Monsoon brings many problems to the rugged Himalayan terrain. When communication lines are disturbed, consequences are far-reaching. Disaster preparedness, however, remains a major problem for the country.
Landslides and roadblocks continue to occur and monsoon has just about begun, which means we will continue to hear about such incidences until towards the tail end of the year. In the Covid-19 days, such disruptions can have a serious impact on the people and businesses.
Constant and uninterrupted supply of essential items is critically important. Many shops in Thimphu have run out of stock. Although the supply of essential items is guaranteed and managed well between the two countries even as borders are closed due to Covid-19 scare, it is important that we ensure that incidences such as roadblocks do not cut the supply chains.
The recent Maochhu incident where four solders of the Royal Bhutan Army lost their lives while saving the lives of people caught in the flash flood is a reminder that we need beef up our disaster preparedness. We haven’t forgotten the Chukha incident where the Wangchhu washed seven boys away. Even after 13 hours, the rescue mission failed.
What with climate change and fragile topography, we will experience more such incidences in the coming days. But how much have we invested in disaster preparedness?
We are a lot better today than we were a decade ago in terms of disaster preparedness but we can and must do a lot more. Raising the level of competence and efficiency is critically important. Otherwise, we would just be adding numbers when we talk about rescue—we now have DeSuup besides the Royal Bhutan Police, Royal Bhutan Army, and forestry officials.
Our rescue operations must go beyond numbers.
However, as monsoon begins to rage, some common sense will do us good. Flash floods and landslides could occur anytime anywhere. If you must travel, ask around for information. The Royal Bhutan Police keeps updating the news of roadblocks. Avoid going near streams and rivers. These simple things can save many unnecessary deaths and pains.
While farmers across the country are facing difficulties to find a market for their agricultural products, members of the urban and peri-urban agriculture initiative in Thimphu are confident in marketing their products.
Some of the groups have already started selling vegetables in their locality, DeSuup training programme and dratshangs, among others.
The initiative which rolled out in May has 26 acres of fallow land converted to agricultural land across different areas like Begana, Bebeyna, Kushuchen, Changtagang and thromde areas in the capital. There are 34 groups, mostly laid-off workers from the hospitality sector due to Covid-19.
Jinpa Phuntsho and his group have cultivated more than an acre of land in Begana, from which 18 kilogrammes of cabbage, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, and other crops were sold last month. He said that they grew more varieties to reduce the risk of market non-availability.
Due to newly developed land, he said that the group faced challenges with uncontrolled weed. However, mulching methods helped. “Out of 10 plots of land, six percent wasn’t mulched. The crops which were mulched didn’t need intensive care.”
Jinpa Phuntsho said, “But we did not face a problem with the market. Often, buyers came to the garden.”
Pema Dorji has a tour company and a restaurant in Thimphu. After the pandemic, he cultivated 65 decimals in Begana. Eight of his workers take turns to run the restaurant and work in the garden.
He plans to use his product in the restaurant.
The chillies and cabbages, however, were attacked by pest and diseases. The agriculture ministry provided natural neem oil to contain the disease outbreak.
Chief coordinator of urban agriculture initiative, BB Rai, said that marketing was at the centre of the initiative. He said that growers were encouraged to cultivate marketable crops with longer shelf life and those which can be processed into byproducts.
Most of the members cultivated chilli, which has commercial value and can be processed into pickles or dried.
The groups were also trained in post-harvest technology in collaboration with National Post-harvest Centre.
BB Rai said the unsold products could be processed into kimchi, gundurug, carrot candy and other delicacies.
“We also encouraged them to sell the products as they harvest instead of waiting for bulk sales and also keep records,” he said.
The diversity of crops, according to him would ensure nutrition and food security within the family and country at large.
Chilli, cabbage and carrot are major crops grown.
As a part of Covid-19 contingency plan, the initiative was funded by Food and Agriculture Organisation. The agriculture department is working with dzongkhag officials in Punakha, Bumthang and Sarpang to roll out similar peri-urban agriculture projects in these dzongkhags.
The programme, however, is not without challenges. Few groups have abandoned their plots. The initiative is a new concept in the country which is why it was difficult to reach people.
BB Rai said that the country had no demarcated area for urban agriculture and in the future there was a need for the thromde to identify government and private fallow lands.
Once the impact of the pandemic improves, there is a fear of how the initiative would sustain.
“Conflict with stray animals is rampant even in urban areas,” he said.
“But we are hopeful that the initiative would teach our youths that agriculture is a viable profession,” he added.
When production and productivity is Bhutan’s aim and will remain always, why is agriculture languishing in the sunless alleys of the scheme still?
If there is a new normal today, in agriculture sector specifically, it is excess production and rotting vegetables. But that’s not quite true. The real challenge is with marketing, rather the lack of it. Value addition is a foreign idea for many growers and marketers.
Kesang Choedon, the owner of Chuniding Food has solutions. Chuniding Food produces organic food products using value-adding technologies for preservation, dehydration, drying, packaging and branding.
Chuniding Food has around 150 products—10 primary and the rest are by-products. And there are buyers. The number is growing.
Like much else in life, it all begins with a dream. This is Kesang Choedon looking back on her long journey with food.
“Even as a child, I was interested in everything related to food,” said Kesang Choedon. “Food has always been more than just diet in my family. One could do so much with food by adding value.”
Kesang was with the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) before she started Chuniding Food. “It took me about two years to decide what I was going to do.” As one of the first woman police officers in the country, she got to travel around the country on different assignments and got to know about different food cultures. She resigned from RBP in 2007.
Kesang shares that another factor that augmented her passion for food was her investigative journeys on foot to different parts of the country while working in RBP. “My investigative journeys led me to enhance my knowledge about food. So that was, maybe, killing two birds with one stone.”
Kesang started her food venture with Folk Heritage Restaurant in 2010. The restaurant was started to serve authentic Bhutanese food. The restaurant gradually became a hub for delegations and tourists who wanted to experience authentic Bhutanese food.
With regular supplies from local farmers, there were excess vegetables and grains. Then she thought about preservation and packaging. That’s how Chuniding Food came to be. “I think when I first started making food products, people were not really interested. But then, it caught on.”
