Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Hollow Intergenerational Promises

Successive governments over the years have admitted that the private sector is the engine of growth and development. Sadly, the intergenerational promise of support for the private sector has remained nothing more than empty promises to be sung like a lullaby, every election year.

True to form, the PDP yet again promises to do so during their present tenure. According to Business Bhutan’s newspaper reporter Tashi Namgyal, the PDP is said to have said; “Tourism to remain as a key sector for growth”.

It would be unfair to believe that their pronouncements were ill-intended. No doubt the government knows that tourism industry generates the highest net-gain foreign exchange, it provides the highest number of employment and, beyond all doubt, its benefit is accrued to the broad spectrum of the Bhutanese society.

The government knows very well that the country can ill afford the collapse of the tourism industry because it has too many things riding on its back.

According to recent reports in the social media, I am told that Lyoenchen Tshering Tobgay has made a truly significant move – in an obvious attempt to help the tourism sector claw back to some semblance of life. He is said to have invited the managements of the two national airlines to speak to his government – to see how his government might help them bring some sanity in the fares charged by them.

To help His Excellency get a grip on WHY the most import private sector of the country is suffering, I would like to present the following image - it is a vivid testament, if any were needed, why the tourism industry has been bled to death:
I believe that no words are necessary - the picture tells the story.

Friday, July 19, 2024

Subsidizing The Wings Of The Dragon

The following is the state of affairs at the Druk Air’s ticketing counter in Thimphu yesterday: at the peak business hour of 11:08AM, of the ten service counters, only two of them are occupied. I can assure you that this is not a one-off happenstance – I was there day-before-yesterday as well – it was even worst – not even one counter was occupied.

Druk Air Thimphu's Ticketing/Reservation Counters

Any thinking person’s heart would bleed at such a wretched scene. Druk Air has near monopolistic grip over the air transport business in the country. By comparison, it has the largest fleet of aircrafts – it serves the widest network of domestic and international routes and, best of all, as the nation’s flag carrier, it has the assurance of the Kingdom of Bhutan’s sovereign guarantee backing it.

With all that going for it, why is the airline’s booking office looking like an abandoned wasteland (Sa Tong) in Trashiyangtse?

Simple: it got its priorities all missed up; the airline out priced itself out of the market. They drove their potential customers to their competing airlines in the region.

Druk Air is a national flag carrier - it has an obligation far greater than financial profit. Created as a symbol of nationhood, its roles and functions are distinct from those other run-of-the-mill public enterprises. Like the RBA was not created to fight a war but to secure our territorial boundaries, Druk Air was not created to make profit but to make a statement, and to give wings to liberate the Bhutanese people from the bondage of landlockedness. Sadly however, as time went by, the custodians of the organization got their priorities mixed up and the corporation became an organization that is akin to what the Indians have aptly described: Bandarong Ke Haath Mein Nariyal: Coconut In The Hands Of Monkeys.

But it seems like things are going to look up soon. Supposedly, His Excellency the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has invited the managements of the two national airlines to let him know how his government might help - if necessary - through subsidies - in order to help the airline companies keep their airfares within the bounds of sanity.

That is the way to go!

Finally, it would appear that realization is dawning on people who matter, that given the limitations imposed by the geographical make of our country, profitable operation of certain enterprises is not possible - unless the government provides them subsidy - in order that they can continue to provide certain critical services that is essential for the development of the country.

Government subsidies to the transport sector is not new - larger and more efficient economies around the world have been doing it, year after year. The European Union (EU) subsidizes its transport sector to the tune of €73 billion. Likewise, the transport sector in China receives a government subsidy in excess of US$130 billion a year. Germany is routinely accused by competing neighbors of continuing to operate its money-losing airports; it continues to subsidize them in a veiled way to gain competitive edge over others.

Remember, subsidizing critical sectors is not a cost to the government – in most cases it is a responsibility.

Druk Air is a critical service provider - on its back rides the all-important tourism industry. Bhutan's tourism industry's success, or failure, hinges on how responsibly the national flag carrier behaves. The government - the elected representatives of the owners of the airline - the Bhutanese public - have placed faith in their representatives to do their job. We are encouraged that the government is now attempting to  live up to its responsibilities.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Lost and Confused

Mr. Michael Rutland OBE, NOM (Gold), has lived in Bhutan for the past 53 years. He has been a witness to most of Bhutan’s many stages of development and change – our idyllic seventies, the idealistic eighties, the perilous nineties and now the tumultuous 2000s. Thus, he is qualified to pass judgement on Bhutan and our state of affairs. During my meeting with him on 10th July, 2024, that is what he did precisely, and most emphatically! In the course of our conversations, he declared:

“There is no other country in this world with the level of peace, tranquility, stability and sense of security – as we have here in Bhutan.”

