Sunday, May 28, 2017

In The Service Of The Tsa Wa Sum, Customer Service Is Expendable

Hey Yeshey,

“What junk have you sent me?"

The “junk” my friend referred to in his email to me was the piece of paper I prefer to call Druk Air’s Reservation Slip, which I had scanned and mailed to him, as proof that he is confirmed to fly on the date, time and airport indicated on the slip. Unfortunately, it would appear that the man is unable to read what is printed on the slip. Quite understandable.

When you go to the national flag carrier’s reservation counter at the Changlam Plaza to make a reservation, and if you are able to secure a seat on their flight of your choice, they hand you a paper printout that is slightly smaller than A5. The print out is churned out by a laser printer, the size of a home bread toaster.

In all fairness, the process is pretty efficient – atleast for their walk-in customers (they have a separate row of counters for the tour operators and ticketing agents). What is NOT efficient is the piece of paper – the Reservation Slip – that is handed to you as proof of confirmation of your reservation.

This is how the Druk Air's original Reservation Slip print out looks like

The print out is hazy, smeared with close to a thousand strands of vertical lines in differing shades of black that run across the length and breadth of the paper. It takes humongous amount of effort to make sense of what is printed on the paper. I have given up trying. Instead, I have come up with an ingenious way of making things easier for myself and my friends and clients who have to read the blasted thing.

Upon handing the reservation slip, I place it on the tabletop and take a photo of it with my mobile phone’s camera. I then email the image to myself. I go to my office and download the image and enlarge it on the computer screen which makes is easier to read the texts and the numbers.

Enlarged image of the Reservation Slip which makes it easier to read and type out

I then type the whole thing as a word document and save it as a .PDF file that I can send to friends and clients. This way I have been able to avoid people sending me mails asking what junk I was sending them.

Typed version of the Druk Air's Reservation Slip - simpler to read and understand - that which I mail out

One time I did ask one of the Druk Air’s reservation staff why they couldn't change the print cartridge or the printer’s drum that is obviously scarred. He informed me that the company’s ADM was of the view that as long the printer was printing out something, there was nothing wrong with it.

Obviously, the Druk Air thinks that their “valuable” customers having to suffer some bit of inconvenience is an acceptable fallout of their drive towards cost savings. In the service of the Tsa Wa Sum, customer service is expendable.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hydro Revenue Can’t Assure Self-reliance

The Kuensel’s headline “Hydro Revenue Can’t Assure Self-reliance” of 24th May, 2017 has got to be the understatement of the century, but a STATEMENT nonetheless. For once, truthful, even if not the whole truth, about the perils of Bhutan’s hydro-power misadventures are now beginning to appear in print, and expert views that matter are beginning to be heard.

Saying that hydro revenue cannot assure self-reliance is euphemism at its extreme. What we are headed for is total economic bondage.

Every Bhutanese who care for the country and the Tsa Wa Sum must read and re-read the Kuensel article quoted above. It does not unravel whole lot of muck that surrounds the hydro-power projects in Bhutan. But the article certainly provides an unvignetted view into the looming disaster that awaits us.

The recent public talk given by Mr. Martin Rama, World Bank’s Chief Economist of South Asia Region, as reported by the Kuensel, is carefully worded and goes to great lengths to ensure that they do not cause any tremors. But the truth, in whatever garb it is presented, remains a truth. And the good economist has delivered some home truths that we need to take note of.

The World Bank's economist Mr. Martin Rama (Phd) has apparently said:  “…… because when more than a quarter of revenue generated from hydro-power is spent on debt servicing, the country may not meet its expenditure.”

What he is saying is this: that the hydro-power projects may be self-liquidating - but they do not contribute to self-reliance and, therefore, we will be even more broke in the future!

He also said: “…… the decline in tax revenue in relation to GDP is not due to a change in tax instruments or in tax rates, but because of policy decisions of tax holidays and exemptions. Sales Tax exemptions result in 50 percent of foregone revenue. Further around 63 percent of all imported commodities are exempted from Custom Duties.”

