Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pondering Over These Minor Anomalies

In the winter months, Bhutan imports electricity from India - at much higher rates than we export to them during the summer months. We pride ourselves as a net exporter of electricity and claim that our biggest economic activity is generating hydroelectricity. And yet, the Bhutanese people spend hours queuing up at the fuel pump - to buy imported fuel source to cook and heat homes. We are unable to afford the electricity that we generate.

Our farmers auction off thousands of metric tons of potatoes to Indian merchants across the border, during the potato-growing season. Then during the off-season, same potatoes are imported back into the country by the Bhutanese merchants - at almost double the price, to be consumed by the same people who grew them.

We are famous the world over as a nation of Ema Datsi. We consume chilies for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between. And yet, we have to import them because we do not grow enough.

Every time I pass by the Hongtso Immigration Check Post, I am puzzled by the logic of its existence at that location. What is the meaning of it, exactly? Bhutan’s most visited place of tourist interest happens to be the Druk Wangyel Chortens at Dochula. This place is visited more than the famous Taktsang. It is within the  administrative boundaries of Thimphu Dzongkhag and it is not listed as a Restricted Area. Thus visitors to this place should NOT be required to obtain Restrict Areas Route Permit to visit Druk Wangyel Chortens.

The gate was originally installed as a forestry produce check-point. Even the person who was responsible to start it originally, is now dead and gone. This gate is a meaningless expenditure for the government and it certainly does not contribute to a happy experience for the tourists. If such a gate is needed at all, it should be relocated to a place where the two territorial boundaries converge - that of Thimphu and Wangdue.

Druk Air is Bhutan’s premier air transport operator of long standing. It certainly helped in putting the country on the tourism world map. But I fear that over time, it was allowed to digress from its original mandate and obligation for which the national flag carrier was created. Or, perhaps the government lost track of the principal role a national flag carrier must play in the overall scheme of things.

Calculated based on the average duration of visitors to Bhutan, today the airfare component works out to over 60% of the TCB’s Minimum Daily Tariff charged to every visitor to the country. This is atrocious. Every time the airfare is quoted to a prospect, they tell us that we are cheating. If Bhutan is to draw in increased international arrivals, we must rationalize the airfare of the Druk Air. The airline must function as a limb that complements and strengthens the body. Given its carrying capacity, it cannot be required to compete with the industry as a profit center. It cannot perform as a commercial entity - unless it does so at the cost of something else. And that is what is currently happening - the airfare of the Druk Air has become a severe deterrent - to the tourism industry’s aspirations for a buoyant growth.

There is a need to de-list Druk Air as a commercial entity - we need them to fulfill a larger national objective, and not be required to serve a narrow mandate of making profit that can only come at the cost of the nation. The basis of Druk Air's fare structure should not be calculated based on its operating and maintenance costs - other more important considerations must come into the equation. After all, let us admit it - given their fleet size and the routes they serve and the number of people they have to employ, the mathematics do not work - not unless they push the cost on to someone else.

It is all about economies of scale.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Sad News

I have just been notified that the website:

will go offline with effect from 15th February, 2019. It is sad - this website is a treasure-trove of information, particularly on the endangered species of the world. I am one of the over 7,000 contributors to the site - I donated one of my images to be stored on the site for posterity:

Please visit the site before it is taken off - some rare and stunning images of the world’s most endangered species are found there.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

There Is Nothing Doubtful About What Is Imminent

The national newspaper KUENSEL reveals that a staggering Nu.3,950,000,000.00 (Nu.3.95B) is the amount reported as the financial irregularities in the hydropower sector. This means that in addition to being gagged and tied up in an eternal knot of economic bondage, every single Bhutanese - children, women, men, old, young, lame, mute, blind - have evidently been robbed of Nu.6,000.00 each, through all sorts of corruption and mismanagement.

That does not, however, seems to be our biggest worry. KUENSEL today reports that there was, yet again, a land slide at the PHPA I dam site that occurred on 22nd January, 2019.