I agreed with him absolutely and totally! My tireless rantings notwithstanding, I know that we have it better than most. It is for this very reason - the fear that we might lose what we have achieved thus far, that some of us are frantic!

Lost and confused! What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I talk to?

It is the dread that this heaven on earth is at risk of being led asunder by those who have tended to exhibit tendencies that border on the skewed and the twisted - those who think nothing of demolishing truths spoken in good faith and with good intension - in order that their own falsehood and triviality may prevail.

It is sad to see hundred upon thousands abandon homes and families - to traverse the turbulent seas and oceans - in pursuit of livelihood - only to find that all that they have succeeded to do is - forfeit LIFE.

What exactly is triggering this human exodus? What is that which drives hoards upon hordes of our youth to brave the unknown and the untested; that they are willing to abandon the safety and security of home and family? I am unwilling to believe that they are all of them driven by the allure of the promise of gold in distant lands.

Then what is it? How, and why, are they different from those of us who see meaning and purpose in holding steadfast and remain optimistic and confident – that our pot of gold is here in this land of happiness?

What must we do to re-engineer the thought process of a generation that seems lost and confused?

A penny for your thoughts?

Thursday, July 4, 2024

The Burdensome Beasts

Social, cultural and religious traditions and practices are NOT God given – they are essentially necessitated or influenced by compulsions imposed by nature, climate, geography, and a number of other factors.

For many decades since I can remember, one of the practices I had noticed was that during the winter months, the mules and ponies from the Northern highlands would unfailingly migrate to low-lying places like Thimphu and Punakha where they would remain for a number of months. Then, come end February/early March, they would return to their homesteads spread across the alpine regions of Laya, Soi, Lingzhi, and Lunana. By mid-March, their winter grazing grounds would be completely void of these visitors from the freezing North.

Freed of all burden: Mules/ponies roaming listlessly around Thimphu Metropolitan areas

But this year I was surprised to see them still merrily loitering in and around Thimphu. This is early July – what the dang hell are they still doing here - impeding vehicular traffic and increasing workload for the workers of Thimphu Thromde (Thimphu Municipal Authority)?

A friend sitting by my side remarked:

“Wai Khengtala, are you suffering amnesia? Don’t you know this is PDP domain – mules and ponies are accorded primacy now”.

“Funny guy”.

But I was intrigued – they are supposed to have long gone to their alpine villages. What happened? Why are they still here?

Then it dawned on me:

Yet one more carcass by the wayside, resulting from the country’s failed tourism business!

First it was the Stray Dogs on the streets. Upon suspension of tourism – the strays on the streets began to suffer starvation – the situation got so bad that His Majesty had to institute a stray dog feeding program.

Then we heard wails of woe from the Walking Stick Fashioners at the base of Taktsang. They complained that they have been deprived of their employment and livelihood - there were no buyers for their wooden walking sticks.

Next, I got to hear of the sad demise of the wooden Phallus Carver from Lingzhi who use to plonk himself by the road side next to the Zangthopelri near the Vegetable Market - morning to night - every day. He supposedly died of withdrawal - because without the income from a stream of tourists who use to buy his wares, he had no income to finance his nightly quota of booze.

Mules/Ponies are beasts of burden. During the pre-pandemic days when tourism flourished unabated, there was a continuous flow of trekkers who required the services of thousands of mules/ponies. The highlanders who owned these animals would earn huge sums of money every trekking season. To give you an idea, I use to pay a hire charge of Nu.1,700.00 per day, per pack pony, and Nu.2,500.00 per day for every ridding pony I required.

The business was so lucrative that my pony contractor in Laya would make an annual trip every year to Mongaar – to buy feed for his animals: a truck load of corn/maize. The areas where I used to trek had no grass for his animals – so he had to carry the feed from home.

Every trekking trip I would require a minimum of 15 ponies.

Now that the tourism business has been driven into the ground, these animals are no more the beasts of burden. Instead, they have now become BURDENSOME BEASTS. Thus, from all indications, it would appear that their owners have put them to pasture!

Monday, July 1, 2024

A Funeral for Bhutanese Tourism

The following appeared in Bhutan's national newspaper, the KUENSEL, on their weekend issue of June 29, 2024. I am posting it here once again - for my international readers.