“Instead of losing the tax revenue to exemptions that are not rational, he said efficient management of taxation could also play a vital role in attaining fiscal self-sufficiency.”

I am immensely tickled at his reference to Exemptions that are not rational. How beautifully he phrases it! But artistry of language aside, spoken in plain language, what he means is that the “QUOTA” system must go. I am in no doubt that he is referring to the irrationality of the “quota” system - a system that allows duty-free import of luxury vehicles, booze, chocolates and perfumes, by a select group of privileged people. It certainly is irrational when the rich, the powerful and the well placed and those who are economically able, are exempted from paying taxes and duties ---- and those who cannot afford them are denied the relief they deserve.

The World Bank economist's underlying message is this: that the hydro-power is good only for liquidating its loans. Even that may not be true.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Changing Dietary Habits of the Golden Langurs

Yesterday I was alarmed by the BBS report that the Golden Langurs have been invading farms in Langthel Gewog. This is totally out of character.

I come from an area that is the primates' prime habitat. Until yesterday, I have never before seen or heard of Golden Langurs destroying crops or even coming anywhere close to farmlands. If what the BBS reports is true, there is a need for worry. Obviously, oblivious to their human cousins, the primate’s natural habitat must be undergoing some change - or there must be something that is causing some kind of disruption that the poor fellows are forced to venture out of their comfort zone.

We claim that 72% of our land mass is under forest cover. If this is true, then the human population is not encroaching into those of the wildlife. Therefore they have no need to encroach into ours. Why are they doing it?

In fact, in the last close to three decades, the wildlife has been causing serious problems for Bhutan’s human population. In parts of the East, they have caused alarming rates of rural-urban migration. Whole villages have been emptied of human population and large swaths of farmlands have been left fallow.

Has the wildlife population increased so much that 72% of forestland is no longer enough for them that they find it necessary to encroach into 28% that comprise the human habitat? Why have the Langurs taken to eating chilies? They want Emma Datsi too? Is the wildlife going through a change in their food habits? Are they finding their traditional food no longer palatable?

Are we doing something to their habitat that they are forced to invade our farmlands and feed on our crops? Is there a larger problem that we are ignoring? Have we unwittingly caused some disruption in the pollination process in a way that the forests in which they live no longer produce the food that they traditionally use to feed on? Why are the herbivores - deer, wild boars, porcupines, monkeys - risking their lives and rummaging through farms and gardens, to feed on human food?

In nature nothing is accidental. There has to be a reason why the herbivores are undergoing such behavioral change, after all, their domain remains even more protected than ever before.

Are they warning us of some impending disaster? Is our natural environment as healthy as we say they are? Is it possible that our overprotective environmental concerns may have negatively impacted some evolutionary process thereby causing some plant and animal life to behave outside of their usual pattern of behavior?

May be it is time that we look at the problem as something more than human-wildlife conflict - may be something lot more serious is afoot.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Curious Case of Bhutan’s Cardamom Export

The emergence of the cardamom as the most successful “cash crop” has, in the past, caused a whole lot of problems for a whole lot of people – the growers (mostly the illegal ones), Dzongkhag Administrators, Forestry Officials, the marketing apparatus of the government (the FCB and the Export Division), and the environment.

The cardamom is once again making news. This time I fear that the problem is not as simple as it was then – this time round, the issue is lot more complicated and may not even be seen as a problem. However, I do not want to go into that - instead I want to treat you to a piece of history surrounding the bizarre business that was cardamom – a spice variety that has no consumption base in the country, even while we rank among the largest growers and exporters.

I hear that the Department of Agriculture Marketing & Cooperatives (DAMC), Ministry of Agriculture is on the look out for new/alternate markets for the Bhutanese cardamom. In a replay of history, they are said to be, yet again, looking at the Middle Eastern countries, as I did more than three decades ago, only to find, as did the DAMC, that the Middle East is not the market for our variety of cardamom.

