Jul 28, 2016

CBB Magazine in the offing

We had this idea since the conception of Community of Bhutanese Bloggers (CBB) a year ago. But we failed to breathe life into it so far. I am really happy that we got an opportunity to talk about Annual CBB Magazine (finally) during the recent Bhutanese Bloggers Meet. 

A Committee is working on this. We are currently in the process of selecting the articles from the members' blogs. We are also encouraging the fellow Bloggers to help us identify what they feel is their best blog entries. 

The birth of Gyalsey is one of the most important themes of our first CBB magazine and the equally important is the celebration of the fifth Royal Weeding Anniversary of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Gyaltsun. 

We will also be exploring "Blogging" in Bhutan in this maiden issue. 

Unlike other magazines, we have the content ready on our blogs; we just need to do a careful selection of our blog entries. We also have bloggers, who can design magazines and have an excellent collection of photographs. But most important of all, our fellow bloggers have a great connection with other people. That's why we feel it will help us garner some support from the business establishments. 

As requested, we would like to once again request fellow CBB members and other bloggers to kindly help us identify blog posts that fit the above-mentioned themes. You can share links to CBB Group or simply email us. We seek your wholehearted support in this. 

Thank you!

Thriving Middlemen

Just like any other Bhutanese, I too feel helpless at this time of national crisis. Bhutan is battling with the forces of nature. And in the last few days, it is been hectic. I join the Bhutanese people in thanking our His Majesty for personally leading and monitoring the rescue work and demonstrating exemplary leadership. 

We are also thankful and appreciative of Prime Minister's role in all these. 

We were told that the trucks carrying fuel are on their way to the capital today. It is a great relief and highly reassuring to all Bhutanese to know this. I pray and hope that this is the end of our ordeals. Thimphu finally saw some sunshine today (Thursday, July 28) . 

This year's Monsoon brings us more than natural disasters. It was a window through which we saw many dark possibilities and drive home some lessons. We have seen our people line up to refuel their cars in the middle of the night, blocking traffic. We have also heard of taxi drivers charging exorbitant fares to the hapless Bhutanese students on their way to India. 

But more interestingly, on July 21 Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority announced a temporary ban on the import of chilies from India. While I agree that we have to take up this as an opportunity to grow and grow more on our own, it is depressing to note that some people are taking the advantage of the ban on chilies to unreasonably hike the prices of local produce. We were told that in some places it has risen from Nu. 40 a kilo to 150. That's pure robbery. We should stop this. Recently, Royal Bhutan Police penalized some taxi drivers, who charged their passengers illogically high fares. Likewise, the concerned authorities should monitor food prices. Imagine what happened if fuel price is not monitored?   

I think that farmers in the villages, who worked hard on their farms, would never know about the ban on the import of chilies. And for the same reasons they would not charge extra. But it is the middlemen involved who take the stock of the market situation to make big money. In all these, it is the middlemen, who benefit and not the actual farmers. 

Therefore, there is an urgent need to protect our farmers from these so-called middlemen, who thrive on the hard work of our humble farmers. 

Jun 22, 2016

Narrowing the Danger Zone

Our fellow blogger Riku Dhan Subba, who recently traveled to Trongsa, reports, "The road condition is very very bad. Muddy and slippery, all vehicles skid along." And he adds "Often, there are falling boulders and soil from right above the road. Since road widening project is going on, most cliffs are freshly cut and very fragile." 

This made me go through my old files to find something I had written about Monsoon and our road widening, way back in August 2011. Nothing much has changed even now.  

There were about two-dozen vehicles, big and small, ahead of us, all waiting for any likely help. The officials and laborers had gone home after yet another tiring day at work. I am sure the team did not even enter through the threshold of their houses when this happened. Once again and on the same location! Now they were totally exhausted. And with that, our hope of crossing the site on the same day was gradually dying. As the clouds were darkening our worries of being stranded on the highway that night, stuck us dear. Heavy boulders kept shooting down the cliff. It was one dangerous site on the highway.

