Monday, August 31, 2015

Our Rivers of Doom III

For a long time, there were certain anomalies surrounding the hydropower projects in Bhutan that baffled me.  It just simply did not make sense. In particular, the following three had me completely perplexed:

1.    The need for Bhutan to import electricity from India during the winter months;

2.    While claiming that we are the cheapest producer of electricity in whole of Asia, why LPG
       and kerosene continues to be the preferred fuel for cooking and heating; and

3.    Why we cannot build one hydropower plant, strictly for internal consumption - sans Indian financing,
        sans WAPCOS, sans Jaypee, sans L&T, sans Gammon, sans HCC sans ……..

Year after year, every winter, we have been hearing of the need for import of electricity from India. The reason offered for such an absurdity is that during the winter months the water level in the rivers drop so drastically that the electricity generation falls dramatically. OK, fair enough - we can accept that the water flow reduces during the winter months. However, what I do not understand is this: is the fall in the generation so low that it is not enough to supply the country’s miniscule requirement of electricity? I mean how is it possible that the combined generation from Chukha and Tala plants is not enough to meet our domestic requirement?

What really is the truth? Take a guess!

It is pathetic and wasteful to have to queue up at the gas station for our quota of LPG and kerosene. And the wait is painfully long and arduous. If you ask the Department and the Ministry concerned, they are quick to tell you that there are thousands of consumers to cater to. What they don't tell us is: why is there a need to import these? Aren’t we supposed to be the cheapest producer of electricity? Why isn’t the government making it affordable for the people of Bhutan to use electricity, instead of spending precious foreign currency to import LPG and kerosene? The answer is simple: true to character, we have not been thinking! We are just too blasé!

We have not worked towards making electricity affordable for the common man. I am not suggesting subsidy - far from it. I am suggesting that, contrary to the bogus claim, our cost of production of electricity is WAY TOO HIGH!! As a result, the unit price of electricity to the Bhutanese consumers is so high that we prefer to queue up at the gas station for LPG and kerosene - because they are cheaper by far, compared to our electricity.

In my mind, the answer to our problems should be simple: we should build our own hydro-power plant - strictly for internal consumption - sans Indian financing, sans WAPCOS, sans Jaypee, sans L&T, sans …….. We do not seek construction technology and financing from India. We do it all ourselves.

Despite our claim that we are the cheapest producer of electricity, I believe that our unit cost of production is atleast FOUR TIMES HIGHER THAN WHAT IT SHOULD BE! The moment we reduce the cost of production, by removing components such as cost escalation through poor quality DPR, delayed project completion, wrong choice of technology, deliberate over design, poor quality of construction, corruption, kickbacks etc. etc. .... our cost of production of electricity will drop to levels that will make it affordable for the Bhutanese to use our electricity - for cooking and heating.

The Royal Government of Bhutan should seriously consider this - it cannot be an impossible task to do just one lousy hydro-power project to meet our internal demand! Self-sufficiency in fuel is a vital security concern.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Our Rivers of Doom II

So, tell me, how many of you know of the existence of a Master Plan for the number and location of hydro-power projects in Bhutan? Don't look crestfallen - I too did not know. May be our government never spoke of it to us or may be there really isn’t one. The one I am showing you below has been conceived and plotted on the drawing boards of the Central Electricity Authority of India. The map outlines the planned projects, projects under construction and those already commissioned.

The above map was sourced from: 

Quite obviously the master plan is of recent conception. That is evidenced by the fact that the map used is the most recent official map - the one with the truncated Northern border. What is amazing is that this plan envisages a total of 80 hydro-power projects, overall.  These planned projects poke-mark the entire length and breadth of the country - worst than a Chinese Checkers Board, which has only 60 marbles at full house.

Is this really going to happen? Has this plan been drawn up in consultation with relevant authorities in the Royal Government of Bhutan or has this been conceptualized by a delusional person at the Central Electricity Authority of India?

