Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022

The DRAFT “Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022” tinkered by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) is proposing that no vehicle intended for transporting tourists should be over 7 years old. There are a host of problems with this. In the hope of contributing to the seamless transformation process, and in line with the TCB’s wishes, I would like to offer my following thoughts, although so far there is no indication that citizen’s suggestions count for anything.

The Toyota Land Cruiser Model FJ40 I drove during 1978/79 when I was on deputation from the government to the private sector in Phuentsholing. Two years back I saw this vehicle still on the road - after nearly 48 years of its manufacture!

What is the rationale behind introducing the age limit? And why 7 years? TCB ought to know that even Singapore allows the use of a vehicle for 15 years - 10 years during the initial COE (Certificate of Entitlement) period and then 5 additional years upon renewal of the CEO.

What is the co-relation between the age and roadworthiness of a vehicle?

Efficiency or roadworthiness of a vehicle is not determined by age. TCB ought to know that given Bhutan’s difficult terrain, some vehicles may be 10 years old but may not have run 30,000 KMs. TCB ought to know further that in outside countries - vehicles are driven hundreds of KMs a day - in Bhutan given our compactness and proximity, we barely drive 20 KMs in a day. In cities like New York and Tokyo, people drive over 400 KMs a day, to get to, and back, from work. Thus their MTBF would be 20-30 times shorter than those vehicles in Bhutan. By the way MTBF stands for: Million Times Before Failure. I am employing this term for want of a better one. This is a computer hard disk related terminology of yore. The older generation of computer hard disks use to be made that had moving parts - I am told that they are now solid state, meaning no moving parts. The hard disk manufacturers use to guarantee a hard disk to a set number of million spins before they break down.

So is it possible that the TCB consider the total mileage on the Mile-O-Meter, instead of the age of the vehicle? I am sure this is a much more educated route to take. I have seen the Toyota Land Cruiser short body that I use to drive in 1978/79 still going blazing guns!

I do not believe that the TCB’s consideration is environmental - if it were, all other vehicles in the country should be made to taste their acid. Why single out tourist carrying vehicles?

I do not think that the consideration is economic either - because if a country like Singapore that is many generations ahead of Bhutan in terms of economic competence, accepts that a vehicle can serve a maximum of 15 years, Bhutan certainly should go 20 - 30 years, given our level of economic development, by comparison.

If the TCB carries through their proposal, I believe that 70-80% of the vehicles used by the Bhutanese tour operators will need to be taken off the Bhutanese roads – because most of the vehicles used for transporting tourists are bound to be over 7 years old. Against the backdrop of the recently introduced ban on import of vehicles, replenishing 70-80% of the disallowed vehicles will mean direct conflict with the ban. Will the Finance Ministry allow that?

Even if the Finance Ministry allows it, who has the money to import vehicles costing few millions, for a business that everyone believes is on uncertain footing? Brought on by the pandemic, citizens are in a situation where they are unsure as to where their next meal is coming from.

Please have a care for the bleeding tourism industry - the industry does not need a hundred new rules instructing how its business should be run - I believe that the industry players are eons ahead of the TCB in how tourism business is to be conducted. The industry hungers for just one or two progressive policies that will help them set off on the road to recovery - after over two and half years of twiddling their thumbs, in hopeful anticipation of better times.

Monday, August 29, 2022

La Doog: A Dangerous Condition Known As: AMS | HAPE | HACE

This morning’s Kuensel carried an article that deals with the increase in cases of, what the Bhutanese call, “La Doog”. It is timely. There is total lack of understanding surrounding this deathly condition.

I had requested the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) to do a series on the subject – they agreed but I could not find a person with the knowledge as well as the Dzongkha language skill to speak on the subject.

Bhutanese people think that since we are mountain people, we will not be affected by La Doog – WRONG. International trekkers think that they have trekked in alpine regions in their own countries and that they can handle Bhutan’s altitudes – WRONG!!  One of Switzerland’s highest peaks - the Matterhorn, is only 4,478 Mtrs. By comparison, our Bonte-La above Jumolhari Base Camp towards Soe Yaktsa stands at 4,980 Mtrs.