“We never had such problem on this stretch before,” one of the senior drivers was saying, not to anyone in particular. “Although it was quite narrow, the road here was quite stable and we never had landslide here. It is only after the road widening works have started that the condition of this road has become like this.”

Others could not help agreeing with the man. 

But after a while, someone had informed the traffic police and RSTA officials about the major landslide, which had totally blocked the road. And to our surprise, officials responded immediately and reached the scene. We were delighted knowing that some form of help was coming our way. But in the back of our head, we still doubted whether the block could be negotiated on time or else we would end up spending a sleepless night on the road. I am sure our prayers were heard in the heaven. 

And similarly, there were so many other vehicles wishing for the same at the other end of the block. 

Having a bus full of people was an added advantage. Understanding our plight, the road officials wasted no time before they took the matter into their hands. It was a gradual process though for as soon as machines had successfully cleared the debris, fresh boulders and stones fell off. It was a hectic process. When the officials had cleared the obstacles successfully we were greatly relieved. But bigger and riskier challenge remained before us; now to cross the block site as rocks continually kept shooting from above. Anything could happen. 

One car after another, officials directed the traffic. Vehicles before us passed without any event, but to our horror, the officials gestured us to stop when our turn came. Their eyes were looking at the rocks above the road. We could literally see nothing since there was a sharp bend before we reach the actual site. We were terrified. We knew something was wrong. If we didn’t go it was a problem for us and if we continued there was a great risk. And when the officials gestured us to proceed, we were even more terrified. We thought they were taking chances on us.

But thank Buddha, nothing happened to us and we could safely cross the danger prone area. What a relief it was! But our hearts continued beating at great speed pace even after we have driven15 kilometers away from the site. It was truly an evening worth remembering.

Today Monsoon is in full swing and we hear of frequent landslides everywhere, which is even more aggravating than being held up for days in the border towns owing to strikes in our neighboring Indian states. And although most of our national highways are broader and safer now, we have at some places on the highways where road-widening process is underway. With the process of development, there is an urgent need to widen our national highways. Driving on the broad and comfortable road network allows us to travel faster and affords safety too. Commuters take less time to reach their destinations.

In the beginning, our roads were narrow. It was good enough with fewer people owning cars. But now we have more vehicles plying on the same old roads. And now there is an urgent need for double-lane highways. Our country has realized all these and initiated the massive road widening initiatives. It is always encouraging to see people working hard on the road. We are thankful to DANTAK, which has carried out a commendable job in the past five decades. We extend similar appreciation to our own PWD.  

But our personal experience tells us the national highway-widening process should be made seasonal. We think it is more appropriate if such work is undertaken during dry seasons only when the soil condition is stable and there is no or less rain.  When topsoil is removed and the remaining exposed layers are loosened, it becomes easier for the rainwater to seep in. Frequent blasting that happens weakens the landscape features. And the recent landslide that we encountered at one of the most stable sections of the highway goes on to justify people’s assumption. 
 
While we understand the importance of road widening process and greatly appreciate the initiatives, work, especially on loose soil should be saved for drier seasons. If it is at all possible, we should avoid the widening work during the rainy season, during which our efforts should be directed at clearing the blocks. This way we would cause our natural environment a minimal damage and avoid frequent landslides. This way we provide increased road safety to our commuters. 

Note: Pictures are taken by Riku. Thank you for allowing me to use them. 

Jun 13, 2016

Behind the Purple Building?

The following is an opinion piece I contributed to Business Bhutan (June 11, 2016). I reproduce it here for the others, who have not gone through it. 

Last week I had a difficult time finding my cousin’s house in town. She had recently shifted to a new location and as tradition has it, my family wanted to make a courtesy call. I was informed of the location, but getting there was a herculean task. And the absence of strange-colored buildings or offices in close proximity made it even more difficult to locate my cousin’s new residence. Darkness descended gradually to our disadvantage.

