Friday, November 27, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: V

Whether the debate on the “liberalization” of tourism business passes into law will depend on how many of the members of the two Houses agree or disagree with the motion. However, one thing is certain - the issue will not be decided in this winter session of the National Assembly but will require many more sessions of deliberations. After all, the issue at stake is that of the country’s biggest employer and the most important industry. In fact, at this stage it is not even certain if enough members of the Upper House will support the motion - enough that they can forward the issue to the Lower House, for further deliberation.

The lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff in itself does not constitute “liberalization”. There are a host of issues that needs to be addressed before it can become law. Right now the only thing that is being discussed is the segregation of the Royalty and doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff. If the Minimum Daily Tariff is to be freed, how is the industry to be regulated? Rather, will it remain to be regulated? Will the government and the regulator have the moral authority and the legal basis to regulate and impose rules on how the business is to be conducted, once "liberalized"? Will the new rules require the tourists to come through local tour companies or will they apply for VISA directly to the Immigration Department or Bhutanese Embassies abroad? Who will collect the Royalty and when and how? Will it entail setting up on-line payment systems? Once the government collects its Royalty and tells the tour operators to conduct their business in an atmosphere of free enterprise and be subjected to market forces, the government and the regulator forfeits their right and authority to define minimum service levels. How will they regulate and impose conditions? Or, is it going to be free for all kind of business? It is not as simple as just lifting the Minimum Daily Tariff. Has the proponents thought of all the complexities?

So, what exactly is this "enfant terrible" Minimum Daily Tariff?

The Minimum Daily Tariff is not a price tag for a service or product - it is a unique and well thought out business strategy at the core of which is fair play to both the contracting parties. Inherent in it is the Royal Government of Bhutan’s unconditional assurance that service will be delivered as pledged; a warranty and a promise of restitution against any defective or unfulfilled service by the service provider; including assurance of full payment for services rendered.

It is a stick that keeps the snake in the straight and the narrow, and the golden goose happily quacking away singing songs of praise and approval.

Deriving confidence from the principles on which the Minimum Daily Tariff system is founded, thousands of tourists have no qualms about sending millions of dollars to a country they know nothing about - to operators they had never seen before. The Minimum Daily Tariff is a trust builder among potential visitors and to it is due all the credit for Bhutan’s steady and sure-footed progress in sustainable tourism.

Given all that, one has to be a total idiot to want to rock a system that holds so much promise.

Taking a more simplistic view, the Minimum Daily Tariff is the sum of amount designated in US$ that is mandated by rule to be charged to every tourist who visit Bhutan. A tour operator can charge higher than the set amount but not lower which, in Bhutanese tourism parlance, is known as “undercutting”. In addition to the Minimum Daily Tariff, there is also additional tariff called Surcharge - for tour groups comprising of less than three persons.

The Minimum Daily Tariff includes government Royalty of US$65.00. The prevailing Minimum Daily Tariff is US$ 250.00 per person per night halt. This means a tour operator gets to keep the gross amount of US$ 185.00 per person per night halt. Within this amount, the tour operator must provide a level of service and accommodation defined by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), such as class and category of hotel accommodation, quality and variety of food items, licenced guide, ponies, yaks, cooks, tents and camping gear, transportation to any point etc.

Certainly this Minimum Daily Tariff fixed by the government is generous and the tour companies do make good profit. No complaints there. On the other hand, the tourists themselves think that the Minimum Daily Tariff of US$ 250.00 is more than reasonable - going by the level of services included in it.

However, the Minimum Daily Tariff is not just about numbers alone. As far as I have understood, it goes way beyond that. It is an ingenious business model designed by the government, on behalf the Bhutanese tour operators. It has worked flawlessly for the past many decades and all players are in a win-win situation.

So how does this Minimum Daily Tariff work?

The imposition of the Minimum Daily Tariff requires that the tourists or their agents make 100% payment in advance into the bank account of the TCB, once the tour is booked and confirmed. Because of this, the foreign tour agents or tourists have no reservations about making full payment in advance because they know that the Royal Government of Bhutan assures the safety of their money. On the other hand since full payment is received in advance, Bhutanese tour operators never face a situation where they are cheated out of their dues.

The tourists have another safety measure built in into this system. The TCB releases only 50% of the payment to the tour operator - the other 50% is held back by the TCB until the tour is completed and the tourists go back happy and satisfied. In the event the tour operator does not deliver to the tourists as promised and if they are unhappy with the level of service offered by the local tour operators, they can complain to the TCB and the TCB will compensate the tourists depending upon the genuineness of the complaint, from the 50% tour payment withheld by them. This boosts confidence in the tourists because they know that we have a fail-safe system where their interests are protected by the government, on their behalf.