Bhutanese people’s understanding of La Doog is so poor that I dedicated ten articles to the subject of sickness brought on by high altitudes. Please read them all at:

Classification of heights

Type of high altitude sicknesses and their symptoms

Friday, August 26, 2022

Contributing To The Transformation Initiative Of Bhutan's Tourism Industry

Bhutan ranks among the world’s top destinations for wilderness trekking. Some of our trekking routes are through complete wilderness, without any human habitation for days - something that few other destinations can boast of. We can be proud that we can offer treks that are unmatched experiences in total wilderness. That said, I fear that there is near total lack of competence to handle cases of medical emergency in the wilderness.

The mighty Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) that has morphed into a combination of regulator and implementer does not seem to think that there is a need for trekking tours to be regulated. They do not have rules that require trekking guides to be skilled in handling emergency cases in the wilderness. Even basic skills such as reading a GPS or altimeter or compass, or knowledge in handling high altitude related conditions is not a requirement to qualify as a trekking guide. I have not heard of the TCB conducting skilling trainings for trekking guides.

What is even more alarming is the fact that the recent paper floated by the TCB that lists a partial list of items to be carried on treks, the most important item is missing from the list - Emergency Medical Kit.

Rudimentary knowledge in First Aid and Emergency Medical Evacuation is essential for guides who are guiding high altitude treks. But I fear that this is not a requirement that is imposed by the TCB on trekking guides and tour operators conducting high altitude treks.

Fortunately, the Rotary Club of Thimphu is hoping to improve the situation. Initiated in 2019 during my tenure as the Club's Secretary, a collaborative project between the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, Rotary Club of Thimphu and Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB) will conduct a “Training for Trainers” training program in Thimphu. Five specialist doctors are due to arrive from USA to train a select number of people that will include: Trekking Guides, Senior Cultural Guides, Doctors at the KGUMSB and those at the Emergency Division of JDWNRH, including some members of the all embracing DeSuung.

The training is titled “Bhutan Wilderness Medicine Training Program”. The Rotary Club of Thimphu hopes to rope in the industry players such as GAB, ABTO and the TCB.

The funding for the Project had already been approved by The Rotary Foundation on 18th November 2021 but the project had to be suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions brought about by it. The training team comprising of 5 medical doctors are due to arrive Thimphu during November of this year, lead by:

Dr. Scott McIntosh, MD, MPH
Associate Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, University of Utah
President, Wilderness Medical Society
Director, Wilderness Medicine Fellowship
Medical Director, Summit County EMS
Flight Physician & Associate Medical Director, AirMed


Rotarian Dr. James Ham, M.D., FACEP, FAWM
Immediate Past President, Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset
Global Grants Chair, Hawaii Rotary District 5000
2021 Rotary International People of Action: Champions of Health
Emergency Physician, Straub Medical Center
Assistant Clinical Professor, University of Hawaii John A Burns School of Medicine

The training program hopes to create a pool of trainers who can continue the training within the country - to build capacity in Wilderness First Aid and Emergency Evacuation.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Bhutan’s Rotting Treasure-trove II

If some one were to ask me if Bhutan is in a state of scraping the barrel, I would say - we are not. If this question were to be repeated end next year, I wouldn’t know how to answer it. But there is no doubt that we are into tough times. And tough times call for tough decisions, and moving away from conventional logic that obviously hasn’t worked. It calls for diversification of thoughts – even more important, diversification of viewpoints.

The following Kuensel report of 10th October 2020 is indication that some diversification of thoughts had indeed come to pass. The fact that it has not been followed through in the past two years since, points to the fact that true to character, we remain Bhutanese to the core.

An encouraging Kuensel report dated October 2020 - that which remains buried and forgotten

We exported wood products worth Nu 0.35 billion in 2015 but imported over six times more wood worth Nu 2.60 billion. This for a country sitting atop a huge timber reserve is an indefensible act, almost bordering on criminal when viewed against the background of the many economic woes we face as a country and people.

An expanding and overstocked forest is a serious threat to biodiversity conservation and wildlife habitats, a cause for mega-fires, and is known to dramatically change hydrology (e.g. decrease groundwater recharge and stream flow). Further, economic impact of revenue from forestry is often felt most at the local level and is a great employment generator, thus inherently inclusive and green economy.

The hydropower revenue was Nu 20 billion (USD296 million) in 2016 which was 13.48 percent of GDP. Technically speaking, forestry has tremendous potential to be the bigger growth driver than hydropower.