The nose-in-the-air Arabs like the more expensive green jacket cardamom - originally native to South India and Sri Lanka; they scorn at the very mention of our cardamom - the lowly brown jacket variety. The curiously oriented Kuwaitees and the Saudees and other Arabs like to demonstrate their affluence by the amount of cardamom they use in their “Gahwa” (cardamom coffee). It is said that an Arab host’s level of hospitality is judged by the amount of green cardamom they grind into the Gahwa they serve to their guests.

But this post is not about Arabs or their peculiar Gahwa drinking and serving habits. It is about Bhutan’s cardamom and of those of us who were subjected to inexplicable trials and the tribulations associated with its purchase, storage, packaging and final export. There was nothing straightforward in the manner in which we went about exporting a large volume of Bhutan’s cardamom during the late 70’s and the 80’s.

> While the importers in Pakistan and the intermediaries in Singapore insisted that our cardamom’s final destination was the Middle East, my market survey trip to the Middle Eastern countries revealed that the Arabs use green jacket cardamom in their coffee/tea – not our brown jacket one. This meant that there was/is virtually no market for our cardamom in the Middle East. Thus the claim that our cardamom was finally exported to the Middle East was a whole lot of bull;

> Our cardamom was supposedly destined for the West (Middle East) but the cargo was loaded on board the ship bound for the South (Singapore);

We were the exporters of the cardamom but the importers in Pakistan established the Letter of Credit in favor of the intermediary in Singapore, who in turn established a back-to-back LC in our favor.

Under normal circumstance, we should have shipped the export cargo directly to a Pakistani port with transshipment in Singapore, if necessary – but the cargo was required to be consigned to the intermediary in Singapore and discharged at Singapore port. It was then re-exported to Pakistan as an export from Singapore. This was costly and cumbersome and an unnecessary process, and yet the importers in Pakistan insisted on this process.

This was totally bizarre to us, until much later, we found out the real reason behind this whacky way of conducting the trade.

It turns out that the Pakistanis were, willy-nilly, using Bhutan’s cardamom to export illegal capital out of the country and park it offshore. This came to light when one of the importers in Pakistan wanted to deal with us directly. We were finally happy to be doing some straightforward business, for a change – until we hit a snag half way through the negotiations and had to terminate the dealings entirely.

The Pakistani importer wanted us to over-invoice the shipment - they wanted us to issue Commercial Invoices valued at two times the agreed price. Once the LC was established and negotiated by us post shipment, they wanted us to plough back the difference between the agreed price and the value of the LC, into their offshore bank account.

As a government enterprise we could not be a party to such a deal that verged on the money laundering. The negotiations fell through and we went back to dealing with the intermediary in Singapore. But we finally understood the cause for the labyrinthine journey our cardamom consignment had to take.

While that mystery was finally solves, to this day I am still unsure as to where Bhutan’s cardamoms finally ended up.

Around the same time, strangely Bhutan emerged as the world’s largest grower and exporter of brown jacket cardamom – something that is totally IMPOSSIBLE – given that Nepal, Sikkim and India were much bigger growers of the brown jacket cardamom! How it came about is rather ticklish – something that I am still unwilling to write about :)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Once Again, Brown Jacket Cardamom

Exactly 2 years and 2 days back, my Blog post of 8th May, 2015 ended as follows:

"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!"

But I am still not going to tell you what happened :)-

Brown cardamom has not been good for the country in the past - I can guess that its recent proliferation is going to be even worst.

 Brown Trouble

Exactly 38 years back, in July of 1979, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo was so infuriated by the illegal plantation of cardamom and the devastation of forests it caused, that he was forced to implement Bhutan’s first ever nationalization of private property. That year, His Majesty ordered the seizure of all illegal cardamom plantations and nationalized the timber trade in the country. I was in the thick and thin of it, in my capacity as the Head of Export Section of the Export Division, Ministry of Trade & Industries.

