For a small nation striving to be free of corruption, it is worrying when systems put in place to enhance public finance management are exploited to embezzle or misappropriate public fund.
The electronic public expenditure management system (ePEMS) was launched to enhance public financial management and supposed to be a transparent record of expenditure. It instead facilitated misuse through the gaps it left in most drungkhags and gewogs, as one person prepares, verifies, approves and makes payments.
The Royal Audit Authority had detected huge misappropriation in Umling drungkhag and gewog where the accountant had the authority to handle huge amounts of public funds singlehandedly. Without proper checks and balances and monitoring, many cases could go undetected. There are already many unresolved corruption cases.
As a small society depending on aid to fund most developmental activities, the irregularities are of major concern. It shows we are failing to utilise public funds and resources appropriately.
Studies have already shown that the citizens’ perception of the prevalence of corruption in the country is already high. Many believe it is serious and has increased in recent years. Today, if an individual is promoted, people do not attribute it to the individual’s capability or competency. They question who he or she is related to. This breeds distrust in a small society like ours.
To make matters worse, there is a lack of uniformity in treatment of corruption cases, giving room for people to speculate if the law is only applicable to the poor. There is apathy towards corruption and accountability. If we are serious about rooting out corruption, we should not be tolerant to any levels of corruption, big or small.
Umling drungkhag’s swift response in recovering the misappropriated fund is exemplary. It now has to exercise due care and put in checks and balances and monitoring for proper use of public funds.
The finance ministry should also acknowledge the problems associated with ePEMS and rectify the lapses immediately. In the digital era, more than two or three people with financial background should be responsible for any payments, which could be done online. We cannot expect our local leaders, who lack financial and accountancy literacy, to detect any irregularities. Restructuring the system to make it safe should be the priority.
The government of the day also has a big role to play in fighting corruption and ensuring accountability. Rule of law must prevail. We cannot afford to ignore corruption. The Constitution mandates every Bhutanese to act against corruption.
Over the last five years, multidrug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis (TB) cases have been steadily increasing in the country, which is a major public health concern today.
MDR-TB has annually increased by about 15 cases on an average. There were 65 cases last year.
Records with the health ministry show that the country had 919 cases of TB (all forms), including MDR TB last year.
The disease has killed 31 people so far.
Chief of communicable disease division, Rixin Jamtsho, said that TB was still a priority public health problem in the country today that mostly affected the productive age groups of 15-44 years (73 percent).
“It’s one of the oldest diseases but still remains one of the world’s deadliest and infectious killers,” he said. “Globally, TB claims nearly 4,000 lives everyday; close to 28,000 people fall ill with this preventable and curable disease.”
Rixin Jamtsho said that, in Bhutan, besides reducing the productivity of those infected, the disease also added significant burden on the economy, as people needed extensive treatments.
Like other communicable diseases, TB can spread from one person to another very easily when a sick person with TB expels bacteria into the air by coughing or sneezing.
He said that, despite the progress made in rate of TB case detection and achieving high treatment success in the 2019 cohort, the number of MDR-TB cases has been increasing in the country.
Bhutan today has one of the highest incidences of MDR-TB cases in the South Asia region.
MDR-TB is caused by TB bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), which is resistant to at least two medications — isoniazid and rifampin — the two most potent TB drugs. These drugs are used to treat all persons with TB.
While the country recorded 919 cases of TB last year, a slight decrease from 2019 (1,016 cases), the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2020 Global TB Report, states that an estimated 1,300 all forms of TB cases are seen in Bhutan.
This means that there is a detection gap where people with TB go undetected. The current detection gap stands at around 30 percent for drug-sensitive TB (DSTB) and 66 percent for MDR-TB.
Rixin Jamtsho said that slow contact tracing and inadequate diagnostic facilities added to the detection gap in the country. He said that, besides the detection gap, MDR-TB cases among new TB patients and patients not taking medicines regularly were some of the other challenges in managing TB in Bhutan.
However, he added that, despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the health ministry and the national TB control programme did not face any disruption in providing TB services and interventions to the general public.
Also, the flu clinics set up in the wake of the pandemic helped the programme detect 58 TB and seven MDR-TB cases last year.
Several interventions have been put in place to combat the disease in the country, which includes implementation of aggressive contact tracing among close contacts of TB and MDR-TB cases, TB screening and testing for targeted and risk groups, expanding GeneXpert sites in high burden dzongkhags, and ensuring uninterrupted supply of TB medicines, among others.
The ministry has also set an ambitious target to make TB no longer a public health problem by 2030. It plans to increase case notification rate of at least 90 percent among estimated TB and MDR-TB cases, and ensure 90 percent treatment success rate for DSTB and 75 percent for MDR-TB.
The World TB Day (March 24) this year was observed with the theme “The clock is ticking” to indicate that the world was running out of time to act on the commitments to end the deadly disease.
TB is one of the top 10 causes of death among the communicable disease globally.
The agricultural sector’s growth and its contributions to the country’s economy have been decreasing with a record low at 4.36 percent in 2018, which is associated with poor performance of the forestry sub-sector.
This could change with the RNR strategy 2040, published last week by the agriculture and forests ministry. The strategy is expected to address challenges in the sector through 114 initiatives and 11 strategies identified by different sub-sectors.
So, what’s the change?
The strategy states that the decreasing trend of the sector’s contribution to GDP is linked to lack of accounting forestry services. “The most critical challenges are the declining public sector investment, frequent institutional reorganisation, and increasing vulnerability to climate change impacts.”
Despite being one of the oldest sectors in the country, with more than half of the population involved in agriculture, the strategy says that its impact has been impeded by frequent organisational review, policy conflict, ad hoc adjustment of plans, lack of cascading plans, and absence of objective monitoring and evaluation.
The forest department is mandated to carry out strategy 10 of the document: “Mainstream sustainable management (conservation and utilisation) of natural resources”, through sustainable use of natural resources and “Judicious management of natural resources is a key strategy of environmental conservation, strengthening rural livelihoods and eradicating poverty”.