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel
Forest Analyst
April 16, 2018

Our own homegrown forest analyst Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel authored two brilliant papers in the Kuensel, related to the potential of our forests. Both the numbers and science behind his thoughts are rock solid. And yet, his brilliance remains largely ignored - although from the above Kuensel report, it appears to have triggered a “way forward” report by the Department of Forests. But indications are that the report remains shelved and gathering dust in some obscure corner of the Cabinet Secretariat.

Please read Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel’s thoughts at the following:

Punatsangchu Hydropower Project I is surely headed for total closure.

It is unlikely that Kholongchu Hydropower Project will ever happen, given so many factors that go against it.

Hydropower as a source to generate electricity is now old hat around the world - more efficient energy sources have edged out hydropower - as being more costly and environmentally destructive.

We should now look to our abundant forests to rescue us from economic doom. They have the potential to save us, while at the same time, help improve the quality of our forest stand.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Bhutan’s Rotting Treasure-trove I

When His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo banned the harvesting of timber from our forests in 1979, I was the man about town to implement the ban. I was the head honcho at the Export Section of the Export Division of the Ministry of Trade, Industries and Forests. My section was charged with the responsibility to dispose off the timber logs/sawn lumber that became available when the ban came into effect. That year, sawn Blue Pine (Pinus wallichiana) blocks were sold across the border in Jaigaon at Nu.72.00 per cubic foot. The price for the same timber is currently fixed by the government at Nu.340.50 per cft.

Pile of Pine logs ready for the export market. The above stock photo shows the lumber from a well-managed forest stand - the boles are clean, even sized and pencil-straight. By comparison, our lumber would look severely gnarled and grotesque - through overstocking and lack of management, such as thinning.

Strangely, close to half a century since, there prevails a misconception that the act of banning the harvesting of timber from our forests was a conservation initiative. IT WAS NOT! In fact the term we employed those days was NOT ban – we knew it as “Nationalization of Timber”.

It was necessitated as a consequence of the wanton destruction caused to our forests - by the private logging contractors of the era, and as a result of the total irresponsibility and corruption among the custodians of our forests – the Department of Forests.

For the record – most of today’s rich and the upwardly mobile have their humble beginnings in timber and timber trade.

Another one for the record: when nationalization was contemplated to be implemented, the Department of Forests reported to the government that there may be about 30,000 cft. of sawn timber and logs in the hands of the private operators in the Western region - there was no NRDCL then. That grossly erroneous quantity was perceived to be a manageable quantity and thus the Export Division was charged with the responsibility to dispose off the stocks. We prepared to receive the nationalized timbers at a stockyard in Phuentsholing.

However, when finally the nationalized lumber started to arrive at Phuentsholing, the volume amounted to many hundred thousand cubic feet of timber - it was so overwhelming that the entire Phuentsholing Industrial Estate could not accommodate the stock. We created another stockyard above the Estate – that was not enough either. We then hired the open spaces around Norgay Cinema Hall – even that proved to be insufficient.

The problem was not limited to space to accommodate the illegal timbers – transporting them from the production centers in Thimphu, Haa and Paro to our stockyard in Phuentsholing was a bigger hurdle.

The problem: the whole of Bhutan did not have enough trucks capable of transporting the stock of timber that became available.

You can imagine the scale of corruption that may have existed then! The stock of illegal timbers that were held by the private operators was few hundred folds in excess of the official figure that the Department of Forests presented to the government.

There was no way we were going to be able to transport all the timbers that became available - the country did not have the carrying capacity. Thus, for the first and last time in the history of Bhutan - we opted to transport the timbers through the riverine route - we resorted to floating the timbers over and down the Wangchhu river! Bhutan imported skilled manpower from Jammu in North India for the job.

The ensuing disaster is another story to be told another day.

Timber – whether sawn or in log form is a perishable commodity – thus they need to be sold off in time before the rot sets in. But selling few hundred thousand cubic feet of timber - at one go - posed a danger of a different kind. Unfortunately, the rules in place then did not allow us to engage in direct selling. We proposed that we be allowed to sell through direct negotiations with select Indian importers, to enable us to maintain a level of price that we wanted. Our Ministry did not permit it - we were ordered to take the designated route - sale through auction. His Royal Highness, then the Trade Minister preferred to protect us: he preferred to spare us the axe of the Royal Audit - over the risk of lower prices for our stock of timber.

