Experts warn of severe consequences if guards are let down
Rajesh Rai, Nima and Younten Tshedup
After a brief respite, the country is witnessing a surge in new Covid-19 cases sparking concerns. The country is seeing a rapid rise in the Covid-19 cases beginning this month.
The good thing, however, is that the positive cases, for now, are confined within the safe boundaries of the quarantine facility.
But a more worrying trend is brewing just across the country’s southern border. Breaking all records, India has recorded a massive surge of 131,968 Covid-19 cases in the last 24 hours according to India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Although not the epicentre, the country’s next-door neighbours in Assam and West Bengal are also recording a steady increase in positive cases. West Bengal saw 1,819 new cases in the last 24 hours while Assam recorded 176 new cases.
What does this mean? Despite the pandemic, the country is still importing substantial quantities of goods from India. These goods are brought inside the country through these Indian states.
Bhutan also shares a 700km long porous border with these states and the incidences of illegal border-crossing is on the rise despite all efforts to guard them.
The novel coronavirus is an imported disease and the only source of such disease is via the point of entries — bordering towns and international airports. The two outbreaks of Covid-19 Bhutan experienced so far were both linked to an outside source.
Besides this external threat, people within the country have already returned to ‘business as usual’. Following the vaccination campaign, there is a general feeling that Bhutanese have become complacent and have stopped following the public health measures.
Thimphu’s busiest thoroughfare, Norzin Lam, is bustling as usual. People in groups, many without facemasks are seen strolling the streets today.
The last remains of the Druk Trace QR code are hanging on the walls of shops and offices. The mini-water tanks in front of the shops have run dry and physical distancing is a thing of the past.
Situation in Phuentsholing
A 30-minute stroll into the business hub of the country can give you a picture of how complacent people have become. There are people, young and old, walking without facemask. Those who pretend to use one, don’t cover their nose.
Some shops have installed handwashing stations but not many use it. One shopkeeper said people were not following the usual prevention measures as they used to a few months ago. “When we ask people to wash hands, wear masks and register their information, they leave the shop,” he said. “When we can’t change people’s mentality, the government must act.”
Another shopkeeper said that people get offended when they ask them to use Druk Trace, wear masks and maintain physical distance. “They get angry and leave the shop.”
A Phuentsholing resident, Rintshen Dorji, said that people have become complacent after the vaccination campaign. “I think people are under a false belief that they have got immunity against the virus. They must know that is wrong,” he said.
He said that there was a need for more advocacy and sensitisation by the health ministry. Otherwise, he said, with increasing Covid-19 cases in the region, and Phuentsholing being a porous border, it may not take long before another local transmission occurred, triggering a nationwide lockdown. “Now is the time to apply stringent rules.”
A health official in Phuentsholing said that pandemic fatigue could be the reason behind the complacency. “People have grown tired from the prolonged pandemic. We all want to live free as before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has stopped all these freedoms that people normally enjoyed.” He said that if people let their guards down, they would face more difficulties in an event of another outbreak.
Health officials say that complacency in people can undo all the achievements made so far. A doctor said that people should follow the preventive measures irrespective of receiving the vaccine or not. “Not all people will develop antibodies from the vaccine. People must follow Covid-19 protocol to protect those who were not vaccinated, those who are not eligible, and those who wouldn’t have immunity to fight the virus.”
Gelephu almost on track
Wearing facemask, using Druk Trace app, and avoiding crowds while shopping and moving in the town have become a norm for most of the residents in Gelephu, according to a shopkeeper, Jigme Choden.
However, few continue to come for shopping without wearing a mask. “This happens when they forget their mask. But they buy it immediately. There are a few who won’t use Druk Trace,” she said.
She added that people have become much more comfortable following the safety protocols now. “We share a border with the neighbouring Indian town and the risk is still there. It’s important that we keep following these safety measures.”
The washing stations are filled with water, minus the soap.
Desuup Naveen Kumar Gurung said that shopkeepers in town were supportive in making people use the safety protocols. “They also provide soaps and washbasins for use. But we have to remind people to use the Druk Trace application often,” he said.
The shops are open only till 9pm and movement of vehicles is restricted after 10pm.
Can’t let the guards down
Bhutan experienced two episodes of Covid-19 outbreak so far with the second one being 10 times bigger than the first. Experts say the next outbreak would be even bigger if people are not careful.
On January 9, the country recorded 39 positive cases, the highest single day detection. Doctors in Thimphu Kuensel spoke to said that the existing health facility would collapse if a large number of people tested positive on a daily basis.
“During an outbreak all sorts of people will get the disease. There will be more serious cases and people will die if timely interventions are not provided,” said a doctor. “Currently, all our positive cases are given special attention during their treatment. This might not continue if we have to attend to a large number of positive cases daily.”
Health experts have repeatedly warned people not to let their guards down especially after the vaccination campaign. The vaccine, especially after the first dose, does not guarantee 100 percent protection against the virus, said Dr GP Dhakal with the national referral hospital.
“Two weeks after the first dose, you may be 50 percent protected which is why, to have full protection, you’ll need to get the second or booster dose. Similarly, adequate antibodies will be produced two weeks after the booster dose,” he said.
“That is why until we’re fully protected, we all need to follow preventive measures, such as wearing face masks, practising physical distancing and regularly washing hands.”
He added that, since almost 38 percent of the population remained unvaccinated due to their ineligibility to get the vaccine, they would be severely impacted if there is an outbreak of Covid-19. “Our neighbouring countries made this mistake and the virus is now rampantly spreading. We’re not yet safe from the pandemic.”
World’s Health Organisation’s country representative in Bhutan, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said the vaccination needed to happen in all countries with good coverage to ensure some relaxation and return to normal ways.
He said that no one is safe until everyone is safe. This means that even after the second dose of the vaccine in the country, if neighbouring countries continue to record increasing cases, the risk of infection will continue to exist for the Bhutanese.
Dr Rui said that the vaccine alone was not adequate protection from the virus. “We still don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last and also how the disease will evolve.” He said people will have to adhere to measures such as using face masks, avoiding crowds, and regular hand washing.
Cabinet approves AMCH-1,000 days plus policy
Yangchen C Rinzin
The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa’s popular pledge to provide breastfeeding allowance, which is now called Accelerating Mother and Child Health (AMCH)–1,000 Day Plus, to improve the health of mother and child in the country, is likely to happen anytime soon.
