builder that has built the most beautiful Dzongs and Lhakhangs are no longer qualified to design structures, according to the new rules of construction!!! That is the most ridiculous thing and yet, there is merit in the rules. However, if that is true, then it is also true that the traditional method of building is no longer efficient or structurally or aesthetically sound. Sadly, the rules still state that the exterior appearance must follow traditional Bhutanese design. That is precisely why we have such garish looking buildings whose only qualification to traditional Bhutanese design is the Bo and Phana and painting of gargantuan Phalluses on the walls.

There is a need to re-look at our design rules so that our building look much better than they do now - atleast in the urban centers.


 Beautiful traditional structures that are charming and pretty

This brings me to the recently inaugurated Thimphu Bus Stop under the UNDP funding. I loved the design from the time the tubular frames were transported to the site - even before they were hoisted for installation. I visited the construction site many times - as the construction and the installation progressed.

 Thimphu's charming new Bus Stop - utilitarian, slim, efficient and sexy

The design is modern, utilitarian, slim and attractive and, above all, spacious. Imagine a clunky and obtrusive traditional structure in its place. The construction material is also durable and long lasting and element proof. I also like the fact that it uses tubular poles rather than MS angles. The space management is great. I visited it a number of times to see how accommodative the place was. I like the square sitting arrangements that in my thinking can hold 16 persons each. The seat top made of thick hardwood is a thoughtful choice. Even more, I like the fact that there are two dustbins and NO SMOKING signboard so that people know they are not allowed to smoke. It even has a CCTV although I am not sure if it is in service.

Ofcourse there are some visible flaws to the structure. For one, the roof is too small and needs to be much, much wider than it is now. The other thing is that I get the feeling that the gradient of the roof slope should be more. I am not sure that in times of heavy snow, the roof can withstand the weight. I also think that they should have removed or relocated the overhead electric wires that run over the roof of the Bus Stop - that could pose a danger. Other than that, the structure is great looking and sexy. Unfortunately, given the space constraints, I know that not all similar Bus Stops due to be installed in other parts of the city will be as spacious as this one.

However, the thing I want to talk about is not so much about the structure as much as the fact that we may be putting the cart before the horse. I hear that more than a hundred Bus Stops will be built around Thimphu, with funding from the World Bank. In my opinion - that can wait. What we need before the Bus Stops is: more comfortable buses and expanded network of bus routes and better paving of the existing roads.

I think the World Bank project should start with acquiring more buses while simultaneously building more excess points and repairing the existing network of roads in Thimphu so that the commuters have an enjoyable experience. That should encourage larger number of people to consider taking the bus, as an alternate means of commuting. Once the enabling conditions are put in place for a joyous bus ride, the Bus Stops can follow.

The World Bank project is essential and timely - but I think the sequence of project implementation needs rethinking.


ADDENDUM:
My apologies - I am told that the construction of the City Bus Stop above was funded by the UNDP. Those that will follow will be funded by the World Bank.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Save The White-bellied Herons

The last letter written by the famed ornithologist and heron expert - Dr. Heinz Hafner - mentor to a generation of heron biologists and conservationists around the world - is said to have mentioned that the “highlight of his life was the discovery of a White-bellied Heron (WBH) nest”. There has never been a report of the sighting of the bird’s nest, since 1929 - leading Dr. Heinz to believe that the WBH was bound for extinction.

Then, nearly three-fourths of a century since its last sighting, the world became aware of the discovery of a White-bellied Heron nest in Kamechhu, Wangduephodrang, Bhutan in May of 2003.

Five months later, in the same year, in October of 2003, Dr. Heinz Hafner passed away at his home in the Camargue, France - happy in the knowledge that the world's rarest of the Herons had a chance at survival.

I wrote the following article for the KUENSEL (published: 26.12.2015) - to honor the late Dr. Heinz Hafner, and to celebrate the recognition of Bhutan’s leadership position in the bird’s conservation and protection, during the recently concluded international workshop on the Conservation of the White-bellied Herons.
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Early this month (1st - 4th December, 2015), Punakha saw the convergence of close to 70 participants - all with interest in conservation and environment - to an international workshop held at Drupchhu Resort, Punakha. First of its kind in Bhutan, the workshop discussed the conservation of the critically endangered White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). All the countries identified as the birds range were represented: Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar. Although pre-2000 records show that the birds’ range included Nepal and Bangladesh, these countries were not represented, presumably because the birds are now extinct in those countries.

The workshop was a collaborative effort between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN). In addition to representatives from the range states, the workshop saw participation from the following national and international organizations:

Asian Species Action Partnership, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, College of Natural Resources, Department of Forests & Park Services, Druk Green Power Corporation, International Crane Foundation, International Rivers, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN/SSC/SCPSC), Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Nature’s Foster, Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority - I, Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Synchronicity Earth, Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF-Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation & Environment and Zoological Survey of India.

The Punakha workshop was a follow up to the first such workshop held last year, at the Hotel Brahmaputra Ashok, Guwahati, India (2nd - 4th December, 2014) when a Working Group for Conservation of White-bellied Heron was established.

White-bellied Heron
(Ardea insignis)
The White-bellied Heron is the world’s rarest heron and one of the most threatened birds that is listed as “Critically Endangered” in the IUCN Red List. As of 2014, its occurrence was reported from only three countries - Bhutan, India and Myanmar. In August of 2014, a juvenile WBH was captured on the east side of Nujiang River (Salween) in Gaoligong Mountains National Nature Reserve, Yunnan Province, China. However, the bird died within days at the Yunnan Wild Zoo. This juvenile WBH was the first confirmed sighting of the species in China since 1938. Although there have been more reports of the bird’s sightings in other regions of China, particularly Hubei Province, Central China, none of the reports have yet been confirmed.