Today the large-scale cardamom plantation represents a problem that is much bigger and more complex. For one, unlike in the past, lands that were traditionally used for producing food are now being converted to cardamom plantation - en masse. Over time, it will cost the country dearly. The other thing of concern is the fuel wood required to dry the cardamom after harvest. According to Pirthiman ( you need 2.6 MT of firewood to dry cardamom harvested from one hectare of plantation. The country’s cardamom production (dried) last year (2016) was 1,289.01 MT as reported by the Department of Agriculture Marketing & Cooperatives, Ministry of Agriculture. This quantity will be much higher if you take into account the informal market that goes unreported. A safe estimate would be that Bhutan produces a total of about 2,000 MT of dry cardamom, annually.

While production will vary from variety to variety and soil type and altitude, some estimate that 500 Sq. Mtr. of plantation will produce 25 - 26 kgs. of dried cardamom. This means that as of now, 3,846 hectares of land is under cardamom cultivation that went on to produce 2,000 MT of dry cardamom last year. Pirthiman estimates that each hectare of that 3,846 hectares will consume 2.6 MT of firewood. This gives us a whooping 10,000 MT of firewood, to fire the Bhattis that dry the cardamom.

For a country of our size, and with a Constitutional commitment to keep 60% land under forest cover for eternity, that is a whole lot of wood in the Bhatti!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Happiness is a Place … of rickety roads and bumpy rides!

One evening a few days back, a retired senior officer walked in on me while I was sipping beer in a restaurant. I wished him Kuzuangpo and offered him a chair to sit on, and a beer to drink. He declined the offer of beer explaining that it exasperated his gout and gastrointestinal problems. But he accepted the offer of a chair.

Not quiet the shy and retiring type, my unexpected companion got straight to the point; “Yeshey, I read your Blog quite regularly and I like most of what you write. However, I do not like your articles on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road."

“What is wrong with my Shingkhar-Gorgan road articles?"

“In your last post on the subject, you allege that some private interest is behind the push for the road. This is totally wrong. I know that there is no private interest involved. Anyway, why does it have to be private interest? Aren’t the people of Lhuentse important enough to deserve the Shingkhar-Gorgan road?"

“You also say that the road is illegal. You surely know how many roads run through national parks. Why is this made an issue of, while you keep quite about other roads that run through a number of parks and reserve forests?"

He went on; “Lhuentsips spend hundreds of Ngultrums more, to make a detour to come to Thimphu or to go to Trashiyangtse. With this road, people of Lhuentse can get to Thimphu much faster and with greater ease, and at lesser cost."

If few thousand lines that I have already written on the subject (which he has read) have not been able to dissuade him from the folly of his logic, it is unlikely that another round of lecture will help alter his views. But I did try. Unfortunately, we had to cut short our discussions since he was called way.

It is a pity. This retired officer worked in the civil service for close to four decades. He had risen to one of the highest positions in the bureaucracy; he held some seriously important posts with great responsibilities. During his tenure in the government, he would have been indoctrinated in, and parroted about, the virtues and merits of serving the Tsa Wa Sum (King, Country and People), a few thousand times. And yet, all that he has to show for it at the dusk of his life is that it is still about serving theTsa Wa Nga (Self).

I do not think that the question is about whether Lhuentsips are important - more likely, the pertinent question to ask would be whether they are more important than rest of the Bhutanese. For context, please read my following post:

What is the logic behind the government wanting to spend more than 2 billion Ngultrums (I am aware that the present estimate is Nu.890 million) to build that illegal and senseless road? What meaningful benefit would this road bring to the country and the rest of the people of Bhutan, other then helping some Lhuentsips, in the words of this retired civil servant, to get to Thimphu in a jiffy?

He also made the point that there are roads existing within the park areas and reserved forests and that if I cared so much for the law and the environment, I should be making noise about those and not merely about the Shingkhar-Gorgan road.

