Thursday, April 19, 2012

Has NEC Failed TO DO Their Job?

-->In recent times, there has been a lot of news on littering and dumping in public places. From all that I can see on BBS TV and read in the print media, it looks like, finally, the Thimphu Thrompen (Thumbs Up to you - way to go!) is going to do something about tackling one of our most shameful and visible failures - pollution and waste management.

This morning I visited the website of the NEC (National Environment Commission) to see if they have been adequately empowered to act in matters relating to pollution and irresponsible dumping of waste. From the notice posted on the front page of their website (reproduced below), it seems like they have been – for the past many years. So how come they have failed to act?

This is for the general information to the public that washing and cleaning of clothes/vehicles and dumping of any kinds of wastes by the river banks or into any water bodies are prohibited under the Waste Prevention and Management Act of Bhutan 2009 and National Environment Protection Act of Bhutan 2007.

Therefore, everyone is informed to stop carrying out these activities. Henceforth, anyone found violating these Acts shall be liable for both civil and criminal penalties.”

On 23rd September, 2010, I posted the following article on this blog - raising the issue of the terrible pollution that was being caused to our rivers and lake. I have not heard any action being taken by the NEC. I even visited the NEC office and spoke to one of the officers there to do something about the dumping into our rivers. Nothing has been done.

Frankly, it is very simple. Since all the puja celebrations are funded (paid for) by the owners of the construction companies and house and workshop owners, all that is required is to write to each one of them and inform them of the laws in place and put them on notice that if they do not act responsibly, they will be prosecuted as per law. Thereafter, monitor the puja sites and enforce the rules – strictly.

I am not suggesting the banning of the celebration of the puja. What I am asking is that, there must be better ways to have fun. Think of better and safer ways of doing things.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Of Pollution, Puja and God Who Gets Dumped

Here it was, yet again, the 17th of September, a day when motorized vehicles are adorned with vermilion, multi-colored balloons and yards and yards of colorful synthetic ribbons. On this day, puja pandals are hastily hammered together; in the basements of semi-finished buildings, factories, vehicle workshops and metal fabrication facilities - to house a mustachioed idol of a four-armed being, riding an elephant and wearing a crown and loads of jewelry. In his hands he holds a water-pot, a book, a noose and craftsman's tools. The brightly colored idol, in whose honor such a ruckus is being kicked up, is that of the mythical Lord Vishwakarma - believed to be the chief architect and supreme engineer to all the Gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Strangely, in my experience, it is not the professional engineers and the architects who honor the Hindu God but the migrant Bengali and Bihari laborers, mostly in the construction industry, who celebrate the Vishwakarma puja. And they do it with unrestrained zest and gusto. Street corners, construction sites and vehicle workshops - all come alive with a cacophony of popular Bollyhood movie songs blaring out of tattered sound boxes at decibels high enough to shatter one’s eardrums.

For a God who is celebrated with such passion and enthusiasm, the Hindu faithful seldom build temples or permanent statues in honor of Lord Vishwakarma. Perhaps, that is the reason why, during this puja celebrations, one will not be hearing any hymns or devotional songs extolling the virtues of this God of engineering and architecture. Instead, one will see devout Bengalis and Beharis gyrating wildly in front of the idols. This manner of honoring a God is alien to most Bhutanese who are used to expressing their devotion to God with murmured prayers offered with closed eyes and folded hands. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a Bhutanese decline the pandal’s make-shift Pundit’s customary offer to plant a red “tika” on their foreheads.

While the deafening sounds generated by the incessant pounding of old tins and empty plastic barrels keep the Bengali and the Bihari adrenaline flowing, a large population living close to these numerous pandals spread across the town is robbed of sleep and peace by the celebrations that go on unabated, all night long.

I am told that there are in excess of 400 constructions that are ongoing in Thimphu town alone. This will get only worse in the coming years. Therefore, I get this feeling that the celebration of Vishwakarma puja, in its present form, has the potential to be a great public nuisance, if allowed to fester unchecked and unregulated. If we do not act now, there is a real danger that it may become a part of our culture - a culture that is neither meaningful nor productive. More importantly, even beyond the fear of being saddled with a culture not our own, the environmental damage and the noise pollution caused by these celebrations should be reason enough for concern. We need to intervene now when the problem is still relatively manageable.