Kesang said that times have changed. Healthy food is now becoming the choice of the people, particularly among the urbanites. “I am trying my best in my small ways.”
With financial challenge in the forefront, starting the processing facility in Serbithang, Thimphu was a challenge too she said. “Questioning your own skills and the market, these are challenges you face. You have to take it one at a time.”
Kesang said that the pandemic situation was the time for entrepreneurs to gear up and bring innovative ideas to replace the imports. “Where food is concerned, I think we have a tremendous opportunity.”
Kesang said that with proper packaging and labelling, local fruits and vegetables would always find market. “The food sector provides opportunities to substitute the huge amount of food imported in the country.”
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupcholing
Residents of Phuntshothang, Khamaedthang and Dungkarling chiwogs in Phuntshothang gewog, Samdrupjongkhar had been living in community lhakhangs and other vacant structures, every night every summer.
They were not attending to a ritual but moving to safety from the dangers of the swollen Diklai and Nyera Ama rivers. Residents had been following this routine since 2004.
Recently, the swollen Diklai river washed away a few decimals of paddy fields belonging to a household in Dungkarling chiwog.
A resident, Pema Dendup said that many residents left the village when the swollen Nyera Ama river washed away the lands in 2004.
He said that the villagers constructed a river protection wall which was washed away after a few years. “It’d help us if the concerned authorities could build the river protection walls at three places along the river bank.”
“We have reported the matter to the concerned authorities but nothing happened until now. Who will build the wall?”
Another resident, Pema Yewong, said it is risky to stay home even during the day time as the river swells even on sunny days because of the heavy rain upstream. “It is challenging for us to move away from homes with our old parents and children.”
“We sometimes stay home and send men to guard the river at night because it becomes overcrowded at the lhakhang, and we’re also concerned about our homes and fields.”
Yedu Maya Sarki, from Phuntshothang chiwog, said they had abandoned their homes and fields because the swollen Nyera Ama river in 2004 washed away acres of paddy fields belonging to about five households.
“There were no casualties then, but if the situation continues, we can’t be sure.”
She said that the river had also washed away paddy fields recently.
“We could not apply for compensation before as we did not have a lag thram. We now have lag thram and applied either for compensation or replacement,” Yedu Maya Sarki said.
Phuntshothang gup, Jamyang Gyeltshen, said the gewog had allocated about Nu 1.5M to build walls along the Diklai river as the swollen river wash away paddy fields every year in Dungkarling chiwog. The gewog has also deployed excavators at the site to divert the river.
However, he said they have no budget to build the protection walls along the Nyera Ama river as it requires a huge amount.
“But we’re going to write to the department of disaster management for support.”
Phub Dem | Paro
With a limited supply from Punakha, chillies from Paro are selling like hotcakes these days.
Besides, the price of chillies increased by four-fold compared to last year with Nu 200 a kilogramme (Kg).
Gyem from Paro Jangsa had already sold 15 sacks of chillies weighing 20kg each from home at Nu 3,000 per sack this month.
Usually, Gyem harvests chillies towards mid-august and has to take it to Sunday market.
This year, however, numerous vendors had visited Gyem’s garden, and some buyers left failing to get their share of the chillies.
Gyem said that unlike last year, the production was significant this year due to consistent rainfall and price doubled.
“I asked some vendors to wait for a week, as the chillies are not ready for harvest.”
She said that chillies from Paro hit the market typically when those from Punakha flourishes, reasoning the dip in the price.
“If we can sell a sack of chillies at Nu 2,000, it is a fair price.”
Last year, Gyem sold a Kg for Nu 80 when it first hit the market. And at the end of the season, the price dropped to Nu 20.
She is hopeful this year.
Within a month, she earned Nu 45,000. Her annual income from chilli was Nu 60,000 last year.
Another farmer, Tenzin Wangmo, said that it was a bountiful year for the chilli growers in Paro.
A vendor who usually buys chillies from Punakha said that chilli supply from Punakha stopped suddenly, as many farmers lost their chillies to pest. “Otherwise, it is a peak season for chillies and the price decreases drastically as soon as chilli from Paro hits the market.”
She added that a sack of chilli cost about Nu 4,000 in Thimphu. “Without market competition, chillies are expensive.”
Meanwhile, vegetable shoppers like Tshering Dema who cannot miss chilli in her dish buy a Kg without complaint.
She said that it was affordable compared to a soaring price of Nu 600 when it first hit the market.
A few people involved in the rescue share their story. Most refused to talk to Kuensel
Nima | Gelephu
The rumbling sound of the Maochhu is deafening. The shouts for ropes, instructions and suggestions coming from different directions are lost in the sound of the river that has just changed its course.
Five soldiers of the Royal Bhutan Army have readied to get into the water. Wearing life jackets and ropes tied around their waist. The water gets deeper and current stronger as the men wade across holding on to the ropes, one end tied to an excavator. Before they could reach the stranded men, four rescuers disappear in the muddy river. The rescue is now focused on the soldiers. Only one could be seen in the middle of water, donning a red lifejacket.
A few men had gotten on top of an excavator to guide the rescue operation. They shout for more ropes. They whistle and wave to signal for ropes. Time was running out as the water level kept rising. Chuma Kinzang Dorji, the only survivor, was brought to safety at around 6pm. It was learnt that he managed to loosen the rope and clung on a tree.
Along the banks, people have gathered to witness the rescue operation. From the middle of the river, the people stranded waved torchlight to indicate their location to the rescue teams.
Contractor Wangda who was among the first to attempt to get to the five stranded near the treatment plant said he shouted for ropes when the soldiers were washed away suddenly. He said he thought if one end of a rope could be secured on a tree, they could have moved forward. Wangda was in the excavator guiding the operator.
“It was difficult to pull back all of them who got under the water. They were not aware of the huge holes under the water,” he said. “The excavator was stuck there for almost two hours,” he said.
Wangda cannot remember much of the scene he witnessed. Officials called for additional excavators. It soon became dark hampering the rescue operation. More people gathered at the scene.
A contractor, Thinley Wangchuk, in the second excavator, reached the spot at around 5:30pm. He said only one excavator was trying to cross the river to save the five people. “I called for an additional excavator and there was another two within 30 minutes.”