KUENSEL's article on the landslide at the PHPA I dam site

How KARMIC and scary! Scary because my instincts don't seem to be misplaced - only two days earlier, I had gone to a small village called Japhu, with the express purpose of photographing Gaselo village that sits right above the dam site. Japhu village is on the other side of the Punasangchhu - right opposite Gaselo. For sometime now, I have been overcome by this instinctive feeling that sometime in the future the topography of Gaselo is likely to be altered beyond recognition, caused by construction activities down below, including a real possibility of a seismic activity. There is a need to capture and preserve an image of the village as it stands now, before we lose it all to the ferocity and devastation of nature. The following photographs were acquired on 20th January, 2019:

Gaselo village sits directly above the PHPA I dam site

PHPA Colony that sits right above the dam site 

Japhu village opposite Gaselo

For the past four years I have been hollering for the shutting down of the PHPA I. But it still stands - even as it is selectively ravaged by landslides and annual flooding of the Project's cofferdam, by the Punasangchhu. What worries me is the inconsequential and ineffectual attempt by the PHPA-I people to implement stabilization measures such as cable anchoring and reinforcing with cement concrete (RCC) micro-piling. These activities are obviously necessitated to mitigate a known and eminent danger of the right hill sliding down into the ravine. In other words, the project people are attempting to fight nature, instead of heeding its warnings.

The question is: can they?

I have been witness to cyclonic activities twice in my life - once in Japan and once in Thailand. I have seen the power and ferocity of nature - first hand. Against the might and wrath of nature, men can do nothing but be humbled by its power and scale of devastation. Men do not stand a chance against nature.

To me it seems like it is time to investigate the geology of whole of Gaselo, very seriously. Let us understand the extent of threat to life and property. If there is indeed a threat, let us be prepared for it. Do not forget that the whole of Gaselo area is located bang in the middle of a high to very high seismically hazardous zone. All it take is a minor jolt and a nudge, to bring everything tumbling down.

The seismic hazard map of Bhutan: there is nothing doubtful about what is imminent

Impossible Made Possible

I recently posted a photograph of Kuenselphodrang’s Buddha Dordenma on this Blog, with a snow-clad mountain looming large behind the statue.  Some viewers I am told is of the view that I did some digital darkroom magic, to render the image in the form and state that it was presented in.

The image that is the subject of discussion

This is not true --- I assure you that no post-shoot manipulation is involved. I am not trying to counter the criticism - but I feel that here is an opportunity to give the viewers some tips on photography.

I used a super telephoto lens to produce this imposing image. In simple terms, the primary purpose of the telephoto lens is to project the objects/subjects closer than they really are.  The mountains are there behind the statue --- but the eyes see them far away from the statue, which they are. In addition to using a telephoto lens to pull the mountains closer to the statue, I spent time (2 days) hunting for a location that aligns the statue bang in front of the mountains that I want to use as a backdrop. But finding the mountains to use as a backdrop is not the end …. I also need a location that has the right level/height from where to shoot the frame that I had already composed in my mind. As a trained photographer I can see in the eyes of my mind how I can dramatize a certain scene - using different elements that are already available in nature. I just need to put together the right tools and situations to bring it all together - to produce an image that most believe is impossible.

As you can see from the image below of Paro Taa Dzong, even that mountain behind the structure is nowhere as close as you see in the image. Here too I used a telephoto lens to draw in the mountain in the back, so that it is seen towering imposingly over the Dzong.

The magic of telephoto lens - you cannot see this scene with your naked eyes

But mind you, telephoto lenses are not always used for distant images and to draw in the background closer to the subject. In the following image of a lady in Rangjung, Trashigang, I used the telephoto lens for just the opposite purpose - to throw off the background. I used the lens’ elements to create what is called a shallow "depth-of-field”. The lens’ inherent capabilities helped me separate the subject from the background. You notice that the background is totally blurred and out of focus … while in the images of the Buddha and the Dzong, I used the lens to render the background sharper and closer to the subject.

In the following photo the green curtain-like background is actually the lady's paddy field where she was engaged in transplanting paddy. But through the combination of proper selection of lens' aperture and  physical positioning of myself just the right distance away from the subject, I managed to turn the paddy field into a smooth, glossy backdrop of green infused with a swathe of grey.

The use of telephoto lens to create a shallow depth of field

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Safe Drinking Water For Two More Schools

The start of the new year - 2019 has ushered in a period of hectic activities for the Rotary Club of Thimphu. During this single month a total of five projects have been handed over to the communities in various parts of the country - one more will soon be handed over.

