By Monday, we will have vaccinated almost all the people, who are fit to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus or Covid-19. The figures are impressive already. As of yesterday, we have vaccinated nearly 460,000 people, roughly 62 percent of the entire population of 735,553 people.
If we take the number of people, who registered for the vaccine, 548,403 people, the achievement is more laudable. It is 83 percent coverage. With the vaccination programme extended over the weekend, the coverage could improve.
In short, we could be one of the few countries in the world, if not the only one, to inoculate — with at least the first dose — the entire eligible population against the virus that has ravaged lives and livelihoods around the world for more than a year.
It is our smallness that has led to this feat. To put it into context, the metro area population of Siliguri, the nearest big town to Bhutan, is more than a million people. Critics might say that it is the advantage of our smallness that we could manage such an achievement. It might hold true, but there is more to it than just the numbers.
Bhutan’s effort to fight the pandemic had been exemplary right from the beginning. We managed to contain two local outbreaks from flaring into a full-blown community transmission. Guided by the wisdom of His Majesty The King and the effort put in by the health and frontline workers, and the cooperation of the populace, our fight against the pandemic stands out and is among the best in the world.
The long awaited, ultimate solution in the form of a vaccine has arrived. How fast we can inoculate the population and achieve a herd immunity is crucial in protecting the people.
It may be too early to celebrate, given that inoculating the population is incomplete without the second dose, but the vaccination programme is an important lesson for all of us.
If it is the smallness that led to the success, it is an advantage that can be replicated in all our endeavours. To remind ourselves, His Majesty The King had repeatedly told us that, as a small country, we could be far more “efficient, expeditious, and decisive than a large country can ever be.”
We used our smallness to our advantage this time. We should learn from this and explore how we could use the same to solve our problems and overcome challenges. We are still grappling with the basic problems. We talk about leveraging technology, yet we cannot make use of that to improve service delivery. We make the best of plans and are unable to execute them.
Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is a big issue in a small country. The economy is growing albeit job creation, connectivity, even after decades of building infrastructure, is still a problem and urbanisation, with the best of plans on paper, is getting out of control. The examples are plenty.
As we realise the advantage of our smallness from the vaccination programme, it is a lesson too valuable to not replicate in our other endeavours.
With the recent news of the Home Minister appealing to the Supreme Court after he lost his case in the larger bench of the High Court, some criticized the move as political and some questioned the judiciary for allowing the appeal. However, the actual problem is due to the existing laws and not the parties in the case or the judiciary. The sole purpose of an appeal is based on the premise that “every human being is fallible, and a judge is not an exception” and judges can err or commit mistake resulting in a wrong decision. The appellate courts are there to rectify such errors or mistakes. Thus, the right to appeal is only a legal right to the extent permitted by the law. Generally, the right to appeal is limited around the world. But in Bhutan, the right to appeal is almost automatic.
Section 109 of the Civil and Criminal Code, 2001 allows any party, in any case, if the appeal is made from the final judgment and filed in the registry of the appellate Court within ten days from the judgment. The only checks are where the court can order “the appellant to furnish a bond as a precondition to an appeal to secure the Plaintiff’s Judgment against disbursement pending appeal and discourage frivolous delay” and bar on the introduction of fresh evidence or evidence not introduced during the proceeding before under Sections 109.3 and 110.4 of CCPC. However, imposing bond itself has demerits particularly for lower-income people.
Let us now look at few examples from some of the most liberal and democratic nations. Under the Indian procedural laws, in general, if the High Court convicts a person not “exceeding six months or fine not exceeding one thousand rupees or both” and the lower court denies the permission, the appellant cannot appeal. In the United Kingdom, an appeal can be made only with the lower court’s permission except in certain limited circumstances relating to the liberty of the appellant. In Southern Australia, an appeal can be made only “against conviction, on any ground that only involves a question of law or against conviction on any other ground if permitted by the lower courts. Canada has similar restrictions. In the United States, generally only losing party can appeal on the grounds of application of wrong laws or violates the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution.” In criminal cases, the government does not have the right to appeal.
Contrarily, in Bhutan, every party in a case has the right to appeal merely because they are not happy with the lower court’s decision. Thus, such a right of appeal in Bhutan is highly vulnerable to abuse. Those who win cases will appeal expecting more advantages, losers will appeal as they have nothing to lose, some appeal to harass the other party. Similarly, some will appeal to buy time like loan defaulters to evade payment for more time, elected officials, and term-based officials to complete their tenures by avoiding removal from their positions. Further, some lawyers will also appeal to get more money from their clients. Such practice will affect the genuine parties as too many appeals will compromise the quality of decisions and add a burden on public expenditure and judicial infrastructure. Our lawmakers must review such provisions in the interest of justice of genuine parties and minimize abuse of judicial proceedings.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Officials did not show prudence, probity and due diligence: RAA
Tshering Palden and Tashi Dema
Thimphu thromde officials allegedly paid more than Nu 4M as excess payment to a contractor involved in procuring pipes and accessories without showing prudence, probity and due diligence.
According to a report issued by the Royal Audit Authority (RAA), the payment was released at an inflated rate.
The case pertains to pipes procured from a contractor to retain budget from a World Bank-funded project, Bhutan Urban Development Project (BUDP), the thromde executed.
Thromde officials conducted a meeting in 2019 and decided to retain Nu 30 million (M) from BUDP to lay the pipeline from Samtenling to three tanks in Motithang.
In the meeting, it was decided that the project implementation unit (PIU) should procure the pipes even if they could not execute the work. “The tender committee, instead of tendering the procurement of pipes and accessories, decided to purchase directly from a contractor involved in the Dodena water supply line as decided in the meeting,” the report stated. “It was also decided that payment should be released to the contractor against the original invoice of the supplier from India.”
However, contrary to the decision, Nu 20.6M was allegedly released to the contractor based on pro forma invoice, which is a preliminary bill of sale sent to buyers in advance of shipment or delivery of goods. The PIU did not even obtain original invoices for the final settlement of bills.
Rate analysis conducted by RAA showed overpayment.