He said that he led a group to search for the rescue members, following the rope to reach the soldiers submerged under the water. Other group led by army officials went to save the five stranded.
“It was difficult to untie the rope from the body. We had to remove the clothes first to untie the rope. We tried to resuscitate them by performing CPR, but it was too late.”
The team could recover the body only after about two hours after they went missing in the river. “It involved a big risk and I was nearly washed away in the process,” he said. Thinley Wangchuk added that by the time they recovered the second body, other five people stranded near the treatment plant were also brought to safety by 9pm.
Sarpang dzongdag Karma Galay said the team explored everything. “We were hopeful at some point of time and was into a desperate situation again. The rescue team nearly reached the stranded people,” he said.
The dzongdag added that the teams got divided and spare ropes brought from police and thromde had to be used to save other people stranded down the stream. “The additional ropes to pull the body from the water were bought and reached the spot within the shortest time,” he said. “We tried our best, every effort was made.”
Excavator operator, Anjan Rai who was awarded the National order of merit (silver) by His Majesty The King on July 23 said it started to fall dark and risky to try crossing the river. “There were people stranded on the other side. We had to push ourselves hard,” he said.
On June 21, at around 3:30pm, hearing that five people had been stranded, Dzongkhag and thromde officials, RBA, police, DeSuups and other volunteers started to gather near the Girls Football Academy from where the report of the flood was reached to officials.
The road leading to the water treatment plant and several crusher units at Maochhu was cut off at lower Shetikhari.
Kezang Minjur, who works at the water treatment plant, was returning to the plant when he noticed an unusual rise in the water level.
Two backhoe loaders tried and failed to cross the swollen river from near the football academy. The excavator tried to cross from the same spot later but had to move down the river to try crossing from another spot.
“The water was reaching the top part of the excavator and the excavator nearly tumbled in the middle of the water but we managed to avoid it somehow,” said Wangda.
Sharing his experience, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering wrote on his Facebook page that the scene that evening was a nightmare. “People stranded deep inside the flooded area with rapidly rising water level, their close family members seeing loved ones getting submerged from the other side. It was not easy,” he wrote. “We feel very deeply for the lives lost.”
Many Bhutanese questioned why helicopters were not used in rescuing the people. Lyonchhen shared that helicopters were not able to come to the rescue because of bad weather. He wrote that the two choppers in Paro could not take off due to bad weather conditions. “We tried with heavy duty choppers from Indian army and that too failed due to bad weather conditions.”
His Majesty The King conferred the Drakpoi Khorlo Medal to Chuma Kinzang Dorji of the Royal Bhutan Army, and the National Order of Merit (Silver) to Anjan Rai and Tashi Wangchuk, both of whom are excavator operators.
The Drakpoi Khorlo medal is awarded to military personnel and recognises heroism and bravery in service of the Tsawa Sum. Chuma Kinzang Dorji, along with four of his fellow soldiers, helped rescue five people who were stranded in the flash flood of Maochhu on the night of July 21. He was the only member of the rescue team who survived.
His Majesty granted audience to the families of the four deceased soldiers, at the RBA Wing IX in Pelrithang on July 23.
The families received the Drakpoi Khorlo Medal on behalf of the deceased. His Majesty conferrred the medals posthumously to Peljab Ugyen, Gopa Pema Wangdi, Chuma Dup Tshering, and Chuma Tandin Dorji for their extraordinary courage and their supreme sacrifice in the line of duty.
Yesterday, while in Gelephu, His Majesty granted an audience to all excavator operators involved in the rescue operations on July 21 and 22, and thanked them for their service.
The recipients of the National Order of Merit, Anjan Rai was part of the operation to rescue five people from the Maochhu Water Treatment Plant, and Tashi Wangchuk helped in the rescue of four forestry officials and the caretaker of Maochhu Water Treatment Plant. Both individuals displayed great courage, and played an important part in saving the lives of the people who were rescued.
The National Order of Merit recognises outstanding civilian contributions to the Tsawa Sum.
After the closure of schools
Yangchen C Rinzin
A school principal in Tsirang was shocked when he called one of his Class X students to enquire why she decided not to return to school when it reopened on July 1.
The principal learnt that his student got married and decided not to continue education.
Nine students studying in Classes X and XII from his school did not return to school. The principal, requesting anonymity, said that five were female students.
“These students have lost interest to continue education and decided to drop out while a few decided to work at construction sites or take up other jobs,” a principal said. “However, a few of them could not join on medical grounds for now,” said the principal.
This is, however, just one school in Tsirang.
At least two students have not returned to school and many are Class X students, according to principals that Kuensel talked with.
Some of the principals said that this was a huge concern, as some of the students simply did not want to return because they were no more interested in studying because of the school closure.
Many teachers and principals shared that this was a worrying trend, and this was due to the month-long school closure. Schools were first closed on March 6 in four dzongkhags and then across the country on March 18. Students are not confident about returning to school, so they choose to continue their education next year.
A principal in Mongar said this was happening because not everyone had successful access to online learning.
“The students are worried they may not be able to perform or write assignments on which they would be assessed or have to appear exam,” a principal said. “Some of the students, even after asking them to return, decided to discontinue and stay at home helping parents in the field.”
Although some of the students cited medical reasons, teachers shared a very few cases might be genuine, but many could be an excuse not to return to school.
“We advised them to come, but they refused. We were helpless when the parents themselves did not want to send them,” a principal in Chukha said.
If it was to become a monk or nun for some students in the east, it was marriage or to help parents in the south while many students took an opportunity to work at construction sites or other available jobs to earn in the west and north.
Many students left schools to join armed forces where vacancies were floated last month, according to a principal. A teacher said the students find working easier than studying.
“One of my students was employed at a furniture house in Thimphu and another joined the army,” a principal in Dagana said. “Five students wanted to continue next year as they couldn’t continue studies online during the school closure.”
In some schools in Trashigang, principals shared that the parents called to inform they would not be sending their children to school.
Many principals also shared that they have asked students to return any time to join school if they change their mind or do not get a job.
“The initiatives like build Bhutan project or job vacancy announcement at the construction site, or the dry ports came at a time when these students were at home,” a teacher in Wangdue shared. “So, this allowed them to earn money for the family.”