I have never called anyone the way I had to call my cousin that evening. After a series of calls and driving here and there, we finally reached the place by a stroke of luck.  Of course, if my cousin had not come out on the road, after her failed attempt at providing me the direction (and likewise me failing to translate her direction), my family would have returned home that evening.

And I realized I was not alone. Everyone in Thimphu understands how difficult it is to find the location of a place or a house and giving directions, without referring some important landmarks such as school, monastery, office, workshop, carwash, etc.

But as the number of houses increases by the day, it will only become that much more complicated to find our ways around. It is a difficult exercise to locate someone’s house. While it may mean safety from robberies, well, it also means a series of calls on the way to get to the place where our friends and relatives reside.

Good thing is our official addresses already make use of street names. And since 2010 Thimphu Thromde in partnership with Bhutan Post had managed to number all the buildings and the apartments in Thimphu. But it has not been of much help since many people do not use the street names (except on paper). I bet most people will not know where the following streets are: Lhado Lam, Zeri Lam, Thori Lam, Dashing Lam, Doebum Lam, Rabten Lam, to cite a few examples.

Interestingly, almost everyone knows Norzin Lam. Is it because many shops are lined up along that street? Is it because most people loiter and roam around here? Is it because of the noisy and busy traffic? I think it is because people use the name (Norzin Lam) frequently that we remember it. And this also means that if we use all other street names meaningfully (not just on the official papers) one day we would be able to tell exactly on which street we reside. That way it would become much easier for us to direct visitors to our offices or homes with less hassles.

It takes two persons to get the directions right – the giver and taker. Bhutanese by and large are poor direction provider and taker. Somehow we fail miserably, especially so if you have just shifted to a new location. And because of that we normally provide general location and vague direction for our residences. For example, this is a typical conversation:
Where do you live, Dorji?
I live in Motithang, Karma.
Now, if Dorji is uninterested in knowing the exact location, he would be satisfied with Karma’s answer. But if he isn’t satisfied:
Where in Motithang?
Opposite to the School, right above BOD and behind the Purple Building.
That is a complete address in Bhutan, especially if you are in Thimphu. The visitor has to figure out and of course, the host will only have to wait on the road and direct the visitor to the right house. Normally, if a tourist asks for direction, Bhutanese would rather drop that visitor to that place than provide directions.  

Bhutan has always lived in the villages. An urban issue, as this, is a recent phenomenon. In the village, everyone knows everyone’s house and the need to provide direction is almost nonexistent. If you ask for Aum Gaki’s house, you will be shown the right house, by pointing down at the building even from the hilltop. Aum Gaki’s house is the one right next to the chorten. And if even if you are a complete stranger you will know exactly where to start and where the path will lead to. This is not so in urban Bhutan. In Thimphu and other populated towns, things get more complicated.

Our addresses need to evolve. Thimphu is far more difficult to handle than a small village. And here, there is no question or is almost impossible for a postman to deliver your letters at your doorstep.

I think we can make it happen if we work for it and are serious about reaching everyone everywhere in town. Thimphu Thromde and Bhutan Post’s initiative is commendable. We must now implement it and build on it so that everyone living in Thimphu has a proper address.

First, we need to relook at all our street names and educate people accordingly through appropriate channels. That way the city dwellers will know for sure which road goes where. That way, we can gradually make all streets popular like the famous Norzin Lam. Once we know the exact road or the street, we will then be able to locate the buildings, which are already numbered. And all the flats within a particular building are provided unique numbers. We must encourage our landlords to come up with the right addresses for their buildings and make it possible for all their tenants to have ready residential addresses.

That will ease city dwellers’ lives so much. Business houses can easily locate their clients and people can provide an exact location to the police or the hospital during emergencies. More than anything, it can make visiting friends and family members easier knowing exactly where they reside.