We finally fixed the minimum bid prices, and put the timbers on auction in Phuentsholing.

The ensuing disaster is yet another story to be told another day.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

One Small Step For FC Reserve - One Giant Leap for Environment

The announcement of a moratorium on import of vehicles is welcome news, but it falls far short of what is called for, if we are serious about combatting the plummeting foreign exchange reserve situation in the country. Rumors doing the round is that our foreign exchange reserve has fallen below the level mandated by the Constitution. That appears to be untrue, upon ascertaining from more dependable sources. According to a knowledgeable source, our reserve - which includes both third country currency as well as the Indian Rupee - stood at Nu.845.00 million at the end of last month - enough to cover imports of essentials for little over fourteen months.

Reuters reporting on Bhutan's foreign currency woes

Clearly it is a case of the government dithering on taking swift decisions, which is called for given the precariousness of the situation. They cannot be caught napping. They should have acted much earlier - when they became aware of the headwinds of doom blowing. Since no large-scale exports have been reported in the immediate recent past, the country may be inching closer to the proverbial red line, in terms of our foreign currency reserve.

But to be fair, the DNT government has not been found wanting where bold decisions were needed to be taken. This gingerly step of imposing a temporary moratorium on import of vehicles is not enough by far - but it is a step in the right direction, nonetheless. They now need to rein in the other villains - the importers of none-essential goods. For God’s sakes - why do we need to import cheap imitation branded goods, toilet papers, face tissue, biscuits, chocolates and cosmetics, against hard currency from places like Thailand, China and Vietnam? Shamefully, for a country that boasts of 71% forest cover, we imported Nu.3.2 billion worth of wood and wood products, while our own forest stand is rotting away and degrading the quality of our renewable natural resource, in the process causing loss of ground water, resulting in shortage of drinking water.

I have already written about the dark side of the import of none-essential goods - how it contributes to the falling foreign currency reserve - not just through outward remittances to pay for the imports, but as a consequence of the other more serious clandestine transections that are rumored to be happening - through the Hawala route. I think it is really simple to validate these rumors, if the government is serious about their intensions.

As I keep saying - let us not allow ourselves to arrive at a point where we have to say sorry because, by then, it will be too late.

The moratorium on vehicle imports will surely impact the business of the vehicle dealerships but I happen to know that most of the owners of the agencies that deal in vehicle imports are responsible people. For the common good, I know that they will rise above the situation and accept that each of us citizens have to contribute in different ways during times of difficulty – a small sacrifice by them will mean the world of difference to the much larger population that stand to loose lot more, if tough decisions are deferred.

The moratorium makes sense in two very meaningful ways - it stops the outflow of foreign currency to pay for the import of vehicles. It reduces the import of fossil fuel to power them. In the process, our doddering environment benefits.

The ugly truth that remains hidden from public knowledge is the state of Thimphu’s air and water quality. If the authorities dare conduct a test, we are likely to discover that our much touted “pristine environment” is a myth - I think we are worst than Beijing or New Delhi - for the simple reason that we are located in a narrow valley boxed in by high rise mountains, while Beijing and New Delhi are located in wide open plains. The following image of Thimphu valley was captured by me some 15 years ago - from Phajoding:

Thimphu valley swathed in a thick blanket of poisonous particulates. Imagine what we are breathing.
The image does not look like that of Thimphu - but it is. I have pointed out the statue of Buddha Dordenma with a red arrow to validate that the photo is indeed that of Thimphu valley.

You can see the thick blanket of poisonous particulates that are trapped and suspended over Thimphu valley. The situation would have deteriorated many folds since.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Bully On The Loose

Clearly the officials at the Thimphu Thromde (Thimphu City Corporation) seem to have lost their marbles. Failing that they are clueless as to why they want, or think they can, implement the rule of the color of roof paint.

Thimphu city: The bully rules the roost

First off, do they have the authority to impose such selective rules and regulations, as they fancy? I think the country does have a building and construction standards or codes. Is the matter relating to roofing colors a requirement specified in the standards? If not, what makes Thimphu Thromde think that they can impose their out-of-turn will as they choose? Isn't it necessary that such rules need to be passed by competent authorities, before they can be implemented?

