Monday, November 28, 2022

Footprints On The Sands of Time

Do you hope to leave your footprints on the sands of time? There are some who do not consider this question relevant - and then again there are some who do - many, many time zones away from their own realm. One such person is Past President of the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset of Hawaii - Rotarian Dr. James Ham who visited Bhutan as a tourist and left behind his footprint.

The recently concluded Rotary Club of Thimphu Project held in Thimphu in Wilderness Emergency Medical Treatment – a First Aid course specifically aimed at training Bhutan’s trekking guides in how to respond and treat/evacuate emergency cases in wilderness situations, was an initiative spearheaded by Rotarian Dr. James Ham, upon request by the Rotary Club of Thimphu.

The story of how this came about is a story that is rather out of the ordinary.

Rotarian Dr. James visited Bhutan during November of 2018, along with his childless wife of many years. During the visit, someone suggested that the couple visit Chimmi Lhakhang known as the Temple of Fertility. They did, and quite extraordinarily, the wife was pregnant on the first moth of the visit to the temple.

Exactly nine months later, at 6:54AM on 10th August, 2019 a healthy son weighing 5 pounds 13 ounces, 20 inches was born to the couple.

They named their son Kinley Jin Ham.

Past President of Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, Hawaii Rotarian Dr. James Ham with his wife on a trip to Taktsang in November 2018.

Little Dukpa Kinley in Honolulu, Hawaii, the day he was born.

The good doctor and I worked relentlessly on the wilderness medicine project. Then, to our dismay, the scourge called COVID-19 hit the world and delayed the project indefinitely. But we did not lose hope - finally this month, after over three years of delay, the project got implemented - a meaningful project that is a collaborative work between: Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, Hawaii, Rotary Club of Thimphu, University of Utah, USA and the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences (KGUMS), Thimphu.

With the conclusion of this project, we now have in-country competence to train additional guides in handling emergency cases in wilderness situation. It is planned that a continuous training program will be put in place - to train trekking guides on a regular basis.

Unfortunately with the introduction of the US$200.00 SDF per person per day, and withdrawal of long duration discounts, trekking as a tourism product is no longer seen as marketable, including bird watching tours that are long duration products.

Add to that, the imposition of SDF on the visits by donors is a spanner in the works. I am told that a large number of projects funded by the WHO, UNDP, UNICEF, FAO and a large number of Bhutan's struggling NGOs now remain stalled - and may never happen because the planned projects did not budget for this sudden change in policy. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Cause For The Miserable Failure of Bhutan’s Conservation Policy

My view is that the best conservation policy is when conservation is placed at par with human development and livelihood - not above, or below it. When conservation becomes a stumbling block to human progress - conservation will ultimately suffer - no doubt about it. And, in the same vein, when environment suffers, it will retaliate and do on to humanity what humans do to it.

In other words, a good conservation policy is when one is able to maintain a balance - it is obviously not about according supremacy to one species over another. That is where Bhutan’s conservation policy has proven to be a miserable failure, with devastating results the most brunt of which is borne by the clueless rural population of Bhutan.

Because of our ill-conceived conservation policy, thousands of rural farmers spend sleepless nights clanging empty tins all night long, in an effort to ward off wild animals marauding their crops.

Given our existing rules, hundreds of thousands of Ngultrums are forced to be spent on buying stuffed synthetic tigers made in China - to act as scarecrows, in an attempt to scare off the monkeys and deer and porcupine that pillage the farmers’ crops. Unable to withstand the incessant attacks by the wildlife, the farmers are forced to submit and migrate to urban centers to eek out a living - creating Goongtongs (empty households) and, in some cases, Yueltongs (empty villages). In its wake, food security remains a distant dream - because farm production is in decline, year after year.

Rural farmers are reduced to using synthetic stuffed tigers made in China - in an effort to scare away marauding wildlife that predate on their crops.

And, those without choice who are forced to remain in their ancestral homes have to face additional burdens of water shortages - both for drinking as well as for farming, because the water sources are drying up. This is in a country that has gloated that we have the highest per capita water resource in the whole of Asia. No one seems to ask, or care, why this is happening.