However, Kuensel could not contact the department of school and education under education ministry for accurate number of students’ dropout and the intervention on the issue.
With the government not decided over re-opening school for the rest of the classes, teachers and principals shared that while they understand the pandemic situation, it was worrying if the school closure continue for long.
“Such cases may increase, as students are losing interest. If this can happen with students of Classes X and XII, it is bound to happen with lower-class students who are immature,” a teacher said.
Re-opening of schools for classes VII-IX and XI
Education Minister Jai Bir Rai said that the ministry was studying the current scenario of the schools, which was recently opened in the first phase.
The re-opening of the rest of the classes was not sure, but the ministry has already planned way forward when schools re-open in the second phase.
Lyonpo said that the world was not sure about the next wave of pandemic and with the increasing number of positive Covid-19 cases in the country, it is a concern to send younger children to school amidst all these.
“But we’ve intensified our teaching-learning through online-education and various measures we’ve put in place,” Lyonpo said. “Technically, we feel that children are missing most of the learning, but we’ve to consider the epidemiological nature of the pandemic too.”
Lyonpo agreed it is essential to re-open provided there is no local transmission.
“We’re also reviewing and inspecting how students of Classes X and XII are coping up with the set health protocols,” Lyonpo said. “This will help the ministry to consider re-opening for Classes VII-IX and XI.”
With inputs from
To provide alternative options to farmers through crop diversification for better income, the agriculture ministry released eight varieties of six different crops.
The seeds of maize, beans, plum, pineapple, banana and tea were either hybrid or pollinated. The varieties, evaluated and tested on-station and on-farm through research were recommended by the National Seed Board.
The research has found that Wengkhar HTM 1, the first hybrid variety of maize was heat tolerant and the yield was higher than the previously released and local varieties.
“The hybrid variety was released to address the urgent need for climate-resilient maize given that heat and drought stress affecting the yield and is expected to worsen with climate change,” said the chief agriculture officer, Tshering Wangchen.
Prime green bean released as Bajosemchum 1-P is an open-pollinated variety. The yield is more than three times higher (7.3 MT/acre) than the local varieties (2.4 MT/acre).
Tshering Wangchen said that the released seed varieties had unique characteristics of their own and were different from the existing varieties, the higher yield being one parameter.
For example, the stringless bean is preferred by consumers and the banana variety can be rapidly multiplied through tissue culture techniques, therefore, increasing income for farmers.
One of the components of research in evaluating the crop varieties was its resistance to insect, pest, and diseases. So the released varieties are either tolerant or resistant to insect, pest, and diseases.
Although indigenous crop varieties are low yielding, Tshering Wangchen said that they were climate-resilient, therefore, the need to conserve the traditional varieties in the backdrop of changing climate.
“There is also potential to use these traditional crop varieties as parent crops,” he said.
He said that the quality of the seed depended on the seed production technologies. The seeds obtained through the informal seed sector are inferior but those from the National Seed Centre meet quality standards.
As per the Seed Act of Bhutan 2000 and Seed Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2018, non-notified or released crop varieties are prohibited in the country for commercial purposes.
The released crop varieties in the country are evaluated as per the Standard Evaluation Guidelines for Field and Horticultural Crops of Bhutan. They are then proposed by research centres and seed agencies to the Variety Release Committee. The committee, based on the feasibility and potential of the crop, recommends the proposal and submits the list to the National Seed Board, which eventually and officially adopts and releases the crop variety.
The seeds will be made available with the National Seed Centre, which is mandated to multiply seeds and distribute across the country.
Experts emphasise on preventive measures
Several potential Covid-19 vaccines have made significant progress in the last few weeks, raising hopes.
As per World Health Organisation (WHO) records, over 200 vaccine candidates are being developed of which more than 10 are currently under human trials.
As countries across the world are making efforts to get a share of the vaccine, Bhutan registered her interest to be among the first to avail it.
Clinical microbiologist with the national referral hospital Dr Tshokey said that typically any vaccine would require a minimum of 10 years of research and testing before reaching the clinic.
However, in the case of Covid-19, he said that scientists are racing to produce a safe and effective vaccine at the earliest.
Many including the Chinese and Oxford scientists have said that a vaccine would be made available by the end of the year or by next year.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that the accessibility and availability of a vaccine would be contingent upon when the vaccine would come out. “If a vaccine does come out, the ministry is doing all it can to get it.”
Lyonpo said that the government as a member of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) has reached out to the international body and other organisations including the WHO expressing the country’s interest.
The ministry has also developed a protocol prioritising who would receive the initial dose if the country gets a limited amount.
As per the protocol, the initial recipient of the vaccine would be the high-risk groups – children, pregnant mothers, elderly, health workers and people with comorbidities.
WHO country representative Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus said that efforts to produce an effective and safe Covid-19 vaccine are underway across the world.
He said that WHO, through a global collaboration initiative – Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator – is working with GAVI and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) on a proposal for a fair and equal allocation mechanism.
Dr Rui said that WHO is collaborating with CEPI and GAVI on a mechanism – COVAX facility, which is designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.
“COVAX facility works to maximize the development, equitable access and fair allocation across all countries,” he said. “It aims to deliver two billion doses globally for high-risk populations, including one billion which will be purchased for low- and middle-income countries.”
He said that WHO is working with its partners to expedite vaccine testing and scale-up of manufacturing to enable countries to have access to sufficient doses if and when a vaccine is available. “Globally, investments are being made in the manufacturing of promising vaccine candidates even before the phase III trial results are in.”
However, Dr Rui said that there are still many unknowns in this process. “It is hoped that if a successful vaccine is found by the end of the year, there will be enough doses available for countries in 2021 so that those in priority populations, who choose to be vaccinated, have access to them.”
Dr Tshokey said that of the several vaccine candidates there are currently two potential vaccines under trial. However, for the vaccines to be approved and licensed by the WHO would take a while, he added.
“There would still be uncertainties even if a vaccine is approved. When would it reach us, how much would we get and also for how long the vaccine would protect a person.”
The microbiologist said that because Covid-19 is a new virus many things are unknown about the behaviour of the virus.
