Monday, June 25, 2018

BHUTAN2020 Initiative Launched in Toronto, Canada

Room #718B at the Rotary Convention Hall in Toronto, Canada that seats 550 will this day miss one speaker from a little known country in the Great Eastern Himalayas - Rotarian Yeshey Dorji, Rotary Club of Thimphu’s Secretary Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. My Canadian Visa never came through and thus I could not make the trip. Perhaps the Canuks think I am some kind of thug whom they have decided to declare persona non grata. In not issuing me the Visa in time, the Canadians have denied me the rare honor of being the first Bhutanese ever to speak during a Rotary Convention where anywhere from 30,000 - 70,000 delegates from over 200 countries would congregate.

Image courtesy of RID 5370
Bhutan flag goes up during the opening day of the universe's
largest convention - the Rotary Convention - currently being
held at Toronto, Canada. The image was mailed to me by
Rotarian Lorraine Faherty of Damariscotta, Maine, USA.
I was supposed to speak during one of the Break-out Sessions of the Rotary International’s 2018 Annual Convention that began in Toronto, Canada a few days back. Fifth among six speakers on the topic “Safe Water, a Basic Human Right”, I was supposed to speak on “The Bhutan Experience: what has been done, what will be done - the partnership with Government - the need for safe water".

Well it does not matter - I am expendable. The cause is not. And the cause will see the light of day today – a momentous day for Bhutan and the Bhutanese children. Last of the Break-out Session speakers on this day in Room #718B - David Langworthy, CEO and Founder of Disaster Aid Australia (DAA) - will officially roll out the “BHUTAN 2020” initiative during this Break-out Session.

The words and images at the RITCON that launched
the BHUTAN 2020 initiative today.

BHUTAN 2020 is an initiative underwritten by Disaster Aid Australia, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Thimphu, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan. This initiative aims at delivering 120 SkyHydrant Water Filter Systems to 120 of Bhutan’s central schools by the year 2020. In the second phase, if things work out well and should the partnership endure, the initiative’s coverage will extend to every school in the country – representing 80% of Bhutanese children.

Map showing installation sites of 20 SkyHydrant
water filters by July 2018. Ten of the twenty
Dzongkhags would have been covered.
This is a colossal project that requires dedication and tireless hard work from all collaborating partners. An initiative at this scale is something that not even the government had dared attempt so far. The initial funding for the first phase of 120 central schools by 2020 is pegged at a staggering $1 million. I am a little jittery about this – but CEO David Langworthy assures me that the deal is, for all practical purposes, firmly in the pocket! The man should know.

On the part of the DAA, they have already begun work on this initiative in right earnest. Of the 120 systems targeted, 10 of them are already scheduled to arrive Bhutan next month, accompanied by two DAA DART Members, a water engineer and a videographer. They will train local installation team to handle site assessment, installation and maintenance of the systems.

Even more interesting, I am told by DAA that they will be featured on a Global Christmas Carol TV program that will be broadcast in December, 2018 - to an audience in excess of 1 billion viewers worldwide! Our BHUTAN 2020 Initiative will be featured in that broadcast.

The much coveted SkyHydrant Water Filter Systems
- from Australia with love

On the part of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, they are scheduling a training program for 60 of the school Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Caretakers around the country, including few professional engineers in their employ. The training is timed to coincide with the arrival of the DAA team from Australia. The WASH Caretakers will be trained by the DAA DART Members – in site assessment and maintenance of the systems, once installed, while the engineers will take on the installation task.

The Rotary Club of Thimphu and the Kingdom of GNH are going places! And I, your faithful man Friday, is experiencing bouts of Atychiphobia. Because I get this feeling that the enormity of the enterprise is still outside and beyond the fathoming of most people involved in this endeavor.

When I proposed to our Club Members that we invite CEO David Langworthy to Bhutan to look at the schools that he is supporting, I never imagined that the visit would culminate into this colossal project. Now that it has, I must remember to thank the following who played a part that lead a rank outsider to dream up, commit and implement a project that will touch the lives of tens of thousands of children across the country.

Druk Air Corporation, our national flag carrier --- they have always been forthcoming to our requests for carriage of the water filters on board their aircraft – free of cartage charges.

Druk Hotel, Bhutan's premier hotel of choice - for providing free accommodation to CEO David Langworthy, during his stay in Thimphu.

Drubchhu Resort, my preferred hotel of choice in Punakha – for providing free accommodation and meals, during the visit of the CEO to Punakha.

Principals of Damphu Central School, Lobesa Lower Secondary School and Dashiding Middle Secondary School – for the cultural programs and invitation to meals, during the CEO’s visit to their schools to inspect the installations.

The Minister, Secretary, Director General and Chief Aum Jamyang Choeden – for rolling out the welcome wagon to the CEO. I believe that it was during the farewell dinner in Druk Hotel hosted by the Rotary Club of Thimphu in honor of the CEO that the idea of BHUTAN2020 began to ovulate.