Second, what is the rationale behind the choice of the colors red and green? What are the underlying considerations for the choice of these two colors?

Third, are there economic reasons for choosing these two colors, over others? Do they reflect heat so that the rooms under the roofs remain cool - translating into lower cost of cooling. Or, do the colors red and green absorb heat so that they provide greater warmth - resulting in lower heating cost? Even if there were, the homeowners have the right to decide what they want – aesthetics over economy or, vv.

Fourth, is the choice of paint based on some environmental considerations for the reason for which these colors are chosen over few thousand shades of other colors? We agree that dark colors reflect less heat into the atmosphere. Is that the reason? And, by the way, what shades of red and green?

Fifth, do the homeowners have a right of choice - as to what color they want to paint their roofs and homes, constructed with their own private money? Or have they forfeited that right and surrendered it to Thimphu Thromde?

Or, since the Thromde wants it – are they going to pay for the paint job? But even if they do pay, will the homeowners agree to a color choice that they do not fancy?

Sixth, today the construction industry of which the largest number is comprised of private homeowners, account for the highest cases of NPLs. Brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic activity in the country has been ground to a halt. The homeowners have a hard time repaying their loans and are forced to seek deferment of loan repayments. During such taxing times, the Thromde wants to add to their woe, by seeking to add to their financial burden?

Is this Thimphu Thromde’s contribution to the transformation exercise that is currently underway? If it is, I think we need to point out to them that this kind of transformation is something we do not need. It is NOT transformative – it is regressive!

In my view, other then the color yellow which has conventionally been associated with Dzongs and Lhakhangs – citizens should have the choice of what color they want to paint their roofs and walls.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

You Live & Learn

Yesterday I went by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMA) in the hope of buying a Bhutanese non-circulating commemorative silver coin called the "Joao Cabral 300 Ngultrum" coin, supposedly issued in 1994. A friend in Portugal was desirous of buying the coin. The officers at the RMA were nonplused - they had never before seen the coin in their lives, and their official records did not list it! They offered the opinion that the coin may have been issued by the Bank of Bhutan or the Ministry of Finance who in the past use to issue bank notes and coins - before the establishment of the RMA in 1982 - although it took on the role of a Central Bank only in 1983.

I said that commemorative coins were issued only by the RMA - never by the Ministry of Finance or the Bank of Bhutan. The Joao Cabral coin is dated 1994 - meaning it has to have been issued by the RMA, if it was indeed issued by them.

The dubious Joao Cabral Silver 300 NGULTRUM Coin

So then the coin must be a fake - a spurious one. Well that is intriguing but not impossible - you may have read on this Blog about the fake Bhutanese stamps issued and sold to the international collectors, without the knowledge of Bhutan Post.

As I was about to exit the RMA, I remembered that I had a mutilated Nu.1,000.00 bank note in my purse. So I pulled out the bank note and asked the officer; “Where can I have this mutilated note exchanged?”.

The officer looked at the bank note and said; “This is not mutilated - this is a torn note. Mutilated notes are when there is a burn hole”.

Really? Torn is not considered mutilated???? Intriguing - but this is veering off into the by-lanes - let us stay on the main street - the Joao Cabral 300 Ngultrum Silver Coin.

Can it be that the coin is a fake? I went into a little research.

According to one website (https://de.ucoin.net/coin/bhutan-300-ngultrums-1994/?tid=89845) the coin was minted - 10,000 copies of it - at the Royal Mint located at Llantrisant, United Kingdom. I logged onto the website of The Royal Mint and searched for the history of the coin - the following is what was displayed when I hit the SEARCH button:

No Match - meaning the record of the coin's mintage is false

This coin was not obviously minted by the Royal Mint - leading me to conclude that the coin must be a fake. Further probing revealed that the dragon on the Cabral coin’s reverse was rendered without the jewels (Norbu) in its claws. Bhutanese always depict our dragons clasping Norbu in their claws. The Chinese, on the other hand, hardly ever depict their dragons with Norbu in their claws - as shown below.