If this is really true, can you believe what it will do to the landscape and ecology of Bhutan? It calls for damming every single river, every single tributary and, perhaps, even some of our irrigation channels, to turn the turbines of that many hydro-power projects!

If the debt burden from two disastrous hydro-power projects - the Punasangchhu I & II is debilitating enough to sink us to the 14th position among countries headed towards debt crisis, can you imagine what 80 hydro-power projects will do to us?

Please reconsider - let us not dam every single river we have. Let us be responsible to future generations and leave some of our rivers free flowing in perpetuity - because there are other alternatives to generating electricity. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE TO WATER.

Let us be more imaginative about what we do with our rivers. We certainly have other more profitable and environmentally safer ways of benefiting from our water resources.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Our Rivers of Doom

The emergence of the earliest human civilizations dating back to 8,000 BC can be traced to banks of rivers. Unfortunately, some of these very rivers that have for centuries supported and sustained human settlements are now nothing more than geographic memories, to be found only in outdated maps.

While the human population is exploding, water supply around the world is shrinking. The Himalayan glaciers are receding, causing rivers to dry up thereby condemning hundreds of millions of people in the lower riparian states to hydrological poverty.

Need for increased food production to feed the exploding human population means that we need more water for drinking and irrigation. Unfortunately ground waters are drying up and the available river waters have become unusable for irrigation because of the level of pollution caused by dumping of industrial and other waste into them.

The Tibetan plateau is the world’s largest fresh water tank, out of which flow the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong. On these rivers depend the livelihood of over 2 billion people including those in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Construction of dams and major diversion projects on rivers of Tibet would severely impact the lower riparian countries, thereby causing situations of conflict and disharmony.

Even as I write this post (26th August, 2015: 9:24 AM), the world population has hit a staggering 7,362,537,781. Satiating the hunger and quenching the thirst of 8 billion people by 2024 is going to put tremendous stress on our water resources.

In times to come, water is going to be the scarcest resource over which wars are likely to be fought! Even scarier, WATER HAS NO SUBSTITUTE.

Nature has been bountiful with Bhutan. We have five river systems that collectively contribute to a total renewal water resources estimated at 1.15 million Cu. Mtrs. per year - among the highest in the world. Even more fortunate, our dependency on cross-border water flows is virtually zero since only two small rivers, Amochu in Haa and Kurichu in Mongaar, originate in Tibet China. Unlike most other countries in the neighborhood and else where such as in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, we need not fear upstream riparian states causing us desperation as a result of their damming the rivers or diverting water flow.

But alas, this is where the dream stops and reality strikes. This generation of Bhutanese has squandered away our nature’s gift through irresponsible and reckless mismanagement of our rivers and water resources. Caused by disastrous and unimaginative investment decisions and financing model in hydro-power projects, we now know that our river systems will be the cause of our bankruptcy and failed statehood. And yet, successive governments have been adamant that the hydro-power projects will help us pave our streets in gold, even while we are aware that we are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and mismanagement. As of now, our unserviceable hydro-power debt is in excess of our total annual GDP!

Even as we grandiosely declare, time after time, our commitment to ensure the safety, prosperity and the future of our children, we unfailingly engage in an enterprise that we know will enslave, not one, but many of our future generations to a life beleaguered by debt and poverty.

Although it may be already too late, there is still an URGENT need to rethink our policy on water use.

Foot Note:
It would appear that our hydro-power projects are executed under great secrecy - here is an interesting read:

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bhutan Parliamentarians on a funny trip

A friend in India just sent me the following news clipping. It is my ardent hope that our Parliamentarians were too thick skinned to have not learned anything from their Indian counterparts :)-

Imagine our patang bearing Parliamentarians turning violent!

Bhutan's Tourism Industry Under Attack!

Bhutan and the Bhutanese people are slowly but surely falling into the dragnet of some evil power that is masterminding some strangely unbelievable occurrences that defy logic. I am convinced that some sinister force is at work: some one or something that is not immediately apparent is on an overdrive to scheme and plot the cause of our golden goose - the tourism industry - to bleed to death.