Exactly half a century back, for the first time ever, Bhutan opened its doors to commercial tourism. On 2nd October, 1974, a multinational group of 12 tourists set their feet on Bhutanese soil. It was perhaps an act of divine intervention that Bhutan’s first tour group happened to be organized by the much revered and selfless Jesuit Father - Fr Richard McDonald, then based in Darjeeling, India.

This dramatic pivot occurred after careful consideration by our leaders. Under an Act approved by the 36th National Assembly of Bhutan on 7th June, 1972, the following resolution was passed:

22. Matter relating to Tourism Act
In view of the likelihood that, despite being in its initial stage of development, Bhutan would attract a large number of tourists, the Cabinet had prepared a draft of rules governing tourism in the country. After due consideration of the same, the Assembly accorded its approval.

Over the years, tourism became the country’s single-largest employer and highest net-gain foreign exchange generator. The country’s biggest and the brightest commercial houses - such as Tashi and Lhaki Groups – could not resist the allure of the tourism enterprise, so much so that they remain active players to this day. The business appealed to the highest echelons, to the lowest, and to everyone in-between. For this reason, the tourism business was Bhutan’s most diligently monitored and tightly regulated commercial activity, resulting in bountiful revenue for the government and generous income for every player across the broad spectrum of the business chain.

Under a business regime that was nothing short of generous, known as the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR), there was no leakage of government revenue and the country received 100% of the foreign exchange generated by the tourism business, not merely the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF). Today, under the new rule, less than 10% of the foreign exchange is realized. Even worse, there is massive tax evasion. We are told that the Royal Monetary Authority and the Department of Revenue and Customs are perplexed as to why, despite a huge increase in tourist arrivals, the foreign exchange inflow remains stagnant and tax collection dismal. But this grim state of affairs should hardly be perplexing: we created it with the introduction of the ill-informed Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022.

I had hoped that in 2024, with the pandemic well behind us, the people of Bhutan would come together to put on a show to beat all shows, to celebrate 50 years of tourism that has touched and improved nearly every life in this country. I had hoped that the pioneers and trailblazers of the industry – the earliest surviving head of the Department of Tourism (Lyonpo Jigme Tshultim), the earliest cultural guide (Gandhi Nawang Dorji), the earliest trekking guide (Karchung Wangchuk), the earliest private-sector tour operator (BTCL), and even the earliest lunch boy (Karma Sonam) who carried a pack meal to be served to the first-ever tour group lead by Lars-Eric Lindblad – would congregate at the Clock Tower to celebrate the occasion and reminiscence about the stupendous journey to which they bore witness.

Alas, that hope has been dashed. No celebratory mood could possibly prevail when the industry is maimed and bleeding. I am told that DoT made do with a somber, low-key event, apparently lighting a few butter lamps at the Kuensel Phodrang early this month. Some believe that ritual was really intended to mourn the death of a once-thriving industry.

Where do we go from here? Can we reclaim the tourism business from the clutches of the outsiders who now rule the roost? Is it conceivable that the government may realize the folly of their plans and make amends? According to recent news reports, those may be empty reveries. The current government’s GDP projections tell a tale of even more dire times to come for the industry:
In the above official chart, tourism does even not feature as an economic sector nor as a contributor to the nation’s GDP. Is our tourism industry nothing more than a mirage? Are we supposed to forget or dismiss tourism’s past role in the nation’s growth? According to these numbers, the government does not foresee any future contribution from the industry.

How can Bhutan – a country that repeatedly turns up on “Best Places to Visit” tallies, a destination reliably found on sophisticated traveler’s “bucket lists” - starve the very industry that has brought us so much wealth and respect in the past? I believe it’s time for a national discussion - and the sooner, the better.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Goongtong, Satong, Yuetong

I cannot remember how I ended up being a Member of the UNDP’s SENetwork but already by 2006 - that is roughly 18 years back - I was called upon by the organization to write an article on how the country might prepare itself to meet the challenges that is likely to be posed by the emerging trend of mass movement of pastoral population to urban centers. I refused to do so on the grounds that that was the wrong approach to solving the problem – instead, I submitted an article on “How we might work towards counteracting the problem”.

The UNDP decided that the solution I suggested was just too radical and felt that it would be imprudent on their part to publish the article which would be tantamount to endorsing my idea. Fine - but pussy-footing around an issue is no way to solve a problem. And so, the problem was allowed to fester year after year - unchecked.

The term employed to describe the emerging malice then was: "Rural-Urban Migration".

Sometime around 2010-11, the term “Goongtong” was coined.