This is because the Cabinet approved the AMCH programme, which was also once called a maternity allowance and later proposed as AMCH-1,000 Day Plus policy.
The policy was approved sometime last November.
Mothers or pregnant mothers will now be provided certain monetary incentives through the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme, according to the policy.
The AMCH policy is also envisioned to empower women financially by enabling them to operate their own personal saving bank account, economically active and healthy future generations, shared responsibility of the spouse, family and community.
However, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and given the economic situation, Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo said that the CCT could not take off immediately.
“But the ministry is already working with the finance ministry on the cost and Royal Monetary Authority for financial literacy,” Sowai Lyonpo said. “But we’re sure that we’ll launch the programme later this year now that the policy is approved.”
The ministry will develop a CCT scheme to accelerate, improve and address the existing challenges in achieving the targets for mother and child health. The CCT will be provided to mothers/pregnant mothers, who will avail the requisite maternity and child health services.
Apart from that policy stated that CCT would be provided to all eligible pregnant women and mothers fulfilling conditions like 25 visits to the health facilities from conception until the child is two years old.
The recommended visits are eight ante-natal care, conditions like institutional delivery should be met, four post-natal care visits, immunisation, and exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
The ministry will also develop eligibility criteria, exclusion criteria, enrolment into the programme, and conditions that beneficiaries need to fulfil to receive the CCT.
The CCT will be administered using the government’s fund transfer system and a conditional tranche system that will have details on disbursement schedules and the amount to be disbursed would be developed. “This will encourage mothers to fulfil all conditions,” the policy stated.
Sowai Lyonpo said that the approval of policy was a milestone for mother and children and this would narrow the gap between rural and urban mothers in terms of mother and child health (MCH) services.
“This is personally one of my topmost priority to implement, and I’ve worked hard with extreme passion to make sure this comes through,” Lyonpo said. “People must understand that investing money for a child is not an expenditure when children are considered as our future that will build a stronger nation.”
Lyonpo added that this will also ensure that there is equitable access to MCH services. “This means a child born in a rural area will be provided with the same services as that of a child born in an urban area. We want to ensure mothers have a bank account and financial literacy so that the money goes directly to her.”
The ministry has also drafted the action plan to carry forward the policy and ensure that the programme continues irrespective of which government comes in.
The need for a policy was recognised after several studies showed low utilisation of MCH services due to distance from the health facility, nature of occupation, financial burden, and inability to take time off from farm work and domestic responsibilities.
The primary objective of policy is to “Accelerate the achievement of mother and child health outcomes by increasing the uptake of MCH services through a holistic and comprehensive approach.”
The policy is also expected to contribute availability, accessibility and quality MCH services and knowledge and practices for MCH services.
The policy also demands to have a comprehensive AMCH training program for the health assistants, GDMOs, and dzongkhag health officials on the enrolment, eligibility, disbursement of CCT, and conditions for receiving CCT.
The health ministry will conduct a review periodically and decide on when the program has achieved the desired target.
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
In three weeks since the first harvest, farmers in Sergithang sold more than 4.5 metric tonnes (MT) of big green chilli earning at least Nu 2 million.
With vegetable suppliers and vendors flooding the villages in the gewog almost every day to buy every available chilli, farmers are making the most income at this time of the year.
This is the second year that farmers in Sergithang have succeeded in producing green chillies early. Farmers harvested their produce two weeks earlier than last year. Around 60 farmers have grown chillies on more than 15-acre land in the gewog.
In previous years, the first green chillies to hit the market come from Trashiyangtse.
Nar Maya Sanyasi, a farmer in Sergithang Maed has already harvested more than 190kg of chillies from her one acre. This earned her about Nu 70,000.
She sold at Nu 350 a kilogram, the lowest farm-gate price. Others charge between Nu 450 and Nu 550 a kg.
“I’ve doubled the plantation this year. A good income is expected. At the moment, we need not worry about buyers,” she said adding that support from the agriculture sector encouraged her to grow chillies.
She made more than Nu 0.4 million from selling chillies, last year.
Farmers said that in a week, at least five vegetable vendors from outside the dzongkhag come to the villages looking for chillies.
Although farmers were urged to sell chillies cheap to make it affordable and available to everyone, they said vendors offered a higher price.
“What matters to us is a good price, so we accept their offers,” said a grower in Tashithang chiwog, Bhim Subba.
This is his first time growing chillies. He has sold more than 100kg at Nu 350 a kg so far. Bhim Subba ventured into chilli cultivation after he returned home from Thimphu. He was working in a music club last year.
“The business is lucrative as of now. I’m planning to construct a house with the income,” he said.
Another grower and also a vendor, Garab Dorji has so far supplied about 600kg of chillies to Punakha and Wangdue.
To make the vegetable affordable for all, he said he had sold at Nu 550 a kg. “I pay Nu 500 for a kilogram to the farmer.”
Last year, the maximum farm-gate price for a kg of chilli was Nu 450.
The gewog agriculture extension officer, DB Ghalley said that it was difficult for farmers to maintain a fixed farm-gate price due to a huge surge in demand.
“Given a large number of growers, it is also difficult for us to monitor every day. There are other administrative tasks to be taken care of,” he said.
The gewog is expected to produce about 8.5 metric tonnes of the child this season.
Meanwhile, a kilogram of big green chilli from Tsirang costs at least Nu 700 in Thimphu.
Govt. might allot non-strategic mines to the private sector towards the year-end
Even as a new Mines and Minerals Act is being enacted, the Department of Geology and Mines (DGM) this month adopted Mines Restoration Guidelines 2021 to revive the natural ecosystem at the mined areas.
The mines restoration process includes slope stabilsation, slope dressing, civil works and plantations. The mined-out area may be reclaimed for other purposes like parks and playgrounds.
Economic affairs minister, Loknath Sharma, said the guidelines had to be framed as the previous rules were unclear. “The guidelines have been strengthened for implementation in the best interest of the affected community and the country,” he said.
The mine restoration guidelines make it mandatory for the lessee to complete the restoration process before the closure of the lease. As per the guidelines, the leases should also restore the land disturbed to acceptable post-mining land use.