And, I dare say that the two-pronged assault on the tourism industry - the concerted push from some quarters to liberalize the tourism business and the road-widening initiative, coming one on the heels of the other, CANNOT be coincidental. I suspect that some sections of the Bhutanese society are being puppeteered, willy-nilly, as puppets in a Machiavellian scheme to demolish the only success story that is the torchbearer of Bhutanese spirit of enterprise - the tourism industry!

But it is now under siege.

All at once, everybody seems to be experts in the field of tourism - the National Council, members of the BCCI and, supposedly, some hotel owners. All these captains of Bhutanese trade and industry do not realize that on the world stage they are less than half a strand of sand, waiting to be snubbed out of existence when the behemoths of the world come trampling. Recent ACC investigations reveal that Phuentsholing’s one-room operation called JPLCP is ten times bigger than the biggest Bhutanese retail operation. This is how minuscule the biggest of the big Bhutanese business operators are. Thus, the Bhutanese interest groups will do well to keep their personal greed in check for the sake of the greater good of the lesser fortunate people of Bhutan. It is not good to rock the system that has worked fine all these years.

The tourism industry has grown from strength to strength primarily because the industry had dual ownership - government and private. Remove government control and stewardship and we have a world in which personal greed and self interest will run amok - ruining the industry and handing it over on a platter to the carpetbaggers of the world. The Bhutanese operators will be reduced to accepting pittance while the big boys from outside will usurp the tourism trade. Inward foreign exchange remittances will dwindle while profits will be siphoned off to offshore accounts. Tourism will no longer represent any significant contribution to the economy. Trained workers from abroad will fill high-end jobs. Bhutanese will end up at the bottom rung - without any scope for advancement.

I am happy that the governments of the past have successfully fended off the greedy overtures of the powerful few. It is not as if such attempts were not made in the past. This government too must not buckle under the pressure of the rich and the powerful. After all, if Sa Wa Sum is to be served, it is the Sa Wa Sum we must serve - and not few individuals who cannot see beyond their noses.

Look at the wanton filth and muck that is being uncovered by the ACC in Phuentsholing. It is enough to make one puke in disgust - at the level of how low the Bhutanese will stoop to satiate their greed. As a long time Bhutan observer tells me, the Bhutanese people’s “me, me - now, now” mentality will one day turn this land of GNH into a failed State.

The tourism industry is under attack. This government must do everything it can to ward off the assault. After all, the PDP government would not want the failure of this most vital industry on its conscience, should it fail during its tenure.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Tourism Industry: The early warning signs of imminent disaster: II

I just returned from a quick trip to Phobjikha and Gangtey Goenpa.

The road widening works between Semtokha and Lobesa has been going on for over 15 years and yet, most of it is still in complete shambles. From the looks of it, it will not be done in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, the road widening works have been started between Wangdue and Bumthang. According to the Hon’ble Minister for Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, the project will be completed in 3 years.

A stretch of road between Semtokha to Lobesa - a distance of 59 KMs - couldn't be completed in 15 years. How the stretch of road from Lobesa to Bumthang - a distance of 197 KMs - will be done in just 3 years is something to be seen to be believed!

However, this post is not about achieving the impossible or procrastinating on the possible. It is about what the road widening work is doing to our vitally important tourism industry.

At Gangtey Goenpa, I had lunch at a restaurant whose owner is a contractor of sorts - for a tour operator in Thimphu. He tells me that he had a lunch order to serve lunch to 50 tourists due to arrive Gantey Goenpa/Phobjikha on the 8th of August, 2015. On the appointed day, he got a call from the tour operator telling him of the cancellation of the lunch order.

The reason: the tourists, all three busloads of them, arrived below Nobding on their way to Gangtey Goenpa/Phobjikha. The tourists looked at the condition of the road and refused to go any further. They cancelled the trip and turned back. In the process the poor restaurateur in Gangtey Goenpa was stuck with the lunch that was already prepared and ready. He tells me that his refrigerator is now overflowing with the prepared food and he has been overfeeding his family in an attempt to save the cooked food from going to waste.