PIU officials responded that payment to the contractor was released on a pro forma invoice to utilise savings under the project and augment water shortage.
It stated that RAA has worked out the excess payment made to the contractor based on tax invoice produced by customs office in Phuentsholing. “PIU was not aware of it unlike the RAA, who has access to and authority to verify at that stage.”
PIU requested RAA to further review excess payment based on the prevailing market rate and not on the basis of the tax invoice, which may have been undervalued by the contractor at the entry point.
The contractor involved also responded that the rate for the pipes was not static and it changed every month due to market forces.
RAA concluded that, while taking cognisance of the need for DI pipes, as water shortage complaints are increasing, funds available from the World Bank for the project had huge cost implications to the government exchequer, as it was a loan contributing to public debt. “Therefore, the decision to utilise the savings for future activities was devoid of any prudence and probity.”
It asked the PIU to investigate its claim of undervaluation by the contractor at the point of entry. “Such unethical practices, if true, should be reported to the appropriate authority for further investigation as per the law.
RAA, however, opined that the price declared at the entry point on the basis of the original export tax invoice might not have been undervalued, as there was no apparent incentive to the company resorting to such means.
It stated that the exporter in India could instead benefit from the CGST, SGST and IGST credits for those exports, which are considered zero-rated supplies as is evident from the export tax invoice declared at the customs office in Phuentsholing.
RAA also stated that thromde’s decision to pay the contractor based on the original invoice of the supplier from India shows it did not exercise due diligence to ascertain the actual input costs of DI pipes. “Instead, the PIU was apathetic about its decision and without appropriate diligence and prudence made huge excess payment.”
It also opined excess payment could have resulted due to direct award of supplies to the contractor forgoing procurement norms. “The project manager also did not verify the analysed rate project engineer submitted. It was a gross oversight.”
RAA asked thromde to recover Nu 4M and deposit in the audit recoveries account. “The management should take appropriate actions against the officials responsible for the lapses and making excess payment from the loan amount, which has implications on the public debt.”
To help Bhutanese exporting commodities to Bangladesh overcome hurdles they face on the way today, Bhutan is exploring railway links to Bangladesh through India.
The recently restored Haldibari-Chilahati railway link between India and Bangladesh is the potential route, according to officials at Royal Bhutan Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
People exporting goods from Bhutan to Bangladesh by road faced multiple hurdles on the way starting from the point they entered India till they reached Bangladesh. These problems comprise mostly informal tax collections on the way. The problems, besides being time consuming, also lead to destruction of perishable goods like oranges and apples.
Officials said that there were no problems at the government level but people posed endless problems. Bhutanese exporters complained but governments could not do much about it.
An official explained that loads also have to be shifted from one truck to another at Indian-Bangladesh borders at the moment.
Trade attaché with the Royal Bhutan Embassy in Dhaka, Kencho Thinley, said a railway link connecting Bhutan to Bangladesh through India should not only address hurdles that exporters face but also cut down transportation time and cost.
He said the embassy was working towards finalising a transit agreement between Bangladesh and Bhutan soon.
The 35km Haldibari-Chilahati railway line was restored and reopened after 55 years of closure. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated it in December last year to boost railway connectivity between the two countries.
The railway was closed following the 1965 conflict between India and Bangladesh, the then East Pakistan. Before 1965, there were seven cross-border lines between the two countries. Haldibari-Chilahati railway link is the fifth to be reinstated.
Bhutan exports 34 products, which include mainly orange and apple according to the Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA), which was signed on December 6 last year.
Officials say people in Bangladesh are interested in growing products in Bhutan by themselves. “As the foreign direct investment (FDI) policy 2019 approves smaller FDIs, land will be leased out to the interested FDI local partners,” an official said.
Embassy officials also said that the railway route should help both countries in terms of export and import of goods. “As listed under PTA, Bhutan can export gallons of drinking water to Bangladesh by railway,” an official said.
Exploring railway connection between Bangladesh and Bhutan through Haldibari-Chilahati was also highlighted during the bilateral talk between Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering and the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina during lyonchhen’s recent visit to Bangladesh for the celebration of 50th independence day of Bangladesh.
With the signing of the PTA, 16 more products from Bhutan will enjoy duty free access to Bangladesh, in addition to the existing 18 products. Likewise, 10 more products from Bangladesh will enjoy duty free access to Bhutan in addition to the existing 90 products.
Goods that will get duty-free to Bangladesh include orange, apple, ginger, fruit juice, milk, natural honey, wheat or meslin flour, homogenised preparations of jams, fruit jellies, marmalades, food preparations of soybeans, mineral water, wheat bran, quartzite, cement clinker, limestone, wooden particle boards, and wooden furniture.
Meanwhile, goods from Bangladesh that Bhutan will be given duty-free access include baby clothes and clothing accessories, garment, jute and jute goods, leather and leather goods, dry cell battery fan, watch, potato, condensed milk, cement, toothbrush, plywood, particle board, mineral and carbonated water, green tea, orange juice, pineapple juice, and guava juice.
Many winters ago, I meditated on what I then called Globalisation: The Forgotten Phase. In it, I bemoaned the premature demise of what was indeed the flourishing of the all-embracing ideas of authentic globalisation without ever being called by that name. Today, globalisation presents itself as a great new discovery of the smart moderns who trivialise the global concept to mean little more than internantionalised or cross-border trade and often spinelessly interconnected economic transaction, as indeed far-reaching technological growth.
The Buddha-mind was truly global, so was the Krishna-mind, Christ-mind, Prophet-mind, Plato-mind, Shakespeare-mind, Zhabdrung-mind, and so were all the big minds and large hearts that flourished and embraced all time and all space in an eternal dance of mutually reinforcing grace and greatness. The current notion of globalisation is largely a travesty of the ideals and vision that underlie the inter-connected nature of phenomena in all spheres.
The ancient Indian concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam stands out as one of the earliest manifestations of the idea of globalisation in the truest sense of the term, sharing much the same spirit as the holistic development vision of Gross National Happiness. It is an infinite credit to the awakened minds of the past that envisioned and embraced ‘the whole world as my family’. At a time like the present when specialisation and segregation routinely demonstrate the poverty of small minds, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam may sound too remote and archaic.