The lessee shall nurture and monitor the plantations, properly fence the plantation areas by barbed wire fencing and bamboo mat enclosures. The guideline outlines the details of the responsibilities of the miner and the government.
The guidelines will apply to all the mines. The SMCL CEO refused to comment.
Meanwhile the State Mining Corporation Limited (SMCL) has taken over all gypsum, dolomite and coal mines in the country, as the government did not renew the lease of private operators. The Jigme Mining Limited is the latest to come under the portfolio of SMCL after the expiry of its lease period.
Only quarries that produce construction materials are operated by private companies today.
However, the SMCL’s capacity to operate all the mines effectively in the optimal capacity has been questioned, as it is a state-owned company and due to the Covid-19 situation. A lack of optimal operation could result in revenue losses, according to observers.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the SMCL was “overloaded” as all the mines have been handed over to the company. He said that the government was trying to maintain the market despite the Covid-19 situation.
He added that the suspension of the renewal of mining leases was temporary. “It would be inconvenient for both the government and the private mining companies to adjust with the new Act later,” he said, adding that a lease period could be as long as 15 years but that the Act can be passed in the upcoming session of Parliament.
Lyonpo said that non-strategic mines could be allocated to private individuals if the new Act retains such a provision. He said that it was not possible to correctly predict the outcome of the new mining Bill, which will be debated in a joint sitting of the upcoming summer session, as it is a disputed Bill.
The National Assembly is in favour of nationalisation of strategic mines and leaving non-strategic mines open to private sector while the National Council is pushing for nationalisation of all mines. “We want to have a mining law that will benefit all, and I hope the wisdom will prevail,” he said.
One of the advantages of handing over the mines temporarily to SMCL, he said, was the government would able to know the real market situation and prices of mines through enhanced transparency. “We can have market-related information about mines through SMCL as a government-owned company.”
DGM’s director general, Choiten Wangchuk, said that there was a plan to implement the new mining Act six months after its adoption.
This could mean that the government may allot mines to the private sector towards the end of the year if the Act makes such a provision.
“There are no large private mines in operation as all gypsum, coal and dolomite mines have been handed over temporarily to SMCL,” he said, adding that the future would be decided as per the new Act.
Choiten Wangchuk said that the handing over of mines to SMCL has been smooth as it took over both equipment and human resources from private operators in some cases. He said that taking over of some of the mines by the SMCL was delayed due to the pandemic.
SMCL, which was incorporated under the Companies Act of Kingdom as DHI’s 100 percent subsidiary company in December 2014, has become a profitable company. The profit after tax (PAT) in 2019 was Nu 336.35 million (M) compared to Nu 91.39M in 2018. The growth was spurred mainly by the gypsum business.
With more than 472,000 people vaccinated with the first dose, the campaign had been successful with about 93 percent of the population inoculated. More will be vaccinated even as we wait for the second dose. It is an achievement that made many talk.
But it is good to remind ourselves that it is far from over. The first dose is not enough to protect us against the virus. It should not by any means give us the false hope that we are safe. The achievement from the vaccination drive could make our people believe that we are safe. What is important to understand is that we are not safe until everybody is.
Even as we wait for the second dose, a new wave of Covid-19 is ravaging neighbouring India. Schools are getting shut, curfews and new restrictions are imposed in many cities including night lockdowns as many states are seeing record daily cases. It is the highest daily surge since the pandemic. Bangladesh is enforcing another seven-day lockdown with stricter rules from next week to prevent the pandemic causing a disaster.
As of now, the few increases in the number of positive cases at home is from quarantine centres. That doesn’t mean we are safe. We will be committing a big mistake in taking refuge in the first round of vaccination. If we look around, this is what is exactly happening. Prevention measures like wearing masks, social distancing, using tracing Apps are quickly forgotten. The dry hand washing stations, sanitizer bottles and fading Druk Trace QR codes seen everywhere proves complacency setting in.
The surge in cases in the region is due to flouting the same safety rules. Besides, it is scientifically proven that public safety measures like wearing a mask, physical distance are still the best measures, with or without getting vaccinated.
We are vulnerable. The surging case in the region means it is a matter of time that we see a new wave. The porous border makes us more vulnerable. One case in the community would spell disaster. Our memories are short, but we can recall how the two lockdowns caused immense inconveniences. It disrupted lives and livelihood. Many of us are still reeling from the impact of the two lockdowns last year.
Everybody wants a normal life. Children have to attend school; farmers have to return to work and businesses must go on. Tiny Bhutan cannot afford another lockdown. The good thing is that it is in our hands. We may not return to the pre-Covid days, but things are improving and we should try to prevent another lockdown. This is likely to happen if we let our guards down.
And an outbreak now will be different. In India, where most of our assistance comes from, hospitals are running out of oxygen cylinders, beds and even vaccines. Some states are overwhelmed with bodies where the bereaved wait for eight to 10 hours with a token to cremate their loved ones. Bhutan cannot afford this. What we can afford is being cautious and by not letting our guards down.
Relaxation should be determined by hard data and scientific evidence and not by boosterish hope from the first round of vaccination. All evidences are against us that we are all still at risk.
This week Kuensel reported on the proposed revisions to the Private Money Lending Rules (PMLR) 2020. This rule states that the rule is framed under sections 5, 202 and 362 (e) of the Financial Services Act (FSA) of Bhutan 2011. Section 5 provides rulemaking authority; section 202 provides rule-making authority pertaining to granting a license and Section 362(e) empowers RMA to regulate other services which are financial in nature. The question is whether private money lending constitutes a financial service within the scope of FSA. Section 371 of the FSA defines financial services as “banking business, insurance business, securities business and all other services.” This means, there is no definition of other services in both the PMLR 2020 and FSA.
On the other hand, Sections 11 and 15 of FSA prohibits any person including individuals from providing financial services or business and violation is a serious criminal offence including imprisonment from “fifteen to thirty years.” The only exemption is provided under Section 16 if the authority determines as limited scope, and such entity will be able to function as if they are licensed in terms of compliance and provides “equivalent degree of protection as if the person were subject to regulation and supervision under this Act”. Therefore, allowing private lenders under PRML to operate money lending business without obtaining a license if the amount is up to Nu 90,000 with interest seems to be repugnant to the Act.