Some discussions are already taking place among tour operators that it is no longer safe to use Hyundai H1 and Toyota Hiace buses to transport tourists between Thimphu and Bumthang, because their undercarriage clearance is too low and unsuitable for the slushy road conditions.

They are now actively considering the use of Toyota Prados and other high-clearance SUVs in place of the mini buses. However, it remains to be seen whether their tour pricing is able to absorb the more expensive hire charges of the SUVs.

This is one of the many faces of the road-widening project that is destined to kill our tourism industry.

Only in Bhutan it happens that the Tourism Council declares the year 2015 as the “Visit Bhutan Year” to boost tourism while, at the same time, the government introduces something that is designed to strangulate it completely!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tourism Industry: The early warning signs of imminent disaster

It does not take a Nostradamus to predict that the recently initiated haphazard road widening work is going to cause irreparable damage to our tourism industry. But I am shocked by the alacrity with which the problem has already set into motion the wheel of doom.

It began with the recent landslide and flooding in Trongsa that caused severe damages in Trongsa town. People put the blame squarely on the road widening works.

A week back, three irate travelers driving towards Thimphu from Trongsa beat up a truck driver for hindering smooth flow of traffic. This was clearly a case of a malaise known as “road rage”. Irritated travelers stranded on the road for hours on end suffer this malaise that give rise to violent anger caused by the stress and frustration of having to drive under difficult conditions.

A little over a week back, I was sitting at the Ambient Café drinking tea when I overheard a conversation among four tourists sitting few tables diagonally to mine. They were an agitated lot. One could not believe that their journey from Bumthang to Thimphu took 17 hours. One of them felt that their tour operator was stupid to send them to Bumthang even while knowing that the roads were in terrible condition and would take them 17 hours to drive to Thimphu. One felt that they should sue the tour operator for mismanaging and spoiling their expensive holiday trip.

The above are clear signs that our tourism industry is headed for a disaster. There will be hundreds of incidences of road rage. Hundreds of landslides will occur over the coming years, as a result of digging into the fragile mountainside. Stretches of roads will slide down into the ravine and disappear - leaving travelers and tourists stranded on the road for hours and days. Essential supplies and travel will be disrupted. In the meantime, disgusted tourists will return home to spread the word. In the coming years, tourist arrivals will plummet.

Already, tour operators complain that bookings for this year is way down compared to earlier years - because of the Nepal earthquake disaster.

Happiness is a place” will cease to be our brand name slogan. Instead it will be etched on the tombstone - an epitaph to the demise of Bhutan’s tourism industry!

I suspect that flow of tourists to the Central and Eastern parts of the country will dwindle to a trickle. It does not seem like tourists in their right minds will want to travel to Bumthang and the East - over bumpy, muddy roads that go on for hundreds of kilometers. Quite rightly, no tour operator in his/her right mind should suggest it. The prospect of being stranded for hours on the road is not any body’s idea of holiday.

If tour operators are smart, they will avoid booking tours to Bumthang and the East. Even if they must, they should take their tourists by air to Bumthang and back. They should avoid planning their tours based on overland travel, or be prepared to face the wrath of their guests.

While in some parts the country the tourist infrastructure will remain underused, in places like Paro, Thimphu, Haa, Punakha and Wangdue the facilities will come under tremendous pressure. Phobjikha could still remain a tourist destination but it does not offer appropriate accommodation and, in any event, it does not have the numbers to accommodate the diversion from other destinations.

In all this, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines could benefit - they should already anticipate increased air traffic to Bumthang airport and back. They ought to prepare for the influx. Boom time is inevitable - if the tourists will still come, despite the bad press.

No one seems to be able to explain why we need to widen our West-East highway. It is madness given that it imperils the only industry that can effectively counterbalance the economic disaster that is being caused by the hydro-power projects. In my opinion we do not need to widen our West-East highway. All that we need at this stage is to repave them and resurface them properly. If at all there is a need to widen the West-East highway, for whatever mysterious objectives, we must first improve the roads from West to South, South to South, East to South and South to Central. Once that is done, we can then redirect our tourist traffic through them.