Around 2015-16 when I began to frantically push the issue of Goongtong to the fore - I coined one additional term - “Yuetong”.

This year, the Members of the Parliament added one brand new nomenclature to the malice that they now agree has reached alarming proportions - “Satong”.

In 2016, I highlighted the problem of Goongtong with the following two articles, in addition to few others.

Beginning January of 2015, I had already authored a series of 10 articles on Goongtong (funded by the BCMD) that was published in the Kuensel – titled “A Malady Called Rural-Urban Migration:

The ongoing discussions in the Parliament on the twin subjects of Education and Farming seems like a good opportunity to see if we may, for a change, transcend the superfluous verbosity and get down to brass tacks! But I suspect that as usual, this too shall be one that flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

Ban on commercial harvesting of timber in the country was introduced in 1979, necessitated by compulsion. Nearly half a century has passed us by since - times and situations are no long the same - the country’s physical boundaries have contracted and the Mt. Everest has grown taller - but the Forestry Department has remained immobile and stuck in a time-wrap.

It is heartbreaking how we speak of hundreds of thousands of millions of Ngultrums ….. and yet people in the core areas of the country’s capital city - Babesa - are wailing cries of woe - that they lack a simple daily necessity - drinking water. Imagine the plight of the rural folks far removed from the glare and pomposity of the Dashos and Lyoenpos in Thimphu.

Can we, for a change, shelve the astronomical and the gigantic, so that we are left with time and resources to confront, and tackle, the manageable and the doable? It would help.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Welcoming the Winds of Change

As of this post, I have a total of 75 posts related to our hydroelectric power projects. And I am not embarrassed or ashamed that 99.99% of those posts are negative posts - posts that unabashedly chastise our largest and most infamous hydropower undertakings. But I take pride in the fact that they also happen to be among my most popular posts. In terms of readership, three of my posts on the subject rank 4th, 6th and 7th highest read posts on my blog which, as of today, comprises of a staggering 1,127 posts.

Winds of Change?: The advent of a new era in our hydroelectric power aspirations

Notwithstanding my unrestrained, high-octave tirades against our more recent hydroelectric projects, I dare believe that I remain absolved of any wrong doing because I have made it clear that my revulsion for the projects is for the perilous, debilitating manner in which they have been done in Bhutan - NOT hydropower projects per se.

But now I sense that the gentle winds of change is sweeping in - to stoke the fires of our abundant hydroelectric potential - I am truly encouraged!

Harnessing the power of the sun cannot amount to more than a mere stop-gap arrangement - something of a fill-in-the-gap kind of thing - something to tide us over our immediate and burgeoning domestic demand. In my thinking, the real deal still remains the unbridled power that the bountiful nature has gifted us with - the energy and power of the free-flowing WATER.

The recently announced MoU between DGPC and Adani Group of India to explore the possibility of undertaking the construction of the Wangchhu Hydropower Project is a most welcome news. I hope it happens.

While it is as yet unclear as to what will finally be tinkered between the DGPC and the Adani Group – if at all, my own aspirations would be that the collaboration undergoes a marginal upscaling and that it is implemented as a staggered, multi-stage undertaking.

One: implement the 180MW Bunakha Reservoir Hydroelectric Project (BRHEP)
          for which DPR has already been approved for construction during February of 2014.

Two: A couple of years down the line, when major dam construction work is nearing completion,
          start work on the 900MW run-of-the-river scheme Wangchhu Hydropower Project
          at the tail end of the already much abused Wangchhu. I think no one should be in any
          doubt of the multi-faceted benefits to this approach of project implementation.

We also hear that the ill-fated 600MW Kholongchhu Hydroelectric Power Project in the East of the country is likely to happen – in collaboration with the TATA Group of India. That would be great as well. If that arrangement materializes, I am encouraged to believe that another equally valuable opportunity for partnership - one that is not yet in the scheme of things, could be considered for the mutual benefit of both the partners.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

The World’s Most Inhospitable International Airport

I have tended to make fun about our claim that we are unique. Truth be told, as I grow older and wiser, I am beginning to think that I may have been wrong all my life – I think we are indeed a unique country populated with an incomparable breed of unique humans. This realization began unravelling in me - one after the other - when I found myself completely lost at the Arrival area of Paro International Airport, yesterday.

Upon arriving at the airport bang at 11:00AM when the DrukAir flight on which my son was arriving from Bangkok, I got held up because the electronically operated gate that bars me entry into the Arrival area would not open.