Now tell me - who in their right minds would want to change all that?

It would be a terrible mistake to confuse Minimum Daily Tariff as a price tag for a service or a product - it is not. It is a concept for sustainable tourism that has helped Bhutan avoid the many pitfalls that other countries have suffered in their chase for the tourist dollar. Let us not make the same mistakes.

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: IV

I hear that the proponents of the “liberalization” are not only proposing doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff but they are sweetening the deal - so they think - by proposing the increase of Royalty to US$ 100.00, from the current rate of US$ 65.00. They choose to propose increase in Royalty at a time when Bhutanese tour operators say that they are recording close to 30% drop in dollar paying tourist arrivals, caused by the devastation of Nepal by earthquake and the ongoing economic blockade that has brought tourism in that country to a standstill. Since Bhutan forms part of the Nepal tourism circuit, the effects are felt in Bhutan as well. Even worst, the road widening works between Thimphu and Bumthang is causing both physical and mental trauma to the tourists that is bound to result in even lower arrivals in the coming years. Bhutan’s tourism industry is destined for a severe depression and yet, our benign lawmakers are clueless about it. On the contrary, they propose a complete cataclysm in the industry.

That is the quality of some of our lawmakers! How long are we going to depend on divine providence to save our butts? The talk in town is that even the stalling of the ratification of the BBIN Transport Agreement by the National Assembly during this session was because of the intervention by our protecting deities - given the bizarre circumstances that lead to the bill’s nullification.

If the brood of lawmakers that are pushing for the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff have there way, one thing is certain: it will usher in an era of fronting in the tourism industry. So far this is among the few businesses where there is no incidence of fronting. The Royal Government of Bhutan has been trying to remove the malice of fronting since the late '70s, unsuccessfully.

The big players from outside the country will take over the business and the Bhutanese players will be edged out. In a way I think it may have already begun. I understand that one big player from the region has already placed their representative in Bhutan who manages all the business - including receiving their guests at Paro airport.

A time will come when there will be no rooms available for the dollar paying guests because the hotel owners and managers would have pre-sold their rooms to the regional players (at one third the price) who pay them millions in advance. Over time, these hotels will be bought off by these players and slowly they will monopolize the business. I know that the law of the land does not permit outsiders to own property in Bhutan but ACC reveals that some of the buildings in Phuentsholing have been sold to outsiders.

In the belief that the proposers of the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff do not understand the tourism trade, I would like to inform them that the tourism business is an organized business. One has to understand how and who generates tourist traffic to Bhutan.

Dago Bida of Etho Metho tells me that of the thousands of tourists that her company brings into Bhutan every year, less than hundred are individual enquiries. This means that the tourist traffic is generated by outside tour agents. Thus, the NC’s blue-eyed hotel owners still have to deal with agents - if not with the local ones – outside ones. However, the outside agents will prefer to deal with the local tour operators since hotel accommodation is only a small part of the overall logistical support the outside tour agents will need.

To some extent I do empathize with the hotel owners. I know of cases where the tour operators have not paid the hotels for years. This is not good for the industry. The hotels are an integral part of the success story of Bhutan’s tourism trade. The hotels must be paid in time so that they can provide better service and make improvements to their property. Thus, to me it seems like the thing to do is not go crying to the NC to devastate the tourism trade but to get their acts together and ensure that government provide them protection from the tyranny of the tour operators.

Asking for the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff will devastate the country, let alone the tourism industry, while not serving their interest. The hotel owners must ensure that they consider national interest above and beyond their personal greed. The country will be overwhelmed by the riffraff and all sorts of trouble will start.

Here is homework for those lawmakers who are pushing for “liberalization”:

Ask the tour operators: who brought in the Thai tourists under the “special Thai package” how much profit they made. In fact ask them: did you make profit at all?

Next, ask the Tax Department: how much tax was collected from the tour operators on the business/profit generated by them from the special Thai deal?

Ask the hotel owners: at what rate they sold their rooms to accommodate these visitors.