We claim that we are a country with 70-80% forest coverage and yet, we import timber worth as high as Nu.3.00 billion a year.

So, tell me, where are all the supposedly brilliant brains of the Bhutanese planners and thinkers? I have a feeling that they have all been relocated inside a single person’s skull - that of Forest Analyst Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel’s.

Recently I read his article in the Kuensel of 22nd November, 2022, titled “Decolonising the Bhutan Forest Bill 2021”. He spells out in plain language what is the problem with our conservation policy that is causing long-term and irreversible problem for the country. Particularly at a time when the Parliament is discussing new Forest Bill of Bhutan 2021, reading his thoughts on the subject would go a long way in reassessing where we have gone wrong.

Trust me, he applies science and backs it up with logic and common sense. But like an eminent member of the Bhutanese society recently told me:

“Only if the Bhutanese cared enough”.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Offering Gratitude During This National Gratitude Month

During this National Gratitude Month, early this morning, on behalf of the Bhutanese people, I mailed out 28 mails of gratitude to donors around the world who have made a difference in the lives of the Bhutanese people.

Hi …………… ,

Good Morning and Greetings from Bhutan.

It has been a long, long while since we have been in touch. The reason as you know is because I have resigned from the Rotary and I make a concerted effort to keep away from anything related to the Rotary - lest I get drawn back in. Regardless, what remains vivid in my mind is the numerous good works done by the Rotary institution for my country and people, and the tireless and hardworking people who helped accomplish those life-altering projects of hope and deliverance.

Thank you for your giving - we remain grateful.

Among those people I remember and honor is: YOU - you rank among the top whose selfless work has helped bring ease and relief to thousands of people in Bhutan - both in urban dwellings as well as in remote rural homes. The life perpetuating medical devices you helped donate continue to pump fluids of life inside the bodies of hundreds of clueless Bhutanese beneficiaries; emergency service delivery at Bhutan's premier hospital has never been more competent or efficient.

I hope that you and your family are keeping well and safe. We are all safe and secured here in Bhutan.

Once again, on behalf of the people of Bhutan, please accept my appreciation for your generosity. Please know that we remain ever indebted to you, and, during this National Month of Gratitude, I offer you our THANKS and GRATITUDE.

It is my hope that you would some day soon make it back to Bhutan - your guide still marbles at the fact that you actually made it to Taktsang Monastery top, despite your age. She hopes to be able to help you trudge up the trail, once again.

Bye and take care ... Please do not forget to convey MY VERY BEST to your wife and daughter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Bhutan Is An Emerging Tourism Destination?

My heart, soul and passion - all of them are expended by things related to Bhutan’s tourism and the fear that the country’s most vital industry that accrues benefit to all across the board spectrum of Bhutanese society may now be in uncharted territory. If that were not enough, some insulting occurrences have further aggravated my sense of woe:
  • The news report on 16 November, that Bhutan was awarded the Editors’ Choice Award as the ‘Best Emerging Destination’ at India’s  Travel+Leisure show held in New Delhi.
Hello, excuse me but I thought we are already an established and world recognized destination of choice, having won (a) World’s Sustainable Destinations’ Earth Award - 2018, (b) Green Destination Gold Award 2019, (c) International Destination - Best Green Country Award 2020, (e) Travel Lemming named Bhutan as the best place to travel in Asia, (d) Awarded Lonely Planet’s Best Travel Destination 2020, etc. etc.
  • The selection of Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) by The New York Times, Wonderlust and World Travel Mart Awards, for a variety of travel related awards.
These recognitions are rather funny, if not outright unrealistic, because as far as I know, this newly introduced tourism product has not yet undergone the acid taste. As a Bhutanese I should be proud that this product has been acknowledged by the world travellers - but I believe that there is no sufficient grounds for this - not as yet.

Are we still emerging? I thought we had already arrived!

As a Bhutanese I hunger for world recognition for what we can do and what we are capable of achieving. Given our geographical positioning, our compact population size and the phenomenal natural endowment we are blessed with, excellence is not beyond our grasp. But alas! we choose to gloat over our falsehood and marvel at our excellence at window dressing and cosmetic work - that are at the core of our Achilles heel.