This global view of humanity and the world as ‘my family’ speaks to a culture and a civilization that apprehended the subtle and the obvious, the profound and the enduring that transcend the specificities of the here and the now and move on to beckon and hug all and everywhere.
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, as Gyalyong Gakid Pelzom, addresses and embraces all men, women and children, on all parallels and meridians, from coast to coast, hemisphere to hemisphere, in the spirit of brotherhood, inclusion against exclusion, cooperation instead of competition, and desire to fit all as opposed to the principle of the survival of the fittest – on an ethical plane that befits the human of the species.
In its broadest sense, Gyalyong Gakid Pelzom, or Gross National Happiness, is founded on the ethic of universality, interdependence as the principle of human relationships, and interplanetary support for mutual sustenance and flourishing of all life-forms in all realms. The GNH vision of progress derives its life-force from an understanding of the profound truths about life and natural phenomena, and their inter-relatedness the fair and just mode of expression.
A classic manifestation of the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has been the extraordinary generosity of India as it shared with as many as 70 countries, and counting, around the world the precious ‘Made in India’ Covishield vaccine under the auspices of the Maitri outreach programme. Bhutan has been a special beneficiary as the first recipient of the life-saving gift that has enabled the country to cover all the eligible citizens within one week of the record-setting vaccination programme.
India’s gesture of goodwill comes as a chastening contrast to the costly vaccine-nationalism impulses that have made the urgent need to reach the precious vaccines to as many people in as many countries in as short a time as possible a near-nightmare. It is an irony that the tireless efforts of the scientists and medical experts who produced the life-saving drugs in record-time and the hard-work of the healthcare professionals and frontline workers to respond to the crying need of the hour so often get sabotaged by competitive politics and derailed by tardy management.
I like to imagine a situation where all countries in the world decide to share their finest gifts in support of life and well-being instead of exporting costly weapons of mass destruction, exchange goodwill and trust rather than trade suspicion and betrayal, celebrate and support each other instead of trying to get ahead of everybody else at any cost.
And, surely, “the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed”, as the enlightened Mahatma warned.
Imagine the world…
As a humble Bhutanese citizen carrying the Pune-based Serum Institute’s life-saving fluid in my body, I am most grateful to the Government and the people of India for the precious gift to my country. I submit my deepest gratitude to His Majesty our beloved King for the extraordinary leadership to secure the well-being of our people and the country, to the Royal Government and all the frontline heroes for their tireless efforts to serve our people.
Standing at the confluence of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Gyalyong Gakid Pelzom, I see that there is more to this relationship than vaccine. It is the blossoming of an abiding friendship built over many years on the principle of mutual respect, sublime integrity and genuine goodwill. It is our nations and our peoples rising to the next level in faith and celebration.
Thakur S Powdyel
Former Minister of Education.
Phub Dem | Paro
Every year, in Paro, as the paddy season begins the people of Khangkhu begin the cultivation first. The people of Taju have to wait for two weeks to begin theirs.
This has been the tradition from long, long ago, which the elders of the village say began due to water shortage.
Over a century ago, perhaps even more, an event took place that was tide-turning in many aspects which led to a convenient between two villages. This covenant may have outlived its utility but what began as a necessity has remained as a culture and tradition.
Khangkhu village is located far from the water source. Even then, the residents got only a smaller portion of water after Taju and other villages had completed paddy cultivation.
One day, a helper from one of the houses in Khangkhu went to feed the water into Khangkhu’s channel. Fight for water could often lead to dangerous and tragic consequences. The man knew that the people of Taju would kill him for diverting water. That bothered him little. What mattered more was that Khangkhu villagers should get water.
In the event that followed, the man from Khangkhu was murdered. But before his death, the man supposedly had said that the people of Khangkhu should not accept any compensation other than water. What followed was a gyenja (a contractual agreement) according to which the people of Taju would wait for water until the whole village of Khangkhu is done with cultivation.
This is the story of how water-sharing is still being practised between the people of Khangkhu and Taju.
One of the community representative, Draygang from Khangkhu, said he heard this story from his parents.
He said that the original agreement was lost. “It has been 90 years since the new one was drawn.”
Draygang explained that the people of Taju could access water for irrigation only after ten days in Khangkhu and four days in two other villages.
Locals believe that paddy transplantation should complete before the summer solstice, after which the rice plants won’t bear grain.
The residents of both the villages strictly follow the ancient custom. However, some changes have come in.
Following the ancient timing is not feasible for the new variety of quality rice. With many farmers using machines to transplant rice, farmers like Samten from Taju said they transplanted rice towards April (third month in the Buddhist calendar).
She said that transplanting the paddy using a machine before Khangkhuthang did not violate the custom. “If we wait until they finish theirs, our rice won’t grow.”
She, however, said that the farmers still followed the custom while transplanting paddy by hands.
According to Gyalpo, it has been three years since some Tajups began transplanting rice using the machine before Khangkhups. “The rice production has doubled since we used the machine, and there was no water shortage as well.”
As per Khangkhups, though, this is tantamount to violation of the custom and agreement and they have filed a complaint against recently.
Ap Draygang said that the agreement did not mention machines, as there was no such alternative then. But he said that transplanting rice before the timing was considered violating the custom.
Sukbir Bishwa, 60, from Samtse, is one of the most seasoned artists in the country today. His area of interest and specialisation is contemporary Bhutan.
Friends know Sukbir as witty and fun-loving. In his hands, colours speak. He paints the world around him as is it — people, architectures and landscapes — in their sublime state.
Talk about how appreciation has grown in Bhutan over the years, Sukbir say it took a lot of hard work. “Artists weren’t appreciated; art did not have a market.”
In 1994, or thereabouts, Sukbir took two of his paintings to sell to an owner of a popular restaurant in Thimphu. After much bargaining, he could sell his paintings for Nu 3,000 and a whole tandoori (roasted) chicken. “They were worth Nu 7,000 even then.”