May 31, 2016

When FIVE is more than FIVE HUNDRED

Bhutanese parents complain that our children are exposed to so much foreign content and that they might soon forget our own root. Some parents also feel that their children respond well and better to stories that have Bhutanese characters and places in them. That's why the need for more and better Bhutanese books in the market. And we have only a handful of people who are committed to making this happen although the financial return is almost none.  

Bhutan can boast of not many writers. Here writing or publishing aspect of writing is an expensive hobby. In the first place, it is difficult to convince people to publish their writings and many leave it before they are halfway. Publishing is a complicated process. But here it is even more complicated since our publishers are not publishers in the real sense of the term. They would only 'publish' (print) school textbooks and in that they are only being wise - averting risks to their businesses. 

Recently, the whole nation started debating about BICMA's new rule of bookstores having to register every title that they import from outside by paying a registration fee of Nu. 5 per title. That was not even a debate actually. It was more like people from all walks of life extending their support to the booksellers and complaining about the unfairness of the new rule.  

Bookstores in the country thought that this rule would greatly hamper their businesses. Yes, to some extent, for an honest person. Initially, I also felt having to register every single title is an illogical and cumbersome a process. Of course, bookstores will have to pay fees, proportionate to the number of titles that they import.  

But on a second thought, I am forced to believe that registration fee for a foreign book (at Nu. 5) is far cheaper - in fact 100 times cheaper - than registering a Bhutanese title. BICMA collects Nu. 500 to register a Bhutanese book and issues a BICMA registration number. The authority has been collecting the fee for quite some time now. But no one had complained so far. Is it because writers are helplessly driven by their passion for writing that they do not mind paying whatever the amount the authority imposes on them? 

Now we realize that we had been paying so much more in comparison to foreign titles. In fact, if the cost of registering a foreign title is Nu. 5, then a Bhutanese title should be registered almost at no cost. That is again if we are serious about promoting Bhutanese content. Additionally, registration of a Bhutanese title takes quite a long time in the name of 'reviewing the content' while the authority is merely asking the booksellers to submit a list of foreign titles.  

I know no one will listen to us or do anything about it - because we are the silent lots. However, it gives me a some sort of satisfaction being able to point out how things are on the ground. The authority might listen to booksellers (businesspeople) and might even waive off the need to register every foreign title. And now there are speculative media reports that the government is planning to waive off all forms of taxes related to books. That is good news to businesspeople but for a common Bhutanese writer, she has to pay the registration fee and also a hefty commission (some bookstores demanding as high as 45%) to these businesspeople to get their printing cost back. 

And all these will pass, I know. Bhutanese children will continue to read foreign content and booksellers (businesspeople) will continue making money - even more so having to pay no taxes at all. 

May 20, 2016

Our Growing Opportunity

Last week, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest had ordered the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) to 'temporarily' suspend the import of beans and cauliflowers. Laboratory tests had confirmed that these vegetables contain pesticide beyond permitted 'limit'. 

This is heartening for many Bhutanese farmers. This is truly our opportunity to grow and feed Bhutanese with vegetables grown and nurtured on Bhutanese soil. It is an opportunity to go bigger into farming and turn farming into a financially lucrative venture for our rural farmers, who still continue to grow crops for self-consumption. 

Otherwise, it is difficult for our farmers to compete with literally cheap vegetables that are imported from across the border, where they are grown in much much bigger quantity. Our farmers do not stand a chance at all to compete in the market. Thus, they end up growing only what's enough for their own families - the rest go waste, most of the time. Same thing with dairy and poultry products. Bhutanese farmers should be able to cater enough dairy products to  Bhutanese consumers. Some day soon, we should stop importing cheaper products. I am unsure how healthy these products are, but today, Bhutanese in the urban centers continue to consume imported dairy products. 

We are already self-sufficient in eggs. And we should now explore markets beyond Bhutan for our poultry products. Same thing with our dairy products. 

This is the right time that we seriously think about growing more vegetables enough for all consumers. That way we can stop importing vegetables. I think that is possible. 

Of course, again, sometimes we tend to go wild. Our authorities need to control the prices of these products and make them affordable to everyone. 