I hope the answers will convince you to desist from ruining a perfectly good thing that we have.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: III

The concerted effort to “liberalize” the tourism trade in Bhutan seems to be solely focused on de-pegging the Royalty from the Minimum Daily Tariff - and completely doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff itself. The proponents point out that while the government will be in the happy situation of continuing to keep its royalty of US$65.00 per day for every tourist entering Bhutan, the tour operators will be in the happy situation of being able to determine, on their own, what Minimum Daily Tariff they can collect from the tourists, based on market realities. This is all hunky-dory - except that it has one fundamental problem: it is in direct conflict with the principles of “High-value, Low-volume" tourism that has been at the core of our tourism development policy.

Those people who are calling for the paradigm shift in our tourism policy has to answer some very basic questions:

= Has the guiding principal behind our tourism policy outlived its usefulness or relevance?

= Are we now going to succumb to the allure of plenty over quality?

= Does Bhutan have the carrying capacity to admit and manage increased numbers?

=Are the Bhutanese people prepared to be tolerant and indifferent to the cultural invasion and
  environmental wreckage that will be caused by the riffraff who will invade the country if this “liberalized”
   policy is adopted?

What exactly is the concept behind low volume, high value tourism? 

When His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo opened up the country to tourism in 1974, he was in no doubt of the benefits that tourist dollar would bring to the country. However, he also had the foresight to understand that uncontrolled and unregulated tourism could cause serious cultural shock, religious intolerance, including environmental destruction. Therefore, he decreed that the principal of “High-value, Low-volume” would guide Bhutan’s tourism policy. This visionary policy has worked admirably for the past four decades.

The logic behind the principal is simple: Admit only manageable numbers by excluding the riffraff and keep the tariff reasonably high so that only the educated, the learned, the aged and the wise can afford to visit Bhutan. That is why the Minimum Daily Tariff came to be introduced – to control numbers and yet boost earnings at the same time. The Minimum Daily Tariff has seen substantial increase over the years – so has number of arrivals.

Keeping the Minimum Daily Tariff high is akin to common exams in our schools - it is a weeding out process where the undesirable and the unsuitable are automatically excluded from the list of visitors. This helps because Bhutan does not have the carrying capacity anyway.

The net result of this policy has been that visitors to Bhutan have always been educated, wise and tolerant of the peculiarities of our culture, religion and social habits. They are wise enough to understand and accept that they are in a different culture and do not ridicule and mock at ours, thereby not provoking outrage and retaliation from the local populace. This is the reason why there is no case of conflict between tourists and the local population, unlike in other countries. This will not be the case if we accept tourists that are outside the class and maturity that currently visit Bhutan.

The tourist dollar is important – but in its pursuit, we cannot forego our values, our pristine environment, our social harmony and cultural purity. Don’t forget that they are our selling point – the tourists come because of what we are and what our country represents. We lose that and the tourists disappear.

Already we are in serious danger of losing focus. Look at the dangerous trend in our thinking:

In the beginning : “High-Value, Low-Volume”   = Good Value + Less Quantity
Now                   : “High-Value, Low-Impact”     = Good Value + Good Quantity
Proposed            : “Liberalized”                           = Neither Value nor Quality

Please do not open the floodgates - once we do there is no retrieval.

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: II

The clarion call that is being sounded for the “liberalization” of tourism business is ill advised, poorly timed and based on all the wrong premises. Even worst, I believe that the pursuit of this agenda goes against Bhutan’s national interest and that the reversal of the present policy of “high value, low impact” has the potential to cause irreparable damage to many decades of careful planning and steady advancement.

The talk in the tourism circles is that the hotel lobby is behind the push for what they call the “liberalization” of the tourism trade and that they have enlisted the help of some of the National Council members to champion their cause. It is also rumored that sometime back the National Council members engineered a debate on the subject - at the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing - the motion for liberalization was defeated.

The Robin Hoods in the National Council will do well to remember that the House cannot be allowed to be used to further the cause of some select group of people. It must remain focused on issues that further the national interest.

In all fairness, I am not really sure if it is indeed the hotel lobby that is instigating the dangerous idea of “liberalization”, or some other interest group. But one thing is sure: the idea is ANTI-NATIONAL! The idea of “liberalization” as it is currently proposed is the very antithesis to our time-tested concept of “high value, low impact” tourism. It has the potential to devastate our tourism industry.

Let us examine the issues involved:

1.  The concept behind low volume, high value tourism
2.  The rationale and merit of the imposition of minimum daily tariff
3.  How is tourism traffic to Bhutan generated and who generates them
4.  The fuss about under-cutting
5.  Generation of foreign exchange and employment.