The nonchalant woman inside the gate’s cubical looked at me blankly - even as I looked at her inquiringly - it was obvious that we were stuck. Sadly, energetic thinking is not in our unique nature - if it was, the woman could have let us pass through the Exit point located just behind her - which was wide open and inactive at that time of the day.

Even as a long queue of cars began to snake behind me, I noticed an officious looking man in Gho, with a name tag on a lanyard dangling from his neck approach the dysfunctional gate – as if he was on a leisurely stroll at the Park. But he did manage to lift the horizontal bar of the gate and we finally gained entry into the Arrival areas of the airport.

Problem 1:
The airport authorities have obviously failed to think of putting in place a suitable power back-up system, in the event of electrical/mechanical failure, which is not unusual.

Problem 2:
The fact that someone else is required to come to override the electronic circuitry every time there is a power failure can only mean that the woman manning the gate has not been suitably trained in the manual bypass operation of the gate.

Once inside, I tried to find out if the flight had landed. Everyone was clueless - I asked a number of people. I looked around and I was sure that all of the close to 100 people standing on their legs all over the open parking space - like they were pawns on a Chessboard - had any idea at all. And the reason? - the country’s one and only international airport DOES NOT HAVE A FLIGHT INFORMATION BOARD! As a result, you do not know if a flight has landed, if it is landing on schedule, if not what is the new ETA, if a flight is delayed or, if a flight is cancelled entirely.

All that you can do is - like the Maheng (water buffalo) in a famous Bhutanese parable - look up to the sky every time you hear a distant drone of an approaching aircraft.

Are we so pathetic? We do not have the decency to install an Information Board to keep our guests and visitors informed of the status of a flight. How much does it cost? How technologically complex is the process?

Are we proud to be able to force our visitors to pay four times the airfare they would have had to pay elsewhere - for the same flight hour and distance? And to what end? – to find themselves in a vortex of void and cluelessness?

For sure I think there may be some logic behind the concept of the imposition of SDF of US$100.00 per person per day. But if the tourists are already paying US$100.00 per person per day to be able to experience the sights and sounds of the Last Shangri-La, what is the logic behind asking them to pay additional fee of Nu.1,000.00 per person - to take a passing peek at Taktsang at the end of an arduous uphill trek of 3-4 hours? Isn’t Taktsang part of the sight for which they have already paid a daily Tax of US$100.00?

Coming back to the Arrival area of Paro International Airport - why is it not possible for the authorities to make it a little bit more hospitable? Why can’t they create a covered waiting area? Why can’t they put chairs for waiting people to sit on, as they wait? Why can’t they provide overhead roof – so that people who are waiting can be protected from scorching sun and lashing rain? Why aren’t there any toilets within easy reach?

Why can’t the authorities build a covered walkway for the tourists and the visitors – so that they can walk to their waiting transport under the cover of an overhead roof? How difficult is it to create these most basic amenities?

Doesn’t the alphabet “D” in the SDF stand for “development”? Wasn’t that imposed in order that we may develop, and improve things for the benefit of the visiting tourists, to make the country and our tourism infrastructure appear hospitable and welcome - to improve their experience? Doesn't SDF need justification?

Who is responsible – Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority? Department of Air Transport?, Paro Dzongkhag? Department of Tourism?, or Department of Immigration?

Is it possible that we can plead with the PDP government to consider allocating, at the most, one hundred thousandth of that famous Nu.15 billion ESP they keep dangling at us - to improve things at the Paro International Airport?

Talking of which ..... why aren’t the ABTO and the GAB taking up the issue with the authorities? Why is the lackadaisical attitude allowed to perpetuate for generations? For how long can we hope to continue to pull wool over the people’s eyes?


Friday, June 7, 2024

Tiru’s Morphology

We must be among the only human race who choose to call our paper currency: Ngultrum/Ngueltang or, in plain English, Silver Coin. For a while I attempted to find out how such a bizarre thing could have come to pass - but after a while I gave up - it was simply beyond me. I decided that it must be because of our penchant for wanting to be unique.

But for those of us with a conscience, problems do not go away because we choose to side-step the issues - it will continue to haunt us to the end of our time. So, I decided to shift focus - instead of trying to find out WHY, I decided to find out WHAT?

WHAT should be the correct nomenclature?