There is something not quite right in the manner in which Vishwakarma puja is celebrated in our country. I see aspects to it that are not in conformity to the generally accepted code of conduct and decency required to be observed when celebrating in public spaces. It would appear that it hasn’t yet dawned on the Bhutanese people the long-term damage the Vishwakarma puja celebration is causing to our environment. Or, as usual, we are taking a lackadaisical attitude towards it.

Let us consider the following:

1.     Celebration and/or conducting of any public function is, by rule, subject to proper written authorization from a designated government/regulatory authority. I have not yet heard of such a requirement being imposed on the annual celebration of the Vishwakarma puja. What are the reasons for this special immunity? Given the very public nature of the celebrations and considering that a large number of people congregate during this occasion, shouldn’t we require the event to be properly licensed and monitored? And, if we decide that they should be regulated, who should the regulatory authority be? - the Ministry of Home & Cultural Affairs, BICMA, the City Corporation or should it be the RBP? What should be the guidelines in order to ensure that it is celebrated in a way that it does not infringe on people’s peace and privacy or cause damage to the environment and the ecosystem?

2.     During the day of the celebrations, a large number of vehicles that ply on the roads are decorated with yards and yards of colorful synthetic ribbons and balloons and flowers made of Styrofoam that obstruct the vision of the drivers. This is clearly hazardous and could result in road mishaps and endanger lives. Strangely, if you ask those who partake in these decorations, they are clueless as to its religious or social significance. What are the RSTA’s and the Traffic Police’s stand on this? In most countries, anything that you attach to a vehicle that is not an allowable gear or attachment or useful accessory is tantamount to altering the original design of a vehicle, which is prohibited. Is such a thing allowed under the RSTA or the Traffic rules? Without doubt, such decorations obstruct visibility and thus can be classified as dangerous driving. Should it be allowed?

3.     The worst part of the Vishwakarma puja celebrations is that the celebrations end the next day - when the idols are immersed in rivers and lakes. It defies logic and it is absolutely incomprehensible that an idol of God that one reveres and worships, end up being dumped into the river like a bundle of garbage. Why would any one want to worship it if it were to end up being dumped like a pile of dirt?

        However, it is not for us who are outside the faith to try and decipher the why, and the why for, of such a seemingly illogical act. To us, it is more important to understand the consequences of this act from the point of view of its impact on our environment and social and communal harmony.

4.     Traditionally, idols were made from mud and clay and painted using vegetable dyes. But commercialization of festivals and the sheer volumes of idols needed to be produced and transported over great distances meant that the traditional materials did not fulfill the design specifications of the modern idols. In the process, eco-friendly statues are no longer economically feasible. Thus, the new generation idols are produced from non-biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and plaster of Paris and painted with chemical dyes that contain harmful and toxic agents.

     Can you imagine what the thousands of idols, along with its synthetic and plastic trappings, being dumped into our river systems around the country are doing to our environment? Besides poisoning our water sources, can you imagine the damage it is causing to the aquatic creatures that inhabit our rivers and lakes?

       Have you considered that these toxic materials finally end up inside the bellies of fish that we eat? Have you considered that the river waters with all the contaminants end up in the irrigation channels that our farmers use to irrigate their farms that produce food and vegetable that we consume? If this is going to be the case, how realistic is our dream of becoming a nation of organic farmers?

It is clear that unregulated celebration of the Vishwakarma puja can go beyond being merely a public nuisance. Its environmental implications are of greater concern. Why is it that the National Environment Commission has overlooked this issue? Why has the RSTA and the Traffic Police not been alerted of the dangers of vehicles being decorated with things that could cause dangerous accidents on the road?

I believe that it is time for the government and agencies under it to put in place rules and regulations and promulgate them to ensure that:

a.     the puja is celebrated in a manner that is not detrimental to our environment while, at the same time, it is celebrated in a way that it does not cause problems and hardships to others;

b.    that the celebration is licensed by a competent authority in order that the licensees can be held accountable;

c.    ensure that, if possible, idols are built in-country under strict supervision to ensure that only bio-degradable materials are used to build the idols and be decorated with environmentally friendly substances. If that is not feasible, ensure that their import is brought under some control so that only idols built with harmless and bio-degradable materials are allowed to enter the country.

I know that it is in the Buddhist spirit to allow free and fair practice of individual faith and culture. But being tolerant does not mean that we have to accept practices - whether cultural, religious or social - that harm the environment as well as cause disruption to the peace and tranquility of others within the sphere.