But he kept going, undaunted, inspiring younger Bhutanese artists along the way.
VAST’s Kama Wangdi, a good friend of Sukbir, said: “What I like about Sukbir is his determination. He once told me that Bhutan would one day be flooded with his paintings. And it came true! Go anywhere today and you’ll find his painting in most of the guesthouses and hotels.”
Sukbir was, according to Kama Wangdi, one of the earliest contemporary painters in the country. “When he began exhibiting his work, we’d barely any idea of exhibition.”
In the late 1990s, Karma Wangdi and Sukbir did a project together for World Wildlife Fund.
“I was barely a teen when I saw my uncle sketching and drawing,” Sukbir says. “I was fascinated by what he made out of simple sketches.”
Then came one Mr Singha in his school days, who left a lasting impression on young Sukbir. Mr Singha was a teacher from Haryana, India. He would paint on weekends and exhibit his work in his house.
As a student, Sukbir took part in many art competitions. He was 13 when he received a certificate of merit from Shankar’s International Children’s Competition.
One of the biggest influences on Sukbir, in his school days, was David Piper’s Painting in England (1500-1880). The paintings in the book were in black and white and resembled the way of life in the southern parts of Bhutan.
He copied Thomas Gainsborough’s Sportsman with Two Dogs in a Landscape, on cardboard and hung it on the wall of his classroom. “Everybody liked it. Children from other classes came to see it like it was an exhibition. It was a thrilling moment for a young boy.”
Back in Sherubtse public school (now Sherubtse College) in Trashigang, Sukbir’s free time was spent drawing for his friends. “My friends used to bring photographs of their girlfriends and ask me to draw in their slam books to impress them,” he says. “That was an opportunity to master my skills.”
In 1989, Sukbir held an exhibition in the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) office—international development charity to empower communities in developing countries—in Thimphu. It was a life-changing event for a young man, who had by then mastered hard and subtle ways of painting.
Many expatriates bought his work. When the hotel industry began to develop rapidly in mid-1990, Sukbir found a steady source of income from selling his artworks.
What would you have done had it not been for art? Sukbir was an accountant in a government office before he resigned in 2009 to take up art professionally.
If you happen to visit Artyantra in Changzamtog, Thimphu, you’ll find a man smeared in colours, any time of the day, paintbrush tucked behind his ears, studying landscape photographs. This is Sukbir Bishwa and he will look at you as though you were a piece of art in front of him.
In a way, for him, we are.
Yangchen C Rinzin
With 460 nomads vaccinated against Covid-19, Lingzhi in Thimphu completed the vaccination campaign on April 1.
A total of 463 populations were eligible for the vaccination located in two different vaccination centres, Gangyul outreach clinic (ORC) and Lingzhi primary school.
Lactating mothers, on pre-medical conditions, and minors were exempt.
A chopper lifted the vaccines before the programme began. The vaccination team comprising dzongkhag officials, a health assistant, a doctor, and yak herders walked in heavy snowfall to get to vaccination posts.
Highlanders walked almost a day in the snow to the Gangyul ORC to get the vaccination. The ORC is about a two-hour walk from the gewog centre.
“Residents were cooperative and came forward and there were no challenges except for the snowfall,” a health official said. “One of the highlanders didn’t turn up for the jab despite several requests.”
Walking on a heavily snow-covered trail, another team comprising a health assistant, Thimphu dzongkhag official, nurse, and doctor walked about eight hours carrying vaccines to Zhodhu in Lingzhi, almost two days walk from Thimphu.
The team vaccinated open-air prisoners and police personnel on duty at Zhodhu who are currently renovating Lingzhi Dzong.
The team also vaccinated about four tshampas (hermits) meditating in Naro gewog, besides vaccinating around 70 nomads.
Nomads of Soe gewog walked three hours to the gewog centre for the vaccination on April 1.
Of the 106 eligible population, 89 were vaccinated at the centre and the rest were reported to have been vaccinated in Thimphu and Paro. Three lactating mothers were not vaccinated.
“This means all eligible population of Soe are now vaccinated,” health assistant Dawa Gyeltshen said.
Bad weather hampered the team’s return journey by chopper, so they walked back to Thimphu yesterday.
Of the 14,193 eligible population in eight gewogs in Thimphu, about 14,134 people were vaccinated since March 27.
A nomad shares her details before receiving the vaccine
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Customs officials have confiscated about 1,500kg of plastics at the mini dry port (MDP) in Phuentsholing on seven different occasions this year.
Sources say the plastics were hidden inside vegetable bags.
Sources also allege huge quantities of plastics could have entered the country illegally since the pandemic started last year, as physical verification at the MDP was minimised considering the initial Covid-19 transmission risks.
In 2019, custom officials confiscated more than 1,500kg of plastics.
Plastics were seized after the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) reinforced the ban on the use and sale of plastic carry bags and pouches in April 2019 when monitoring became stringent. Even shopkeepers in Jaigaon knew of the measures and would provide their Bhutanese customers non-woven carry bags.
But today, almost every shop in Phuentsholing, big or small, uses plastic carry bags and sales of the products are also rampant.
A shopkeeper said, although plastics use and sale was banned, the result had not changed. “We aren’t allowed to import but it’s available within the town for sale.”
He said the ban is just on the paper. “The ban only increased the price of plastics.”
The shopkeeper said if plastic use was really banned, there must be one alternative in place, which was missing right now. “Without any other options or alternatives to plastics, even if it’s banned, shopkeepers face difficulty.”
He asked what they should use if plastic is not allowed? “Although the ban is a measure that will help our country, and while we have high regards for that, such measures shouldn’t affect people.”
Meanwhile, plastic use was first banned in April 20, 1999. The trade ministry had then banned the use and sale of plastic carry bags, doma wrappers and homemade ice cream (pepsi) pouches. After decades of notifications and diligent efforts by the relevant agencies, the implementation of the ban still remained a challenge. Towards the end of 2018, NECS consulted with relevant agencies and decided to reinforce the ban, which came into effect on April 1, 2019.
Police fished out the body of a 36-year-old man from Wangchu yesterday morning.