While I was racking my brains between why and what, I am made aware of a German Tibetologist and coin collector - David Hollar - writing about a misspelling that he discovered in our Nu.10 banknote of 1981. I am hugely intrigued - thus I decide to run through the entire gamut of our banknotes - from the earliest ones issued in 1974 to the present day. That is when my attention was drawn to something that I had never before noticed - the use of the term “Rup” on the obverse of four of our earliest banknotes: Nu.1, Nu.5, Nu.10 and Nu.100.00. The scripting of the PROMISE TO PAY is worded as follows:

I am referring to our following earliest four banknotes issued in 1974 and 1975:

What the dang hell is "Rup"? Is it Rupee like the term used on our Nickel Tikchang of 1966? I consulted a Bhutanese scholar but he totally disagreed …. he opined that it could very well mean “Tikrup”. I asked another respected scholar and he told me the same - that the term “Rup” is short for “Tikrup” - that the term "Tikrup" or "Tiru" has been in use in Bhutan from ancient times - to mean: money. He went on to say that the oldest written record of the term he has come across so far appears in the Namthar (biography) of Yoenten Thaye who was our 13th Je Khenpo - from the year 1771 to 1775.

This was most revealing! How could I have missed it? When I think of it, even today the use of the term "Tikrup" or "Tiru" is more common, while “Ngueltang” is only occasionally used, if at all. For instance, if one were to listen to a conversation between a seller and a buyer in the market place, in all probability one will most likely hear the use of the term "Tiru", rather than "Ngueltang". In all likelihood, they are more likely to exchange the value of a merchandize in the amount of "Tiru" - rather than Ngueltang.

Listen carefully and in 90% of the cases you will hear it said:

Tiru Nga - instead of Ngueltang Nga!

I can bet that a Khengpa will most likely say: “Tiru khai thek bi-yai”

On the other hand a Ngalong is unlikely to say: “Ngueltang khae nga gobey"

A Sharchop will most assuredly say: "Sharchokpa baka bu tiru cha na om la"

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Will Of Karma

I have said this again and again and again – that in life nothing happens by accident. If anything – things happen because of Karma. If Karma wills it, it can engineer a calamity in one corner of the earth so that another corner might benefit as a result. So it was with the BHUTAN2020 Safe Water Project – launched by the Disaster Aid Australia (DAA) in partnership with the Rotary Club of Thimphu – in 2018.

My private and personal offer of Thanks in gratitude to the principal players of Phase I of BHUTAN2020 Project

The Rotary Club of Thimphu’s single largest project – BHUTAN2020 – can be said to be a child of Karma - born of tragedy and misfortune. It was never meant to be – but for a devastating natural calamity that struck Nepal in 2015 and yet another minor one in September of 2017.

I believe that without the guiding hands of Karma, one of Bhutan’s most meaningful humanitarian projects would have never happened. Please read all about it here:

Another evidence of the hand of Karma is that – in 2017 when the fire that set ablaze the idea that eventually lead to the conception of BHUTAN2020 project …. His Excellency Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was the Chief Guest for the Rotary Conference held then. Today, seven years since, when another Rotary Conference was inaugurated on the 1st of June, 2024, His Excellency Lyoenchen Tshering Tobgay is yet again the Conference’s Chief Guest.

I get this eerie feeling that COVID-19 was engineered by Karma - so that it can disrupt the Conference that was scheduled to take place in 2020 – in order that it can be postponed until 2024 when the stars would come together to create a favorable condition when His Excellency Lyoenchen Tshering Tobgay could once again be re-elected to office so that he may, yet again, inaugurate the 2nd Rotary Conference as its Chief Guest.

And, I believe that Act 3 of Karma has been the passage of a rare event – that of the convergence in Thimphu - of all the three principal actors in the BHUTAN2020 Project saga. Present in the recently concluded Rotary Conference in Thimphu on 3rd June, 2024 were: Mr. David Langworthy MAICD OAM™, the past CEO of Disaster Aid Australia (DAA) who had the courage, and the guts, to put such a monumental show on the road; Mr. Brian Ashworth the incumbent CEO of DAA whose unwavering tenacity and selflessness to deliver and see through a promise that was not his own and, above all, the presence of the most eminent Mr. Rhett Butler AM™, inventor of a patented water filtration system known as the SkyHydrant that is at the center of the project BHUTAN2020. Mr. Butler heads the SkyJuice Foundation – an Australia-based not-for-profit organization that aspires to provide safe drinking water to every child on this planet earth.

The launch of BHUTAN2020 Safe Water Project in Toronto, Canada in 2018

And, last but not the least, Karma keeps me alive and kicking – so that I may live long enough to tell this tale of boundless kindness and generosity that benefits tens of thousands of Bhutan’s school children, including the communities domiciled in the peripheries of their institutions of learning. Beyond the tens of millions that flow into Bhutan ceaselessly year after year – it is a story of success and achievement that is worth emulating across boundaries and generations.