Bhutan currently has 1,001 million (M) m3 forests and natural vegetation and 7,434 floral and faunal biodiversity.
However, the economic returns from the “vast” natural resources so far have been negligible. For example, only 5 percent of Bhutan’s total forest area is used for commercial production.
Last year, the government announced measures to export wood-based products, which is expected to save more than 3 billion (B) revenue losses from import of these products.
Since the enforcement of the Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995, records show that the annual production of timbre has drastically reduced from 2007 onwards. In 2019, timber production was 0.20Mm3 compared with 1.60Mm3 in 1992.
The forest department’s estimate is that Bhutan has 5.08Mm3 allowable timber cut annually, from which the plan is to extract about 25 percent from the forest management units, community forests, and private forest.
Earlier this year, to reduce wastage of natural resources and substitute wood product imports, the agriculture ministry asked the stand-alone sawmills to upgrade to integrated wood-based industries within two years.
The strategy aims to strengthen bio-prospecting initiatives to ensure access and benefit sharing through circular economy concept, where the raw materials, components, and products waste are reduced and renewable energy sources used.
Some initiatives under the strategy include sustainable utilisation of natural resources, including genetic resources, development of green accounting for natural resources, and innovative mechanisms to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
The initiatives in the strategy 2040 were designed for long-term, mid-term, and short-term interventions.
The total financing requirement to implement the initiatives is projected at Nu 21.6B. It would be financed through multiple approaches of public investment, grant assistance, soft loans, private sector investment, and foreign direct investments.
Almost four years after the education ministry’s special education need (SEN) division launched a quick guide to inclusive language, many people are not aware of the terminologies used for persons with disabilities.
This, according to sources, was because the terminologies kept changing.
Officials working for persons with disabilities also agreed.
The executive director of Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO), Sonam Gyamtsho, said terminologies evolved from disabled people to differently-abled and now it is persons with disabilities, which is derived from the United Nations convention on the right of persons with disabilities.
He said that people were confused and not aware of the evolving terminologies. “There’s a lack of awareness and advocacy programmes.”
The SEN guideline was developed to standardise language, as schools in the country became more inclusive with a programme for persons with disabilities.
The guideline states that the need to standardise the language was because children learnt from behaviorism and mimicked what others did. “If positive language was used to refer children with disabilities, it could create greater understanding and awareness about that person among children.”
It also states that people’s first language puts the person first and the label second. “The various disabilities are labels of a person as it’s not a defining feature but part of a person.”
It also states that it is inappropriate to use the label first, such as, disabled person or blind person as their label should follow their name such as persons with disabilities, person with blindness, or person on wheelchair.
The guideline states using positive language was important as negative words such as suffers from, afflicted by, and burden makes an assumption that the person is living a negative experience.
Negative words such as cripple, handicapped, wheelchair bound and suffers from should be avoided. “For cripple, one can use person with physical disability as it removes the negative connotation cripple. Similarly, for wheelchair bound as person on wheelchair, and ‘suffers from’ as a person followed by their disability,” it states.
The guideline states to avoid misleading comparison, while grouping one as normal other ultimately becomes abnormal, comparative language should be used. “Instead of saying non-disabled, normal, typical use people without disabilities and instead of regular class or normal class/school refer as general class or school.”
A capital “D” is used for Deaf person knowing Bhutanese Sign Language as they form part of Deaf community in Bhutan likewise small d for deaf refers to person with physical condition and not part of Deaf community.
While referring to infrastructure, disabled-friendly or differently-abled friendly should be avoided as it reflects a charity model. Instead accessible is used which means it can be accessed by all people including those with disabilities.
It states that the commonly shared term “differently abled” is not directly offensive but less preferred because it is not considered inclusive language. “Differently abled means every person can be differently-abled such as some speak many languages or some are great at sports.”
It also states the word “differently-abled” was avoided as it institutes fear in mentioning disability which presented it was taboo or something forbidden but it is fine to use the word disability.
The quick guide states, “Since we are using inclusive language to build a more inclusive society, it is important that we don’t spread fear about disability.”
Yangchen C Rinzin
The Department of Adult and Higher Education’s (DAHE) steering committee last week decided it would wait for the government to attend to the Assistance to Privately Enrolled Medical Students’ (APEMS) request on stipend revision.
Students studying on APEMS scholarship, particularly in Sri Lanka, submitted the request in January. Following no response from DAHE, students submitted it to the prime minister, education minister, health minister, and the leader of the opposition in February.
However, they are still waiting for a response.
Given the need for health professionals in the country, the government instituted the APEMS scholarship scheme in 2009 through an executive order.
A student received a tuition fee of Nu 300,000 annually or USD 5,000 as college fees. The scheme also provided a stipend after completion of the second year, which is 70 percent of the total stipend given to full scholarship students.
The scholarship is provided through DAHE under the education ministry.
The scholarship was provided to 15 students annually to study medicine either in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, which was increased to 20 students last year to address the acute shortage of doctors in the country.
However, after a decade since the scheme was instituted, APEMS was never revised.
This has forced many students to submit a letter to DAHE requesting to revise the funding system. The universities have increased the fees to more than USD 6,000, students said.
An official from DAHE said that, after a thorough discussion, its steering committee decided that, since students have appealed to the government, they would wait for the government to make a decision.
“DAHE doesn’t have the authority to revise fees because APEMS was introduced through an executive order,” an official said. “It’s not that we don’t support the students but we can’t do anything without an executive order.”
It is not the first time students have requested the revision. DAHE official also claimed that the department proposed for a revision of stipend twice after students requested, but the request never came through.
Regularising APEMS to a full scholarship to address the acute shortage of doctors and making scholarship uniform was once discussed in the National Assembly in June 2019. No concrete decision was taken, however.
Submitting the letter through their student association to the prime minister, students stated that, after not getting help from anywhere, they were appealing to the prime minister with the hope that government would help solve the issue.
Explaining the situation, students wrote that, when the first batch of APEMS students started their MBBS course in Sri Lankan universities in 2009, the funding given by the government was enough to meet the tuition fee. The fee was also enough to supplement their living.