More importantly, the proposed revision to PMLR contains numerous penalties including criminal sanctions and imposes duties the courts. For example, the proposed revision to rule no. 7 states “the court shall admit and register all the private money recovery suits if there is a prima facie case of lending.” Such provisions need a thorough judicial review as it challenges the existing laws. For example, Section 2 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure (CCPC) clearly provides judicial independence and Section 31 and 32 contains a similar provision gives discretion to the court to determine whether to admit any case or not. But the new proposal already sets criteria for the courts.
The central concern about this rule is that while FSA does not provide either expressly or implied on the regulation of private money lending, the implementing institution is using unclear and ambiguous provisions to come up with such regulatory framework including serious criminal sanctions affecting people’s life, liberty, and security. Such practice can set precedence among other executive entities to come up with their own regulations to fulfil their own interests and to expand their authority on the people.
Recognizing such vulnerabilities and possible abuse, Article 1 (13) of our Constitution sets a clear separation of power and Article 10 (1) protects the legislative prerogative of the parliament. Further, the preamble of our Constitution starts with “we the people” meaning power belongs to people manifested through the collective will of the people. Our legislature is vested with this collective will and legislative prerogative. Therefore, if private money lending is a serious national issue, relevant institutions must notify the legislature including proposals for amendment of existing laws to incorporate necessary provisions especially if any provision affects a person’s freedom of life, liberty, and security. To protect and strengthen the sanctity of democratic principles, any executive entity must refrain from becoming a law maker.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Residents of upper Changbangdu in Thimphu were happy when thromde started constructing a road in the area in early 2017.
Residents claimed that thromde officials then told them the construction of about 1.3km road would complete in three months.
Five years on, the road construction is still incomplete. Only the first cutting of the road is complete. It is bumpy and the gradients are steep.
Residents said in the last five years, about three contractors changed to execute the work.
They said the delay in the construction and blacktopping caused them inconvenience while dropping their school going children during monsoon.
A resident, Dorji Wangdi, said thromde officials visited the site once or twice in five or six months. “We don’t know if the construction will continue or stop.”
With the road in bad condition, residents detour either from Kuenselphodrang or Druk school, which is 3kms long.
Another resident, Tshering Zangmo, said that during monsoon, puddles form at the site, making it hard for commuting.
According to Dorji Wangdi, if the road construction was complete, it would decongest Changzamtok bypass road.
Some building constructions in the area are also stalled, as transportation of materials became expensive.
Another resident said that without streetlights and proper roads in the area, youths come at night and create nuisance. “It is risky.”
She said that if the road was properly built, school going children will benefit the most. A vegetable market is also coming up in the area.
The thromde engineer, Ngawang, who looked after the site in the past said he was responsible for initial road cutting and setting permanent works.
He said information on the road progress is with the chief engineer. The chief engineer was not available for comments.
Yangchen C Rinzin
More than a year after a group of teachers, who called themselves Volunteer Teachers of Bhutan (VTOB), started tele-education to engage students after schools were closed following Covid-19 pandemic, it has turned into a foundation to supplement the mainstream education.
VTOB started as a voluntary teacher group on March 7 last year and delivered educational lessons through the national television so that students could continue their education.
It also developed video lessons, radio lessons and self-instructional materials to enhance online education during the pandemic with the support from the education ministry.
More than 400 teachers were engaged for the recordings. VTOB also had 4,000 teachers as members, who contributed to the idea virtually.
VTOB’s founder, Sonam Norbu, said that he resigned from teaching profession this year to take the programme forward. “It is a community-based organisation with the objective to work towards supporting and fulfilling Bhutan’s current education reform process.”
He also said the foundation was necessary to continue VTOB’s initiatives post school closure and the pandemic.
Today, it has about 2,000 teachers as volunteers and the foundation has eight core members including college graduates.
Sonam Norbu said that what Bhutanese lack most is consistency after initiating an initiative and he did not want that to happen with the VTOB.
“There are many bureaucratic systems that restrict enabling conditions for teachers to do something besides textbook teaching,” he said. “This has stopped teachers from being innovative and creative. So, we had to ensure that VTOB provides a platform for innovative ideas.”
The foundation aims to enhance educational engagements, complement, support and offer educational opportunities through creative, innovative, inclusive, and voluntary initiatives.
Sonam Norbu said the foundation was established to promote research culture amongst children and teachers to build professional learning communities.
He said that it will initiate programmes to supplement the efforts by the government, schools, and parents to enhance the quality of education.
“We want to leverage collaborative approaches with other organisations and donor agencies to specialise as behavioural insights agencies,” he said, adding it would also discuss and study the state of education.
Based on the study, it would also design and co-create solutions through collective efforts based on dialogue, research and action.
Sonam Norbu said that after VTOB’s success with support from the ministry and teachers, it started losing its importance slowly due external factors and restrictions from various agencies. “Teachers were backing off, but I didn’t want VTOB to die.”
He said many teachers sacrificed their time to make the voluntary programme a success. “There were restrictions to continue the group because we were civil servants and we are not supposed to do anything outside one’s job mandate.”
Sonam Norbu said that the only option to continue VTOB was to leave the profession and be out of the system that was stopping them from continuing the voluntary work.
“We’ve always wanted to clarify that VTOB was never established as an association or union to protest against the system,” he said. “All we wanted was to work innovatively beyond our 9-5pm job to help students learn beyond the textbooks.”
With several plans in the pipeline, the foundation also aims to encourage reading habits and conduct educational talks to discuss issues related to education and find solutions together.
The third Dzongkhag Thromde Elections in three Dzongkhag Thromdes in the Kingdom are ongoing with polling on April 28. A few writers were found outrageously instigating through Kuensel, without really understanding the rationale of the existing laws, that every resident of a thromde be allowed to vote.
The primary purpose of democracy is for providing good governance for its citizens. It can be made possible through electing a responsible representative in an election. Thus the very basic duty of a citizen eligible to be a voter is to make certain to register as a voter at a place where it would matter most to him/her. Merely being a resident of a thromde does not entitle anyone the right to vote in any election automatically in any country leave alone in Bhutan.
It is desirable that an eligible voter has the right to choose the place where he/she wants to register as a voter. Generally, it ought to be a place where one lives or to or brings up a family and/or make a career and/or have one’s larger investment. And more so if s/he has an interest to contest an election as a candidate either as a registered member of a political party or independent.