We need to learn to look facts squarely on the face. Unless we do that, the splendor that we chase will remain an enduring mirage.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Case Of Bhutan’s NPLs II

Today when the government or the RMA talks of NPLs, they talk of only the lending financial institutions and the borrowers - two principal architects of the calamity that has befallen the country. The wiz kids at the helm of things will have you believe that tolling the bells of doom on the floor of the National Assembly is fulfillment of their responsibilities. Many reasons have been offered why we are in the doldrums - we are yet to hear from them when and how they intend to fix accountability on those who must assume responsibility for allowing the country to arrive at such a dangerous situation.

And, what is even more pathetic is that no assurance has yet been given as to how they hope to protect the innocent victims - the clueless depositors - whose life’s savings will be imperiled when the overexposed lenders begin to fall like ninepins.

Down playing the problem with sugar-coated glib tongues from the pulpit of the National Assembly Hall is not going to help - if we want to solve the problem we need to catch the bull by the horn. But who will do it? Not the sycophants, nor the brown-nosers. They are too busy furthering their own causes.

For many decades now, people have known that the lending agencies’ loan eligibility appraisal process was inadequate - in fact downright casual and irresponsible. I have heard of rumors that some borrowers have been able to avail loans that included a cost of a car for his mistress - what famously came to be known as the “kaanchi car”.

In some cases, I am told that the borrowed amount is far in access of the total cost of construction of the house for which the loan was obtained. It does not take an Einstein to figure out what may be at play.

There needs to be a complete shake-up. Look at the way the banks set the value of a collateral. It is atrocious - it is totally designed to over-secure themselves, only to find that they cannot - that is why they have NPLs galore.

One of the most ridiculous reasons a house owner in Thimphu will give you for high house rent that he is asking for is:

“You know, I need to recover enough to be able to pay back the monthly installment on my bank loan”.

Really? He would dare to pass on a portion of the cost of his “kaanchi car” to his tenants? What a world we live in!

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Bhutan's Ancient Handcrafted Leather Coin Pouch

Every society around the world has their own versions of currency purses and pouches in which to carry around their money. Not to be outdone, we Bhutanese too had our version of coin pouches - handcrafted leather pouches with draw strings!

Sangey Wangchuk of Dumra Farm Resort, Punakha, gifted me the following ancient leather coin pouch. It cannot be said with any degree of certainty what kind of coins may have been carried around in this antique pouch. But no doubt if it had belonged to a rich or powerful Bhutanese, the pouch may have held coins from Assam, Bhutan, British East India Company, China, Cooch Behar, Crown British India, French East India Company, Nepal, Tibet, etc. Coins from all these countries were current in Bhutan those ancient times.

Bhutan's own handcrafted leather coin pouch. The pouch could have carried some of the coins mentioned in the image - but not likely the machine milled "SA Maartangs" of 1950 & 1955 because by then we may have moved on to modern, tailored purses.

According to available records, people of present day Chhukha Dzongkhag may be among the earliest Bhutanese who possessed coins. Written records confirm that during the visit of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to Chapcha in 1619, a rich resident of Chapcha, including the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, had offered him thousands of silver coins.

However, it is doubtful that the Zhabdrung would have used such a leather pouch to store the coins he received as offering. The reason is that it is said that all the silver coins he received from the trip were melted down – to build a silver reliquary for his deceased father which was then housed inside Tango Monastery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Finally Dismantled After Nearly Half A Century!

As I had said in few of my earlier posts on this blog, achieving greatness does not have to be always about accomplishing great things - it is also about having the courage to dismantle great evil - such as the shameful state-sponsored corruption called Vehicle Quota Entitlement that has enticed a great number of public employees to tread on the path of immorality and depravity.