Amidst the uncertainties, Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the only certain and proven thing is to follow the public health measures such as maintaining physical distance, regularly washing hands and wearing face masks.
She said that these are scientifically proven measures which if practised would prevent individuals from getting the virus.
“If you’re infected, it would prevent others from getting the virus besides enabling early intervention.”
The minister said that the choice has always been with the individuals. “While we’ve been discussing enforcement, I personally feel that as a compassionate society we should not have kudrungs. It should be our gyenkhu.”
She said, “Taking individual responsibility to combat the pandemic is crucial. Ultimately to me this is serving the nation. This is answering the call of the nation.”
If you have parked your car on the roadside and fined by the traffic police on duty, try to pass on the fine to your landlord. This could become possible, although you have to risk looking for another flat.
Thimphu thromde is giving another shot at the parking rule. The thromde had announced restriction of parking along the roadside in the core places, as they are causing traffic congestion especially during rush hours. Violators will be penalized according to traffic rules.
This initiative from the thromde is to force house owners to use specified space within registered boundary to park vehicles. The thromde’s Development Control Regulation 2016 where it sates that “a residential building should have one parking slot for each dwelling unit with three or more bedrooms.”
Thimphu Thrompon, Kinlay Dorjee said that the tenants should go look for houses with parking space. Thromde officials said that tenants should complain to the thromde if their landlords are not providing parking space.
Finding a parking space is a problem. While some landlords do not have adequate parking space for the tenants, some tenants own more than one car. A house owner in Taba said that she had enough parking spaces for all her tenants, but some of her tenants had more than one car.
Yangzom, a resident in Taba said that she was nearly fined for parking along the road. “After much pleading and explaining there was no parking space near her house, I was not fined,” she said. That night, I parked my car faraway and walked to my way home, she added.
Lieutenant Sonam Gaki with the Traffic Division in Thimphu said that her office issued repeated offenders transport infringement notices (TIN) for parking on non-designated areas. For tenants, since most tenants were not aware, they focused on advocating on parking rules before directly issuing TIN, she said.
The Thrompon said that all building constructions were approved with an agreement that 60 percent of the plot boundary would be used for parking purposes. “It is difficult to monitor thousands of buildings in Thimphu. There are only about 200 employees in the thromde,” he said.
If owners are not providing parking space, tenants could sue them, especially if traffic police are penalising them. A lawyer said it was a serious negligence and failure of thromde and other relevant agencies to not being able to implement the thromde’s rule to reserve 60 percent of the plot boundary for the parking purposes.
He said that if the tenants were fined because of lack of parking space, the tenants could file a Class Action Suit under Section 149 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code- against thromde, RSTA and Traffic.
There are many examples around the world of how such agencies were held accountable, he said. “After the September 11 attack, the Wall Street firm Cantor sued American Airlines for their of negligence in allowing five terrorists to board the plane and crashed into the World Trade Centre killing their employees and demanded USD 1 billion, after insurance recoveries,” said the lawyer.
Most houses in Thimphu do not have a parking space and the basements once approved for parking are turned into shops and residential space. The thromde imposed penalties in terms of cash on house owners if they converted basement parking to commercial and residential houses.
Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee said that the penalties were levied so far, but henceforth, during inspection and renewal of occupancy certificate, house owners who violated thromde rules and regulation would see basic amenities like water and electricity severed.
Is the romance with the Yartsa Goenbub (Cordyceps Sinensis) over? Or is there something brewing in the highly lucrative fungi business? Time will tell.
This year, unlike every year, those who returned from the mountains were left disappointed as there are no or fewer buyers of the newfound wealth.
The first open auction of the year in Paro this week was cancelled. Farmers said they would approach the ministry for intervention. If the next auction were no different from the one in Paro, there would be more than the intervention needed.
The obvious reasons for the poor show in Paro could be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has hit the global trade. Export and import will take time to reach their peak. Cordyceps are for the export market.
While the volume is low, it goes to international markets in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Some exporters have not heard from their partners abroad .
Cordyceps Sinensis is not a perishable good unlike collectors claim to be. They can be stored and quality maintained if stored the right way. With the pandemic providing a good reason, those in the trade are also becoming suspicious of each other.
For exporters, buying from auctions is cheaper although the quality is an issue. This is not good for collectors who always complain of poor price. In the business, poor prices are usually hundreds of thousands of Ngulturms. Is the pandemic providing an excuse to not buy or sell? Are people trying to cheat each other and the regulations?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently declared that Cordyceps Sinensis is threatened with extinction because of overharvesting. Globally, overharvesting has slashed population by about 30 percent in the last 15 years. Bhutanese collectors are experiencing difficulties finding the fungus. The number of days of returning to camps empty-handed is increasing, according to collectors. Quality is another issue with collectors quick to blame climate change.
This year, there are fewer collectors and less collection although the risk of Covid-19 has discouraged people from venturing into the mountains. The auction season has just begun. While we wait for the next auction at a different place, auctions are not the only place where Yartsa Goenbub is sold and bought.
There are tricks up the gho sleeves. Some collectors refuse to sell at auction blaming poor prices. This is a trick to get to their clients. Those in the business know what quality comes to auctions and what is sold beyond the auctions. Quite often we see people walk out of auctions under the nose of officials. There are middlemen ready to offer better prices. It is said that the quality of the fungus is better at auctions where collectors are not aware of the middlemen or cannot get to them.
Given the IUCN findings and the pandemic hampering export business, it is also time for policy intervention. Stopping collecting for one season may anger highlanders, but not finding the fungus at all would have severe repercussions.
Bhutan is known for our conservation effort. If the fungus is endangered, the collection has to be controlled. We could be the last place on earth to have Yartsa Goenbub (some are trying to grow in labs) grow in its natural state a few years down the line. It would be yet another cap in our conservation efforts.
An editorial in Kuensel titled “What after the audit report” criticised that the “issues are the same for years which includes poor work quality, goods not meeting specifications, excess or inadmissible payment, embezzlement, faulty designs, incomplete construction yet paying advances more than they deserve, contractors making money by sub-standard work, non-use of new infrastructure, all at the expenses of either borrowed or aid money.”