As urbanisation is a recent phenomenon in Bhutan, it is a fact that only a small number of residents in the Dzongkhag Thromde except the original farming residents have registered as voters. Most national residents of the dzongkhag thromde had preferred to retain their civil registry at the place of origin rather than at the municipality of residence. It is their constitutional right and choice or face the consequence of such a decision, given that under existing laws to exercise one’s franchise under the laws one must register as a voter in a dzongkhag thromde.
If the reason may for the bureaucratic hassle that had dissuaded or discouraged or in-abled a voter, the Bhutanese Election authorities are always ready to go out of their way in felicitating the transfer of civil registry. But observing from my experience, many who are residing in dzongkhag thromdes having their civil registry in other dzongkhags continues to choose not to be interested or failed to seize the opportunity to avail the service.
Thus, it is not fair for any writer to irresponsibly and squarely fault the election authorities for the resultant personal lapses in the exercise of the authority under the Election Act 36 (a) and 36 (b), as no Thromde resident who is a registered voter interested to cast the vote is deprived of his/her right to vote.
If one decides not to register or fails to register or is ineligible to be a voter that does mean residents were denied their right to vote. Also merely being a tax-payer one cannot enjoy the privilege or automatic right to be a voter in any democracy. Nor any election is organized for mere popularity contest or to have a handsome voter turnout.
Registered Voter of Changangkha
Thimphu Dzongkhag Thromde
Kuzhugchen, Kabesa, Thimphu — A small stream burbles down to join the river Wangchhu at the foot of the village. In summer, though, this little stream becomes big, very big. And here is a stone bridge that a local nyagoe (strong man) by the name of Kabji Choup laid. The stream then could have been quite sizeable, both in terms of volume and force.
But here the stone bridge had remained, forgotten and buried under the thickets for close to eight centuries. The bridge measures 28cm in height; 124cm in breadth; and 222cm in length.
But then, who was Kabji Choup, really?
Information and details are few and far between. The legend begins with the village and ends with it. Kabesa, as we know today, is a new village.
The Drukpa School of Buddhism had just about begun in Ralung, Tibet. The period is between 1161 and 1210. In that sense, looking broadly, we are in the period of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the imperial dynasty in China when the idea of paper money began and gunpowder was discovered. It is at this time that Alhazen of Cairo discovered Alegbra, a formula for simplicial number defined as sums of consecutive quartic powers.
In Bhutan, then, every village was governed by a local chieftain. Conflicts and wars were frequent. Peace was rare and prosperity rarer even for the common citizens.
Then came Phajo Drugom Zhipo (in 1224 according to historical records). He was 40 when came to Bhutan from Tibet.
That was the time when Geynen Jagpa Melen of Dhechenphu, Thimphu, perhaps the most original citizen of this country, was running rogue. He would impregnate beautiful girls in villages far and near and disappear altogether. One of his sons was Kabji Choup.
Geynen Jagpa Melen was the emanation of Yidam Tandin, born to Noejin Yobshue and Sinmo Dongmar. And so, his conduct was not virtuous.
Phajo Drugom Zhipo’s great-grandson Damtrul Loden Gyalpo invited the 7th chief abbot of Ralung Monastery in Tibet, Je Jamyang Khuenga Singye to Dechenphu. That was when Je Jamyang Khuenga Singye met with Geynen Jagpa Melen in person and administered upon him Kago-Damzha (suppression ceremony). Historically, we are looking at a period between 1345 and 1347.
Then came to Bhutan the 14th throne holder of Ralung Monastery and the second Gyalwang Drukchen, Je Kuenga Peljor, who administered the second Kago-Damzha on Geynen Jagpa Melen.
From these records we know that Geynen Jagpa Melen stopped his usual wanton ways—we arrive nearer to some sense of time—it was long before the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in Bhutan.
Beyond legend and context
There is still a monumental ruin in Kuzhugchen which is believed to be where Kabji Choup lived before he left for Tibet for good.
There is one thing besides the stone bridge to authenticate the existence of Kabji Choup. Before he left for Tibet, he said this, which is in the lips of every elderly resident of this village:
“On the right part of my house is the home of a thousand Buddhas
On the left the is where my dear friend Boep Lim lives
In the middle is “olo rangi tsangtshul”—where I live, sleep, and eat.
These are about all we know about Kabji Choup.
Kabesa as we know today was then known as Kushibji. It was a prosperous village that volunteered to sponsor the establishment of the first dratshang in Bhutan. The villagers paid wongyon and Soelyon (offerings) to the monk body.
Then came the pandemic, most probably Smallpox, which wiped away the entire residents of the village.
The earliest evidence of the pandemic dates back to the third century BC in Egyptian mummies. What we know is that the disease historically occurred in outbreaks. And they were deadly in most cases.
If you go to Kabesa today with open eyes, you will see many ruins. But the village is new. There are no echoes of legends as that of Kabji Choup or the village itself anymore.
We look at our record-keeping habits and systems today. Going by ßthe way we move on, we may be teetering on the edge of narrative extinction—our own stories.
The revised parking fee in Thimphu city’s core areas is hurting deep into users’ pockets but parking operators say losses are mounting?
Beginning April 1, the parking fee across all areas in the city was raised to Nu 20 for every 30 minutes. Before the hike, the parking fee along the Norzin Lam was Nu 15 per 30 minutes and other areas were Nu 10.
Parking users said that the fee raise could have been managed better. For instance, the fee remains the same whether one parks the vehicle for five minutes or 30 minutes.
“They could have broken down the fee structure further into 10 minutes, 20 minutes and so on and fixed the rates,” a resident said.
Another resident said that the increased fees could hurt business establishments as customers opt for areas where they don’t have to pay such high fees or businesses with free parking.
Some commuters said that the raise has also lead to some conflicts between those using the parking slots and parking fee collectors.
Those who operate the parking spaces say they are also worried about adequate returns.
KCR Private Limited has a 20-year contract to manage the 943 parking slots in Thimphu city’s core area and the two multi-level car parking (MLCP) buildings. For the 943 parking slots, KCR has to pay Nu 3.4 million quarterly to Thimphu thromde as royalty.
Before the fee hike, KCR official said it earned between Nu 80,000 and Nu 90,000 from 943 parking slots and monthly salary of fee collectors was about Nu 700,000.
