Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Declining Bhutanese Probity

This will be my 13th article on the reprehensible vehicle quota issue. Perhaps this will be my last – or there will be more, depending on how the issue pans out over time. But while doing the 12th article, there was a moment of awakening which made be feel so terribly sad.

I became eligible for a vehicle quota in 1979. But I had no money to be able to afford a car. Five years later, in 1984 I gathered up my courage and approached my late uncle to give me a loan so that I could buy a Toyota Corona Sedan, the price of which was then Nu.68,000.00 c.i.f Phuentsholing. I needed Nu.34,000.00 as down payment - the balance 50% of the cost would be financed by the Bank of Bhutan. My uncle did not believe that I was in any condition to repay the loan - so he did what a loving uncle does for his most favorite nephew - he said that I could have the money - FREE!

Four days later I went to the STCB to make my down payment, only to be told that the price of the car had gone up by Nu.4,000.00, which meant that my portion of the down payment would now work out to Nu.36,000.00. I was short of Nu.2,000.00, which money I did not have. Thus ended my dream to ever own a car bought on quota.

What struck me was that those days we never dreamed of selling our vehicle quota. Where the people of that era more principled? Where we more law-abiding than those of the present lot? Is the present generation poorer than those of us those days, that they need to supplement their income by selling vehicle quota illegally in the black market?

Has the quality of Bhutanese people been dropping with the passage of time? If this is true, then I would be right in saying that it is not the quality of education that has dropped – it is the quality of students that has dropped. The quality of students has dropped because of the drop in the quality of people (parents), resulting in poor quality of parenting.

What is with human race? Even as we say we are making progress, we suffer decline – in morality, discipline, integrity, value, sense of duty, patriotism, quality of life, spirit of volunteerism, and sense of charity.

That provably explains why, even as we make progress in medical sciences, we are overwhelmed with illnesses that boggle the mind.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Gross National Hypocrisy: How the Vehicle Quota Hurts Bhutan

I have spoken to a number of Cabinet Members; I have spoken to politicians of the ruling Governments and those in the Opposition. I have spoken to bureaucrats, and even to one Member of the Pay Commission, about the shameful corruption that is the vehicle quota, and the need to scrap it from our system. Nothing has come of it – mainly because all those with whom I pleaded benefit personally from its perpetuation, while the nation continues to be deprived of hundreds of millions in lost revenue, year after year. The only door that I have yet to knock is the door of God - I would, only if I knew where His dwelling is.

Every year we squander away hundreds of millions of Ngultrums through loss of revenue - caused by award of vehicle quota to people who have not earned it - money that could have been used to build schools, improve roads and provide safe drinking water, or acquire much needed medical equipment. Thus far, no one has shown courage and selflessness to do something right – all have chosen to allow a most vile evil to go on unchecked, because they all benefit from it.

Perhaps it is that people do not really understand how vile this vehicle quota is. Thus I volunteer to point out the following.

There are a number of players that must be listed – as those contributing to the perpetuation of the blatant corruption that is vehicle quota:

Royal Government of Bhutan
The Royal Government of Bhutan has to take the TOP slot. It is the government that is sponsoring this shameful corruption.

Members of the Pay Commission
I believe that the past 4 Pay Commission Members should rank in the second place. They were charged with the responsibility to examine/re-examine the validity of the public employees’ entitlements. All of them know of the loss of revenue this evil is causing to the country and yet they did not act – simply because the perpetuation of this evil means money into their pockets.

The Seller of the Quota
The quota was awarded so that the recipient could buy a vehicle at a cheaper price. It was not given because the recipient could sell it in the black market, for monetary gains. The seller is thus a law-breaker.

The Buyer of the Quota
The buyer is an even bigger criminal - because he/she buys the quota with the intension to cheat the country its just due. He/she is guilty on two counts - one for evading Import Duty, and another for collaborating in an illegal enterprise.

The most evil thing about this vehicle quota is that it has a multiplier effect:

Every quota doled out generates two vehicle imports. The quota seller sells his/her quota and with that money he/she buys a smaller car for himself/herself. The quota buyer buys another car. The net result of this is that the population of vehicles increase disproportionately. This causes traffic congestion and parking problems. Even worst, the increase in number of vehicles means that we need to import more fossil fuel. The import bill of fossil fuel is such that I suspect we import more energy than we export, effectively dismantling the myth that hydropower generation is a gainful enterprise.

According to the RSTA Bhutan’s total vehicle population at the end of December, 2019 stood at 106,681. Of this, 55,801 are in Thimphu – which is more than 50% of the national total. Considering that Thimphu has a human population of 115,000 persons, this translates into 1 vehicle for every 2 persons in Thimphu.

Now imagine the quality of air of Thimphu municipality. Particularly since Thimphu is in a narrow valley boxed in by high mountains, imagine the level of toxic particulates that remain trapped and suspended in the air - that which is inhaled by unsuspecting humans.

Imagine the quality of Thimphu’s Wangchhu – resulting from release and dumping of thousands of tons of harmful waste from vehicle workshops and car wash facilities.

Recently it was discovered that 70% children between 1-4 years tested in Thimphu had EBLLs (Elevated Blood Lead Levels). This is extremely, dangerously high. There is an effort underway to determine the source of this poisoning. But there is paucity of funds to take the study forward.