If we pride ourselves as an evolved lot with the capacity to think objectively, analytically and with reason, it is quite ridiculous to continue to engage in acts that were conceived in medieval times when conditions were different from what it is today. It is acceptable that certain beliefs and practices may have been pertinent and useful during a particular time and stage in our evolution - but not all of them are now useful or relevant or even practicable.

Conservation and protection of the natural environment is one of the four pillars of GNH. We take great pride in being a champion in environmental conservation. If that be the case, we should have no hesitation in rationalizing, if not entirely doing away with, certain practices that are undeniably accepted as being harmful to nature and the environment. In my opinion, there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the manner in which Vishwakarma puja is celebrated in its present form is a great polluter.

Lord Vishwakarma cannot be a very happy God knowing he has become a source of pollution and defilement of the environment.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Funny Signboards

-->I just returned from a trip to the Eastern Dzongkhags (Districts) covering Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang and Pemagatshel. It was not fun because it rained every day and night. Most nights, my companions had to sleep in the car because their tents got flooded with rainwater and sleep wasn’t possible. My own tent wasn’t spared either - most nights there was a small rivulet flowing beneath my tent floor. Fortunately, I have a very good tent - Cabela’s Outfitter SeriesTM Extreme Weather Tent - that can withstand anything that the elements can throw at it. Also, I sleep on a raised camp cot which means that there is no danger of rain water seeping into my sleeping bag while I sleep. I always wake up bone dry in the morning :)

Cabela’s Outfitter SeriesTM - Extreme Weather Tent

But the trip wasn’t entirely without its moments of hilarity. The stretch of road between Trashigang and Pemagatshel is strewn with road signs that provide the weary travelers a good bite of laughter and amusement. The DANTAK (the organization responsible for building roads in Bhutan) has put up road signs along the way that are quite humorous, if a tad dour. The following are some example of the DANTAK’s ingenuity at lively road signs:

Not to be out done, a shop owner in Khaling town comes up with a shop sign that has got to be a first of its kind. However, for the life of me I could not decide whether he did not know the Dzongkha equivalent of “General” or he couldn’t think of the English word for “Tshongkhang” and therefore decided on the amalgamation. Regardless of how strangely it is constructed, there is a nice ring about it, a kind of seamlessness in its integration: General Tshongkhang - not bad at all. By the way, what is the Dzongkha word for “General”?

But the following signboard at Yadi School did not amuse me at all. I mean an institution of education and learning cannot do any better? Forget the English, I suspect that even the Dzongkha version is written all wrong. Small wonder then that there is so much talk about dropping education standard in the country.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rarely Shown Bird Photos

-->Some friends have been rather unhappy with me for not posting photos of my birds. Well, here are six of them. These are some of my best bird photos that have never before been shown. I am finally posting these to pacify those friends who seem to have missed seeing my birds.

Please click on the image to see all six in a slideshow.


The first image is that of a Scarlet Finch. Actually I had been chasing a pair of Gold-napped Finch - for two hours - without any success. Then, all of a sudden, this stunning bird appeared on the scene and captivated me. For the next one hour or so, I chased it around the forest. It moves fast but once it perches on its feed, it didn’t seem to care that I had a bazooka trained at it, allowing me to shoot at a leisurely pace. I must have shot over 300 frames - this bird is so beautiful, you want to keep shooting even when you know that you got the best shot you are ever likely to get.

The second bird is called Crested Bunting, a cute little bird mostly confined to warmer places. Many a times I tried to photograph it in Wangdue area but the cheeky fellow always managed to give me the slip. But I finally nailed it in Lemithang, Mongar. It likes to strike quite a pose and sings a nice song too.

The bird below took me by surprise. It is so small - only 10CM - and it was fleeting around with a bunch of Warblers. I have had enough with Warblers - they are such great teasers and I am so angry with them. I will not shoot them unless there are no birds left to shoot. But the little fellow below somehow caught my eyes because of its straightforward black and white markings. And, it did not behave like a Warbler - so I decided to take a closer look. Lo and behold, it was a Little Pied Flycatcher. I had never seen it before, let alone photograph it. This was a real find.

One time I was parked by the roadside in Yongkala in the hope of seeing one of my most favorite birds - the Sultan Tit. The yellow-turbaned black Wazir never showed up. However, in its place, I landed myself another of my life birds - the sly looking Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher shown below.