Sources said the body was found in the river 530ms from the bridge between Taba and Pamtsho.
People walking along the bridge saw the body floating in the river and informed police at 9am. Police then deployed its rescue team.
Forensic and investigating team ruled out foul play, as they did not find anything suspicious on the body.
Sources say the deceased, who was not employed, was an alcoholic and he went missing from his home since Sunday.
Police handed over the body to his family after investigation.
Thirteen Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) artistes tested positive for Covid-19 while in quarantine in Thimphu, yesterday.
The artistes, 10 men and three women, were the primary contacts of the two (RAPA artistes) who tested positive in Dhaka, Bangladesh on March 24. They arrived in the country on March 28.
A team of 22 artistes from the academy were part of Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering’s delegation to Dhaka as a cultural troupe for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence.
Although the source of infection for the two RAPA artistes in Dhaka is not known, sources told Kuensel that the duo could have picked up the infection on their arrival in Dhaka. Prior to their departure on March 19, the entire cultural troupe was tested for Covid-19 in Bhutan.
Lyonchhen in a Facebook post last night said that the two artistes in Dhaka were discharged from the hospital and were put in an isolation facility. “The government of Bangladesh and our Dhaka Embassy have given them excellent support and care.”
He said that the 13 new positive cases were being taken care of by the health staff. “I am in touch with them on phone. Just as the performers from other countries, the team presented the gifts of Bhutan’s rich music and culture to our dear friends in Bangladesh. They made us immensely proud and I thank them.”
Meanwhile, on March 24, on the day of the RAPA team’s performance in Dhaka, one of the musicians complained of headache and fever at the performance venue.
He was then taken to a first aid tent where a Covid-19 rapid test was conducted. The result was positive. He also tested positive on the confirmatory RT-PCR test.
According to sources, following the incident, as primary contacts of the man, the entire RAPA team were held back from returning with the rest of the entourage as scheduled.
Lyonchhen and other members of the entourage returned on March 25. Rest of the entourage including the prime minster tested negative yesterday.
Thimphu police in the past three years have observed a significant drop in crimes across the city.
Between 2018 and 2020, there was a 60 percent drop in cases reported to the police. The number of cases fell from 2,595 in 2018 to 1,046 last year. In 2019, there were 1,999 cases.
Last year, 306 suspects were arrested and charged. In 2019, 577 suspects and in 2018, 730 were arrested and charged.
Officer in Command of Thimphu police station, Gembo Penjor attributes the drop to the Covid-19 pandemic last year. “To ensure people followed the Covid-19 safety protocols patrolling around the clock by police and desuups also helped reduce crimes.”
A police official said in 2018 cases was worrisome with more than 350 cases reported each month. He said in 2019 every school in Thimphu was sansitised about criminal offences and its consequences.
A police official said they targeted schools as crime was mostly committed by those aged between 12 and 25.
Additionally in 2019, officials from six community police centres went door-to-door sensitising residents. In 2019, about 150 cases was reported every month.
Cases include both criminal and civil and in some cases, more than one individual is involved.
The top six crimes of 2020 in the city are drugs (202 cases), battery (178 cases), larceny (143 cases), burglary (71 cases), auto stripping (48 cases), and 36 cases of breach of public order and tranquillity.
Auto stripping, battery, burglary, larceny, larceny of property lost, mislaid or delivered by mistake, and drugs were the top six crimes in the previous two years.
Major Gembo Penjor said larceny of property lost, mislaid, or delivered by mistake was mostly loss of mobile phones. “If one knows international mobile equipment identity number of their phone it is easier to track them.”
He said that drug cases in 2020 mostly included thinner and marijuana whereas in previous years most drug cases was smuggling and trafficking of Spasmo Proxyvon Plus. Last year, drug cases reduced by 101 cases compared with 2019. In 2019, drug cases increased by 85 compared to 2018.
Records with police show most cases of battery and larceny in 2018 which significantly reduced in the following years. In 2020, battery cases dropped to 178 which is 65 percent decrease compared with 2018. A police officer said most battery cases was due to domestic violence in 2020.
Chang and Kawang gewogs recorded the highest number of cases in the past three years. Naro and Soe gewogs the lowest. There was no crime recorded from Soe and Naro gewogs last year.
In 2020, 36 cases of breach of public order and tranquility was recorded in Thimphu. This year till March, 20 more cases of breach of public order and tranquillity were recorded.
Missing person cases topped the civil case list. In 2018, 74 missing person complaints were lodged which increased to 76 in 2019. In 2020, it dropped to 44.
Loten Zangmo and Kinley Wangchuk
When National Pension and Provident Fund (NPPF) constructed a wall closing a popular footpath near Financial Institutions Training Institute (FITI), frustrated residents took to social media raising concerns.
They claim that the wall closed an easy route to Rinchen Kuenphen Primary School, Changangkha Middle Secondary School and others going to work.
Residents said that building the wall now forced school-going children and pedestrians to take the long and unsafe way, extending the journey by at least another 20 to 30 minutes.
A resident Tashi Tshomo said that she lived for 20 years in the NPPF residential complex and the route had been convenient. “The route saves time and taxi fare.”
A shopkeeper who operates near the FITI building said that, if the footpath remained closed, she would lose many customers.
Residents however agree with NPPF’s decision to build the walls. “It’s for our safety and to prevent crime.”
They said that the residential complex has also seen numerous cases of auto stripping, battery, burglary, harassment, larceny, and missing person, among others. They recorded 38 cases between 2016 and 2021.
An NPPF official said that they had taken various measures for more than 20 years to reduce crime.
“Residents from private buildings also park their vehicles within our premises. The premise falls within our boundary of NPPF land, therefore the signboard is earmarked as parking for NPPF tenants only,” said an NPPF official.
NPPF has finally come to the resolution of fencing with walls around the residential complex area leaving only two entrances.
The management also installed seven CCTV cameras in the area a year ago, but the cameras could not cover the entire area.
An NPPF official said, “The walls will benefit the residents of NPPF in the long run. The Thimphu Thromde had approved the construction.”