Demerits of “liberalization” as it is currently proposed:

1.  Influx of undesirable category of visitors
2.  Poor carrying capacity
3.  Social, cultural, religious and environmental impact of uncontrolled and unregulated tourism
4.  Increase in crime rate
5.  Plummeting foreign exchange inflow
6.  Offshore accounts
7.  Poor tax collection through evasion
8.  Loss of moral authority to regulate and impose minimum levels of service
     by tour operators and other service providers - market forces will reign supreme
9.  The role of the regulatory body will become redundant.

It is said that the only thing that is constant is: evolution. The human race is constantly evolving. Thus we must change and evolve to keep pace and be relevant to changing times and situations. However, change must be meaningful and progressive - not the kind of change we seek - destructive and ruinous.

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: I

The dream destroyers are at it yet again!

The clamor for demolishing the visionary tourism policy of high-value, low-volume, introduced by the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in 1974, is gaining steam from certain sections of the society and the Bhutanese polity. Sadly it is happening during a time when we celebrated the monarch’s 60th Birth Anniversary that concluded less than two weeks back. I am unable to understand the logic behind those who are baying for the burial of a policy that has been admired and adulated by world leaders and thinkers.

There is something terribly wrong with the people who seek to alter a policy that has stood us in good stead for the past four decades. These people ignore the fact that the unremitting success we have seen in our vital tourism industry hinged on one simple and yet profound guiding principal - our much-admired policy of high-value, low-volume tourism. I have heard visitors to Bhutan praise the wisdom behind the policy. Infact the tourists favor even higher daily tariff in the hope that Bhutan can continue to support and maintain the pristine environment and cultural purity that is the hallmark of Bhutan’s enduring allure as a tourism destination.

Bhutan introduced tourism in 1974 - soon after the coronation of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Some of the large hotels (by Bhutan’s standards) such as Hotel Olathang, Hotel Motithang and Hotel Kharbandi were constructed to accommodate the visiting dignitaries to the coronation ceremony. In my view the introduction of tourism was necessitated to make use of these facilities that would otherwise remain unused.

While introducing tourism, His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo was mindful of the negative impacts of uncontrolled and unregulated tourism. Thus, he was categorical that the guiding principals that should define and guide the development of our tourism industry would be: high-value, low-volume, (this was later rephrased to read: high-value, low-impact). Since then Bhutan has been unwavering and single minded in the pursuit of this policy resulting in an industry that now qualifies as the most important and vibrant.

In 1974 when the country was opened up for tourism, 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 licenced tour companies engaged in tourism businesses.

Tourism accounts for the highest amount of untied foreign exchange inflow - 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. It is the country’s biggest employer, providing employment and livelihood to every segment of Bhutanese society - irrespective of religion, gender, social standing, level of skills, educated and uneducated, the aged and the young.

As of now, tourism industry is the only industry in the country that DOES NOT INDULGE IN FRONTING. Unlike in other sectors where even a shanty stationary shop is financed and owned by shadowy outsiders, every aspect of the tourism business is owned and managed by Bhutanese. Unlike in the perilous hydro-power industry where secondhand trucks, buses, cement, rods, management and even vegetables are brought in from outside, Bhutanese tourism industry relies solely on local talent and resources available within the country.

But now it is under attack. This is insanity at its worst. There can be nothing noble or patriotic about those people who are determined to lead asunder the only industry that is the bastion of Bhutanese entrepreneurial spirit.

Surely something sinister is afoot!

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

60th Birth Anniversary Celebration Photos

It was notified that photography of the most public celebrations of the Birth Anniversary of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo at the Changlemithang stadium on 11th November, 2015 was not allowed. I am clueless as to why a most public celebration should be out of bounds for photographers. However, it is not in my place to question - thus I did not go anywhere near the grounds. Instead I walked around town to take pictures of some really beautiful decorations that were put up to mark the occasion. I even went to Paro to check out the decorations there.

Come to think of it, may be the American visitor is right - we prefer to criminalize social disorders such as drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency etc.- instead of trying to remedy the causes that trigger them.

The following photos are posted for the benefit of Bhutanese people living outside the country. Ofcourse this is a sideshow - but this should give an idea of how charming the celebrations were - inside the celebration grounds.