“But for the last 12 years, the fee has been increasing equivalent to Nu 474,500 annually,” students wrote. “With this, we’re required to top up about Nu 174,500 annually for tuition fee alone.”
One of the students said that, while the fee had kept increasing, funding from the government had not changed.
“Considering the APEMS in Sri Lanka, the students have to manage our own house rents, electricity bill, water bills and meals, which come above USD 200 a month,” he said. “We’ve to also manage our own living expenses.”
Another student said that, while the full scholarship students were refunded after their renewals of visa, it was not the same as those under the APEMS scholarship. Students spend about Nu 77,488 for document renewals in five years.
“We hope that the government will revise the clauses in the APEMS funding system and consider a raise as per the request,” the letter stated.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Yakgang Sanga Choeling in Mongar, popularly known as Yakgang lhakhang, which was built in the 16th century by Pema Lingpa’s youngest son, Sangdag, is one of the most iconic religious structures in the country.
It is believed that, when Choekhor Deb tried to open the treasure chest revealed by Pema Lingpa, three statues from the box flew away—one to Jakar dzong, another to Dongkola lhakhang, and a third to Yakgang lhakhang. The lhakhang houses many sacred relics artefacts related to Pema Lingpa.
Yakgang lhakhang, which is known for its rare and precious relics and religious artifacts, such as a statue of the Buddha discovered by Pema Lingpa from Mebartsho, a three-sided phurpa (ritual dagger) discovered by Pema Lingpa from Ugordra in Tibet, the skull of a dakini from Samye Chimphu Nadrak, and a skull of the king of nagas, among several others, has been under the care of Yagang Choeji or the descendants of the Pema Lingpa.
The two-storey lhakhang suffered significant damage due to earthquakes and needs major restoration. The lhakhang’s former lam, Kuenley Gyaltshen, said that the family had been managing the annual three-day Treldha tshechu and other religious events with donations from devotees. The upkeep of the lhakhang, he said, was becoming very costly for the family.
Karma Lhatu, 37, from Phosorong, has not missed a single Yakgang tshechu. “When people receive blessing from the sacred relics, there’s always a light rain, which is considered auspicious.” The people from Phosorong, Ridaza and Jamcholing villages come with their fresh farm produce to offer to the lhakhang during the tshechu.
The lhakhang also houses some ancient armour and masks, musical instruments, weapons, and xylograph blocks. The ground floor of the lhakhang has statues of Buddhas (past, present, and future), Guru Rinpoche, Chenrizig, Terton Pema Lingpa, and Gyapo Lhashang.
Lam Kuenley Gyaltshen said that couples come to ask for either a son or daughter from Gyapo Lhashang. Their prayers are always answered.
Lam Kuenley Gyeltshen said that the family had decided to seek government support to renovate and maintain the lhakhang. Because parts of the lhakhang are crumbling, relics and artefacts are today kept at the owners’ house.
Given its religious and cultural significance, Yakgang tshechu is a unique local festival, which should be preserved and promoted.
Yakgang lhakhang’s funding support was on the agenda from Mongar gewog during the 9th dzongkhag tshogdu (DT). The tshogdu members also proposed that such support was necessary also for other privately owned lhakhangs of historical importance.
Dzongkhag’s culture officer, Rigzin Peldrup, said that there was an urgent need to renovate the lhakhang. He added that there was a risk of losing important historical structures otherwise. “That would mean losing critically important history with it.”
Thromde thuemi, Namgay Dorji, said devotees from all over the country came to visit the lhakhang, especially to attend Yakgang tshechu on the 10th day of the fifth lunar month because of its religious and cultural significance.
Yakgang tshechu, DT members said, could be developed as an important tourism product.
Members of Parliament, who were on constituency visits and attended the DT as observers, suggested exploring funds from other sources, such as Cultural Trust Fund and Tourism Council of Bhutan.
The DT decided to submit the resolution to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs.
“Private lhakhangs are also public property because everyone has access to them. In that sense, support from the government is critically important,” Narang Gup Tandin
Chimi Dema | Dagana
Without cable television (TV) connection in Tseza gewog, Dagana, Dorji Zam first subscribed to the direct-to-home (DTH) TV package in October, last year.
Barely a week after installation, she said that the device broke down.
“The operator came and repaired but it didn’t last more than three days,” she said. “I purchased a new TV set but it has also gone defunct.”
She spent Nu 4,630 to install a DTH TV. After both her TV screens were damaged, she gave up.
Other residents in the gewog said that adverse weather conditions affect TV signal.
As one of the remotest gewogs, many residents in Tseza depend on DTH TV to tune into local news.
Today, more than 90 households have subscribed to DTH TV. Earlier, residents were using old C-Band satellite dishes.
Chimi Wangmo from Peling village who installed it recently has access to a good TV signal at the moment. “Both the signal and channels are much better compared to the old dish connection,” she said.
Tseza Gup Phurba said that, although connecting cable TV was feasible, residents opted for DTH TV as they need to do payment only once during the installation. “In addition, a year-long service warranty is also provided.”
He said that the gewog administration had made several attempts since 2018 to facilitate connection of cable TV. “Only nine households showed interest then.”
“The cable operator disagreed to provide the connection due to the possible losses it would incur on him,” the gup said.
With more than 40 residents interested in subscribing to DTH TV, he said that he requested one of the authorised operators last year, which was later approved by the dzongkhag administration.
On signal issues, the gup said that, except in monsoon, that wasn’t a problem. He said that rain and adverse weather affected signal transmission.
“There were times where a few satellite dishes suffered signal loss last year,” he said.
The service provider, Ugyen Tshering said that, although there were minor signal problems in the beginning, everything works fine as of now. “I’ve been attending to complaints and problems from time to time,” he said. “I’ve been solving issues virtually when I can’t make it there.”
He also said that two of his staffs were visiting the gewogs frequently to monitor problems and provide services.