The first time I brought up the subject of the evil on this blog that was the vehicle quota system, was on June 16, 2011. I have been ranting ceaselessly ever since. Finally it looks like the DNT government is burying it. I offer them my CONGRATULATIONS. Unfortunately I cannot say that it is a gutsy thing that they have done - that would not be true. Doing the right thing is not gutsy or courageous - it is a duty, a responsibility that comes with the job. But the DNT government has the distinction of being the only government that has acted, as a responsible government should. Not a single government before them had the moral probity to do what was expected of them.

It beats all logic that this immoral thing has gone on for close to half a century - it surely is telling on the morality and uprightness of the so called “unique” Bhutanese people. I absolutely refuse to buy the claim that there were smart and upright citizens in positions of power and authority in the past, or that they are still around, to run and direct the course of the country on the right path. If there were, we would not have inherited a million problems that our King is now fighting a lone battle to sort out.

But now that it is done and dusted with, I do not want to speak about it any more.

When speaking on the Pay Structure Reform Bill on the floor of the National Assembly, Finance Minister Namgay Tshering was on record saying: there is no clear set objectives on why the vehicle quota system was initiated.”

His Excellency Namgay Tshering was not even born when the vehicle quota system came into being. By contrast, I became entitled to it, the year he was born. Thus, it is understandable that he would not have a context on the matter. Perhaps, one day, I could offer him a rationalization on why I believe vehicle quota system was necessitated, that its introduction DID serve an objective. I believe that it was never about a reward to some select group of people, as perceived.

I believe that it was dictated to circumvent certain situational compulsions that prevailed during the era when the quota system had to be conjured up.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Case Of Bhutan’s NPLs I

For sure nothing is even remotely comparable to our more than half a century old howling stray dogs problem - but our problem related to the None Performing Loans or, more accurately, None Performing Loanees, is now verging on the ridiculous as well. Quite evidently the malice is spiraling out of control, and it is not difficult to guess where the problem will ultimately lead us. The festering gangrene was allowed to permeate unchecked for far too long. Quite late in the day, the doctors are now prescribing mass scale amputation.

People have been acting God with other's money - in the process imperiling every one else but the charlatans.

The case of the NPLs is an example of failure on the part of every one involved - the government, regulators, lenders and borrowers. Not one of them can claim that their hands are unstained with the blood of irresponsibility.

The issue will be discussed in greater detail later in my subsequent posts on the issue - for now let me treat you to some history on the emergence of the earliest cases of what is now infamously known as NPL.

Bhutan’s oldest bank - the venerable Bank of Bhutan, reported the earliest cases of NPL in the country. The rumblings of the problem was sounded to the government, as early as the mid 1980s.

The look and feel of the flamboyant Bhutanese loanee of a bygone era. It was known that every swashbuckling Bhutanese who donned a fedora cap, a pair of dark sunglasses and a VIP briefcase in hand, would be immediately identified as a borrower. The first step towards spending the borrowed money was to adorn oneself with these fine set of paraphernalia. 

The BoB submitted to the then Minister of Trade, Industries and Forests (MTI) - HRH Gyalsey Namgyel Wangchuk - that a sizeable number of the bank’s borrowers were defaulting in their loan repayments. The bank pleaded for urgent intervention by the MTI, to help it recover millions in loan money that remained unrecovered.

After a long and patient hearing, His Royal Highness told the bank MD thus:

“I believe that I have a fairly accurate understanding of your problem and I truly sympathize with you and your bank. I am happy that you have brought this to the notice of the government - it was timely and it certainly is a matter of grave concern.

However, going by the numbers you have presented to me, it is clear that what is owing to the bank is, in large part, compounded interest accrued on the borrowings - the problem of unpaid principal amounts do not seem to be so precarious.

I am happy to see that the Bank of Bhutan under your leadership has recorded handsome profits for the country. But my understanding is that since the largest portion of the bank’s business is made up of lending to the borrowing public, the most substantial chunk of your profit is attributed to earnings from interest on money borrowed by the people - whether collected or not.

Thus, in reality, it seems like the bank has not really lost any money - but merely some interest money that remains unrealized.

You would appreciate that an element of risk is inherent in every business transection. From my point of view, your loss of profit is nothing out of the ordinary - you lose some, you win some. It should be acceptable to your depositors and to your Board of Directors that the risk factor is an integral element of the business of banking.