 I love this one - I spent time to choose a particular time of day so that I can capture the shadows that add character to this uniquely crafted portrait of His Majesty the 4th Druk Gyalpo - at the VAST, Thimphu

Almost 300 ft. long - had a hard time framing this shot - at the RBA Campus, Shaba, Paro

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Obeisance To The Fourth Druk Gyalpo: Champion of Environmental Conservation

One day in 1970, Mr. Stuart Philby - my principal at Paro High School - asked me to walk with him in the school orchard located at the southern edge of the school. There was an unusual solemnity about this domineering taskmaster as we silently wove our way through the haphazard line of fruit trees of apples, peaches and plums. After a while, he sat down on a tree stump; I took my place on the grassy floor of the orchard.

“Yeshey,” he said, “I have been asked to head the newly established Ugyen Wangchuck Academy where the Crown Prince will complete the rest of his studies. I will be leaving soon. A number of Bhutanese students from schools in Kalimpong and Darjeeling will be joining the Academy, along with few I have chosen from this school. Unfortunately, you will not be among them. I am sorry - but it is for your own good. You certainly qualify to be in that group. But I am afraid that if I take you, His Highness will surely kill you half way through the year."

This is how I first heard of Crown Prince Jigme Singye Wangchuck, my future King. I was so incorrigibly naughty and mischievous that my school principal had no doubt that His Royal Highness would surely do me in.

Soon after, His Royal Highness ascended the Golden Throne as the IVth Druk Gyalpo and got busy with the affairs of the state. Meanwhile I, the incurable laggard and prankster, continued to make life hell for everyone - teachers and students alike.

A few years later, I joined the civil service, in fulfillment of the rule that required everyone to devote 14 years of service to the country as restitution for the free education we received from the government. It was during my tenure at the Export Division of the Ministry of Trade and Industries that I became aware of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s environmental bend of mind.

It is my belief that the environmental awakening in His Majesty took place sometime towards the end of 1970’s, when a series of measures to protect and conserve our natural resources were put in place. I think it was also around this time that His Majesty promulgated the now famous conceptual philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”.

In 1979, His Majesty commanded the seizure of illegal plantations, mostly in the South, where thousands of acres of public land were deforested and turned into unauthorized cardamom plantations. In the same year, he nationalized the timber trade that was causing large-scale deforestation, mainly in the North, through rampant and unplanned logging operations. I was privileged to be in the thick and thin of this conservation initiative, in my capacity as the head of the export section of the Export Division, Ministry of Trade & Industries. I, and my division was put in charge of confiscating the cardamoms and the raw lumber, and arrange for their disposal.

His Majesty introduced a number of watershed management polices, in recognition of the importance of water as a precious national resource. He declared thousands of acres of wilderness as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, to prevent the areas from human exploitation. In recognition of his contribution to conservation, His Majesty received the much-coveted recognition when the world community awarded him the “Champion of Earth Award” in 2005 and the “J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership” in 2006.

However, His Majesty’s definitive contribution to the cause of environmental conservation has to be the constitutional requirement that Bhutan must maintain, in perpetuity, 60% of its land under forest cover.

On another front, the Operation All Clear carried out in the winter of 2003 was likewise an act of conservation - of Bhutan’s nationhood - that will go down in history as the pinnacle of His Majesty’s achievement. In his capacity as the Supreme Commander of the armed forces and servant and protector of the people and nation of Bhutan, His Majesty personally led the flush-out operations against Indian militants camped in the tropical jungles of Southern Bhutan. When the operation was announced, I was lodged at the Maurya Sheraton, in New Delhi. I called up a friend in Bhutan to confirm the news. I was told that the operations were in progress, even as we spoke. A chill went through my body, because I was in no doubt of the series of events that would follow, should this operation fail.

Months after this successful military campaign, information of His Majesty’s years of meticulous planning of the operations began to filter out. It became clear that we had a monarch with an uncommon intelligence, discipline, clarity of purpose and an unparalled sense of duty; proving, what one senior Royal Family Member had once told me:

Drubi gii mii su drog ra mengo. Ngachara gii Zhab lu bjangshi cho me zambuling di na lu mi chiig ra med”.

Forty-four years after first meeting His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet him once again - this time in a more sociable setting. I had met him few times during school days when we played soccer together at the Paro Ugyen Pelri Palace grounds.

In 2014, I was privileged to be an invitee (one of the two outside the Royal Family) at a lunch hosted by His Majesty for a visiting diplomat. His Majesty spoke to me of his encounter with the White-bellied Heron and how his eyes were nearly damaged when he attempted to capture the bird with his bare hands. His Majesty asked me if I had photographed the endangered Palla’s Fish Eagle and the elusive Snow Leopard. He had obviously heard of my photographic jaunts into the frigid alpine regions of the country, during the thick of winter. He asked me to tell him of the coldest place I had been to. I recounted my journeys and experiences in minute detail - only to be told with a smile that he did not believe a word I said. Obviously, my accounts of my travels sounded too outlandish to be credible.