The Bhutanese almost always depict the dragon with its claws clasping the Norbu

The Chinese show their dragons without the Norbu in their claws

It now becomes even more clear that this was a forgery job - if it was issued by the RMA I am sure they would have depicted a Bhutanese dragon with Norbu in their claws, and not a Chinese one, sans the Norbu.

Who is/was Joao Cabral?

He was one of the two earliest European visitors to Bhutan - the other who accompanied him was Father Estevao Cacella - they were both Portuguese Christian missionaries. They arrived Bhutan in 1626. They were on their way to Tibet - to found a Christian Mission there - which they did, in Shigatse.

The missionaries Joao Cabral and Estevao Cacella spent eight months in Bhutan and met Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in Tango. Under the authority of the Zhabdrung, they even started a Churh in Paro where they tried to convert some Bhutanese into the Christian faith, without success. They left for Tibet in 1627.

Father Cacella died in Shigatse in 1630. Consequent upon the power struggle that erupted in Tibet during 1635, Father Cabral closed down the Mission and returned to India, where he died in Goa in 1669.

In all provability the report submitted by the two Portuguese Jesuits  - "The Relacao", dated 4th October 1627 - may be the very first accounts the Western world got to read about Bhutan and the Zhabdrung.

The two Jesuits presented many gifts to the Zhabdrung - one of which was the “Tob” - cannon, currently displayed at the National Museum in Paro.

My friend Carlos Gumero of Portugal spent months in Bhutan - researching for his doctoral thesis on the two Portuguese missionaries - the dissertation of which argued that their intensions were more warlike, and NOT religious!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

White-bellied Herons: They Matter To Us – Because They Help Us Matter To The World

Yesterday the Kuensel reported on yet another of our mounting failures - Bhutan’s dwindling population of the critically endangered White-bellied Herons (WBH). For the past many years forestry scientist Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel has been wailing cries of despair - calling our attention to the looming disaster to our forest stand - through overstocking with unproductive trees - caused by the uneducated belief that harvesting of trees is bad for environment. Three written submissions later, pleading not to do so, the government has been unfailing in its systematic destruction of the bird habitat in Sengore, Yongkola and Lemithang in Eastern Bhutan - a stretch of bird habit that the global birdwatching community has dubbed - “The Birding Capital of The World”. But this is a subject for another day.

An adult White-bellied Heron photographed in Rurichhu, Wangdue - at the cusp of extinction

Coming back to the issue of WBH, quite mistakenly the destruction of the heron habitat is blamed as the sole reason for the progressive decline in the number of herons, despite the discovery of new and old nests with eggs in them. This is only half the truth. The other reason for the decline in heron population should be attributed to the destruction of habitats of other predators within, and in the periphery of, the heron habitat. It means that due to the disappearance of their traditional prey, these predators may be now preying on the herons and their chicks.

A few weeks old WBH chic practicing flight. Many chicks are hatched year after year - but numbers are still dwindling.

But we the Bhutanese people - who outclass the whole world in verbosity, cause the worst destruction. During a White-bellied Heron conservation workshop held in Punakha in December of 2015, which I attended, Bhutan recorded the highest number of the birds at 28, out of the confirmed 60 individuals recorded globally. And today we are admitting that that number has dropped to 23. We need to transcend the hot air – we need to deliver what we promise.

The White-bellied Heron rage countries: Bhutan, India, China, Mynmar

Many years back, Samdingkha in Punakha Phochu area - world’s richest heron habitat then - was being overrun by dozens of trucks and excavators - for collection of sand and boulder from the riverbanks. Some of us launched a drive to prevent such activity in the area. The government listened - and a Cabinet Order was issued banning surface collection of sand and boulder from the areas - sometime in 2004-2005. Sadly, true to form, the Forestry Department failed to carry out effective monitoring and the order remained on paper - with poor or no implementation on the ground. Today, the destruction of that particular habitat is so complete that according to the Kuensel no heron sightings have been reported in the areas since 2018. But Hishey Tshering, perhaps Bhutan’s earliest birding enthusiast says that he saw the birds in the area during a birding trip on 14th November, 2019, but not since.

Global population of White-bellied Herons as of 2015. Bhutan ranked at the top - at 28 individuals.