For a few residents, he said that the main problem was with mishandling and not with the device. While the DTH package comes with more than 100 channels, many have subscribed to only local channels. Besides in Tseza, residents in other gewogs of Khebisa and Kana have also subscribed to Dish TV. More than 800 households in Dagana have Dish TV installed recently.
He started the business after the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) legalised distribution and installation of Ku-band dish to rural areas last year.
BICMA, in March last year, issued a notification informing interested individual or entity to apply for the permit to distribute and install Ku-band dish and receivers to rural areas to enable rural households to access Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) television services.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
To observe the global money week, Bank of Bhutan (BoB) issued quick response (QR) codes to taxi drivers in the eastern and southern parts of the country on March 22.
The QR codes were issued so that taxi drivers can have a scan and pay service.
In the east, QR code cards were distributed to 34 taxi drivers in Mongar, 14 in Nganglam and 31 in Samdrupjongkhar, and 87 in Gelephu and 43 in Samtse in the south. Similarly, QR codes were also issued to 50 parking fee collectors in Thimphu and 20 in Phuentsholing.
Taxi drivers, who availed the service, said this was timely and would be of immense help.
“Even in the village, youth use mBoB service and, with around 30 percent of passengers using mBOB now, I think it’s high time the service is in place,” a taxi driver from Chali, Sangay Dorji, said.
Another cab driver, Dopula said the facility would not only save time of waiting for the passenger to go to the ATM or bank to withdraw the fare when they don’t have cash in hand but also a most effective tool to prevent the virus in the pandemic situation.
He said there was a risk of contacting the virus while receiving money from a passenger.
BoB officials said more focus was given to those in the south this time, as directed by the central bank.
Officials said taxi drivers and parking fee agents could register for QR code at any BoB branch office.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
The lone woman contestant in the upcoming thrompon election, Chhungku Dawa, 40, secured 42 votes at the Phuentsholing Maed (core town area) constituency dhamngoi zomdu yesterday.
Her competitor, Tandin Wangchuk, 31, secured 18 votes.
The voter turnout was only about 30 percent of the 198 eligible voters in the demkhong.
The turnout at the first dhamngoi zomdu of Neydra demkhong was 77 percent, as 65 out of the total eligible 84 voters had come to exercise their voting rights.
Observers say the low turnout for Phuentsholing Maed demkhong is because most eligible voters are away from the town.
Chhungku Dawa served as the thromde tshogpa from the demkhong before running for the thrompon election this time.
Meanwhile, the zomdu for Phuentsholing Toed constituency will be held today. Former Phuentsholing thromde engineer, Devi Charan Dhimal, 56, will contest against 34-year old Deepen Ghallay.
Phuentsholing Toed has 206 eligible voters, the highest among all demkhongs.
From Rinchending constituency, a lone candidate, Karma Gelay, 53, will go for “yes” or “no” votes tomorrow. Rinchending has 106 eligible voters.
Meanwhile, Pasakha and Pekarzhing demkhongs don’t have any thrompon candidates this time. These constituencies have 138 and 194 eligible voters respectively.
After the dhamngoi zomdus wrap up, the four contestants will have their eye on these two constituencies, observers say.
Phuentsholing thromde has a total of 926 eligible voters.
Druk Lhayul FC defeated Ugyen Samphel Tyres FC 3-1 in the ongoing Thimphu open football championship at Changlimithang Stadium yesterday.
Ugyen Samphel took an early lead when midfielder Kinga’s left-foot strike found the net’s top left corner in the first 10 minutes. The team managed to keep the pressure on the opponents for a part of the first half.
However, Druk Lhayul’s striker Baghi Rai Subba got his team the equaliser in the 31st minute to level the game at half time.
The next 45 minutes was Druk Lhayul’s show, entire. Midfielder Sonam Wangyel scored a brace, including a shot from the spot.
As of yesterday, Druk Lhayul FC and Ugyen Samphel Tyres had managed to secure nine points in the league. Druk Lhayul, however, has a game in hand.
Druk Lhayul’s skipper, Tshering Tobgye, said that he was happy with the results. “We reached the quarter-finals during our debut entry of this tournament.”
The 10th edition of the championship, which began on November 19, resumed on March 16 after it was temporarily suspended since December last year because of the pandemic.
Today, games are played without spectators at a centralised venue — Changlimithang Stadium. Players and match officials are only allowed on the pitch.
With 18 points each, SM United (pool A) and Bulls (pool B) are currently leading the tournament as of yesterday. Both teams maintained a clean sheet winning all six games.
SM United’s skipper, Kinga Gyeltshen, said that his team had played six seasons of the tournament. “We secured second positions in four seasons. We aim to win the tournament this year.”
A recovering addict, Kinga said that tournaments like this kept youth meaningfully engaged.
Debutant Alum FC also wishes to win the tournament this season. One of the players, Tenzin Rabten, said that, because all the players on the team were group friends, their coordination was top-quality. “Our performance is also well on track.”
Alum FC is in third place with 12 points from six games.
Of the 48 games in the entire tournament, 38 were completed as of yesterday.
Organiser Tshering Nidup said that, because of other tournaments, they could conduct only one game a day. He said that all the Covid-19 safety measures were in place. “We even use a different entrance gate for different teams and desuups man the venue during games.”
As an ardent follower of football, he said that he wanted to offer more opportunities for people like him. “A decade ago, there were only the departmental tournaments and club games were limited. I wanted to provide people of all ages with an opportunity to play this beautiful game.”
He said that, if there were no disruptions hereafter, the tournament would end on April 10. Fourteen teams from Thimphu are competing in the tournament. The ninth edition saw more than 40 teams.
The 16th century Yakgang Lhakhang in Mongar is crumbling under the weight of age and disregard. The temple, built by Pema Lingpa’s youngest son, Sangdag, plays a vital role in the lives of the local residents.
Like many other temples across the country, Yakgang Lhakhang, besides being a place of worship, houses sacred objects. It is where both locals and those from afar seek solace.
To sight dilapidated and abandoned sacred structures commonly is shocking. But the people can only watch in agony as the cracks on the walls and other parts of the temple widen.