The complex has 333 households living in 38 residential buildings.
Neten Dorji | Trashiyangtse
A decade ago, people in Khamdang, Trashiyangtse, harvested rice twice from Tshotsang area, but today more than 100 acres of wetland in the area are left fallow.
A farmer, Ugyen Wangdi, 41, said his families did not buy imported rice when they cultivated paddy fields in Tshotsang. “My field turned into a grazing land today.”
Residents say increasing human-wildlife conflict and lack of irrigation water forced them to leave the land fallow.
A villager, Dorji, said floods damaged the irrigation canal and they could not repair it, as the canals were on rocky areas in many locations. “We couldn’t do anything but watch our fields turn into bushes.”
He said the area is fertile and reviving the fallow lands could help the country’s effort to achieve food sufficiency.
Villagers say electric fencing and proper irrigation canal could help them.
“If the government supports us, we can pump water from Drangmechu,” Ugyen Wangdi said.
Khamdang gup, Norbu, said if all people were willing to cultivate the land again, the gewog administration was going to provide them electric fencing.
“We asked people to clear bushes, but only a few households did it. Not many people are interested in agriculture work as they earn between Nu 500 to Nu 900 a day working as labourers,” he said.
The dzongkhag chief agriculture officer, Kuenzang Peldon, said the agriculture sector would support if farmers are committed to work. “But it doesn’t make sense if farmers aren’t willing to work after spending huge expenditure. It’s just a waste of resources.”
She said they needed a strong commitment from farmers. “We targeted to revive about 10 acres for early chili plantation once but people refused to cooperate.”
Agriculture officials said, as per their policy to revive fallow land, they gave more importance to agriculture after the country was affected by Covid-19. “Shortage of manpower and absence of young people in rural families to take-up the farming activities are the main reason for keeping lands fallow,” said Kuenzang Peldon.
To revive the fallow land, the dzongkhag agriculture sector supports supplying electric fencing, developing land, irrigation canal and forming farmers’ groups in the gewog.
Nima | Gelephu
Gewog officials in Sarpang say they are not comfortable using the Bhutan Online Land Tax Payment System (BOLTs) launched in 2019.
The issue was raised in the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) held last week.
Local leaders say only a few people make online payment.
They proposed to collect the tax manually, justifying it was difficult to record if people paid the tax.
They also said since that, the land tax had to be deposited back to the gewog account, it led to some auditing problems when the tax was collected using the online system.
Today, the National Land Commission (NLC) transfers land tax collected online to the gewog CD accounts whereas, in the past, gewogs collected the tax directly from the people after obtaining clearances from the respective chiwog tshogpas.
Gewog officials claim that tshogpas issue the clearance after people clear their fallow lands. The clearance ensures fallow lands are cleared to reduce wildlife threats to nearby plots that are cultivated. Taxes were not collected if owners do not clear their fallow lands.
Gelephu gup, Ugyen Wangchuk, said, with the online payment system, nothing was clear on how the cash transactions were made to the gewogs. “There are no details of who paid the tax. We have to write a report yearly but, without this detail, it’s difficult. The revenue collected was deposited in a lump sum.”
He said with rural residents uneducated, they come to the gewog centre to pay the tax using the online system.
He also claimed wildlife damaged crops of many people in his gewog, as many left their fallow land without clearing.
NLC launched BOLTs in January 2019 to address inefficient practice of collection, administration, and management of land tax.
Local leaders said they raised the risk of lands remaining fallow and the feasibility of the online system when NLC provided training to use the online system.
Officials from Shompangkha gewog said people should also be given an option to pay the land tax directly to the gewog like in the past.
However, there are others, who feel the online system is better.
Ram Bahadur Monger from Khenpagaon, Samtenling, said it was easier to pay tax online. “We don’t have to walk till gewog centre anymore but I don’t know how to use the online payment system.”
He said threats from wildlife were increasing, as fallow lands nearby had been left in thick cover, uncleared. “The landowners should be made to clear the land at least.”
Sarpang dzongkhag’s land record officer, Wangdi, said there were no auditing problems with the LGs related to online land tax payment system. “The tax payment system is easy to use. There isn’t much problem.”
He said there were only a few cases of land left uncultivated, and that other regulations were in place to deal with it.
He explained BOLTs was initiated, as an individual had to travel till gewog centre to pay Nu 6 as land tax, after spending about Nu 1000 for travel. “NLC had also trained 20 people, including gups, gewog administration officers, mangmis, and gaydrungs from Sarpang on BOLTs before rolling out the system. The revenue collected was dispersed from time to time to the LG accounts.”
The new dojo (judo hall) construction at Pelkhil School in Thimphu is expected to be completed by the end of May.
Coordinated by the Bhutan Judo Association (BJA), the construction began in July 2019. The government of Japan funded around Nu 0.01 billion.
However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, work got deferred.
BJA’s president, Karma L Dorji, said that 90 percent of the work had been completed. “We’re planning to finish by the end of May. After roofing is done, indoor requisites will be in place.”
The new dojo is two-and-a-half times bigger than the existing one.
“The old judo hall could accommodate only 30-35 judokas. The new one will house 60-70 judokas,” said Karma L Dorji.
Since the old judo hall was small, participants used to train on a rotational basis.
“We’ve different categories of judokas such as elite, normal members, young beginners, and old beginners. Now we can do the training altogether,” he said. “Unlike karate and taekwondo, judo mats are soft and expensive.”
“The federation is focusing on the elite judo players through the grassroots programmes. We select the kids carefully to bring them up to the elite level,” said Karma L Dorji.
BJA had secured one slot in a minus 60kg category for Tokyo 2020 games through wild card entry. Judoka Ngawang Namgyel was selected, and he is undergoing training.
Currently, there is no dojo hall in other dzongkhags. BJA has six coaches and more than 100 registered members.
Sixth day into the week-long mass vaccination programme, close to 435,837 Bhutanese have been administered Covishield vaccine. That is almost 88 percent of the eligible population in the country.
Receptiveness and turnout is impressive. It is highly likely that by the time the vaccination programme concludes today, April 2, almost all the 536,000 eligible population will have taken the jab.