™ AM        =  Member of the Order of Australia
       MAICD   =  Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors
       OAM       =  Medal of the Order of Australia

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Three Centuries Of Errors …… and Counting!

Recently a coin collector and Tibetologist from Germany - David Holler - noticed a spelling mistake in our 1981 Nu.10 banknote and wrote as follows:

Bhutan: Spelling mistake on banknote
In the Tibetan script of the 10 Ngultrum banknote from 1981 (P8) there is a misspelling in the promise to pay.

David Holler is referring to our following second-generation Nu.10 banknote issued by the Royal Government of Bhutan but signed by the then Deputy Managing Director Mr. Yeshey Dorji of the Bank of Bhutan.

Thankfully, in the third generation of the Nu.10 banknote, signed by the then Chairman of the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan – HRH Ashi S C Wangchuck, His Majesty’s Representative in the Ministry of Finance, the Promise to Pay was correctly worded as follows:

But what Mr. Holler seems to have missed out is the uncommon manner in which the Promissory Note is worded, as follows:
A word for word English translation of the above Promissory Note would read as follows:

Promise is hereby made to pay the bearer a sum of the face value of Ngultrum 10

It would appear that Mr. Hollar omitted to pointed out the mistake contained in the country's first Nu.10 banknote, as follows:
The banknote bears the signature of HRH Ashi S C Wangchuck, His Majesty's Representative in the Ministry of Finance but the organization on whose behalf she signs is designated the Department of Finance, as follows:
The organization should have rightfully been named the Ministry of Finance, as follows:
The above errors are minor design flaws – what is truly shameful is the manner in which we have spelt the word: NGULTRUM. It should have been correctly spelt as: NGUELTANG:

Nguel = Silver
Tang = Coin

That being said, calling our paper currency “Ngultrum” or even “Ngueltang” would be totally incorrect - because our banknotes are neither silver, nor coin. Regardless, if I were to choose between the two words, I would opt for the word “Ngueltang” since it has the backing of the legitimacy of history behind it - the history behind the emergence of one of the three earliest of our monies - our metal currency. It is too lengthy to deal with the subject here - I will do so in my book, when it is eventually released.

Another discrepancy: History records that the term “Ngultrum/Ngueltang” was coined when we issued our paper currency for the first time in 1974. But the country’s earliest Postage Stamp issued in 1962 is proof that the term was in existence more than a decade earlier, if not more. The following is the history of the morphology of the term:

To be fair, perhaps it is in our genes to commit errors – and allow it to perpetuate for centuries thereafter. Look at one of the following earliest of our metal currencies. Of the nine alphabets hammered on it, most likely sometime during the late 1700s, eight of them are foreign alphabets. Only one: SA is our own.

In a number of cases, the coins’ dies were wrongly engraved – resulting in the following coin’s alphabet “SA” being rendered in a mirrored state:
A large number of coins were over-struck, as follows:
Even our earliest milled silver coins were not without problems. Look at the following Silver Thala of 1929/1930. The word “Druk” is wrongly rendered while the date of minting was depicted wrongly – as “Sa Druk Lo” while the actual striking took place during “Sa Drue Lo”.
An erroneous issue of our 1950 Tikchang is considered one of Bhutan’s rarest coins – for the reason that it was struck with the wrong date of “Sa Druk Lo”. The Calcutta GoI Mint where the coins were minted, had mistakenly used the wrong die - the correct die should have been the one with the year of minting marked “Chaag Taag Lo”. The mistake was detected and the minting of the coin was hastily halted.
Of all the calamitous errors, the following coin of 1966 is the most deplorable - you can see the reason why:
The above is the coin for the reason for which my coin book will stop at 1955.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Changing Tack - A New Method of Communication

This will be my 109th article on Bhutan's tourism industry - and its progressive decadence over the years. But this time I am changing tack - I am switching to using visuals - rather than words - to convey the message. Hopefully, this will be more effective.

The government was fore-warned close to a decade back that this will happen - should MDPR business model be dismantled.
A peak into the future - you think you have seen trouble?

How the government's policies seem to be altering the very moral and ethical fibre of the Bhutanese people

It appears that our famous GNH doctrine has outlived its usefulness - it is now all set for the boot!
Call for the need for re-engineering of a new breed of Bhutanese

Sunday, May 19, 2024

BHUTAN: The Emerging High Volume – Low Value Tourism Destination

Day before yesterday I was passing by Norzin Lam when I chanced upon a heart-breaking scene that ought not to be.