The Mongar dzongkhag tshogdu members in the recent session last week agreed that the government should fund the renovation of such historic monuments and sought help from the home and cultural affairs ministry.
With almost every village and every mountain dotted with lhakhangs, state funding for each of them would not be enough. According to records with the Department of Culture, Bhutan has 2,468 lhakhangs, of which 713 are private lhakhangs. Only about 382 belong to the government and are looked after by the Zhung Dratshang.
But such problems are not limited to Yakgang Lhakhang alone. Many more lhakhangs are in dire need of repairs in many remote pockets of the country. For instance, a temple in Phajoding remains mostly locked as the custodians live in Thimphu town. Its sacred contents have been repeatedly burgled in recent years and the structure remains in a dismal state.
So state support for repairs and renovation of these lhakhangs is not sustainable.
A Cultural Heritage Trust Fund was established in 1999 with an initial fund of Nu 31.267 million. But the fund cannot be used until it reaches USD 5 million. There are no additional contributions to the fund besides the accumulated interest.
The government has allocated Nu 2,025M in fiscal year 2019-20 for the preservation of traditional and cultural heritage and to continue reinforcement of identity and sovereignty.
Every monument falling into disrepair and ultimate demise leaves us poorer socially, culturally and economically – considering their tourism potential.
With tourism spreading out to dzongkhags and communities in earnest, such lhakhangs should become part of tour packages or programmes charging a nominal fee on visitors. TCB could create a common fund for such significant structures from the fees and provide monetary support for routine repairs.
Exhibitions of relics from these temples on auspicious days could be arranged at a centralised venue to generate funds for the renovation.
The corporations, as part of their corporate social responsibility, could invest in these invaluable fragments of cultural heritage that are fast fading into oblivion.
Bhutanese are generous and willing to give if the cause is right. A national fundraising campaign to supplement the Cultural Heritage Trust Fund could reap bigger dividends. It could go a long way in preserving our cultural heritage that breathes life into our society and serves as the mainstay of our mental wellbeing.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Samdrupjongkhar received 24,000 doses of Covishield (AstraZeneca) vaccines yesterday. The boxes of the vaccines were airborne to the dzongkhag.
Health officials will distribute the vaccines to the gewogs and drungkhags today.
The dzongkhag has about 71 vaccination places with 199 officials, including 52 vaccinators and 65 security personnel.
Health officials said about 23,241 people in the dzongkhag registered for the vaccine as of 12:20pm yesterday.
The deputy chief dzongkhag health officer (DHO), Pema Tshewang, said the dzongkhag has five clusters with doctors and dedicated vehicles and drivers to manage and monitor the adverse event following immunisation (AEFI) cases.
He said they have also informed gewog officials to keep the gewog vehicles ready if they need to transport additional vaccines. “We also carried out sensitisation and roll-out programme.”
Meanwhile, Pemagatshel also received 16,390 doses of Covishield vaccines, which were airborne to the dzongkhag yesterday.
About 16,686 people in the dzongkhag registered for the vaccine as of 1:30pm yesterday.
The dzongkhag has about 80 designated vaccination places with 167 officials, including 55 vaccinators and 56 security personnel.
Chief medical officer (CMO), Dr Bhim, said they had distributed vaccines to the eight gewogs in upper Pemagatshel yesterday and they would distribute vaccines to the three gewogs in Nganglam drungkhag today.
He said, since the dzongkhag has eight clusters with the four doctors to monitor the AEFI cases, four other doctors would reach the remaining clusters on March 25 or March 26.
“Of the 16,686 registered, about 18 people don’t want to get vaccinated because of an allergy to the vaccine, fair side effects and health conditions,” Dr Bhim said.
Public health experts say that the disease could likely become endemic and cause less disruption to lives and livelihoods
A year into the global health crisis, public health experts say Covid-19 might never go away or, in technical terms, be eradicated.
Like other coronaviruses that continue to infect humans today, experts believe that SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, will also become endemic — one that has a constant presence within a geographical area, such as the common cold, dengue, and malaria, among others.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said: “While eradicating Covid-19 in the coming years is a wonderful goal to achieve, it’s not realistic.”
He said that the world to date has eradicated only one disease — smallpox.
Dr Rui said that it was highly likely that Covid-19 would continue to circulate and cause outbreaks for many years. “Many scientists believe that Covid-19 can become endemic like other diseases but that’s something for the future to unfold and it can’t be predicted.”
In a recent survey conducted in the UK, more than 100 public health experts, including immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the novel coronavirus, said that the virus would become endemic.
However, failure to eradicate the virus does not mean that death, illness, and social isolation would continue on the scales seen so far. Experts say that the future would depend mainly on the type of immunity people acquire through infection or vaccination and how the virus evolves.
Influenza and the four human coronaviruses that cause common colds are also endemic — but a combination of annual vaccines and acquired immunity means that societies tolerate the seasonal deaths and illnesses they bring without requiring lockdowns, masks, and social distancing.
This is one scenario that scientists foresee for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Meaning, the virus will be around but once people develop some immunity to it — either through natural infection or vaccination — they won’t become seriously ill.
Dr Rui said that the currently available vaccines have proven to prevent people from getting sick with Covid-19. “It would also have a significant impact on reducing the burden on the health system.”
However, he added that vaccination needs to happen in all countries with good coverage to ensure some relaxation to return to normal ways. “Until then we ‘ll still need to adhere to measures such as using face masks, avoiding crowds, and regular hand washing,” he said. “Vaccine alone isn’t adequate. Also, we still don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last and also how the disease will evolve.”
Given the uncertainties of the current situation, he said that there still was a lot to learn about both the virus and the vaccines. He added that, with the mutations happening, there was a certain degree of uncertainty as to whether the vaccines would be effective for all kinds of mutations that would emerge.
“WHO keeps a close eye on the evolving situation and collaborates with various agencies and countries to monitor the mutations. We also conduct research to assess whether the vaccines will continue to be as effective against the virus.”
In the meantime, Dr Rui added that even with vaccines available, it was ‘premature’ and also ‘unrealistic’ to write off Covid-19.