DAA DART Member Andrew Gunn – for scoring a perfect 6’er when he batted for Bhutan (a light hearted banter between Andrew and me) upon his return to Australia after his first visit. Please keep batting!

Last but not the least, Rotarian K K Looi of Malaysia who first brought the much coveted filter to our attention – rest is history.

Thank you all.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

I Am Hugely Encouraged !!!

Between 18th to 24th June, 2018 a total of 2,914 readers visited my Blog. Of this 2,766 readers chose to read my article titled “Please Surrender Your Subsidized LPG Cylinders”.  Of this total, 2,262 readers were Bhutan based.

The article was so popular that it got listed as one of the top 10 articles ever, since May 2010. The following are my other top 10 most read articles.


I am hugely encouraged that in 6 days, the article drew such a huge crowd. But that is hardly of any consequence. What is important is this:

Did it make a difference in the way the Bhutanese people think? Did it encourage some LPG users – to give up their subsidized LPG cylinders, for the sake of those who are less fortunate?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Something to Brood Over

One of the world’s youngest democracies has got to be among the most muddled. The staggering amount of contradictions and discrepancies that direct the functioning of our democratic process is, simply, hilarious! It is impossible to list them all --- but I can begin with one that you might find worth brooding over.

You may have noticed that in recent weeks and months, a number of political parties have been hard at work announcing the names of their candidates – some new and others, thankfully, in replacement of old ones that are being put out to pasture. The leader of the pack is ofcourse good old ruling party PDP – they are replacing close to 50% of their candidates. Now that has got to be unprecedented in political history any where! Do I think it is suicidal? I do – but I certainly admire the guts of the party leadership – this is very gutsy and it could sink them. But I suppose they know a thing or two that you and I don't.

But this is not the point I am trying to make. What intrigues me is the names of some of the new candidates announced by some political parties. They contain names of some senior civil servants who have been superannuated, or were on the verge of being superannuated. Why does this intrigue me? It intrigues me because of the simple concept behind superannuation.

Being superannuated means you have reached the end of your productive age – that you have outlived your usefulness. There is a law that says that when you reach the superannuation age, you have to be put out to pasture. Thus, enlisting superannuated persons by political parties to contest elections as their candidates may be in contravention of the law that says that a person of certain age can no longer be employable in the government. The question is: what happens if the superannuated political appointee wins the election and forms part of the government? Is reinstatement back into the system permissible?

I am not saying that the political parties are recycling old waste. But what I am hinting at is that if we are to move forward, if we are to bring dynamism into governance, a change in perspective, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things, I think the political parties must look elsewhere and not keep scrapping the bottom of the same cesspool.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Please Surrender Your Subsidized LPG Cylinders

If anything is constant – it is the process of education and learning. I got to realize this in the morning today, on my way back from Paro.

A young girl flagged me down at Chuzom looking for a ride home. I was all alone and so I stopped and told her to hop in. As we approached Thimphu, she asked if I could drop her off to her house in Simtokha.

I said; “sorry I am running late for an appointment so I will have to drop you off at Olarongchhu.”

I heard her call a friend seeking for a loan. I realized that she did not have money to pay for the taxi ride home. So I asked her;

“How much would a taxi ride cost you?

She said; “Nu.100.00”.

So I gave her the money. For me it was cheaper to give her Nu.100.00 rather than take a diversion to drop her off at her home.

As I continued my drive, the realization hit me that there were people out there who did not possess Nu.100.00. For God’s sake --- that is less than the price of half a bottle of beer I drink. Even more disturbing – I realized that to someone poor, Nu.100.00 meant a hell of a lot of money – the difference between reaching home or being stranded in the middle of a highway.

When I reached Motithang, I headed straight for BOD. There I inquired about exchanging my subsidized LPG cylinders with those of none subsidized ones. The girl said not a problem --- you can take anytime you want. I said;

“But I want to surrender my subsidized cylinders so that they can be issued to more deserving users. What do I do?” She said, nothing we give you the new cylinders at a reduced price.

I am told that the price difference between the subsidized and none subsidized LPG is only Nu.200.00. But the incident of the morning taught me that Nu.200.00 can be a big deal to someone who is poor and does not have the money.

I decided that I am going to surrender both my old cylinders when they run out - and take the none subsidized ones. It is my hope that two villagers in some remote corner of the country who may be short of Nu.200.00 may yet have his/her chance at owing a LPG cylinder.

I know that the world is an unfair place – but that should not be the reason NOT to do our part – however small. I know that it is the rich, the highly salaried in the country – the Ministers, the Secretaries, the Directors and the politicians who get to import cars duty free, and buy chocolates and whiskey and perfume – at quota rates - while the lowly paid peons and the drivers and the clerks pay over 200% duty to buy their cars and booze.

If this was a fair world, you would not be buying LPG for cooking your meals or heating your homes – you would be using the much hyped hydro-electricity at much cheaper prices. But the sad thing is that we cannot afford our own electricity to cook and to heat – and thus we are forced to hanker after subsidized LPG.