One Australian recently asked me;

"What do you think is the best about Bhutan"? 

I replied;

“Our natural environment which is largely intact”.

His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo has carved out a place for himself in the hearts of every Bhutanese - for his selfless service for the preservation of the Bhutanese people and the nation state of Bhutan. I am in no doubt that without His Majesty’s unrelenting care and protection of our natural surrounding, the state of our natural environment would be no where near what it is today.

Therefore, in this year of his 60th Birth Anniversary, I pay obeisance to His Majesty for his service to the people of Bhutan and wish him good health and long life so that he is around to give protection to our environment that is coming under increasing danger of being devastated.


The pair of avocado above was supposedly grown from the seed of an avocado consumed by
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The owner of the avocado tree tells me that
a couple of nuns picked up the seeds from Yap Ugyen Dorji’s zimchu in Punakha where
His Majesty had paid a visit and ate the fruits.

Each of the avocados weighed just a little under a kilo each.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Final Post On Keeping Chamkhar Chhu Undammed and Free-flowing

Since the government has announced that they are unwilling to keep Chamkhar Chhu free of dams, this will be the last post I will do on the issue of keeping one of our rivers free of dams. As a concerned citizen, I have tried to do, what I believe, is best for the country and the people of Bhutan. The rest is now up to the King, the government and others who I know are as concerned as I am about the need to keep one river free of dams.

For me, this is the end of the road. However, for the cause .... one never knows. Life is full of surprises.

The following is the full version of the email interview KUENSEL did with me. While I will keep on writing on issues related to hydro-power, I will not write any further or give interviews on the issue relating to keeping one of our rivers undammed and free flowing.


As you might have read, the Prime Minister has said that the petition/debate is a decade late and should have been raised before the governments of Bhutan and India signed the Chamkhar Chhu agreement. How would you respond? 

Yes, I have read the Prime Minister’s statement to the press during the government’s 19th Meet-the-Press session.

I am a little aghast that the government should decide to slam the door in my face, even before I knocked on it. As far as I am concerned, I have not yet submitted my petition to the government. Infact, I did not think that it would be necessary to submit the compiled petition because I believed that they would surely understand and empathize with the profundity behind my plea to keep the Chamkhar Chhu undammed and free-flowing in order that the same can be bequeathed to the name of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in the year of His 60th Birth Anniversary. The government should not need a voluminous petition to do a worthy cause, should they believe that it is indeed a worthy cause.

I am aware of the existence of an agreement between Bhutan and India but that agreement is now untenable. According to the agreement, we are supposed to do 10,000 MW by end of 2020. We are nearing end of 2015 and not a single one of those ten projects have come on stream. In fact, six among them are still on the drawing board.

Unless Bhutan is under duress from India to do the Chamkhar Chhu Hydropower project specifically, I am sure that if a proposal is made to them, India will find it acceptable to choose another location from among 76 economically viable locations that have been identified under the 2004 Updated Bhutan Power System Plan. After all it is our hydro-power project and we should have the first and final say. We are not asking to curb the overall agreed generation - if that be their concern - merely that another location be selected in order that we can leave Chamkhar Chhu undammed and free flowing in eternity and bequeath it to our most deserving Monarch. I have no doubt that since India is coming under increased criticism from the international community given their environmental record, they will be equally recognized for partnering with Bhutan in our efforts at ecological and environmental conservation in a region that accounts for Asia’s largest fresh water supply.

It is never too late to correct a mistake. We all know and accept that this government was not a party to the hydro-power agreements of the past. However, feigning helplessness is not the way of a responsible government. The PDP government has been elected to be the chosen one, when the Bhutanese people pronounced their desire for a change in governance. If the same old policies are to be perpetuated, and same old mistakes continue to be made, how have the PDP government lived up to the people’s expectations?

Your plea that Bhutan should leave at least one river un-dammed, and the derivative arguments (economic benefits, environment) will go unheeded by the government. Are you still going to submit your petition to the government if you obtain 500 signatures? 

No, I won’t be doing that because, as I said earlier, I did not contemplate submitting the compiled petition to the government in the first place. That is why from day one, I disabled the button on the website that would have sent an E-mail to the Hon’ble Prime Minister - every time a supporter pressed the support button.