I have heard that banks do provide for cases of some loans going bad – those that you call “bad loans”.

Is it possible that the Bank of Bhutan could consider writing off these outstandings, as “bad loans”? It would spare us all a whole load of trouble. After all the largest chunk of profit reflected in your Annual Balance Sheet is made up of interest from lending to the borrowing public.”

It appears that the BoB did not consider writing off the bad loans. In fact incidences of defaulting by borrowers seem to have worsened even further, so much so that consequently, some years later, a Loan Committee had to be formed by the government, to sort out the problem.

Sometime during late-1980s or mid-1990s, under the Chairmanship of Lyonpo Om Pradhan, the then Minister of MTI, representatives from BCCI, financial institutions, the RMA and number of loan defaulters met in the meeting hall of the Trade Minister, in an effort to try and resolve the problem of the burgeoning NPLs.

While waiting for everyone to gather for the meeting, the incumbent MD of the BoB and a representative of the BCCI had the following warm-up conversation:

BCCI Representative: “Mr. MD - please consider favorably - the defaulting borrowers do intend to repay the BoB in full, but there are difficulties.”

BoB MD: “See, you have to understand that if the borrowers do not pay up their dues, how will the bank survive? As much as the borrowers benefit from capital that we extend to them, we too survive on the earnings from our lendings. If borrowers continue to default, the bank will be in serious trouble. Anyway, let us discuss amicably and arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all concerned. It is import that:

“Saamp bhi nahi marna chahiyey – danda bi nahi tootna chahiyey”.
Translation: “We must ensure that the snake remains alive while the stick is unbroken”.

At the end of more than two hours of discussions, the participants emerged out of the meeting hall but it became obvious that the meeting did not resolve anything much. The BoB MD was overheard grumbling:

“Aarey, yeytoh garbar huwa – Saamp bi margaya, danda bhi tootgaya”.
Translation: This is not good - the snake is dead while the stick lies broken.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Australia Ho!

In Bhutan every plume of smoke will eventually turn into fire and every rumor is the foundation of truth. And, what is believed to be a most jealously guarded secret is no secret but a conversation piece spoken in subdued whispers and hushed voices.

Whether founded on truth or falsehood, the rumor doing the rounds in the social media is that the RGoB is trying to torpedo the plans of the Bhutanese youth making a beeline for Australia. If true, it is worrisome and most ill-conceived. I hope it is not true. If it is, I believe that we are now in the cusp of an anti-progressive era.

If the Bhutanese youth find acceptance in Australia, it bodes well for the country and our youth. It means that they are receiving preferential treatment over other few million visa applicants from other nations. It is testimony, if any were needed, that Bhutanese are accepted by the Australians as a safe and responsible race of people worthy of domicile in their beautiful country.

Destination of choice - AUSTRALIA!

I encourage every parent, every kinsperson, every friend and every well-wisher and every government official to encourage our youth to venture out to Australia or elsewhere, if that is what they believe is where their calling is. It is good for their parents, it is good for the country and it is very good for the unemployed and the listless.
  • Job vacancies created by those who leave - whether in the government or in the private sector - can be filled by the unemployed and the jobless - who are numerous.
  • The remittances that outbound youth send back home help strengthen our foreign exchange reserve, although I suspect that they now prefer to deal through illegal route of transfer - for better bang for their bucks. This is not possible to be controlled - if the government does not regulate imports and monitor how payments for goods are transected.
  • The new found purchasing power of the non-resident Bhutanese is now the driving force behind Thimphu's unusually upbeat real estate market. But it appears that they have recently discovered that real estate prices outside are more attractive for investment than those of our own - it is rumored that increasing number of Bhutanese are now investing in real estate in the country of their domicile.
  • The best of all reasons is that the money the outbound youth earn abroad and that which they send back home every month, provide comfort and ease of living to their aged and frail parents living in rural Bhutan. They are now delivered from the drudgery of backbreaking farm work and fighting a loosing battle against the marauding wild animals. It is not only the parents - but a large number of their siblings still living in Bhutan who are also supported by the youth working and earning abroad.
Now tell me - what would you choose? --- a life lived as a small time thief stealing office printer toner and photocopy paper to sell to shady stationers in the market place, to help make ends meet or, a life lived in dignity with pockets lined with $$$ doing an honest job outside, where the opportunities abound? Is the joy and pride of being able to care for your aging parents and delivering them from having to clang empty tins all night long to chase away wild animal destroying their crops - a better and worthy choice than worrying all the time how you are going to see through the month?