Environmental conservation should not - must not, be a stumbling block to human progress - when this happens, environment will be at the receiving end. Thus as much as I am against the way the hydropower projects are done in Bhutan, I played subservient to the tyranny of the majority - and the majority view is that hydropower is beneficial. Knowing that we will not be able to halt the hydropower projects in Punatsangchhu River Basin that will ultimately result in the extinction of the WBH species, I proposed that we declare Bertey in Zhemgang as a heron sanctuary - in an attempt to give the herons a standing chance at survival – away from the vortex of destruction. I chose this place because, firstly, during those days there was a resident population of 6 White-belied Herons. Secondly, there is no vehicle road access beyond Berti village - thus no human activity happens there. Thirdly the adjoining village of Chaabang had been abandoned, and thus, there is no agricultural activity of any kind happening there. In other words, the areas remain secluded from human activity.

Today the global community recognizes and accepts Bhutan as the most important WBH habitat. Even at 23, Bhutan still accounts for the highest recorded number of White-bellied Heron population in the world. A country that is credited as being at the forefront of environmental conservation needs to do better - than being caught doling out annual statistical figures that report of diminishing numbers of a critically endangered bird.

The burden of responsibility is on us - to ensure that the bird is not allowed to go extinct. There is no justification for such a monumental irresponsibility. We need to move away from being the habitual paper tiger. We need to put money where our mouth is.

We need to act without delay - to arrest further decline in the numbers of the WBH. They matter to us - because they help us matter to the world.

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Magic Figure of One Million

Reading through the Kuensel’s INFOGRAPHIC page of 6th August, 2022, I was transported back to a period when something that did not ring true - but that which could not be verified - came to be accepted and endorsed as official.

Bhutan’s population during late 1960s and early 1970s was deliberately and officially stated as one million++. Accordingly, UN agencies presumed that Bhutan’s population would be two million by the year 2000 - based on the average annual increase rate of 2-3%.

When Bhutan carried out our national census in 2005, it was found that the population was merely 672,000++ – barely one third of the oft-repeated figure.

While on the one hand the severely shell-shocked United Nations Population Division had to laboriously recalculate Bhutan’s population for the whole period up to the year 2000, it was causing consternation among some Bhutanese bureaucrats and planners, including some UN agencies involved in development activities in the country.

The numbers simply did not tally - for our stated population size, we consumed less than 3/4th what we ought to. Similarly, our production in all areas was way too lower than they ought to be, based on our population figures. Donors and development partners kept insisting that there was serious mismatch in the numbers - to the point that they hinted that we were fudging the numbers! Our officials were adamant that they were presenting the absolute true picture - Koencho Soom and Lama Khenno and all that!

Obviously everybody was puzzled - but all remained uneering in the presentation of their numbers. Consternation reigned supreme!

But the burning question remains: WHY was the magic population figure of one million++ came to be quoted - when evidently the real number was perhaps less than one-third?

The truth actually is pretty funny - it finds its origins in an UNTRUTH. And the conjurer was supposedly none other than Bhutan’s most brilliant mind - the matchless Drukgyal Soompa - 3rd King of Bhutan.

For obvious reasons, His Majesty the 3rd King’s single minded and all consuming focus beginning mid 1960s was for Bhutan to gain admission to the UN as a Member State. It took him many years of maneuverings through murky waters to finally realize his dream. After having held observer status for three years, Bhutan was finally admitted to the UN on 21st September 1971, as its 128th Member.

Under orders from the Drukgyal Soompa, HRH Prince Namgyal Wanghuk became the first Bhutanese to address the General Assembly (GA) of the United Nations in New York. Exactly at 5PM GMT, His Royal Highness delivered Bhutan’s epochal address during the 26th Session of the UN’s General Assembly.

At long last, His Majesty the Drukgyal Soompa’s dream was realized. But what remain unknown are the many hurdles that he had to overcome during the long and arduous journey to the finish line. There were many detractors. Incredibly one of them told His Majesty that one of the qualifying requirements was that an aspiring State had to have a minimum population of one million people – a total UNTRUTH. Of the five requisite conditions to qualify to become a Member of the UN, this WAS, and IS NOT, one of them.

But the brilliant man that he was, the Drukgyal Soompa turned around and said; “Ofcourse we do have one million people in Bhutan”.

