Friday, May 22, 2015

To “Meat” a Huge Demand II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked; “What do you propose?”

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

To "Meat" a Huge Demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You cannot attain Nirvana on an empty stomach.”

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

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

Finally, Some Good News IV

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wood Shuttle Block

Bhutanese Lady's Kera

Milled Wooden Rods

Raw Coniferous Logs


Brown Cardamom

Crystallized Menthol

Gum Rosin

Canned Fruit Juices


Mandarin Oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

How that came about is truly ticklish!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish the government all the success in its endeavors.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ …….. Then there were all those dogs running around, and very often there was a big dog fight. All the people bring their food with them and since there is never any sort of an intermission during the day they just eat when they want to. Now, when there are a lot of loose dogs running around, some funny things happen at times. A dog will run up to some one’s dinner and grab a mouthful of food and away the dog scrams with some rocks being thrown at him, and a lot of yelling, etc., etc. This was certainly some get together. Just think, for five solid days from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM there is one event following another with no intermission at all.  Not one moment is lost, and never any repeats. ……… " 

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Finally, Some Good News: I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boss, kuch toh banta hai!