In three months KCR earns about Nu 7.2 million and after deducting the royalty and salary of parking fee collectors, its net profit was about Nu 1.7 million. A source said that KCR sometimes used to earn about Nu 130,000 daily before the parking fee hike. But that is history, they said.
KCR’s general manager Jamyang Tenzin said one week into the collection of revised parking fees they earned about Nu 20,000 more.
He said that they hoped to earn 1.5 times more with the hike but the ground reality was different. “The earning from parking slot is only enough for the company to stay afloat with huge loan repayment for MLCPs.”
Jamyang Tenzin said with unutilised parking slots at MLCPs paying the principal amount was out of the question as the daily interest amounts to Nu 160,000.
There are 570 parking slots at MLCPs. MLCP II earns Nu 3,000 and MLCP I earns Nu 1,000 every day. MLCPs charge Nu 10 for 30 minutes. There are 150 cars for thromde officials, that are exempted from parking fees, that park in the MLCP II.
Jamyang Tenzin said that they hoped with this initiative people would park their cars at MLCPs.
KCR has 55 parking fee collectors and their salary ranges between Nu 5,000 and Nu 23,000.
A parking fee collector said, though the parking fee before the raise was Nu 10 they charged Nu 15 as they couldn’t meet the target. “With the fee raise I am expected to collect Nu 5,500 but I cannot collect more than Nu 3,700.” Before the fee raise, he had to at least collect Nu 3,000.
The situation is different for parking fee collectors along Norzin Lam as they can collect more than the target amount.
Chimi Dorji, a parking fee collector at Norzin lam had to collect at least Nu 2,300 from 18 parking slots. Now, he has to collect at least Nu 5,800. He said that with the fee raise he could collect about Nu 6,000 daily.
Jamyang Tenzin said though the target was set they couldn’t collect the desired amount as there was no system to monitor actual fees collected. “Automatic parking machine will be used to collect parking fees in coming days.”
He said that going by the situation parking fee collectors not meeting targets occasionally were considered. “Only for those missing the target every day, their salary was deducted.”
Another parking operator, Lhaki Enterprise that manages 555 parking slots in Motithang, JDWNRH, Memorial Choeten, and Centenary Farmers’ Market has not raised the fees.
Lhaki Enterprise has a three-year contract to manage the parking slots beginning in August 2020.
An official said they quoted the tender for Nu 36 million and expected to collect Nu 40,000 daily to earn at least Nu 43 million in three years. “With CFM’s closure and lockdowns, we cannot collect more than Nu 18,000 daily.”
The management is expecting thromde to increase parking fees in its areas but not increase the tender amount. “We have not been able to pay the royalty.”
Lhaki Enterprise has to pay a royalty of Nu 3 million to Thimphu thromde every three months.
Lhaki Enterprise submitted two requests to the thromde office to reduce the royalty amount considering the Covid-19 pandemic.
The official said they have not received a response from thromde office to date.
Meanwhile, the thromde and KCR Private Limited have not decided on revised royalty.
A project called ‘Revive Bhutan’ engages people, especially youth, to recycle waste, conduct cleaning campaigns and other voluntary activities.
Beginning today, the project will construct kennels for dogs at Serbithang with the Royal Society for Protection and Care of Animals (RSPCA).
The project founder, Karma Yeshey, said the event would bring youth and others together to know their ability, talent, creativeness and the value of helping animals.
He said 50 volunteers would work on Saturday and Sunday.
The 24-year-old said the project was formed on May 27 last year to recycle and reduce waste. “The organisation’s vision is to let people realise that their waste can be of value and the mission is to involve people.”
He started the project through his social media page.
Since there are other organisations working on waste, Karma Yeshey said Revive Bhutan tries to create employment by recycling waste. “We also try to reach to small communities.”
He explained people could recycle a used cup into a flowerpot or other decoration purposes. “We try to engage people by being creative.”
He said they faced financial challenges and can’t afford to pay much to employees. “It’s difficult to retain people’s interest and energy.”
Volunteers in the project form a home-based team, consisting of youth, people looking for employment, housewives and creative people. There are also carpenters, painters, tailors, embroiderers and crafters.
Revive Bhutan had planned to do a yard sale, where the team would up-cycle items and sell them to raise a seed fund but could not do so due to the pandemic and Covid protocols.
Nim Dorji | Bumthang
The people of Bumthang will no longer have to go to Thimphu and Mongar to avail of endoscopy services.
The hospital got an endoscopy machine and a surgeon. The machine was inaugurated yesterday.
Last year, during the National Assembly bye-election for Chhoekhor-Tang constituency, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa pledged to post a medical specialist, surgeon, gynaecologist, and paediatrician.
Member of Parliament, Dawa said that the endoscopy machine will benefit the people of Bumthang and nearby dzongkhags. “With a surgeon and the machine, it will help to detect the disease and provide treatment early,” he said.
Dawa said that once the surgeon completes the set up of the operation theatre, the other three specialists are expected to be deployed.
Surgeon Dr Sonam Jamtsho said, “To make the service convenient for office goers, endoscopy service will be provided from 6am to noon.”
The people in the gewogs can make the appointment for an endoscopy at the respective primary health centres.
Dr Sonam Jamtsho said that in the next three to four months after the OT is set up the other nurses and Anaesthesia will come and the major operation services would begin.
A resident in Dekiling, Sonam Dema said that she was happy to get the endoscopy service within her dzongkhag.
“For people like us who have to travel by bus to Thimphu to avail the medical services, these services mean a lot,” she said.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With the ongoing elections in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, Bhutanese vehicles ferrying goods and commodities via Indian highways have been seeing routine checks while on the road.
As officials enter the vehicles for inspections, many say this posed Covid-19 transmission risks.
Although the border gate in Phuentsholing has been completely closed since yesterday morning, with no entry-exit of vehicles, the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) in Phuentsholing maintained that everything was under control (even) before the closure.
The Chairman of the SC19TF, Sonam Wangyel, said Bhutanese drivers have been instructed on the protocols and vigilance.
“And they have been following the Covid-19 protocols,” he said.
He also said that the Indian officials who carry out the inspections were following strict protocols. Right after the inspection, Bhutanese drivers and escorts disinfect the vehicles and sanitise.