The government cannot fail to understand that the West-Central-East national highway represents the backbone of our tourist traffic. Any impediment on this route will mean disaster for our tourism industry. There is a need to rethink on this issue, before it is too late.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Punasangchhu Project I & II right on track!

I am truly encouraged by what Mr. Abhay Thakur, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Governemnt of India told the Kuensel on 4th August, 2015. He is quoted to have said:

“ ……. the revised cost of Nu 93.75B, which the union cabinet approved last month, was justified”.

I am encouraged because if the Government of India feels that the revised cost is justified, then the onus of justification shall be on them. As far as Bhutan is concerned, it cannot be justified that a project estimated at Nu. 35.00 has now escalated to Nu. 93.75 billion. This level of cost over-run throws all calculations to the wind. But if the Big Brother says so, then so it shall be.

However, his next statement is in the strain of what Mr. R N Khazanchi said about a week back - a curiously twisted logic. Mr. Abhay Thakur is supposed to have said:

“I think we are on right track and we are optimistic that the projects would complete on time with the approval of revised cost”. 

Complete on time? I thought the project completion date was further shifted to 2019??? The project was scheduled to be completed in December 2016.

Mr. Abhay Thakur has some more good news for Bhutan. He states:

“….. even after cost escalation is less than Nu 80M per Mega Watt and the PHPA II, after the proposed expected cost escalation would be in the range of Nu 70M per MW. These rates are extremely competitive and anywhere else in South Asia …..”.

Right! While Mr. Abhay may be right in stating that our unit cost of construction is competitive compared to those in the region, what he ignored to tell us is whether our income from those costs will be equally competitive. If not, how does it matter?

Madam Sujata Mehta, Secretary of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India confirmed that the media report that India has surplus electricity, is untrue. I believe her, 100%. But she left her next statement - half complete:

“There is an inter government agreement which exists that the power generation at these joint projects would be purchased by India."

She failed to tell us at what unit price they will buy the electricity generated from these two doomed projects. Cost+?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Neither Greed Nor Corruption

In the ongoing debacle of the Punasangchhu Projects I & II, some are baying for the blood of Khazanchi. I wonder how that is going to solve our problems? In any event, how can a single person be responsible for the loss of tens of billions - perpetuated over many years? It is impossible that one single person can mastermind and be responsible for such a catastrophe. Neither can it be borne of greed and corruption. I am unprepared to believe that a disaster this monumental is the result of one single person’s greed - R N Khazanchi’s. The reason has to be something else.

And what of the Board Members of the PHPA? What were they doing? How is it possible that persons sitting on the Board allowed such disaster to happen? How did they allow mistakes of this scale to be made? How did they approve the shifting of the dam site, even while GSI clearly pointed out the possibility of geological surprise at the new site? If they knew of the problems and yet did not stop it, then they too must be held accountable, for complicity.

It is an honor to be on the Board of such an important project. However, one has to believe that one has been put there because one has a level of competence to do a job well. It is completely a different matter if one were put there because it is expected that one will NOT do his/her job.

Particularly for the Bhutanese Board Members, you should now realize that you are party to an enterprise that is destined to destroy this country.

I put in my letter of resignation - to be relieved as a Board Member of the RSPN before time, because I realized that I had nothing to contribute there - neither the time. Thus, the honorable thing to do was to resign so that someone else more competent and able can fill the slot so that the organization can grow for the better.

Remember, Bhutan is a small place and nothing, I repeat nothing, is a secret in this country. Eventually, the truth will all tumble out. You can then bury your heads in the sand, in shame. Unfortunately by then you would have imperiled the future of this country and the many generations of Bhutanese who will follow. The only solace in all this is that you will still get off scot-free - to talk of service to the Sa Was Sum, with valor and conviction.