While whether to administer or take the vaccine is still being debated among governments and people elsewhere, Bhutan’s decision to go ahead with mass vaccination programme and, successfully at that, shows our willingness and readiness to leave the pandemic and its disruptions behind and move on with new normal.
The success of Bhutan’s mass vaccination programme should be attributed largely to clear-headed leadership from the government. In times of doubt and uncertainty, leading by example is critically important. Vaccination coverage would have been dismally sparse and poor otherwise.
The way the government organised the vaccination programme across the country, given the challenges of distance and rugged terrain, among others, is nothing short of admirable. Appreciation and commendation, not least, must go to the many health professionals and the guardians of peace who have made untold sacrifices since the first Covid-19 case in the country a year ago.
But now the question is: what after the vaccine shots? How do we even know that the vaccine is working?
There have been many complaints about side effects of the vaccine. All of the vaccines in use against the coronavirus cause side effects such as fever, chills, sore throat, headache, nausea, diarrhoea and even pink eye, among others. What these side effects indicate is that our immune system is reacting to the virus. What is more important to understand is that the absence of side effects doesn’t mean that the vaccine has failed to work. Sometimes, it can take a week or even more for the vaccine to start taking effect.
All these bring us to another, equally important, question: are we safe from coronavirus now that we have taken the jab? Medically and scientifically, the answer is both “yes” and “no”. According to well-placed research and studies, “even the best vaccines leave five percent of vaccinated people susceptible.” For some vaccines, that figure is even higher.
What we also know is that there is every chance that Covid-19 could become endemic, which means it, the virus, could always be present in a certain population or region. The bottom line is that getting the vaccine won’t protect us from coronavirus forever.
That’s why, even as we complete the vaccination rounds, our focus on prevention and management is critically necessary. In other words, observing health protocols diligently and sincerely is of utmost importance, maintaining a strong quarantine system besides.
No major AEFI reported so far according to health officials
The death of two people recently after receiving the first dose of the Covidshied vaccine, health officials said, was not vaccine-induced — related to the vaccination.
An 84-year-old man in Pemagatshel died earlier this week — 40 hours after he received his first dose of the vaccine. Several concerns were raised following the death of two individuals this week. The national immunisation technical advisory group (NI-TAG) has established that the deaths were not because of the Covishield vaccine.
Dr GP Dhakal who is a NI-TAG member told Kuensel that the man had bronchial asthma and was on regular medication. “Even before the vaccination, he used to have shortness of breath. He used to have difficulty breathing even when going to the toilet, meaning he had shortness of breath on minor exertion.”
Based on the investigation carried out by doctors in Pemagatshel, Dr GP Dhakal said that following the vaccination, the man did not show any symptoms of adverse reactions. “Although he had asthma, his symptoms did not increase in intensity or duration after the vaccination.”
He said the man complained of severe shortness of breath the next morning. “Despite using his regular medication, he went into severe asthma and that’s how we lost him. It was not related to the vaccine.”
He added that if the person died of the vaccine, his symptoms would have progressively increased after the vaccination. “He also did not report any adverse effect after the vaccination. The NI-TAG after discussing his case finalised that his death was not due to the vaccination.”
His family members told Kuensel that the man was ‘seriously ill’ already. “As medical reports have suggested, his health condition could have been the reason behind his death and the vaccine had nothing to do with it. He was already very sick.”
However, one of them said that although he was sick, the fact that he died after (two days) of vaccination was questionable. “Despite his ailments, he had been with us so far. It is difficult for us to ascertain anything. But for now we are going by what the health report has said.”
Doctors in the meantime said that the family members of the two deceased did not question the vaccine.
Another member of the NI-TAG, Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that any severe reaction to the vaccine would manifest immediately, which was why the 30 minutes mandatory observation following the immunisation was put in place.
The other who died after the vaccination was a man in Bumthang this week. Dr Dhakal said that the man who was an alcoholic had stopped consuming alcohol to prepare for the vaccine. “He had a history of having fits whenever he stopped drinking.”
The man also did not report any adverse reaction while in the observation. At around midnight, when he went to the toilet, his wife heard the man fall. “He was on the floor experiencing fits when the wife went to check,” said Dr Dhakal. “Thinking it was a usual thing, he was carried to the bed but when he was found unconscious the next morning, the wife called the hospital.”
Doctors at the Wangdicholing hospital found out that the man had suffered head injuries. Health officials tried airlifting the patient but due to the bad weather, he was brought to the national referral hospital by road.
“We did a CT scan and found that he had both fresh and old bleeding in the brain, meaning he had similar accidents before,” said the doctor. “We tried to evacuate the blood but we couldn’t save him.”
Reporting and recording AEFI
As of 3pm yesterday, of the 429,599 who received the vaccine, 8,452 adverse events following immunization (AEFI) were reported to the NI-TAG. Officials said that many people had reported more than one AEFI with some reporting more than four events at a time, meaning the total events are not reported by individual people.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that majority of the AEFI reported so far were minor such as headaches, pain at the site of injection, fever, and nausea among others. There were 34 severe events reported.
Among the severe events, four individuals experienced anaphylactic reaction — severe allergic reaction triggered by the vaccine.
All are in stable condition today.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that although the other severe reactions needed hospitalisation and immediate interventions, they were not related to the vaccine. All these AEFI are reported and recorded in the Bhutan Vaccine System (BVS).
The BVS was launched as a part of the nationwide vaccination programme. Besides planning and registering for the vaccination programme, the BVS was set up mainly to collect and monitor real-time data on vaccination and to provide instant action, wherever and whenever necessary.
Side effects or reactions following the vaccination were reported online through the system to NI-TAG and regional NI-TAGs stationed in Mongar and Gelephu.
The NI-TAGs in the three regions consist of specialists including medical and child specialists, pharmacist, and medical superintendent of respective hospitals who actively monitor all the reported events.
Dr Dhakal said that as soon as an event was reported on the system, the specialists scanned through the symptoms provided, and categorised the it into severe and minor events. “Doctors also personally attend to those who are hospitalised. For others, including those with minor symptoms, we actively follow up with individuals using our hotlines 1010, 2121, and 112.”