More than a year ago on March 11, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Since then, the virus has infected over 123 million and killed more than 2.71 million people globally.
In Bhutan, it has infected 869 individuals, of which 585 are men. Of that, 867 have recovered and one chronically ill person died with Covid-19.
With one candidate disqualified for not securing the required ‘Yes’ votes, Thimphu has three thrompon candidates as of yesterday.
Dechencholing-Taba and Jungshina-Kawajangsa demkhongs nominated their lone candidate yesterday, while Babesa demkhong nominated its candidate on March 21.
Sonam Dorji, 31, will contest for the thrompon from Dechencholing-Taba demkhong after he secured 140 ‘Yes’ votes and 24 ‘No’ votes in the dhamngoi zomdu yesterday in Dechencholing Higher Secondary School.
He worked in a private firm and has a Bachelors of Technology in Civil Engineering.
In an earlier interview with Kuensel, Sonam Dorji said that he had a vision for a “new Thimphu” that will be more “liveable” for all residents.
“All my priorities and plans will be in line with the vision,” Sonam Dorji said. “For example, I’ll focus on clean, efficient and high-tech water distribution system to make the city more liveable.”
Dechencholing-Taba demkhong has 717 eligible voters.
Tawchu, 58, from Hejo, said he hopes the new thrompon would make their lives better.
From Jungshina-Kawajangsa demkhong, Ugyen Dorji secured 194 ‘Yes’ votes and 73 ‘No’ votes.
The candidate resigned recently. He was the thromde’s executive engineer and deputy chief urban planner before.
During the dhamngoi zomdu, he said that his work experience gave him the confidence to contest the thromde elections.
He said that he would work towards development of policies to solve the confusion on the placement of jamthog (raised gable roof over walls or columns) and construction of basement in buildings.
In an earlier interview, he said that he would prioritise good urban governance to address water shortages, waste problems, potholes and drainage problems.
The demkhong has 1,393 eligible voters.
Former thrompon Kinlay Dorjee was nominated on March 21 from Babesa demkhong. He secured 239 ‘Yes’ votes and 14 ‘No’ votes.
In an earlier interview, he said his priorities have changed after completion of two terms.
He said that he would improve the services that are already put in place and work on developmental activities that he couldn’t implement during his two terms.
Meanwhile, Kinley Tshering from Chang Bangdu-Olakha demkhong was disqualified after securing 144 ‘No’ votes and only 119 ‘Yes’ votes.
The last dhamngoi zomdu will be held today for Changangkha and Motithang demkhong.
Phub Dem | Haa
Feed and fodder scarcity for yaks has been a challenge for the yak herders every winter.
To help address the problem, the National Highland Research and Development Centre (NHRDC) and the National Research Development Centre for Animal Nutrition (NRDCAN) produced a feed block as a cheap alternative.
The block consists of paddy straw, molasses, salt, and mineral mixture.
According to an official from NHRDC, the two development centres initiated the feed production with a farmers’ group from Kabisa in Punakha. The feeds were then procured and supplied to the highlanders to supplement nutrition.
He said that the Department of Livestock (DoL) handed over the feed block to the yak herders as a part of a promotional programme. “After some years, highlanders have to buy or either make the block themselves.”
Although the centre tried to supply the feed blocks in all highland dzongkhags, he said that there was difficulty procuring the mineral due to the pandemic. “We have plans to reach out to every highland dzongkhag like Haa.”
He said that it was a pilot project and the centre would collect feedback from the herders.
According to a press release from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, fodder scarcity was a leading cause of mortality among young animals, with low calving and growth rates. It reduced productivity due to poor nutritional conditions in the winter season.
The initiative is expected to reduce the mortality of yaks during the lean season and maintain production and improve the animals’ health. Apart from wildlife depredation, fodder scarcity is reported to be a significant issue facing yak herders.
DoL handed over 3,087 kilogrammes of feed block to Haa Valley Yak Herder Primary Cooperative on March 5.
A villager from Dumcho, Ugyen said that usually, there was a shortage of feed as grasses would not grow, and pastures be mostly covered with snow at this time of the year.
He said that he could not reach the block to his yaks but hoped it would help solve the issue.
Earlier, he said that the government asked highlanders to sow grasses in highlands. “It wasn’t reasonable. I hope my yaks like the feed block.”
Like Ugyen, many highlanders of Haa haven’t reached the feed block to their herds due to heavy snowfall.
Ugyen said that, while the government had invested a considerable budget, he wasn’t sure if it would solve the issue.
Another herder Sonam Jamtsho said that fodder was an issue, especially while migrating from winter lowland to summer grazing lands. “I hope it serves the purpose.”
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Trashiyangtse dzongkhag court yesterday sentenced a man to life imprisonment for vandalising a Jangchub choeten in Cholabtsa village in Toetsho gewog.
Daza, 34, from Khamdang was found guilty of committing offence against the Ku, Sung, Thuk-ten or Zung. The crime is graded a first-degree felony.
Daza confessed to vandalising the choeten and robbing two black four-eyed dzees and two red corals.
The judgment also stated the defendant studied till class four and he is well aware of the importance of religion and culture.
“As per section 70 of the Penal code of Bhutan, the defendant shall not be handed compoundable and has to be sentenced to life imprisonment. The life imprisonment will count from the time of arrest of the defendant,” it stated.
The defendant was given 10 days appeal to High Court as per the section 96.5 and 109.1(c) of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code.
Meanwhile, the two black dzees and two corals have been recovered.
As per section 181.4 of Civil and Criminal Procedure Code, gup and authorities concerned have to submit a report to the court on the handing of the relics to community of Cholabtsha.
… to address declining yak rearing tradition
The decline in the number of yak rearing households in Haa, a major yak-herding community, has contributed to worsening economic conditions and it is a national concern. The yak herders comprise less than 5 percent of the country’s population.
These communities also serve as informal custodians along the northern border and occupy the country’s northernmost belt, mainly in the alpine region.