This summarises the not only the entire scenario of transparency, accountability, efficiency, and public service delivery by both the public officials and private entities involved in the nation-building but also reveals the effectiveness of auditing in the country. The Annual Report published by the Royal Audit Authority (RAA) showed that the “budget irregularities rose by 134.1 percent in 2019 and unresolved irregularities are 1.415 billion ngultrums.”
RAA is established under Article 15 of the Constitution to “enhance accountability and proper utilisation of public resources through effective auditing and reporting without fear, favour or prejudice, and to promote Good Governance.”
One of the principle objectives of RAA is “to promote accountability, transparency, integrity and value for money in public operations.” However, skimming at the unresolved irregularities, the RAA has failed to achieve the objective. The increasing irregularities and unresolved issues pending for years is a strong indication that the mere publication audit observations had neither promoted accountability, transparency, integrity, and value for money in public operations.
The audit observations legally binding per se unless there is an element of criminal offence such as embezzlement. The only tools with RAA is withhold the audit clearances. Even non-issuance of clearances has negligible or no impact on the civil servants as their transfers rest with RCSC and often transferred with audit issues in their names.
Therefore, RAA must expand its authority beyond issuing observations. For example, Section 55 (11) states that RAA can “provide the Parliament, Government and any public entity, its professional opinion on policy and legal framework and matters relating to financial management or others.” Further, under Section 84, RAA can any other review or evaluation that may contribute towards promoting integrity, efficiency, transparency and accountability in public operations. For example, the Government limited purchase of laptops with a maximum ceiling of forty thousand through a circular. This has resulted in import of thousands of laptops which are either refurbished or sub-standard with completely pirated software exposing the entire national digital framework, an easy target of cybercriminals besides violating numerous intellectual property right.
Similarly, though Public Procurement Rules and Regulations require to select lowest evaluated bidders, it is often well known that agencies select lowest bidders to avoid audit observations costing billions of borrowed or aid money later on due to poor work or service. These are systemic flaws due to policies and legal framework where RAA should have to provide a professional opinion to rectify such systemic flaws. RAA only issued observations on non-compliance to such rules and policies and did nothing on these or similar issues.
Thus, RAA must come out of their conventional style of issuance of never-ending observation with no good end results. Their observations only piled up more irregularities often pending for years. RAA must explore better options which are already there in the law rectify the systemic flaws first. This will help address lapses and minimize irregularities to a large extent. Until such time, the audit issues will remain a paper tiger.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
After a person tested positive for Covid-19, Jaigaon remains under lockdown but the residents in the neighbouring town in Phuentsholing seem indifferent and it’s business as usual.
A 55-year-old man was tested positive for Covid-19 at Deokota Toll, Jaigaon on July 21. Hasimara, which is 18km away from Phuentsholing also reported four Covid-19 cases and is under lockdown. Hamilton, five to six km from Hasimara has also reported a positive case.
In Phuentsholing, most shops have installed hand-washing basins but not many use them. Except for the big departmental stores, shoppers also hardly use the Druk Trace app. Many are seen loitering in the town without facemasks.
A spare parts businessman, Dorji said Covid-19 cases across the border are quite worrisome.
“The virus is close enough,” he said. “And we hear that the one in Jaigaon was a community transmission.”
As goods and commodities are still brought through Jaigaon, it has become highly risky now, Dorji said.
“Personally, I feel closing the shops at 7pm was better for Phuentsholing,” the businessman said.
When the closing time was extended to 9pm, he said people were seen in the town until 10pm or 11pm. The new normal is that the people are “relaxed.”
Yeshey Needup, who has come to the bordering town two days ago said that there were several changes in Phuentsholing.
“There is no traffic congestion now,” he said. “The crowd is also not huge.”
Comparing Phuentsholing and Thimphu, Yeshey Needup said that the fear was “palpable” in Phuentsholing.
“The risk is definitely higher in Phuentsholing,” he said.
Meanwhile, one of the busiest places in the town is the three-storey vegetable market complex. However, there are some control measures. About 30 Bhutan Red Cross Society (BRCS) volunteers monitor the complex from 9am until it closes.
Hand-washing, facemask, Druk Trace app or manual registration of details, and thermal scanning are compulsory at the complex. Hand-sanitisers are provided too.
The officiating coordinator of BRCS, Sonam Penjor said it was difficult to manage the crowd earlier but it has improved drastically now.
“A few people still argue with us. We call police when people don’t comply,” he said.
Meanwhile, many say it was the heat that made it difficult to wear masks. Most people use masks without covering their nose.
A Phuentsholing resident, Lungten Wangdi said people are just “carefree” despite worsening situations across the border.
“Everything is normal. Nothing has changed. People wear masks only when they see police or DeSuups,” he said.
“Only a community transmission will change people here.”
Many share experiences of getting stuck in lifts
Pema Yangzom, a student, will never forget the Japanese restaurant she visited earlier this year. Late to a gathering of friends, she took the lift to the restaurant. She got stuck. After a few minutes, she was rescued.
“I am never going to use lifts,” Pema Yangzom said. She has now developed a phobia for lifts, also called elevators.
With buildings becoming taller and owners adding facilities like lifts to attract tenants and make life comfortable, lifts have become a common feature in many buildings. Getting stuck in them is also a common experience many share.
Sonam prefers climbing the stairs to the fifth floor after her frightful experience late one night last year. She was working late and took the lift down. She got stuck for about 30 minutes. “The lift’s door opened partially and I climbed to the floor above,” she said. That was the last time she took the lift.
Another Thimphu resident, Sonam Tashi has his office on the sixth floor of a building. He said that he uses lift about 10 times a day. Last Monday, he got stuck with a friend in the lift. This was his second time. Sonam Tashi knows what to do if he gets stuck. “I insert a key between the lift door and it opens,” he said.
The Bhutan Building Rules 2002 once made lifts a compulsory feature in buildings that are more than five storied tall. The general observation, however, is that lifts in Bhutan, especially in private buildings are not safe. A study in 2018 confirmed this fear. A study carried out by Bhutan Standards Bureau in 2018, found out that lift services in the country did not meet safety requirements. It was found out that only 25 percent of the lifts installed in the country complied with Indian Standards. There is no Bhutanese standard.