The government has been explicit that the Chamkhar Chhu project is a done deal and that there is no room for discussion. Regardless, it is my hope that the government will still leave open a small window of opening for reconsideration and recapitulation. That said, at the end of the day, should they decide not to, they are the government of the day and it is their call. It is not as if I am the only one that is concerned about this country’s future and well being. I know that there are others who are even more concerned than me.

However, it is sad that I did not hear a single one of our various environmental organizations voicing their concern at the devastation that is being caused to our environment. Not one of our many environmentalists have come foreword to publicly contest the false claims made by the political leadership and the hydro-power proponents that our dams are environmentally sound. Not one has refuted the falsehood that is being put out - that our dams will not emit green house gases such as Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide and Methane, the principal causes of global warming. Not one has challenged the lie that all our hydro-power projects are run-of-the-river projects. Not one of our many learned economists has spoken against the economic peril, the debt burden and outrageous interest rate charged on the loans and the unsustainable manner is which we do our hydro-power projects.

Your petition caused a lively debate within Bhutanese society and it seems public opinion is divided. You've failed to convince the government but are you in anyway satisfied about some of the outcomes of your petition? 

Frankly I know nothing about any outcome from this. However, I like the fact that my cause has sparked off a vigorous debate on the issue but those debates have been in the Facebook, where I am not.

I have pointed out nearly a dozen flaws in the way our hydro-power projects are done. The present government puts the blame on the past government, for the shamefully lopsided deal Bhutan got in the recent hydro-power projects. I will agree with that. However, it is hoped that this government will derive lessons from the past mistakes and do things differently.

I will be satisfied if some of the following emerge from these debates:

a.    The engagement of professional lawyers in going through the
      fine prints of the agreements before it is signed. From what
      we have seen happening in Punasangchhu I & II and
      perhaps even in Mangdechhu, it is evident that the negotiating
      team from Bhutan were sleep walking when they signed
      those hydro-power project agreements;

b.   That the government ensure that clauses in the
      agreements protect the interests of the Bhutanese
      business community and the local manufacturing industries;

c.    That further hydro-power projects is suspended - until
       all the projects currently in the pipeline are completed and
       fully commissioned because if we don't, I fear that
       our economic woes will be further compounded; and

d.    Ensure that all future DPRs are done professionally and
       then cross-checked by independent consultants to ensure
       that the studies have been carried out properly and that
       repeated geological surprises are not a norm.

Many from Kheng did not agree with your petition. Have their arguments in anyway softened your stance or thrown new light on your point of view? 

No - their arguments were complete nonstarters. In any event, when talking of a national level concern, localized issues are of no consequence. I am completely appalled at the assertion that the Chamkhar Chhu project will bring roads and schools and hospitals and electricity to Khengrig Namsum. There is something sinister about some of the Khenpas’ insistence, even while they are fully aware that this has not been the case in every single one of our earlier projects. They talk as if provision of these services is in the mandate of the project, thereby totally misleading innocent people.

By the way, I would like to once again reiterate that my intention was to keep one river undammed and free flowing, for future generations and, perhaps, for the reason that it may afford us an alternative to hydro-power. Chamkhar Chhu Hydropower project was furthest from my mind. For me it is a none-issue.

Are you planning to continue to petition against the dam? If yes, what comes next and why? 

Once again, I wasn't petitioning against any dams. I was appealing to keep one river free flowing - assign to nature what is rightfully nature’s.

No, I will not continue because the government has been categorical that they will not consider it. To continue in the face of such steadfast resistance from the all-powerful government would be nothing short of flogging a dead horse. The government has the people’s mandate and they are the ones who should be satisfied that they are performing their duties with sincerity and in good faith, as mandated by the people of Bhutan.

I, and my aspirations, are incidental.

Friday, September 25, 2015

One Decade Too Late? No, Two Decades Too Late!

The government had recently said that I am one decade too late in bringing up the issue of the need to keep one river free flowing. But it transpires that I am not one, but two decades late. The recommendation to keep one river basin free of hydropower was apparently included in the first Bhutan Power System Master Plan, prepared and submitted in early 90’s by a World Bank/NORAD Consultant. The Consultant in question, Mr. John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF, wrote me the following mail yesterday morning. I have his permission to publish his mail so that, hopefully, the government may reconsider their decision.


Hi Yeshey;

I was very interested to learn recently of your efforts to ensure consideration of relevant issues in Bhutan’s hydropower planning.