However, recently many natives of Haa have returned home to warmer valleys, leaving behind the age-old herding practice. They say yak herders today face an uncertain future due to development and climate change, altering the practice, isolating and fragmenting herders and their traditional pastures.
Most herders say policies change with the change in government every five years and this has worsened their troubles.
Although policymakers are aware of the declining trend in yak farming, the community has received nothing much, they say.
Seasoned herders like Ugyen say although the government provided them with tarpaulin, woodstove, milking and churning equipment, little could be used. He said that there was no action plan to retain the declining herders except for some training on product diversification and animal health.
Another herder, Jamtsho, said the herding community had been looking forward to the Highlands Flagship Programme, which they believe was the only programme designed explicitly for yak herders never came.
For now, the formation of a yak federation, with support from the government, seems the only hope for these highlanders.
The yak federation is expected to preserve, promote, and protect yaks and yak herders.
Chief livestock officer with the research and extension division, Tawchu Rabgay, said that the formation of yak federation would represent the herding communities where herders’ voice could be heard at the national, regional, and international levels. “The yak federation is ready for registration.”
At the moment, there is no policy to address problems faced by the yak herders.
According to some officials, the government prioritised lowland livestock, and highlanders were often neglected.
RNR Research & Development Centre under the Department of Livestock was realigned as National Highland Research and Development Centre only in 2016 to promote the sustainable livelihood of highland communities.
In the past two decades, the number of yak herding families practising transhumant yak rearing – in which herders lead their livestock between mountains in summer and lowland pastures in winter – has plummeted in the Himalayan region.
Programme Director of National Highland Research and Development Centre, Vijay Raika (PhD), said that although transhumant migration was still relevant and essential, the practice was on the decline, leading to ecological, economic, and socio-cultural losses.
He said that it was essential to create awareness and provide an incentive to encourage youth to take up herding as most youths prefer other livelihood options, leading to farm labour shortages and family abandoning the herds.
Like Bhutan, a declining trend in yak farming practices is reported in Nepal and India due to the rural-urban migration of younger pastoralists desiring a better and more comfortable life and better opportunities.
According to the Director-General of ICIMOD, Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), it was essential to encourage and create attractive opportunities for the highlanders to stay in their places.
He said that there was a need to consider the provision of education and health services. “We can have high schools and doctors working there,” he said.
Focusing on income diversification, he said that tourism must be promoted with attractive packages and incentives, including tax waivers integrated with livestock farming and herbal products to enable highlanders to create jobs and earn decent incomes.
Highland development programme
The government included the Highlands Flagship Program in the ongoing 12th Plan to deliver targeted interventions to improve the lives of selected highland communities. However, the flagship programme has now become a highland development program.
The government insists that flagship programmes are time-bound, unlike NHDP that will run beyond the 12th Plan.
Activities under NHDP were narrowed down and made livestock-based, and the budget for the project was also pared down by more than 60 percent.
According to Vijay Raika, the highlanders were looking for essential supports such as health, education, telecommunication services, and farm roads under the flagship programme.
He said that the highland development programme does not have many provisions to cover local infrastructures, requiring multi-sectoral interventions to provide youths with tangible opportunities so that they stay back to take care of their family herds.
The programme, for now, focuses on genetic improvement, nutritional management through nutritious feed in winter, and disease prevention considering the risk of climate change on yak health.
Some of the programme’s adaptive measures and action plans include the construction of temporary sheds in grazing areas for free-range grazing and migratory routes to protect them from adverse weather.
The programme primarily focuses on product diversification, creating a yak product value chain to a target niche market, and developing herders in product diversification.
Lack of policy intervention
According to a study “The future of yak farming in Bhutan: policy measures government should adopt (2016)” by Jigme Wangdi, the decline in yak rearing was associated with limited policy support from the government on yak research and development.
Other issues include labour shortages, high morbidity and mortality of yaks resulting from erratic climate and emerging new diseases, deterioration of the alpine tsamdro (grassland) resulting in a lack of quality pastures, and external encroachment of tsamdro.
The study suggests the government to develop a clear road map for the yak development program and provide adequate resources to give highlanders a well-protected livelihood from yak farming into the future.
Besides, researchers have suggested that the government formulate policies, plans, and projects to support and encourage younger generations to continue with the age-old tradition of yak farming.
According to Pema Gyamtsho, there should be a specific provision to deal with climate change impacts in the highlands. He said climate change impacts were more pronounced at high altitudes, as shown by the vertical change in species and their habitats and threats from glacial lake outburst floods.
As part of mitigation and adaptation plans, he recommended that policymakers consult and engage the highlanders in monitoring climate change impacts. “Highlanders have a better understanding and appreciation of the changes taking place over the years and could provide valuable local knowledge to adapt to climate change,” he said.
Ten highland dzongkhags shared concerns regarding fodder shortage which often lead to low milk production and a higher rate of yak calf mortality, causing economic loss to yak herders.
As fodder shortage, especially during winter, was a challenge facing the highlanders, the NHRD centre has already initiated feed block productions to address feed shortages and nutritional supplementation.
The degradation of rangeland due to poor management is a concern as the traditional management practice of rangeland burning is prohibited.
A rangeland expert, Pema Gyamtsho, said co-management of rangeland for multiple uses such as livestock grazing, wildlife conservation, and watershed protection must be put in place to address rangeland degradation.
This, he said, should begin by ensuring user rights and tenure security to the local people. “Otherwise, the tragedy of the commons is likely to repeat itself when it comes to high altitude rangelands.”
He added that ICIMOD could bring in experiences from across the region to support such an initiative. “ICIMOD is already working with the Watershed Management Division of the Department of Forests and Park Services to revive the dried up or drying springs, and these could be provided with more support.”
According to some researchers, retaining mountain pastoralists played a significant role in utilising and protecting the country’s considerable alpine rangeland resources. “In the absence of pastoralists, these large areas would remain unoccupied and underutilised. The government has to allocate resources to secure and protect these vast rangeland resources from any external exploitation and encroachment.”