The requirements are where the lifts are to be used frequently, the information on carrying capacity, environment, and rush hour/time in day, safety and designs. However, lifts in Bhutan are mostly installed without considering these requirements. When Rinchen Dorji got stuck in a lift, the only number available to call was a Thai number on the walls of the lift.
South Thimphu’s representative to the thromde, Namgay Tshering said that not all building owners compiled with the rule and lifts did not ease service delivery. By compiling people’s feedback on the lifts, the requirement to compulsory install lifts had been lifted, he said.
“According to the preference of the building owner, even a two-storied building could install lifts,” he said.
While those who avail lift services said that reliability of the lifts was a major issue, landlords said that maintenance was a problem. Pema Tshering, the owner of Dewa Khangzang building in Thimphu said that servicing of lifts in his building could not take place this year. Technicians of the company owners buy lifts from, do the servicing and maintenance, but due to Covid-19 they could not come, he said. Similarly most lifts in Thimphu did not have any services done this year.
There are local people doing maintenance of the lifts but owners who have installed brands such as Thyssenkrupp and Escon sign an annual maintenance contract with the suppliers. Due to which they cannot avail local service for maintenance.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires lifts to be inspected every six months.
Nima | Gelephu
Scrap dealers in Gelephu were doing a steady business until border with Indian state of Assam closed due to Covid-19.
Of the seven scrap dealers in Tashiling, only three have managed to keep the business going. With export gate to Bongaigaon closed, small time Bhutanese dealers have decided to close the business temporarily.
At Bishal Scrapyard at the industrial service centre, the warehouse is packed with cardboard, plastic, and metal waste that come mostly from Sarpang, Zhemgang, and Tsirang.
The owner, Lok Bdr Katwal, said there were no returns despite huge investment. “Export is not at all possible and I am planning to close down,” he said. “There are no funds rolling today.”
Bishal Scrap used exports scraps worth Nu 1 million annually. A month before the lockdown, it exported over 18 tonnes of waste.
Lok Bdr Katwal said the pandemic had hampered his plan to expand his scrap business by purchasing a waste compressor. “I could export double the amount of waste with the help of the machine,” he said.
The Gelephu Thromde workers sold approximately 30 tonnes of waste that were segregated from the source to the scrap dealers monthly this year.
With the scrap business coming to a halt, selling the recyclable waste has become difficult.
An official said tonnes of waste would directly to the landfill in the absence of scrap business. Close to five tonnes of waste is deposited to the landfill in Gelephu today.
Dawa Zangmo, a scrap dealer, said it was difficult to stock scraps even with the help of a machine. “The warehouse is packed. There is no space for scraps.”
She added that only a few truckloads of waste could be sold to Phuentsholing. “Transportation charges are high because the shorter routes from Assam have closed. Running a scrap business not lucrative anymore.”
The price of scraps has also fallen almost by 50 percent.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Lhuentse Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) in its recent session resolved to widen or improve its highway from Gangola to Lhuentse town, and the resolution would be submitted to the Parliament and the government for approval.
During a day-long session on July 17, members pointed out that the issue was raised and recommendations passed in the previous sessions without any response.
Members said it was left unattended because of the ongoing talks on Shingkhar-Gorgan bypass road, which could have partly addressed the issue.
Khoma gup Sithar Tshering, said, “However since the bypass road construction plan is withheld now, we need our existing road to be improved,”
He said the dzongkhag road in some stretches is worse than some farm roads. “The patients referred out to other hospitals suffer the most from the bad road conditions.”
He said the road is narrow and has many sharp turnings which posed challenges and risks for drivers.
“Widening the turns and blacktopping them would ease the travel and make it safer for the travellers if there is no budget to widen the entire road.”
Sithar Tshering said when the gewogs could reprioritise development activity and use block grant for the purpose, the parliament certainly could take it as a priority.
“We want the work to be executed in this Plan,” he said.
Maedtsho gup, Gembo, said besides widening the east-west highway, most of the dzongkhag roads were improved with two-lane except for Lhuentse. “It was unfair.”
Lhuentse dzongkhag officials said that the highway was the lifeline of the people of Lhuentse and a better road would transform their livelihoods and boost economic development.
Meanwhile, the chief engineer of DOR’s regional office in Lingmethang, Karma Rinzin, said the widening and improvement of Gangola-Lhuentse was necessary. The issue has been included in his office’s plan and raised during annual meetings.
He said the regional office has proposed Nu 100 million (M) for this financial year for the road, but only Nu 20M has been approved due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation.
“It will cover resurfacing the road about 12km and we’re planning to carry it out this year,” he said
A study is being carried out to improve the 7km farm road from Tokarey village in Tsamang to Dorjilung and construct an additional 3km from Dorjilung to the other side of Rewan.
The bridge earlier surveyed to be built at Dorjilung would now be moved opposite to Rewan.
This, according to DOR officials, would not only shorten the length of a bailey suspension bridge from 310 ft to 130 ft.
It could also bypass the treacherous Dorjilung area and serve as a bypass road for Lhuentse to Thimphu via Yongkola. The bypass road is expected to cut the distance between Yongkola and Rewan by around 30km.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
For more than three decades over 24 acres of wetland belonging to 33 households in Lingdi village, Trongsa remained fallow. Bushes turned into large trees. The once fertile fields became a thick forest.
Lingdi is around 5km from Dangdung and has only three households today.
Seven individuals from Dangdung took upon themselves to revive the fields and called it Lingdi Organic Farm.
After clearing the vegetation and developing the land for cultivation the group has started paddy transplantation recently.
Of the 24 acres, four acres is maize and another four for paddy. Two acres will be used for asparagus and sweet and bitter buckwheat grown in the rest.
The leader of the group and former National Council member from Trongsa, Tharchen said that the project was initiated to contribute towards the national food security, revive the fallow land and to create employment for the young.
However, after announcing vacancies, no youth turned up. The group also didn’t get the loan for the farm.
The project is estimated to cost Nu 2 million (M). Of that Nu 1M was supported by the national organic flagship programme. The other half is from the members and other sources.
The team started the project on May 18 and is left with electric fencing to complete the set up.
“The policy statement made by the central government and the guidelines followed at the grassroots level should go together,” Tharchen said.