Four tourists were cramped inside a small Maruti Taxi – one of them was alighting – visibly irritated and profusely grumbling that she did not need to suffer this level of discomfort.

I wanted to photograph the scene – but decided against it because I believed that this would be tantamount to infringement of privacy – in addition to rubbing salt into the wound.

The legendary Lars-Eric Lindblad. He was a Swedish-American entrepreneur and explorer. He and his USA-based travel company - Lindblad Travel -  led the first-ever tour group to Bhutan in 1974. Supposedly the Darjeeling-based Jesuit Father
 Richard McDonald and his tour company Summit Tours introduced Lindblad to Bhutan.

Lindblad died of a sudden heart attack on 8th of July 1994. At the end, the man with an unputdownable pioneering spirit died a broken and bankrupt man - most likely caused by the penalty of US$ 75,000.00 (in addition to huge legal costs) imposed on his company by the government of USA - for conducting tours to Vietnam and Cambodia - two countries against which there was then a trade embargo imposed by the US government.

It is my belief that tour guides of yore -  the likes of Galing Ngawang Dorji and Sharchop Karchung of present day Lhomen Tours, including the then DoT official Sangey of Ha Wangcha would have had the good fortune to meet the legend.

I spoke about the plight of the tourists to a hapless tourism guide …. and he tells me that now the trained TCB guides are losing their jobs to taxi drivers – because apparently, they are now claiming to be able to provide the service which was earlier, by law, in the domain of the TCB trained and certified guides.

A week back, I was caught with my pants down - literally - inside the toilet of Thimphu’s Kaja Throm – because a friend in the tourism trade decided to call me at that precise moment – and kept me engaged for 10 minutes – grumbling endlessly about the lack of a photocopy machine at the tourist point of entry - to make a copy of his tourists’ papers that the officers needed to process their Entry Permits. The fuming friend wanted to know what the government was doing with the collection of the daily Sustainable Development Fee of US$100.00 per tourist per day – that they are unable to outfit their offices with the most basic, but important and essential office equipment – such as a photocopy machine? Seriously, there are barely four tourist entry points in the country – I mean how is it possible that the TCB or whoever is responsible – is not able to install 4 copiers in the whole of the country - to improve service and experience for the visiting tourists? For God’s sake – they can charge for the service and people will be happy to pay!

And we like to pride ourselves as a High Value, High End Tourism destination! Or, is it High Value – Low Volume Tourism? ---- So utterly confusing! Regardless of what the catch phrase is – we have now arrived at a point that is proving to be: High Volume – Low Value Tourism that is not accruing any benefit – not to the DRC, not to the RMA – and most definitely NOT TO THE INDUSTRY.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Well-Deserved Honor And Recognition

When I got to learn of the award of the title of Doctor of Philosophy to Lam Kezang Chhoephel by the Thames International University of France, I felt a sense of pride and triumph! To be chosen to rise head and shoulder above the teaming billions, particularly from a minuscule country that more than 99% of the human population would not have heard about - it is a praiseworthy achievement.

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel

By no means I am competent, or even qualified, to pass judgment on his academic or scholastic abilities - I will leave that to people and organizations such as the Thames International University to decide. But I dare say that I have had a number of occasions when I was awestruck by his uncanny ability to provide answers to my questions that I most likely would not have gotten from anyone else in Bhutan, or elsewhere. He has unfailingly proven to be a source, and a depository, for a vast and uncommon knowledge and information on Bhutan and most things Bhutanese.

Over the years since I began my research journey in matters related to our ancient coinage, I have gotten used to making him my first stop - in the pursuit of answers and explanations. For sure he has enriched my documentation of Bhutan's coinage with rare terms such as: “Tsa-Thue”, “Karshapani”, “Ngingtang Ghatikap”, “Grab Tsring .... Grab Tsring”, “Luna Yar Mathop – Ghatika Mar Shorsong” etc. etc.

Thus, day before yesterday, I went to see Lam Kezang Chhoephel - to offer him my congratulatory Dhar. Along with it, I also offered him the following statue of the Golden Buddha gifted to me by the Most Venerable Lam Phra Kruba Bunchum Yannasangvaro Aranyavasi Bhikku of Thailand, in 2016. Certainly Lam Kezang is a more worthy person to own a sculpture of such exquisite craftsmanship:

The exquisite statue of the Golden Buddha

Upon being conferred the following Recognition, as of 14th April, 2024, Lam Kezang Chhoephel earns the right to be addressed as:

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel

The Certificate of Award issued by the Thames International University, France

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel makes us all proud!