First project to be handed over early this month was the construction of 34 toilets in Ketokha village, Bongo Gewog, Chhukha Dzongkhang. Within days, in the same Dzongkhag, we handed over 4.34 KMs of solar fencing to the RBP’s Thrimsung Women Group in Tashigatshel, Chhukha. This was followed by a water filter project for the RBP’s Zilneon Nagyelling Lower Secondary School in Thimphu. This was reported on this Blog at:

Within days following the handing over of the above projects, we completed the installation of two more RO water filtration systems with UV treatment units in the following schools:

Bajothang Higher Secondary School

Location                            :  Bajothang, Wangduephodrang
Class of School                 :  Higher Secondary School
Owner of the Schoo          :  Royal Government of Bhutan
No. of Students                 :  1,016
No. of Teaching Staff        : 70
No. of Support Staff          :         9

Total Beneficiaries .         :  1,095

Shaba Primary School

Location                            :  Shaba, Paro
Class of School                 :  Primary School
Owner of the School         :  Royal Government of Bhutan
No. of Students                 :   613
No. of Teaching Staff       :     34
No. of Support Staff         :       5

Total Beneficiaries          :   652

Mr. Stephen Frederick Jones and his wife Mrs. Valerie Lois Jones of Woodside, California, USA, funded the full cost of the supply and installation of the water filter systems in the above three schools.

Mr. Stephen Frederick Jones and his wife came to Bhutan on a ham radio/trekking trip during October of 2017. It was their first trip to Bhutan. For Mr. Jones, a ham radio enthusiast, the trip was the realization of an aspiration that he had held for over half a century - a dream to visit Bhutan and operate ham radio - ever since he made QSO in 1965, with the legendary American D’Xpeditioner - Gus Browning, then operating from Thimphu.

On their trekking trip to Jumolhari Base Camp they met up with a small local girl-child in the village of Soe Jangothang, named Sonam. They took an immediate liking to the girl and visited the local school (Soe ECR) where she was due for enrolment the following year. Upon asking the school Principal how they might contribute to the child’s education and welfare, the Principal said that the school needed a water filter. This was the start of the couple’s journey of giving and charity, in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Thimphu.

The couple offered enough funding to support the installation of a water filter in the Soe ECR, including half a dozen window curtains that the school needed. The installation of water filter and delivery of the window curtains were completed last year. If that were not enough, the couple went back home to the US and remitted additional funds to support the installation of RO water filter systems at another school - Betikha Middle Secondary School in Paro. The installation of the water filters in this school was also completed early last year.

The couple promises that they will continue to fund more filters in other schools in the coming years. This generous couple has the distinction of being the single highest individual donors to the Rotary Club of Thimphu’s humanitarian projects. In appreciation our Club has honored them with the following Plaque of Appreciation:

Plaque of Appreciation issued to the donor couple

Friday, January 18, 2019

World Bank Economist: Do Away With Irrational Exemptions to Attain Fiscal Self-Sufficiency

This morning I was scanning through my Blog statistics and I was surprised to see that there were 7 people reading my old post dated Friday, May 26, 2017, titled: Hydro Revenue Can’t Assure Self-reliance:

Very interesting! I think the readers were making a connection with the post - as a consequence of my recent post on the formation of the 4th Pay Commission:

If you read my older post of May, 2017, you will notice that I make reference to a public talk given by Mr. Martin Rama, World Bank’s Chief Economist of South Asia Region. Moving away from hydro-power, the following is what he had to say, in relation to our quota system:

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

The World Bank Economist is in no doubt what Bhutan must do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Same Same But New Angle

I spent two days trying to capture the good old Buddha Dordenma statue with the following backdrop. I still did not manage to get it exactly how I want it ... but this comes close. I will try again but only after there is snow on the mountains .... 

Those of you who are believers, you are welcome to download the image.

Buddha Dordenma statue as seen on the morning of 16th January, 2019 at 07:29AM

Yet Again One More For Our Men In Blue

Blue seems to be currently in vogue rather, on a high of sorts. Barely did we complete the hand-over of a solar fencing project to them at Chhukha, and we are due for another project handover - that of the completion of the construction and installation of 2 units of Reverse Osmosis Water Filter systems in their school at Zilnoen Namgyelling Lower Secondary School in Thimphu. This school, located bang inside the RBP campus in Thimphu, serves the children of the entire police force in the country.

The Rotary Club of Thimphu is committed to accept every single request for water filters from all levels of schools. We will complete the delivery of US$1.00 million worth of SkyHydrant water filters in all of the 120 Central Schools planed in the country. This target we hope to achieve by the end of 2020, in collaboration with the Disaster Aid Australia. We have already installed over 2 dozen RO water filter systems in schools across the country. Twenty units of the SkyHydrant water filters are at differing stages of installation. Ten more SkyHydrants are due to arrive the county in the coming month. Only Central Schools will receive SkyHydrant filters – given their superior student enrollment. Rest of the schools will be supplied with RO systems with UV treatment unit.