For instance, the government announced getting low-interest loans for farming from the National CSI Bank, however, the bank follows a different guideline.
The group has been waiting for more than three months to get a loan.
He said that the ultimate goal of all the farming projects in the country is to ensure food security. There are no funding sources for the projects.
The group has plans to make farming tourism as an educational package for the youths in the future. They will prepare a guest house so the students can visit the farm and learn practically.
The land is leased for 10 years from the owners, but the group wants to hand over the farm to interested youths.
The paddy fields were left barren due to shortage of irrigation water, lack of farm road and rampant human-wildlife conflict.
The village is connected with irrigation water, and farm road a few years ago.
A villager of Lingdi, Chimi Choden’s an acre of wetland which was left fallow, has been converted for cultivation and she wants to work on the farm in the future.
Jamtsho, another villager, said that the younger generation was uninterested in farming which further forced them to leave the fields fallow.
“The youths should take up farming,” he added.
The various crops from the farm are expected to fulfil the needs in the locality because at present they import everything. Even grains to brew alcohol.
Trongsa dzongkhag, Langthel gewog and agriculture ministry supported the project.
If you are looking for an adventurous read for your child, pick up the local children’s writer Chador Wangmo’s recent book, “Dema The Throne of Druk Ghi Yuel.”
Infused with Buddhist values and patriotic names like Druk Nagmo, it has an element of Bhutanese traditional beliefs too. The central figure is a young female, Dema, who draws her energy from the female Buddhist deity, Tara.
With great valour and trust in the female energy, she ventures into a three-day journey to save Druk ghi Yuel—the land of the dragons from doom, whose king-to-be mysteriously disappeared with an evil queen, Druk Nagmo. As soon as the disappearance is reported to Dema, she comes forward to take the uncertain journey. The subjects without a ruler, turns to Dema for solace who happens to be in the palace, meditating on Tara. Dema becomes the most capable individual to steer the kingdom’s future by saving their king.
She rides a white dragon and visits Chuni Gyep, the king of the 12 lands, named after 12 zodiac animals. He is known to have clairvoyance and guides Dema to find the abducted prince of Druk Ghi Yuel and save the evil soul of Druk Nagmo.
As the plot develops, Dema forges on the lone journey to the land of the death to find the soul of Druk Nagmo who was at the verge of death and dragged around by vicious beings when Dema arrived. The appearance of lights and fearful spirits are same as what we were taught about death—fleeting image of the lord of the evil and the lord of the virtuous according to one’s actions.
Unlike depiction of women in western fairy tales requiring the kiss of a charming prince to wake them up to life, the author has emphasised on the feminine power to save the evil by the virtuous. Dema represents virtue who takes an unprecedented journey to save the evil Druk Ngamo, whom she urges to seek redemption to liberate herself. The liberation, however depends on the self.
The storyline develops with the battle between the good and the evil, cause and effect, impermanence, and delok or those who return from death, rather staunch Buddhist principles. If the author was trying to convey Buddhist values to her young readers without being obvious, she has strongly used the word ‘soul’ than ‘mind or consciousness’ which doesn’t find a place in Buddhist dictionary.
A part of author’s belief in the goddess Tara is also visible in Dema and the way the stanzas of Tara’s prayer keep popping up in between chapters.
The sentences are short with common words but young readers might find it difficult remember the characters since they are many in number with typical traditional patriotic names. Confusion is not so far away. While the author took great pain to show the readers about Dema’s courage and determination, there is not a single mention about her physical appearance. Throughout the story, the reader wonders whether Dema is a dragon, human or a mix of human and magical creatures since she lives in the land of the dragons.
The book is not a bad read but it would require time for the young readers to recall who is who.
Dema The Throne of Druk Ghi Yuel
Writer: Chador Wangmo
Price: Nu 250
The capital city’s problem of the ever-increasing number of vehicles could provide the perfect solution to the thromde who had failed to implement its rules on parking.
Thimphu with 57,697 vehicles as of June 30, is crying for space. The new roads or space the thromde is creating cannot keep up with the demand for space to park cars. Without parking space, our roadsides become alternate parking. But this is not fair for others, especially pedestrians. There are footpaths, but it is not accessible because vehicles block them, as in the eyes of the motorist, every inch of space is a parking space.
Implementers of the parking rule, traffic police, are penalising people who make roads their parking. We should support the police. This is not to penalise the owner of a car. Building owners are supposed to provide parking space for their tenants. This is ensured as early as the planning stage. If there is no space, the building owner is supposed to create one. On paper, it is the grand plan of turning the basement into parking.
What happens after the owner gets the building occupancy certificate is there for everyone to see. This requirement is violated, abused, raped (use whatever term you can think of) when the building is complete. We need not do any study or research. Drive a few kilometres north or south of Changlimithang stadium. The evidence is there. Violators of the building rules include policymakers, lawmakers, those implementing them or monitoring them. Don’t be surprised if the list includes prime ministers, former or serving, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, police or town planners.
Vehicle numbers will increase and increase drastically if we go by the current trend. Dealers are overwhelmed with orders to the extent that 20 to 30 new vehicles are sold on the day of the launch of a new brand. There are schemes – discounts, ways to get import quota, loans and many more. It is too good to resist the temptations. And when the public transport is not efficient or reliable, the next best thing is buying a car, even if 60 percent of the monthly salary is deducted to pay the car loan.
We take pride in our environment, the policy of Gross National Happiness and many more. When it comes to buying vehicles, all these take backstage. Those who lecture on GNH are driven by consumerism. It is a national shame for not living up to the guiding principles of our approach to development.
Tenants who are penalised for parking on roadsides should charge their building owner. The rule is clear. A tenant with a car has to be provided with a parking space. If he owns more than one, it is his or her headache.
If the thromde and police can work together, we will see a solution. Those who are aware of laws are encouraging tenants to press their landlord for parking space. We should have provisions where penalties are shifted to landlords for not providing parking space. This will ensure the architectural drawing submitted for approval will be followed.
Local municipalities had been saying that they would severe basic amenities like water and electricity to building owners who violate rules. It had not happened. It is not fair to leave it or blame the elected Thrompon. The bureaucracy should not leave it all to the Thrompon. Violations of rules affect all.