From that day on and until the census exercise in 2005, Bhutan’s population came to be misquoted at one million, and counting.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Bring Home The Brood To Roost

During a recent conversation with Dr. Karma Phuntsho of Loden Foundation, one of the subjects that we touched upon was the issue of the exodus of Bhutanese youth to Australia. I expressed the view that when our own backyard is experiencing a state of perpetual drought, it is imminent that people will begin to venture outward – in search of greener pastures. The loss of human capital notwithstanding, I accepted that it had a good side to it - the burgeoning inward remittances by these migrants do contribute to nation building.

Travel to places far and wide - but come back home to roost

Quite remarkably – because it was outside my own perception – he feared that it was more than “human capital drain” – he worried that it bordered on the “brain drain”. He seems to be aware of a number of brilliant Bhutanese minds who are currently domiciled in Australia.

The recent revelation by the Royal Monetary Authority that inward remittances early this year fell by more than 50% caused the clanging of warning bells in my mind. What caused it?

Is this an early warning sign that the migrants may be turning immigrants?

All things considered, Australia today represents a destination where the Bhutanese seem to be welcome, in preference to other wannabes. Hundreds of Australian Visas being issued every month to our youth can only mean that the country is rolling out the welcome wagon to our lot. It is also a sign that our brood down under is behaving themselves and keeping themselves in the straight and the narrow. We need to encourage them to remain so.

Does the Bhutanese Ambassador Sonam Tobgay in Australia have the wherewithal to provide quality leadership to inspire and instill a sense of continued nationalism in the minds of the Bhutanese lot in Australia? Are there other Bhutanese capable of keeping the brood herded and on track - and the home fires burning in the minds and hearts of their fellow Bhutanese?

Recently I chatted a senior and respected person who too seems to have landed herself in Australia – I encouraged her to provide leadership and guidance - every opportunity she got, for the sake of the nation.

It is about time that the Royal Government of Bhutan sends someone to Australia – a person who is respected, a person with charisma and proven capability – to remind the Bhutanese there that WE NEED THEM BACK IN THE COUNTRY, when their stint there is done.

The late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew declared that should there be a demographic imbalance in Singapore, he would import Chinese from China to make up the numbers. Unfortunately such an option is NOT open to us. Thus we have to hang on to what little we have.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Will Someone Rise and Dismantle the Evil

Every corner you turn, the topic that is currently in vogue is the transformation exercise that is ongoing. It has been long overdue. No doubt the process will cause some misery but the sum total of the initiative should amount to progress and ease of doing things over the long haul. But I hope that the transformation is not “Cock-Eyed”. Cock-Eyed is defined as:

Looking East but seeing West

Happily for me the Kuensel has been unfailing in their reporting on the depleting foreign currency reserve situation - a subject that worries me greatly. Unfortunately the RMA is silent on the issue. The Finance Minister did make a limpid mention on the matter. The Prime Minister did better by cautioning the nation that the foreign currency reserve will run out soon, if things do not improve.

Unfailing and responsible reporting by the Kuensel on the matter concerning the worrisome issue of the country's falling foreign currency reserve

The biggest drain on the foreign exchange reserve is caused by the unchecked, black-market bound vehicles imported under the vehicle quota entitlement, and the import of non-essential goods. As far back as January 28 of 2020, in a blog article titled “Gross National Hypocrisy: How the vehicle quota hurts Bhutan”, I wrote as follows:

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.

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.

You can read about my thoughts on the subject at the following:

The following is how the World Bank's economist, Dr. Martin Rama, euphemistically worded his worry about Bhutan’s duty exemptions and tax holidays:

 “…… 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, management of taxation could also play a vital role in attaining fiscal self-sufficiency.”

On September 18, 2009, our Ex-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, in his capacity as the Opposition Leader, wrote as follows:

“……… But I wonder if our government has thought about the most obvious way to control traffic congestion: scrap the import quota system. Import quotas, which are given only to public servants, are directly responsible for the growth in vehicle numbers. Every quota is used. And, it’s common knowledge that, many times, the quotas are sold, illegally, to private individuals.”

His full blog article can be accessed at:

Will someone finally show some courage and dismantle this evil, now that transformation is happening and that the country is all poised for disaster?

As I have recently said during the proceedings of the 50th Bhutan Dialogues, greatness is not necessarily achieved because you have done great things – it is also because you had the courage to dismantle great evil.