I am amazed at this unfortunate and regressive point of view. What he is saying is that we should continue to break laws and imperil the environment, on the grounds that there is precedence of roads being built through the park systems and reserve forests. He is unwilling to consider that those were built during a time when laws prohibiting their construction were not in place - that in some cases, the imperatives were different and more compelling. I tried to explain to him that there is no such thing as an illegal law - that as long as a law remains valid and in force, it has to be respected and abided with, as stupid as they may appear to be. That is what all law abiding citizens do.

It is a matter of great concern that not many seem to have any sense of the far-reaching implications of doing this road. Even fewer seem to understand that doing this road will test every single one of our resolves – those related to environmental conservation, the promise of “Bhutan for Life”, the claim that we are a GNH country, that we are a comity of people who respect laws and the right of the animals, our resolve and promise to ensure forest coverage of 60% for all times to come, our guarantee for the equitable distribution of nation’s wealth and opportunities.

Doing this road will be the very antithesis to all the promises we make and the hope we hold out to all those who look up to us, to provide leadership and direction in healing a world that is going sicker by the day. To say Bhutan can single handedly save this planet from ruin would be preposterous - but to say that our efforts would be, as one of our honorable Parliamentarians put it, inconsequential when bigger spoilers aren’t doing their share, would be the height of irresponsibility. We cannot give up hope just because others aren’t as caring.

I hope that the present government is mature enough to realize that if they go ahead and do this Shingkhar-Gorgan road, they will be seen as a government that connives with interest groups to break laws - that which they have been elected to protect and uphold, and be the custodians of.

Come to think of it - road construction in Bhutan follows a certain set pattern that defies logic. Roads that we do not need get done, and those that are critical remain undone.

Shingkhar-Gorgan road is illegal, meaningless, environmentally destructive, a complete slur to our reputation as a champion of environmental conservation, and yet we want to do it, so desperately that the government would submit false reports to the NEC in an effort to obtain environmental clearance.

What we need is the widening of roads: North-South and South-North given the increase in traffic and economic activities in those areas. And yet, it is the West-East road that we are widening at great cost to the tourism industry and the environment.

Kawajangtsa has seen the largest concentration of some seriously large buildings: National Land Commission, Ministry of Health, Royal Audit Authority, WWF, RSPN, UNDP, NITM, ACC and, more recently the Democracy House. In addition, the area attracts a large number of tourists since the area has some interesting destinations of tourist interest, such as the Institute of Zorign Chusum, National Library, Folk Heritage Museum, including most frequented handicraft shops and a very popular eatery called the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant. And yet, a patch of road in that area has seen years of neglect and apathy. The patch of road - no more that 500 Mtrs. - between the National Library and the Democracy House is in total shambles. The Democracy House would have cost few hundred millions to build and yet, they did not provide less than a million to do up the road leading to it. The bumpy pot-hole ridden road is not a sight we can be proud of.

Similarly, Bhutan earns hundreds of millions of dollars - from tourist arrivals every year. And yet, we are unable to pave that short stretch of road in Paro - that run along side the BOD towards Drugyel Dzong. This stretch of road is not more than 500 Mtrs. And yet, year after year it remains broken down and unrepaired. It is quiet possible that every tourist that land in Bhutan bumps along this road - on their sightseeing trips to Taktsang, Drugyel Dzong, Kichu Lhakhang, and those who are headed for treks to Jumolhari and beyond.

We talk of spending Nu.890 million on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road and Nu.8 billion on the West-East highway widening --- and yet we are unable to find the money to do less than a thousand Mtrs. of road resurfacing in Kawajangtsa and Paro. If we hope to keep the cash cows mooing contentedly, we have to learn to give them an enjoyable experience. This is not the way to do it.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, we have to begin to place our hearts where our minds are. Or soon there will be a chorus of: Happiness is a Place! …. of bumpy rides and rickety roads.