Strike the iron while it is hot, they say; we must make use of this import suspension order as a basis to stop importing vegetables from across the border and strive for self-sufficiency in vegetables and other food items - one product at a time. 

Note: Pictures from Kuensel: May 20, 2016

May 12, 2016

Panbang Boys

A group of eleven passionate Panbang boys came together in 2012 and formed the first community-based ecotourism company. They call it the River Guides of Panbang. They are river guides. They work in a group and are so good at what they do. They are highly enterprising people in Panbang known for their commitment to their mission.

One of their aims is to work for the "preservation of the rich biodiversity under the corridor of Royal Manas National Park" while creating eco-tourism in the locality. They own two rubber boats and provide tourists an unforgettable experience of floating on the mighty Manas river.

In March 2016, when I was there, the Group was busy building a line of eco-camps, away from Panbang town. The camp is built with the financial support from Bhutan Foundation on one of the members' private land. These camps are built using wood and bamboo, sourced locally. While they may appear like rows of village houses, roofed traditionally using leaves, they would be fitted with latest amenities, I was told. It has been many months since and it would certainly be a great pleasure to see how they have turned up after everything was complete. We were also told that Bhutan Foundation would be conducting their Board meeting at the camp.

The camp will attract many visitors to the place and also provide unique experiences of staying in a remote village but also enjoy modern facilities and float down the Manas with the trained 'river guides'. The eco-camp will also be a wonderful place to conduct workshops, conferences and retreats during winter months.

Some of the members are my former classmates and schoolmates. I have great respect for these people for literally venturing into an untraversed water and having succeeded in capturing the market. Today, the place attracts hundreds of Indian tourists, bird watchers, adventurers, photographers.

Panbang is a small town in Zhemgang under Ngangla Gewog and is now becoming the center of major economic activity. Before the coming of Gomphu-Panbang National Highway, one had to travel through India to reach the town from bordering places like Gelephu, Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar and Nganglam in Pema Gatshel.

Panbang today has a lower secondary school and a middle secondary school, a BHU (Basic Health Unit), RNR (Renewable Natural Resource) Center, branches of Bank of Bhutan and Bhutan Development Bank. 

Note: River Guides pictures by RGP while the eco-camp pictures are from my personal collection

Apr 21, 2016

Farmers' Gateway to Information



On March 25, 2016, READ Bhutan inaugurated its first community radio in Pema Gatshel Dzongkhag. KYD (Khotakpa Yalang and Denchi) Community Radio 91.1FM can be heard in some 9 villages. KYD unofficially also stands for Khotakpa Youth Development! (Shh... that's what I made up.) 

The community radio was established with funding from Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) Bhutan and in partnership with Ministry of Information and Communications.

Speaking at the launch, Lyonpo D.N Dhungyel said that the community radio will provide an excellent platform for people to participate in social discourse. “The Community Radio will provide opportunities for people to discuss social issues,” he said. “It will also provide an enhanced access to educational information and resources.”

The Minister urged the people to use the station meaningfully to benefit the community fully. 
The Country Director of READ Bhutan, Ms. Karma Lhazom said that the main objective of setting up a community radio is to inform rural farmers. “The Community Radio will promote civic participation, enhance education, provide access to useful information and build an informed community,” she said. “It will also increase local awareness on democratic values and principles and connect the far flung villages of Pema Gatshel valley, which are otherwise fairly isolated from each other.”
The Country representative of SDC Bhutan Mr. Mathias Meier said that concept of community radio is “a radio of the people, for the people and by the people” and that, he said, “is the real essence of democracy.”
Villagers are really excited. 41-year-old, Khotakpa Tshogpa, Bopo Drukpa said that the community radio will bring about immense benefit. “The radio station will both inform and entertain us,” he said. “My work as a tshogpa will become much easier now as we would be able to use radio to inform people about various meetings and disseminate other important messages immediately; I am really happy.”
Namgay Wangdi, 37, another villager said the community will reap a lot of benefits from the newly established community radio. “Ours is a very remote village. I see the radio airing important agriculture and health-related information. Because it is coming from a local and our own station it will be helpful to us.”
Situated in Southeast Bhutan, Khotakpa is a remote farming community cultivating maize, rice and oranges. READ Bhutan opened a READ Center in the community in March 2014 in partnership with Druk Satair Corporation. 