The funding for the RO Water filters for Zilnoen Namgyelling LSS was received from an American couple - Mr. Stephen Frederick Jones & Mrs. Valerie Lois Jones of Woodside, California, USA. This couple is the highest individual donors to our projects.

The connection between Steve Jones and Bhutan is rather prodigious – almost fable like. Please read all about it at:

School Signboard

 School's main academic block

Filtration & UV Treatment Unit 1

Filtration & UV Treatment Unit 2

Monday, January 14, 2019

Of Toilets and Blood Pressure Monitors

“………… It is with the greatest sense of gratitude that I venture to write this letter of Thank You to the Rotary Club of Thimphu, for the unprecedented impact your organization has brought to these impoverished parts of Chhukha Dzongkhag. Suffice it to say that nothing even remotely compares to what you have done for the improvement of health and livelihood of the people of Bongo Gewog.”

“….. I can only speak on behalf of the health sector in my capacity as the Health Assistant of Bongo Gewog. And here I can tell you that in the past 20 years of being a health worker, I have never seen such dramatic improvement in disease prevention, as that I have seen in Bongo Gewog. The impact has been astounding, to say the least.”

“……… In 2017 when there were no PF toilets, my hospital recorded 60+ cases of diarrhea and dysentery. But in 2018, the number of cases dropped to just 28 – representing a massive reduction of over 55%. Even better, the occurrence of skin diseases went down from 79 in 2017 to 27 cases in 2018 – a drop of 66%. Such improvement not only represents better health for the people but substantial savings for the government, through reduced spending on healthcare.”

“………….. it is not only the reduction in incidences of diseases that has helped improve the lives of the people of Bongo, I am also proud to report that Rotary Club of Thimphu’s donation of 8 units of Omron Blood Pressure Monitors has recently helped prevent two fetal deaths – through timely detection and treatment. Without those portable devices that helped me monitor the cases remotely, it would have been certain death for the two persons.”

The above are portions of the letter of thank you sent to the Rotary Club of Thimphu by Mr. Sangay Tenzin, Health Assistant, Bongo BHU, Chhukha Dzongkhag. As you can see, he is grateful for the toilets we built - a total of 95 of them in two villages of Chhukha Dzongkhag - Bongo and Ketokha.

In early January of 2018 we built 36 toilets for Bongo village. Then in July of 2018, we built 25 toilets in Ketokha village. Finally, 34 more were built and handed over to the Ketokha community on 8th of this month. The funding for the toilets was received from Rotary Clubs from Malaysia, USA and Sweden.

Bongo and Ketokha qualify as the only two villages in the entire country with 100% toilet coverage. And, we at the Rotary Club of Thimphu are proud to have played an active part in achieving this remarkable feat. Amazingly the communities of these villages managed to build more than one toilet a day, proving that all that it takes is organization, determination and leadership. The construction of both the toilet projects in Bongo and Ketokha were spearheaded by a tireless supervisor of outstanding grit - Sangay Thinley of CBS - himself a Bhumiputra from Bongo.

Ketokha village under Chhukha Dzongkhag

The pour-flush toilet that we built in the villages of Bongo and Ketokha has room enough for bathing as well.

Club's Project Completion Report to the donors so they know their money has been spent for the purpose it was intended for

Now the Bongo Health Assistant tells us that there are another three villages in the vicinity of Bongo and Ketokha that are without toilets. He informs us that the villagers there need toilets too. Why not --- as I have always said, we are not Gods that we can decide who needs them and who does not --- if they need it, they know they need it ... thus they shall be entitled to it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Solar Fencing for the Men in Blue

We are into the winter months - at this time of the year, people snuggle into bed early and snuggle out late. The vegetation turns grey and the trees shed leaves. Everything freezes over - things move at a lethargic pace. It is a time when urgent works get postponed and pushed to another day. But for the Rotary Club of Thimphu - things have been hectic - hectic and fast paced - delivering humanitarian service.

Latest in a series of service projects delivered by the Rotary Club of Thimphu in recent weeks is the installation and inauguration of 4.34 KMs of solar fencing for the Thrimsung Women Group of the Special Reserve Police Force (SRPF) at the RBP camp at Tashigatshel, Chhukha. The Group, comprised of the wives of the RBP personnel aspires to start organic vegetable farming and thus sought our help in providing them with solar fencing to protect the farmland from wild life predation. And why not? Our men in blue serve the society - day in day out. They protect us on a daily basis. Thus if any one deserves our help - they do. Late last year, our Club accepted a request from Lt. Col. Tshering Dorji, SP of the SRPF, Tashigatshel for help.