It is our youth’s birthright to make their own choices - between life and livelihood. No one should interfere.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

COP27: Taking On The Burden Of Cost Of Climate Change

Morning Briefing

November 9, 2022

European countries make climate pledges
Wealthy nations have long resisted calls from developing countries to shoulder the costs of climate change. At last year’s U.N. climate summit, only one, Scotland, made any sort of pledge.

But at COP27, the dam may have begun to break.

As a country that is among the most committed in environmental conservation, will Bhutan seek a piece of the pie? Are we going to stake our rightful claim? Let us not dither.

Yesterday, Scotland pledged $5.7 million. Then, Ireland pledged $10 million, followed by Austria, which said it would pay around $50 million to vulnerable developing countries. Belgium, Denmark and Germany made similar pledges. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, endorsed the idea.

All eyes are now on the U.S., which has not agreed to new funds for poorer nations affected by climate change. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, sent up a not-too-veiled flare yesterday to Washington. “Pressure must be put on rich non-European countries,” he continued, “‘You have to pay your fair share.’”

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Thaa Damtsi

Hi ……..,

Thank you for your mail of the morning.

On the outset I would like to apologize to you and your organization for the shameful behavior of my country towards donors who have helped make a difference in the lives of the Bhutanese people. The rule regarding donors or their hosts in Bhutan needing to pay the SDF of US$200.00 per day per person is an act of shamelessness, ingratitude and total lack of appreciation for the generosity of the donors and their untiring work to raise funds for meaningful projects in Bhutan.

Popy photographed in Merak, Trashigang

Unfortunately the Bhutanese people have no idea how much hard work goes behind fund raising that donors have to do - to be able to deliver much needed aid money to Bhutan - they only see the color of the money that come in - not the passion and commitment and hard work that go behind the humanitarian work.

As a aid worker myself who had to deal with aid recipients on a daily basis, I had on countless occasions been faced with attitudes that were so utterly callous - it defies logic that a society supposedly made up of people indoctrinated in, what we in Bhutan call, people of “Thaa Damtsi” - "Loyalty", "Integrity", "Virtue, "Interpersonal Commitment", "Respect & Reciprocity" etc. - can be capable of. In exasperation, after eleven years in an aid giving organization, I threw in the towel and made my exit, before I too am dragged into the cesspool.

I totally agree with you - there are many developing countries around the world that are deserving of your aid money. You would be right in reassessing your work here in Bhutan. All that I can say on behalf of the people of Bhutan and on my on behalf is: THANK YOU - for your engagement thus far.

The truth is that I am a Bhutanese and I will remain one to the end of my life - it is not a dye that I can wash off, nor a cast that I can peel off and discard - not that I wish to. Thus, as a caring Bhutanese, I raise my voice once in a while; put in few words edgeways - in the hope that I might make a difference.

For the selfless donors who have suddenly been declared persona-non-grata, I can do nothing - other than regularly remain in touch with them from time to time and ask: How are you? Are you and your family keeping well and safe from the pandemic? One other thing I do:

First thing I wake up in the morning, I login into the website:

I scan through the site and see how countries such as Australia, Canada, England, India, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the Middle East and the USA are faring, with respect to the COVID-19 Pandemic that is still a looming threat. I do so because I hold memories of people in those countries who helped me do good in this world - people who still continue to mean well for Bhutan and the Bhutanese people, regardless.

Every once in a while I make sure that I remember to write to each of them in those countries - to demonstrate to them that atleast there is one solitary Bhutanese whose heart has not stopped palpitating for them, in gratitude for having given to the Bhutanese people so selflessly.

Bye and take care ---- and once again I am sorry.