Every morning, before the vehicles bound for Gelephu and beyond to the east (using the highways) exit from Phuentsholing, the drivers are briefed by the RSTA officials. An escort is also provided to four to five vehicles.
Initially, in 2020, following the upsurge of Covid-19 numbers in the region, there were strict monitoring of vehicle movements on the Indian highways. Screening facilities were also installed. However, such monitoring systems and routine has decreased.
Recently, monitoring on the highways has become stricter due to the ongoing elections in West Bengal. The number of Covid-19 cases has also been reported, touching record high in India in the last few days.
A Regional Transport Officer (RTO) with the RSTA in Phuentsholing, Tila M Sharma, said they have also started providing the escorts with PPE suits—with extra face shields, masks and hand sanitisers.
“Protocols are being followed stringently,” she said.
There are also concerns about the Bhutanese drivers making payments at the tollgates, as they have to use cash. Starting January this year, tollgates have also initiated cashless payment systems using a card system.
However, not all drivers and transporters have availed this service. Drivers pay the tollgates in cash (INR). However, protocols are strictly maintained, RSTA officials said.
There are at least three tollgates between Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar.
Many in Phuentsholing have become careless with the Covid-19 protocols these days. Some are seen without masks. The practice of handwashing has also decreased despite shops kept washing basins and soaps.
This, many in the town say have come after the vaccination.
SC19TF is also aware of the situation and have placed measures accordingly.
Sonam Wangyel said people must understand vaccination is just one means of protection and it was no different from practising the prevention habits of using masks, handwashing and sanitising.
“However, all measures and strategies are well in place,” he said.
Smaller groups have been formed and assigned responsibility in their respective areas, Sonam Wangyel said, explaining safety protocols and advocacies remained primary goal. People are also being explained about the vaccination and its myths.
One of the key areas of consideration is the private warehouse. The import vehicles bypass the MDP and directly take the goods to these warehouses, posing transmission risks if not properly followed.
The Task Force has maintained that failure of the protocols will be penalised. Besides this imposition, the facility to bring in the goods straight to the warehouses will also be discontinued.
Schools, MDP, Pasakha industries, point of entries, and all other business set ups are also under strict protocols.
“Phuentsholing has suffered during the two lockdowns. As it is the commercial hub of the country, another lockdown will be even costlier,” the Task Force chairman said. “We must come together and prevent another lockdown.”
Meanwhile, the gate has been closed after the request from the counterpart government because of the ongoing elections. Officials from both the countries are in touch and closure has been facilitated accordingly.
The gate will open on April 10 evening.
Considering the elections across the border, SC19TF has notified movement of vehicles on the Indian highways have been limited to just essential items such as food items, construction materials, industrial raw materials and export of cash crops. Passengers and other routine travelers have been now restricted—until further notice.
In the past five years, police headquarters received 252 cases for fingerprint identification. Out of which, 81 matched those in their database of over 40,000 fingerprints. However, there were 91 that did not match and 72 fingerprints were unfit for comparison.
Fingerprint Specialist of RBP, Lieutenant Colonel Chimi Dorji said with limited data in the system it had posed challenges to match fingerprints and solving crimes. “We are looking forward to collaborating with Department of Civil Registration and Census’s (DCRC) automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) which will record fingerprints of every citizen.”
DCRC launched a pilot project under its national digital identity project on April 6 in Thimphu. It aims to capture an item of biometric data (fingerprints, iris, palm, rolled fingerprint, and facial recognition) from residents in the country.
AFIS will not only help in solving crimes but identifying fingerprints of contested documents from various agencies such as courts, National Land Commission, and Anti-Corruption Commission.
Lt Col Chimi Dorji said with a new database after the completion of the project there wouldn’t be unmatched results.
Fingerprints were found unfit for comparison mostly on legal documents stamped using a stamping pad because the fingerprint had blurred out or smudged.
“For fingerprint identification, fingerprints should be stamped with ceramic inking pad which produces clear images of ridges and furrow which are used for identification,” he said.
Police began collecting fingerprints in 2016 and today has more than 40,000 fingerprints recorded in its system. The data is growing every day. The data includes criminals, suspects, people going abroad for studies or work, volunteers and private firearm’s license holders, among others.
Lt Col Chimi Dorji said no two individual’s fingerprints are the same and they were permanent. Fingerprint identification distinguishes people by ridges and furrows present on fingers and palms which are unique to every individual.
He said that fingerprint identification had many other useful applications. Fingerprint identification is also used to trace criminal records, identifying those who die in accidents or during disasters. “Fingerprints can also help to compare contested documents for cases in the court.”
Before 2016, RBP recorded an individual’s fingerprint manually which was time-consuming and finding the fingerprint of suspects from hardcopies of fingerprint was impossible.
The new system would use the best technology which would make it easier to match the data.
The system that the police use is called Papillon Savunma which is tested against a National Institute of Standards and Technology and meets the requirement of AFIS. It is certified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has the capacity to record one million biometric databases.
It could be used to exchange information between similar police organisation such as FBI and Interpol using the same standards.
All police information is routed through Virtual Private Network (VPN) which is off the World Wide Web for security purposes. AFIS uses VPN and currently out of 38 police stations, 23 police stations are connected through VPN.
Police have plans to establish AFIS in every police station and integrate AFIS with an iris recognition system for accurate and efficient personal identification. “With AFIS and Iris recognition it will provide full proof identification,” Lt Col Chimi Dorji said.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
A six-year-old student studying in class one in Dipujhora ECR, Norbugang under Samtse dzongkhag was beaten by her class teacher on April 6 afternoon.
The incident occured during an extra class at around 2pm. The girl is from Dipujhora B village.
The case was taken to police in Samtse yesterday and mutually resolved.
The father of the girl said he came to know of the incident after he returned home from work that day.
“My daughter had even gone unconscious,” he said. “My daughter’s friends had told this to my wife. I learned it when I was home.”
Yesterday afternoon, the case was taken to the gup’s office from where it was forwarded to the police.
The father of the girl said the case has been solved on “an understanding basis”.
“The teacher has given a statement to the police,” he said. He will also not teach the class where his daughter studies after the mid-term.
Meanwhile, the girl was taken to the dzongkhag hospital yesterday. She was in a stable condition as of yesterday and at home.
The school principal said the teacher had beaten up the girl during a maths class.