Although the world population of the WBH was earlier stated as anywhere between 50 - 200, the Punakha workshop determined that the confirmed population is only 60, distributed among the following rage countries.

Confirmed global WBH population

Even while it is nearing extinction, knowledge of these birds is poor, and disparate at best. Thus, the Punakha workshop, and the one that preceded it in India, will hopefully help bring coordinated efforts towards its protection and conservation, among the range countries.

White-bellied Heron and Bhutan
As of 2015, Bhutan has recorded the highest number of WBH’s in the world - at 28 individuals. The birds’ primary habitats are the Punatsangchhu and Mangdechhu river basins.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck reported the first confirmed sighting of the White-bellied Heron in Punakha sometime during 1974. However, going by the motifs woven into our ancient textile called the Chagsipangkhep, it is safe to assume that the birds existed in Bhutan - in larger numbers in the distant past.

The motif of a large bird woven into the Chagsipangkhep has a striking resemblance to the WBH

Bhutan’s leadership in WBH conservation
Bhutan leads the world - both in confirmed numbers, as well as in efforts towards its conservation and protection. The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) started their systematic field investigation and ecological study of the birds in 2003. Under the guidance of Peter Frederick, PhD, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, RSPN’s research team of Rebecca Pradhan and late Tshewang Norbu published the world’s first scientific research paper titled “The Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron” in 2011. Bhutan also became the first country in the world to attempt captive breeding of the WBH - successfully hatching a chick that was later reintroduced to the wild.

History of Bhutan’s WBH conservation efforts
Dr. George Archibald, Co-founder of the International Crane Foundation visited Bhutan in 2002 along with the late Ms Ellie Schiller, a professional fisheries biologist and Head of Felburn Foundation, USA - an organization dedicated to preserving nature. During a trip along the Mochhu, their guide Hishey Tshering of Bhutan Birding & Heritage Travels pointed out a large bird to Ellie, explaining to her that the bird was among the world’s rarest birds, called the White-bellied Heron. Ms Ellie Schiller took a picture of the bird through the eyepiece of Hishey’s spotting scope. The film roll was sent to Bangkok through Druk Air’s Captain Tenzing Tshering who developed the film and brought back the prints to be handed over to Ellie who was still in Bhutan. She loved the bird and offered Hishey Tshering the necessary funding for the study and conservation of the WBH. Hishey Tshering declined the offer - citing inadequate knowledge and expertise. Instead he suggested that the funding be channeled to the RSPN with the condition that Tshewang Norbu, a jobless aspiring birding guide be attached to the project. Consequently, Felburn Foundation, in partnership with the WWF-Bhutan and the International Crane Foundation became the principal supporter that funded the RSPN’s concerted efforts to study and conserve the WBH, beginning 2003. Tshewang Norbu died in a vehicle accident few years back.

The WWF-Bhutan and Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) are other major donors that fund the RSPN’s conservation efforts.

In partial fulfillment of their corporate-environmental responsibility, the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority provided funding amounting to Nu.2.00 million. The RSPN used the money to embark on the first-ever pilot project of captive breeding of the bird. Technical assistance for the project was provided by the San Diego Zoo, USA.

Threats to the White-bellied Herons 
There are a number of threats to the WBH - principal among them are habitat loss, impacts of climate change and hydropower development and activities related to it. In Bhutan particularly, it is significant that the country’s largest hydropower projects are located in the middle of the WBH’s most populous habitat.

Rebecca Pradhan at the RSPN says that her records show that they have so far sighted over three dozen chicks since the start of their study of the birds. Regardless, their adult population has not seen any significant increase over the years. She thinks that predation could be another threat to the healthy growth of the bird’s population.

Mitigating the challenge of possible extinction 
There is a real threat that the birds may disappear from its local range. Thus, the RSPN is working on an ambitious project for the bird’s captive breeding. A detailed proposal is under preparation, to start a captive breeding center at Basochhu, Tsirang - so that the birds can be introduced to other suitable sites around the country - both to propagate the numbers as well as to improve diversity in the gene pool. The Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority has indicated that they would provide the funding to start this important conservation initiative.

Photographing the WBH 
The photographs that appear in this article is the culmination of fours years of dogged pursuit of the birds - year after year - from Phochhu/Mochhu in the West; to Basochhu/Changchey in the South and Berti in Central part of the country. Finally, I managed to photograph these rare birds in Rurichhu, Wangdue. My photographs of the WBH are featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as well as the Archive in the UK - the images are among the rarest in the world.

An adult WBH keeping watch over the nest

One parent keeps watch over the nest while he/she waits for the other to return with food

A five weeks old WBH chick in the nest at Rurichu, Wangdue

A WBH chick preening - sign that it is now ready to learn to fly


Responsibility and leadership 
The Punakha workshop has established that Bhutan is the country that has the highest number of these near-extinct birds. This recognition is an endorsement of the pristine condition of our environment as well as the re-validation of our standing as the front-runner in environmental conservation. However, this honor comes with responsibility.

Bhutan’s leadership position and pioneering work in the study and conservation of the WBH is undisputed. We are years ahead of other range countries in the knowledge base of the birds’ biology, ecology, habitat and its known and perceived threats. Therefore, it is now our responsibility to ensure that the birds not only survive, but multiply in the coming decades.

To allow the bird’s population to decline would be a national shame.