Mar 31, 2016

Travelling In

It is such a shame that I could not update my blog for over a month now. I would not want to bid March 2016 goodbye without a single blog entry on my blog. That's why although I am travelling right now, I am stopping to post something so that I have something for March 2016 on my record. 

Travelling to far off places in Bhutan have been a fruitful and enriching experience. Most of us wish to travel abroad and see different cultures and tradition, and people's way of life. 

But sadly, there are so many things that we need to see and experience here in the country. There are places that offer so much and we have so much to learn. That's why I think we need to also start travelling and seeing our own places. That's why we need to start visiting packages even for the natives. 

Today, we only sell our country to the foreigners. It is high time that we introduce our own country to our people. That's why we need not visit foreign countries every time to learn something. Although I am not totalling ruling out that we would get a lot of new experiences and exposures from abroad it is given.

The idea is to travel inside the country. I think it is important before we travel outside. We must appreciate what we have before we go visit some foreign places. 

Some good news, though -  I was told that a group of young Bhutanese entrepreneurs are venturing into providing pilgrimage services to our people inside the country. Bhutan has a lot of sacred places and sites to visit. And having a company that takes our people to visit all these sacred sites is heartening truly. (I am going to explore more about that company in my next post.) 

Over the past week that I have been travelling I have seen and experienced so much. I would love to post some pictures soon. 

P.S - a brief post in want of time.


Feb 29, 2016

Ban or Sham?

The following is a column I have contributed in Business Bhutan (Saturday 27 February 2016 issue). Thank you, Ms. Peky Samal, the news editor of Business Bhutan for the apt title: 

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forest had issued a circular requesting all government and other agencies to avoid serving meat during the workshops and conferences. The Ministry’s rationale was that the Year of Monkey is the birth year of Guru Rinpoche and it also coincides with the meat bans in the country. It is a welcome move.   

In Bhutan, every year the first and fourth months of Bhutanese calendar, the sale of meat is banned.

I think the content of the circular should stand even beyond Guru Rinpoche’s birth year. Since we are putting a strict ban on the sale of meat during the holy months, it should not be available in the first place. But sadly, some hotels continue to serve their customers meat. But should we allow this to happen? It is said, that a month prior to the ban, demand for meat skyrockets. That says it all. Should we allow hoteliers to store meat to be used during the ban? Doesn’t it defeat the whole purpose of the ban?  

Our meat ban should go beyond any regulations or restrictions for it is not every time that we have such bans. Two months in a year! I think it is a rare occasion to spread our compassion to many animals that have to give up their lives to feed us all. I really feel that we should go strong with our commitments. Again, we are not asking everyone to turn vegetarians, are we? But at least during the holy months, can we be put a small brake on our uncontrolled appetites?

Most Bhutanese eat meat at home, but during conference lunches more meat items find their ways on our platter. So, the Ministry’s circular is a big relief.

Last month, a group of hoteliers in Bumthang came together and agreed that they will not serve their customers meat during the holy months. It is truly remarkable for businessmen to agree on something like that. Can we convince some more hoteliers in other parts of the country to do the same? They did not wait for the Ministry to issue a circular.

That’s a simple logic, says my high school niece. If hotels, provided all agree to serve only vegetables during the holy months, then their customers would not complain about the meatless menu. But the problem comes when meat is not served in a particular hotel while it is freely available in some other hotels. That’s why I think we must seek the support of the business establishments to put in place effective meat bans in the country.

We applaud the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest for its bold and noble initiative. It is one way of promoting compassionate society.