I urge all those of you who think you can afford to pay additional Nu.200.00 a month, please opt for the none subsidized LPG cylinders. Doing so will help some poor villager finally get their subsidized LPG that they deserve.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Punatsangchhu Hydroelectric Project-I in Colombia?

It seems like "geological surprises" are not so uncommon - it is happening elsewhere too - not just in Bhutan.

The US$2.8 billion Hidroituango mega dam being built on the river Cauca in Colombia is all poised to collapse. For a full report, please read the following:

What is striking about the above case is that it is so, so similar to our own PHPA-I project that has been languishing in a state of limbo for years.

The case of Hidroituango dam should serve as a lesson for all Bhutanese who hanker after hydro-power projects.

I still say that it is time that we did a rethink on the doomed PHPA-I. We are still not late to avert an imminent catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Stinking Stench and an Alpine Rumpus

Over few hundred miles apart – one bang in the center of the capital city Thimphu, another at the extreme fringes of the country’s northern border – two stinks have apparently been fomenting for some time. I wasn't aware until very recently.

The Stinking Stench: The foul stench of raw sewage is unmistakable as you pass the Secretariat of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement (MoWHS). Quite evidently, the building that houses the Ministry and Departments that set out building codes and construction and design standards has a leakage in their sewage system. You can see the raw sewage filling the drainage system below the building. Such irresponsibility is not only pathetic, it’s demoralizing in a nation that prides itself on environmental stewardship.

The Alpine Rumpus: Now, this stink has the potential to turn deadly. It needs immediate attention and I hope that the government will look into the problem with wisdom and foresight. Unfortunately this is an election year, and I suspect that the politicians are likely to flaunt the cause as something of a political opportunity rather than as a problem that needs solving.

The issue surrounds the curiously formed, crinkly, half-worm-half-grass oddity known as Cordyceps sinensis. The most expensive among the traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) is all set to turn a trail blazer – one that history is likely to quote as the event that marked the beginning of provincial conflict in the country. An intense discord has apparently been brewing for the past few years among the highlanders – the inhabitants of the high altitude Gewogs of Lunana, Sephu, Laya etc. Central to the discord is the right of harvest of the highly priced Cordyceps sinensis, or Yartsa Guenboop.

Cordyceps sinensis as it appears when right out of the ground

Cordyceps sinensis: dried and dust

The one that got away: A moth caterpillar that never made it as a Cordyceps sinensis - it escaped the spores that would have germinated it into Yartsa Guenboop

During my recent trip to Lunana, I was witness to a conversation between a government official and a Gewong Tsogpa of Lunana. Apparently, there is a rule that says that only Lunaps can harvest Yartsa Guenboop within the territorial boundaries of Lunana Gewog. Similarly, Lunaps cannot go and trespass into other Gewogs. I am not sure where there is fairness in this strangely divisive rule – but the problem is that people are unwilling to adhere to these conditions. It seems that the Sephups and the Layaps are “poaching” into Lunana territory. Lunaps are not taking it lying down – they are ganging up to chase away the plundering neighbors.

While Layaps are smart and move away when chased (only to come back hours later under the cover of darkness and stealth), the Sephups are in no mood to listen. They stand their ground and insist that they have a right to harvest a common, naturally grown bounty that belongs to the whole nation and the people of Bhutan – not merely to the Lunaps. Upon insisting that they leave, the Sephups are said to have threatened that when this is all over, they will take a similar stand: that Lunaps will not be able to access Sephup territory, or there will be murder and slaughter. The Lunaps of northern regions of Lunana must exit through Nikachhu for their daily essentials, and Nikachhu is under Sephu Gewog.

KUENSEL of 28th May, 2018 reported that the BHSL chopper made 10 sorties to the harvesting areas on 27th May, 2018 alone to defuse the dangerous atmosphere that was brewing among the highlanders. That day, I was still in the harvesting areas in Lunana, but I have no idea if the government officials from Thimphu managed to chase away the Sephups. But of one thing I am sure: This is not a boundary dispute. It is about the right of ownership of a mystical oddity whose potency has the magic to cure hair loss and to correct erectile dysfunction.

 Cordyceps sinensis is harvested at altitudes above 4,800 Mtrs. A Yak herder's camp opposite where I was camped at 4,988 Mtrs. in Lunana

Before the harvesting and collection of Yartsa Guenboop was legalized in 2004, I was among the very, very few who advocated in writing the need for the legalization of Cordyceps collection. I did so because during those days, Bhutanese collectors were being penalized and fined and jailed for collecting the worms, while the Tibetans across the border plundered the bounty without let or hindrance, in the process making millions from its sale. Little did I know that years later, legal Cordyceps collection could result in the country’s first case of provincial conflict.

Time is now for the Government to rethink the policy. Clearly, there is a real danger that this could escalate into something that the country does not need – least of all on our northern borders.