Vijay Raika (PhD) said climate change was one of the possible causes of rangeland degradation. He said that the centre was involved in an alpine pasture restoration programme and sustainable yak rate along with controlled grazing.
He said that the absence of a rangeland expert in the county impedes rangeland research which was essential to guide policymakers.
In the meantime, he said that the centre has been creating awareness among highland communities on the importance of protecting rangelands, focussing on measures related to sustainable rangeland management practices.
This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation’s climate change grant.
As a special representative of His Majesty The King, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering will leave on a three-day state visit to Bangladesh today.
Lyonchhen will participate in the celebrations of the Birth Centenary of the Father of the nation of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence.
During the visit, Lyonchhen will call on the Bangladeshi President Md Abdul Hamid and also the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, and Foreign Minister, Abul Kalam Abdul Momen.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering will visit the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar and the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum. He will be the guest of honour at the programme to celebrate the Birth Celebration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Bangabandhu at the National Parade Ground on March 24.
He is accompanied by senior government officials, representatives from media houses, and a cultural troupe from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA).
Lyonchhen and the delegation will return on March 25 and undergo a 21-day facility quarantine in keeping with the Covid-19 health protocol.
This is the prime minister’s second visit to Dhaka after assuming office in November 2018.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the recognition of the independence of Bangladesh by Bhutan and the friendship between the two countries. On December 6, 1971, Bhutan became the first country to recognise the independence of Bangladesh. A series of events are being planned to commemorate the special occasion.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Pemi Dejung Kuenphan private limited (PDKPL) in Samdrupjongkhar missed the deadline to supply earthmoving equipment (EMEs) to the State Mining Corporation limited (SMCL) despite the company extending the deadline by 45 days which expired yesterday.
PDKPL was supposed to take over the coal extraction works at Tshophangma mines in Samdrupcholing from April 1 if it succeeded in procuring the required EMEs within the deadline.
PDKPL’s chairman, Arjun Chamlagai, said that they immediately ordered the EMEs from TCD pvt ltd and paid Nu 20 million (M) advance and applied for a Nu 126.53M loan to Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan limited (RICBL) for the remaining payment.
The company has also collected more than Nu 30.67M from over 4,000 shareholders in the community so far.
He said they had recruited office staff and interviewed 27 operators for 27 EMEs. “The EMEs were supposed to reach on March 18 and 19, but TCD couldn’t deliver as it didn’t get a letter of credit (LC) from the bank.”
Since the EMEs have reached Kolkata in India, the chairman said TCD is still waiting for the LC to bring in those EMEs. “PDKPL is ready to start the mining works as soon as we receive the EMEs from the supplier.”
Arjun Chamlagai said that TCD on March 21 had written to the SMCL for a time extension because it could not deliver the EMEs ordered by the PDKPL within the deadline due to the international Covid-19 protocols as the EMEs were ordered from Japan.
“We’ve mortgaged our property worth Nu 60M as a small help for the betterment of thousands of people in Samdrupcholing. We might also need a few more days from the date of LC to bring in those EMEs,” the supplier’s letter to SMCL stated.
A shareholder, Sonam Wangdi, said that they could not ask for additional time extension as they were worried about losing the mining works. “We tried to procure all the 27 required EMEs, but it was challenging for us to procure within the 45 days,” he said.
However, he said that about four EMEs have already reached Phuentsholing as of yesterday. “We’ll submit our work report to SMCL and request the government and SMCL for time extension.”
Meanwhile, as per SMCL’s letter to PDKPL on February 5, PDKPL should procure and own the EMEs they would hire to SMCL and submit the blue book registered for the EMEs by March 22.
“Partial fulfilment of the conditions shall not be acceptable, and SMCL shall not be liable for that in any manner. Since the SMCL has already tendered out the EMEs hiring for Tshophangma coal mines, any liabilities due to this postponement shall be levied on the PDKPL should it fail to fulfil the conditions,” the letter stated.
We are now going to have an RNR strategy 2040.
What does it even mean?
Agriculture, under which comes also forest in its totality, is a development dimension that we are yet to understand.
Agriculture in Bhutan, in the true sense of the term, has been a failure.
And there are the plans, one after another. When we are a nation in the Himalayas with abundant water resources, why should we be clamouring about water shortage, for example? We are, perhaps, the biggest owners of forest resources, yet why do we continue to import wood and wood products?
According to a study, the agricultural sector growth and its contributions to the country’s economy have been decreasing with a record low at 4.36 percent in 2018, which is associated with the poor performance of the forestry sub-sector.
This had been plain to the common people for a long time; only the policymakers could not establish the right link.
Education and civil service have a new mandate now. It is high time we had one for agriculture.
Why is the biggest sector in the country not getting, not receiving, the pride of place?
If bureaucracy is the main hurdle, why can’t we remove it entirely and replace with something arrangements that work? Where civil servants have not been able to act, for ages, volunteer groups are making it happen, overnight.
RNR strategy 2040 says that decreasing trend of the sector’s contribution to GDP is linked to lack of accounting forestry services. Why and how is this even happening?
We have been aware, all these years, that frequent organisational reviews impede meaningful change; and there are policy conflicts, ad hoc adjustment of plans, lack of “cascading plans”, and absence of monitoring and evaluation.
But then, the people have been, and are, paying for these vital services.
Logical and sustainable use of forest resources should be at the heart of service provision strategy from the agriculture ministry.
According to the reports collected and presented by the “experts”, Bhutan has 1,001 million (M) m3 of forests and natural vegetation, and 7,434 floral and faunal biodiversity. However, the economic returns from the “vast” natural resources so far been negligible.
The government last year announced measures to export wood-based products, which is expected to save more than Nu 3 billion (B) revenue losses from import of these products.
Bioprospecting, the exploration of natural resources for micro and macro molecules, biochemical and genetic information, for example, can employ thousands of Bhutanese youth in an industry that has the potential to both produce and provide.
Economic development must begin from looking inward.
But then, sustainable utilisation of natural resources is one thing, making it equally beneficial is another. That’s what strategy 2040 must address.