He said that although any severe reactions would appear immediately after the vaccination, people who experienced severe shortness of breath including rashes on the body, any time after the vaccination must call the consulting doctors immediately.
He said that anaphylactic reactions — the only life-threatening reaction due to the vaccine — can happen if an individual experienced swollen lips, itchy body, hoarse voice or swollen voice box, fast heartbeat, noisy breathing, and sudden drop in blood pressure. “If anyone experiences these symptoms, you must call the consulting doctors, immediately.”
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that those with pre-existing medical conditions were recommended to report any reactions including minor events such as headaches and fever.
“Ultimately, our aim is to see if all the AEFI, serious or minor, are triggered by the vaccine or not. After establishing this, we would be sharing our findings with international communities through the WHO.”
Yangchen C Rinzin
Almost five years after massive campaigns to plant trees at Kuenselphodrang, Thimphu, to mark several historical events in the country, not all saplings are showing signs of maturing into trees.
About 5,200 saplings were planted in 2016, and more than 49,000 in 2015 on a 25-acre of land. More than 100 people volunteered to plant trees and were supposed to nurture them. Most saplings died or are struggling to grow today.
At the plantation site, there are sign boards showing the name of agencies, individuals and contact numbers of those who planted the saplings and took ownership, but many are without the saplings.
People hoisted a placard near saplings bearing the name and telephone number of the planters
The boards are worn out and some covered under bushes. It was learnt the planters were supposed to call individuals and agencies if the saplings needed attention.
In the area, a 10-acre land was also identified to create a Happiness Garden with the idea that at least one person from every country in the world will plant a tree in Bhutan. The trees in the garden look withered. Many are overgrown with bushes.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) donated a water tank near the garden. It has gone missing.
Foresters say planting a sapling is only 10 percent of the work, and 90 percent depends on nurturing the saplings. “This is what is lacking in many Bhutanese volunteers today,” a forester said.
They said some of the planters have not visited the site even once after they planted and some do not even remember their plant’s location exactly.
However, in an effort to revive the saplings, Snowman Race secretariat, TCB and volunteers have led an initiative to nurture trees in the Happiness Garden. Launched on February 21, the initiative is also a part of the challenge for climate Action.
They have already nurtured more than 100 saplings.
A member, Sonam Rinchen, said that the intention behind planting the saplings was good, it lacked follow up. “There is a need for change in the entire strategy when such tree plantation is initiated.”
“While we volunteered to nurture saplings at the Happiness Garden, we realised that almost all saplings planted at Buddha Point needed attention,” he said. “This is why any Bhutanese can volunteer and come forward to adopt the saplings and nurture because the plantation is almost abandoned.”
Sonam Rinchen said that while they had initially planned to plant a tree as a part of climate action, they realised there were so many saplings planted in various areas almost every year. “We then decided to take care of those that are already planted and we came across this place.”
The volunteers usually clear weeds or bushes that have obstructed saplings from growing, dig soils and water the saplings.
“Some of my friends wanted me to find out about their sapling. Sadly, we couldn’t even read what is written on the small boards beside the saplings,” another member said. “Some tourists also wanted to know about their saplings.”
The secretariat also plans to propose the board and have a nurturing tree club so that such an initiative is not forgotten, and saplings would continue to grow.
Sonam Rinchen said different agencies have planted tree saplings in the Kuenselphodrang area to mark some events but never checked if it was growing. “This is why we want to ensure we have committed volunteers this time.”
Anyone who wants to be part of this initiative can reach out to the Snowman Race secretariat on their Facebook page.
Phub Dem | Paro
Refining the action plan Bhutan Women Parliamentary Caucus (BWPC) drafted in 2019, members of parliament (MPs) reviewed and provided recommendations to encourage more women participation in politics and leadership roles.
MPs, who are attending a three-day BWPC workshop in Paro, recommended setting 30 percent women nominations in political parties, executive positions, constitutional bodies and judiciary.
This, they said, could address low representation of women in parliament, leadership and decision-making positions, local government and other institutions.
MPs also proposed creating awareness and advocacy programmes during constituency visits to address social, cultural, and traditional barriers that discouraged women from participating in elections.
To promote gender-responsive budgeting, MPs proposed revisiting the resource allocation formula and training MPs on gender-responsive planning and budgeting.
Considering legal barriers while implementing the recommendations, participants proposed amending some acts, such as the Election Act, Local Government Act, Marriage Act, Child Adoption Act, and Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
MPs also proposed to convert the national gender equality policy into an Act.
According to the policy, the country has adopted multiple legal and policy frameworks to provide men and women with equal rights and participation in political, social, economic, and cultural lives. However, there is still uneven mainstreaming of gender issues across laws, policies, programmes and projects.
Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) conducted the workshop to consider the requirement of gender perspective while framing laws, policies and budget allocation.
According to BNEW’s executive director Phuntshok Chhoden, providing equal opportunity and support was translated to no gender issue or discrimination in the country. “This caused disparity.”
She said that there was equal opportunity for women to participate in elections but there were only nine elected women among 72 members. “The representation is even lesser in local government elections.”
While women in Bhutan are treated far better and are more privileged than other countries, Bhutan is ranked at the bottom on gender equality in the global ranking due to minimal representation of women in politics.
She said that, if there were improvements in women engagement and empowerment, the country would pick up in global ranking. “There’s a need for an urgent intervention as the country’s place in the global ranking is worsening by the year.”
Bhutan rank 131 out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap report 2020.
She said that the workshop called for a collective approach to explore ways to address the issues, which are holding women back.
Chairperson of the Women, Children and Youth Committee of the National Assembly, Dorji Wangmo, said gender disparity in social norms and culture was caused because many people still believe women are nine times inferior to men.
“Through this workshop, MPs are expected to create awareness among the rural communities during constituency visits,” she said.
National Council member, Nima, said there was a need for gender-responsive budget allocation rather than allotting budgets to institutions directly. “We have to look into how the budget will benefit men and women specifically.”