There are two birds that I particularly loath photographing - the Verditer Flycatcher and the White-throated Kingfisher. I have never been able to reproduce their colors accurately - it always comes out yucky - I think it is their shade of green. However, I finally managed to get it right in my following photo of the White-throated Kingfisher. As you can see, I managed to get the details quite well and the sharpness is darn good too. And, I dare say, the exposure is near perfect too!

And finally, Bhutan’s MUST SEE bird: the Satyr Tragopan. Some believe that this bird is Bhutan’s most beautiful bird. But photographing it is not easy - particularly in Sengore where you can see these birds. The area is always wet and, even worst, it is foggy most of the time. This makes it extremely difficult for photography. I must have exposed a few thousand frames shooting this bird but I have barely 4-5 images of the bird that are, what I consider, keepers.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Hero Comes Home

-->The hero returns tomorrow and I want to be among the first to say welcome back.

I am told that the meeting in New York initially had 600 registered participants – the very best brains from around the world. On the day of the conference however, the number had spiraled way over the thousandth mark. That is the measure of his popularity and the importance attached to the brand new philosophy he was scheduled to speak on.

While our own media at home had nothing good to say about Bhutan and the Prime Minister hosting the GNH conference in New York, inventors, intellectuals, social scientists, captains of industry, religious leaders, listened with rapt attention to our man talk on an unconventional philosophy that may yet save the human kind from utter chaos.

I was disheartened by the total lack of support from our media - to what our Prime Minister was doing in New York. It is understandable that not every body has a grasp of what GNH is all about but I wish that people would stop talking about something they are clueless about.

I was so terribly pained at the bad press at home. However this afternoon I got to hear of something very uplifting. I am told that some one very, very special, the one person whose opinion he would value, actually called Lyonchen up in New York to congratulate him for his success and achievement. Now I am at peace – this effectively means that Lyonchen can tell every body else to go to hell – and take along their views with them!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bhutan to Host High Level Conference on Happiness at the UN in New York

-->Sonam Ongmo’s Blog: features a video clip titled “Bhutan: Prime Minister holds Press Conference at the UN”. It is a video clip that should make every Bhutanese proud; my own heart swelled with pride and smugness, watching it.

The Prime Minister of a resource-deprived nation of some 600,000 people speaking to leaders and economists, scholars and spiritual leaders of some 7 billion people around the world, on happiness is something of a misnomer. And yet, that is what His Excellency Lyoenchen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley will do, on 2nd April, 2012. On that day, His Excellency will interpret and, speak on, and propose, a new economic paradigm for human happiness and wellbeing. This is an event of colossal significance.

For the human race, it is as momentous as the invention of religion.

I am proud not only because we have a Prime Minister who is worthy enough to take center stage and be able to speak to the very best of the world’s statesmen, intellectuals, thinkers and visionaries, I am more so because, destiny has chosen one among the Bhutanese to be the messenger of a brand new philosophy that may yet save the world from disintegration and collapse.

I admit that GNH is still a very complex concept that I have not yet fully understood. My confusion arises out of my conviction that GNH is impossible without a nation full of people who can claim to have achieved GPH. However, I have to admit that some things are beginning to dawn on me.

Our Lyoenchen’s recently introduced GNH-based accounting concept is revolutionary and a model that every country ought to adopt - in order that they are able to measure their country’s real achievements. While watching a documentary film titled “The Economics of Happiness”, I came across a revealing and profound question: “How is it possible that something produced 10,000 Miles away can be sold at a cheaper price than what is produced just 5 miles away?” It is impossible and yet, it is true. But it is true only because lots of other costs have not been factored in, costs that ultimately you and I have to bear.

The real gain is when you can achieve something without the need to minus elsewhere. It is not a gain if it is achieved at the cost of something even bigger. It is now clear that the ongoing global economic calamity is a result of the faulty GNP/GDP-based accounting concept that had failed to factor in the cost of environmental and ecological damages that was being caused in the course of our relentless pursuit of economic success. Our Balance Sheet and P&L Account did not provide for cost of depreciation - even though we have been depreciating our finite resources mindlessly.

His Excellency the Prime Minister is presenting our new accounting concept at the Conference in New York. I hope the world will wake up and take notice.

Please join me in congratulating our Prime Minister and wishing him luck on 2nd April, 2012 during the presentations to the world audience.