Day before yesterday the 11th of January, 2019, I and the Chief of Police inaugurated the solar fencing in a sombre ceremony attended by the officers of the camp.

Here is wishing all the best to the Thrimsung Women Group in their endeavors to grow organic vegetable.

The Chief of Police, SP of SRPF and myself inaugurate the fencing project

The Chief of Police charges the fence by hitting the control switch On

A Gomchen (lay monk) consecrates the Control Panel and the Signboard of the Project

The fenced farmland where the Thrimsung Women Group will grow organic vegetables

This is not the only project our Club is doing for the men in blue - in total we are doing 4 projects for them, in rapid succession.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Winning Team For The History Books

I am encouraged to know that the 4th Pay Commission has been constituted, although there is no requirement under the Constitution that every new government should establish a Pay Commission. But this is a wise political move. Whatever recommendations the Pay Commission comes up with, the government will be blameless. And, quite obviously, the Commission won’t be looking at reasons why the salaries and emoluments of the civil/public servants should be halved. They would want to look at justifications for recommending an all round increase in salaries and emoluments of the civil/public servants.

Here is where I feel sorry for the Members of the Commission. In my mind, the only way they can approach the subject will be based on the following three considerations:

1.  State of the nation’s economy
2.  Inflation
3.  Fall or rise in the civil/public servants’ efficiency and productivity

It will not be based on the state of the economy - because the country’s economy is in the doldrums. Thus, if economy were to be a determining factor, a reduction in salary is called for.

Historically, civil/public servants’ salary increase has been the biggest driver of inflation - every time government increased the salary of the civil/public servants, inflation hit the roof. Thus, as a measure to rein in inflation, it is important to keep the civil/public servants' salary in check - quite the antithesis to the objectives of the exercise of the 4th Pay Commission.

The last consideration would have to be made based on the fall or rise of the civil/public servants’ level of efficiency and productivity. And here there is no room for ambiguity - if the Commission Members were to recommend for an increase in the salary of the civil/public servants based on the merit of their efficiency and productivity, the Commission Members would have to be charged  in the courts, for treason to the Tsa Wa Sum.

It is a foregone conclusion that the Commission would want to recommend for an enhancement in the salaries and emoluments of the civil/public servants. Thus let us not bang our heads against an eventuality that is as certain as day and night. Instead, let us try and be imaginative - as to how we may offset the burden that will be brought to bear on the remaining 600,000 of the none-civil servant population of the country.

One sure way of paying for the pay increase is by: DOING AWAY WITH THE UNFAIR QUOTA SYSTEM that is currently in place.

According to TheBhutanese newspaper, the Royal Government of Bhutan losses a staggering Nu.212 million in tax revenues - just on 56 Toyota Prados issued to the MP’s - duty and tax free! As opposed to that, His Majesty the King calculates that there are 54,000 civil/public servants. Thus if we were to do away with the Duty and Tax exemptions on those 56 Prados, the additional tax and duty collection could mean that the Pay Commission could recommend an annual salary increase of Nu. 4,000.00 for each of the 54,000 civil/public servants.

That is not the end. Some section of the Bhutanese society is given duty free quota of vehicles, chocolates, perfumes, canned sausages, alcoholic beverages etc. If we were to do away with this quota system as well, we would be looking at additional collection of over Nu.300 million in tax and duty revenues. With the combined collection of Nu.212 + Nu.300 million, the total would amount to Nu.512 million. Divide this total amount evenly among 54,000 civil/public servants and the Pay Commission could safely recommend an annual pay increase of Nu. 9,500.00 for every one of the 54,000 civil/public servants - without causing a single chetrums loss to the exchequer.

Bhutan is a subsistence economy - we do not have the financial wherewithal to squander way hundreds of millions in unjustified quota gifts;

It is not fair that a motley of individuals are segregated to receive preferential treatment while the majority of the population are required to pay for their quota benefits;

The quota system perpetuates immorality/lawlessness among the supposedly civil/public servants. It is at the very core of the Bhutanese moral turpitude.

I see that the recently constituted Pay Commission is comprised of some really ethical persons of proven capability. The head of the government - the incumbent Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering - he comes off as a person with clarity in his thoughts. To me it seems like we have a winning team - to enter the history books as a team that did what is needed to be done - that which is good for the country and the people of Bhutan.

For once, please put the country above and beyond your political considerations and personal interests. Be the heroes that others have dared not be. Do not leave the hard decisions to the King alone all the time - those of you who are charged with the responsibility to take decisions ---- please have the courage to do so.

Seize the day - Carpe Diem!