We could perhaps consider spending some of the savings from doing away with the vehicle quota - to buy testing equipment and supplies to undertake research to find out what is the source of EBLL. Consider that the damage caused by EBLLs is permanent!.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Words Matter

Yesterday I overheard a friend explaining to someone over the mobile phone that the correct word to use is “subconsciously” and not “unconsciously”. Hours later, I was still intrigued – was the friend correct? Is the word “subconsciously” more appropriate than the word “unconsciously”.

Both of these words describe a state of mind when one is not conscious of one’s actions. Thus, both of these words should be acceptable. However, in my thinking there is a fundamental difference: the state of being unconscious is when one enters a state of suspended consciousness – a state of comatose – dysfunctional consciousness.

“Subconscious” would be a state when the consciousness is functional but at a “sub” level. In this state, actions are possible but without one’s knowledge. Thus, I agree that the correct term to employ would be - “subconsciously”.

Similarly, there appears to be complete incoherence in the interpretation of the words: “government land”, “state land” and “public land”. Few in Bhutan stop to ponder over the consequential implications of the choice of one of these words – when referring to land not privately owned by individuals or households or institutions.

I never say: “I am a poor man”. I always say: “I am not a rich man”. One might argue that the two means the same thing. Think again – the implied connotations are vastly different.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Narrowing The Gap – W I D E R!

Few nights back a number of us long time friends and acquaintances were gathered at a bar for a friendly session of drinking - some beer, some whiskey and one among us, plain hot water.

As the evening progressed, there began a vigorous discussion on a number of topics – both relevant as well as the utterly silly. Dehydrated conditions caused by the room heater combined with copious amounts of whiskey and beer, invariably lead us to loosen our tongues and emboldened us to speak on matters normally considered unseemly.

One member of the group asked:

“Wai, one of the campaign promises of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) was that you would narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. What happened?”

One of the senior most members of the DNT who was present, interjected:

“Yes wai – we are certainly on the job. We are narrowing the gap – WIDER!”

That got us all guffawing. I mean it was incredible that such a senior member of the ruling party would say such a thing.

I asked the Member: “This is an incredibly honest admission – can I put it down in my Blog?”

He said; “Yes, please do by all means!”

The discussion on “narrowing the gap” took center stage because one of the group members that evening was on the phone with another political party member – negotiating a price for a vehicle quota – this time for a Toyota Prado. The price on offer for  the right to ownership and import of a duty free Prado was Nu.2.2 million. The speaker on the other end was asking for Nu.2.5 million. The deal couldn’t be concluded because they could not agree on the price for the quota. But it certainly opened up a vigorous discussion on the reprehensible practice of awarding vehicle quotas to some section of the Bhutanese society, and the shameless trading of the piece of paper with wanton abandon.

One can attain great fame by being able to achieve great things in life. But that is not the only route to attaining eminence - one can also do so by being able to have the courage to undo evil and injustice in society. Vehicle quota is one such unfair practice that causes immorality and breeds class segregation among equals.

I urge the incumbent government to have the courage to dismantle what you know is corruption among those who have been charged with the responsibility to be the custodians of morality and good practices.

You may never have that chance ever again. CARPE DIEM!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Mighty Gungchen Taag (Tiger Mountain)

I have been chasing this long shot of the mighty Gungchen Taag (6,784 Mtrs.). Finally this morning I managed to get the shot that I would say is closest to what I have in mind. This morning was the 7th attempt.

I have been to the base of this mighty peak – and got snowed in and stranded for a total of 5 days. I was camped at a place called Lingmithang – about 2 hours trek from Laya village. But I could never get the shot I liked. The following is the best image of the peak I could get from Lingmithang – not quite to my liking.

Gungchen Taag as seen from Lingmithang, Laya

During a trip to Wangdue last year to photograph the perilously located Gaselo village, I passed by a location from where I could see the peak looming large in the distance. Since then I made 6 trips to scout for a suitable location from where I could shoot the full view of the peak.

Taking a picture of the peak itself I could do – from a number of locations. However I wanted something interesting to be included in the image. Looking around I realized that if I could locate the right location and height from where to shoot – I could include Nobgang Monastery in the scene. That is precisely what I managed to do in the following scene.

The mighty Gungchen Taag shot from Wangdue with Nobgang Monastery in the foreground

According to the weather forecast, we are supposed to have 3 clear, rainless days. So I headed for Punakha and reached the location from where to shoot – by 6.30AM, only to find that entire Wangdue valley and the Lhakhang was blanketed under a thick layer of mist.

Wangdue valley completely hidden under a blanket of mist

PS: Few would recognize that this shot was of Wangdue valley. To make sure that readers would see that this was indeed in Wangdue, I moved to a different location so that I could include the two iconic Wind Turbines in the frame. With this there should be no doubt as to where the shot was acquired. This lesson is intended for those of you who are serious photographers - the photographs must speak for themselves.

The mist covered Wangduephodrang Dzong

Damn!!! The weather forecast was accurate about clear skies – but nothing was mentioned about the rising mist. Well, nothing to do but wait. The mist cleared up after nearly 2 hours and I began shooting. The image of the mighty Gungchen Taag with Nobgang Monastery in the foreground was shot exactly at 8:13 AM this morning.

People only see the beautiful images – they are clueless about the pains that go behind acquiring the images.