My hydropower-related service in Bhutan took place as follows:

1985-1988    Advisor, Planning Commission, RGOB

1988-1990    Himalayan Regional Programme Advisor
                     Water Resources Management and Environment,
                     UNDP, Kathmandu

1990-2004    Consultant on Development of Guidelines for
                     Hydropower Planning and Impact Assessment,
                     National Environmental Secretariat/Planning
                     Commission, RGOB

                     Deputy Project Manager, Bhutan Power System
                     Master Plan Studies, with responsibility for
                     environmental impact concerns/recommendations

                     Environmental Advisor, Mangde Chhu Hydropower
                     Project Feasibility Investigations.

In my work with RGOB, I strongly encouraged the early determination of those rivers and river basins to be designated for hydropower development, and those to be preserved for environmental, social, cultural, tourism, recreational and other objectives.

Similarly, it was recommended that hydropower development be concentrated in a small number of river basins, to limit the extent of the impacts and the expense of new infrastructure development required for projects far away from each other. It was expected that such a concentration of hydropower development along some rivers would enable other rivers to be conserved and protected.

These recommendations were made in the reports of the first Bhutan Hydropower System Master Plan so that the consideration could be done at an early stage, before significant investments and commitments would make such decisions more difficult.

So - you might understand my concern with the current situation - that there are projects existing, under construction or planned for all of Bhutan’s major rivers.  While I certainly understand the political, economic and financial benefits associated with these projects, and the desire to ensure that Bhutan benefits fully from its resources, I wonder whether the full costs - in terms of environmental, social, cultural, aesthetic and other impacts - are being properly considered.

Many of these impacts cannot really be mitigated - or even suitably compensated - and sometimes they are only recognized when it is too late. I am thinking, for example, of a number of hydropower dams in the USA that are being dismantled and taken out at a cost of many millions of dollars - because of the belated recognition of their impacts and the true value of the rivers in their undisturbed state.

I hope that you find these thoughts helpful, and that your efforts are successful to ensure consideration of the full range of relevant aspects which will have such important consequences for Bhutan and its coming generations of citizens. Please feel free to use these comments as you see fit, and it would be fine with me if you want to identify me by name.

I will close by sending you (and Bhutan!) my best wishes.


John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF

Gerstle & Co LLC
Cellphone: 720-470-5408
920 Jasmine Circle
Boulder, Colorado 80304

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Dark Side of Our Hydropower Projects VII

My petition to allow the Chamkhar Chhu to remain undammed and free-flowing has been read around the world. An academician friend from the UK writes to me as follows:

Hi Yeshey,

I was very heartened to read your petition to keep Chamkhar Chhu free-flowing forever. It seems like one of the critical decisions that Bhutan faces in carrying out the promise and premise of GNH—an inflection point, so to speak. Very few nations still have the opportunity to shape their futures in such fundamental ways. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that Bhutan will make an enlightened choice? 

I was overwhelmed by the emotion and feeling that is resplendent in that short mail. In those four sentences, the friend managed to ask all the important questions that every Bhutanese will have to introspect and answer.

The questions are simple and yet fundamental.

How we decide on the issue I placed before the nation to decide will determine whether we ourselves believe in the promise and premise of GNH. If we dither or renege on the need to keep alteast one river free-flowing for the future generations to exploit this rare water resource in ways that may be more valuable than damming it for hydro-power, it will be a demonstration of the "inflection point" that the friend talks about.

As the friend points out, we are among the very few nations that still have the opportunity to shape our future in very fundamental ways. If we allow this opportunity to pass us by, saying sorry ten years down the line will be nothing more than spit on the sand.

And, everything hinges on the friend’s final question: will Bhutan make an enlightened choice?

Will we? I don't know but I am trying my damndest to convince you to make that enlightened choice. Because I believe that this generation has absolutely no right to exhaust every single water resource this country has, during our lifetime!

The decision to sink this country into debt and despair may not be yours but you might contribute to its salvation by signing at the following:

Another friend in New York sends me an SMS yesterday night asking:

“Didn't understand the first picture in your recent blog …. looks like domestic violence and so out of place with hydro-power….”

Abused and beaten black and blue

I explained to her thus:

The woman in the photo  personify Bhutan - hiding behind a glass curtain - abused and beaten black and blue and yet saying: “But he is sooooo good...!” The hapless and weak wife can do nothing but justify that her hydro-power husband is still good, regardless.