“He had also beaten other students but the girl’s parent complained,” he said.
The principal said the girl’s father asked the teacher not to teach the same class because it would impact the girl. He said the case will be further discussed with the education office for the teacher’s placement.
“He could also be transferred to other schools,” he said, adding the decision is yet to be made.
“But he will not teach in the ECR.”
The teacher, he said, has been teaching at the ECR for the fourth year.
To establish a criminal justice system that promotes human rights and needs of the trafficked victims rather than exclusively punishing the criminals, the Bhutan National Legal Institute (BNLI) in collaboration with the Department of Law and Order conducted training on Trafficking in Persons (TIP).
Thirteen judges 13 and nine judicial officers too part in the programme.
The participants were trained to adequately detect trafficking cases, identify trafficking victims and implement anti-trafficking legislation in line with national laws and international standards.
TIPs are a growing concern in the country.
The country is, for example, beginning to feel the nudges of this organised crime with more number of human trafficking cases being reported over the past years.
In Bhutan, according to last year’s media reports, although there were increasing reports of Bhutanese being allegedly trafficked abroad, as well as within the country; 11 human trafficking cases between 2007 and 2018 were detected.
And last year, it was reported that over 160 Bhutanese women were trafficked to Iraq through illegal Bhutanese employment agents.
Press release states that the lack of appropriate and adequate legal tools, awareness and professional capacity was a challenge for judicial officials. “There is a dire need to build the capacity to deal with the crimes through workshops and training.”
The training programme was supported by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) through promoting rights-based Multi-sectoral Responses to prevent Trafficking in Persons in Bhutan project.
“Prevention and Protection of people from falling victim to this crime is the need of the hour,” states the press release.
As per UNODC global report on trafficking in 2020, women continue to be affected by TIPs with 46 percent of the global population. Twenty percent were men victims, 15 percent were boys and 19 percent girls, according to the report.
The report also stated that the sharp increase in unemployment rates brought about by the pandemic situation is likely to increase trafficking in persons.
The two-day training was held in Bumthang on April 7.
A cervical cancer screening which is halfway in Lhuentse dzongkhag has identified 142 suspected or abnormal cases in the precancerous stage. However, these cases have to be confirmed.
So far, health officials have covered 10 of the 15 health centres including the district hospital covering 1,361 women between ages 25 and 65. The team expects to cover 3,125 women meeting the criteria.
The technicians from the eastern regional referral hospital and dzongkhag hospital, who are conducting the screening are also training the health assistants from nearby health centres.
Health officials said the abnormal cases would be consulted with the gynaecologist who is scheduled to visit the dzongkhag as part of outreach camp to improve reach and follow up interventions in the first week of May.
Along with this, health officials are also conducting breast cancer screening and Non-Communicable Diseases screening at the health centres.
The screening program, which is part of the national health flagship program, began in the second week of March. The remaining five health centres are expected to be complete before April 24.
The finance ministry launched the cluster finance services (CFS) initiative in Paro yesterday.
The initiative, which is also being piloted in Bumthang, is a part of the overall public financial management (PFM) reforms, implemented to strengthen fiscal discipline and to provide efficient finance and accounting services in the budgetary bodies.
According to a press release from the finance ministry, the objective of the initiative was based on the concept of sharing of services. “It will bring together all finance personnel working in various regional, autonomous or branch offices under one cluster office in each region or dzongkhag.”
However, the initiative does not include the finance sections of the respective dzongkhag administration. All finance services would be catered from the office of CFS irrespective of the location of the agencies.
The press release states that the initiative would optimise and rationalise the deployment of finance personnel and eliminate the current practice of their placement in individual agencies.
“This initiative is expected to enhance prudent fiscal discipline through proper check and control mechanisms, and institute adequate internal control systems in the agencies.”
It is also expected to improve the performance and delivery of finance services through enhanced efficiency of finance personnel and standardised service delivery across agencies, according to the press release.
Officials said that the initiative would also be rolled out in Thimphu and other dzongkhags in a phased manner from July this year.
The pilot initiative is being carried out with the support of a multi-donor fund contributed by the European Union and Austrian Development Agency and is being administered by the World Bank.
The Private Money Lending Rules and Regulations could see major changes with a proposal to include 17 more provisions to the rules that was already amended once last year. It is the second amendment (proposed) in less than five years indicating that the rules have not served its purpose.
The rules mandate money lenders to register with the central bank, but there are only to registered lenders. Meanwhile, the business is thriving with tricks up money lenders’ sleeves. One common trick is taking lenders to court in the pretext of fraudulent cheque writing when borrowers default.
The draft proposal intends to strengthen the existing provisions and give clarity on the responsibilities and obligations of lenders, borrowers and brokers. If the rules come through with the proposed changes, it would cover both registered and unregistered private moneylenders and address the issues and problems while implementing the rules.
The rules failed to serve its purpose because it was too restrictive and not conducive, according to those who wanted to lend legally by registering. Those who initially registered refused to renew because the formalities were too many for a small interest rate and smaller amount when illegal lending couldn’t be controlled.
As the central bank wait for feedback on the proposed amendments, one common question is why do people choose to resort borrowing from private money lenders at higher interest rates even with the presence of several financial institutions with various loan facilities. Those in the business say it is because of the easy access. If that is the case, it is, perhaps time we relook into the lending procedures from financial institutions. Access to finance should be improved for the needy.
Money lending has been a part of our culture. People borrow money during difficult times, but many also borrow for other reasons like gambling. The private money lending business operates with legally executed agreements between parties. Once it is in the court, borrowers contend before the courts that the amount was inflated with exorbitant monthly interests. Courts go by evidence and legal documents and lenders know it.
We have seen how the private money lending business or call it racket, has become a social ill. Many have absconded from the country because of monetary disputes.
The proposed sections allow courts to admit money recovery suits irrespective of agreements made by registered or unregistered lenders. By accepting cases from unregistered private lenders, we are going back to square one.
The central bank uploading the draft proposal on its website is a good decision to hear what the people had to say about the rule that failed. Uploading on social media would have better reach for suggestions.
The feedback are coming and many have commented on the interest rates and amount. Here is a chance to improve the rules that will prevent loan sharks from looting people and lenders and borrowers abusing the legal system. To improve the rules, feedback should be taken.