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Updated: 1 hour 49 min ago

RAA forwards STCBL case to ACC

Tue, 03/23/2021 - 10:53

Tshering Palden and Tashi Dema

The Royal Audit Authority (RAA) made observations of fraud, revenue misappropriation, irregularities and mismanagement in State Trading Corporation of Bhutan Ltd (STCBL).

It forwarded its report to ACC recently for further review.

A sales executive under Tata Sales Unit in Thimphu was accused of misappropriating Nu 1.1 million (M).  It was found that although the sales executive collected Nu 1.1M from a client after selling a vehicle in 2016, she deposited only Nu 50,000 to the company’s account.

STCBL’s internal audit report confirmed that the employee agreed to refund the amount.

RAA pointed out that the lapses occurred due to lack of monitoring of revenue collections and deposits.  It was learnt that the case was reported to police in January last year, but police advised the company to settle the case mutually.

Irregularities amounting to Nu 20.1M were found in sanctioning credit purchase of 10 Eicher trucks to a client in 2018. Each vehicle cost about Nu 1.8M.

Although the sales agreement included a provision mandating 30 percent down payment of Nu 6.03M and instalment of Nu 1.6M per month for 12 months, STCBL did not collect the down payment while delivering the vehicles.

The audit report stated that credit under the scheme is to be granted with approval from the chief executive officer (CEO) but there was no approval from the CEO in the case.

The client did not deposit even a single instalment for 26 months after availing the credit. RAA noted that the management had not initiated any legal proceedings even after failure to pay instalment for more than two years.

After the client failed to pay the instalment, a new agreement was drawn on October 27 last year requiring the guarantor, the father of the client, to settle 40 percent of the outstanding instalment along with interest by November 4 last year.  The company, however, did not receive any money when the audit was conducted.

STCBL’s management clarified to RAA that the Eicher division sought verbal approval from the then CEO to grant the credit.

They also stated that the initial plan was to tie up the business through boulder export but it did not materialise. “However, the customer has now agreed to open a letter of credit in the STCBL’s name and started exporting boulders and adjust payments.”

It was stated that although the division did not have written approval from the former CEO, the arrangement or business was done in the interest of the company.

RAA opined that processing and regulating credit under deferred instalment payment policy (DIPP) scheme is fraught with numerous inadequacies in basic controls and exposes the gullibility of the overall system.

RAA stated that they were not in a position to ascertain the legitimacy of the deferral payment granted to the client. “The laxing conditions of the agreement, specifically on 30 percent down payment, overdue instalment for prolonged period, non-renewal of bank guarantee and non-enforcement of renewed agreements appear to be made to extend undue favour to the client,” the report stated.

RAA also asked the management to investigate the circumstances under which deferral payments were approved and leniency extended to the client.  The management was asked to recover the amounts.

RAA also found that the Eicher division sold about 76 vehicles worth Nu 101.7M without the CEO’s approval, although the company’s credit collection manual 2017 states credit facilities should be sanctioned by the CEO.  STCBL justified that verbal approval was sought from the then CEO to sell vehicles on credit as it was secured by bank guarantee.

STCBL’s management also sold nine vehicles on discount invoking full power to offer discounts as per the Delegation of Power 2018.

It was found that, although an announcement of a 30 percent offer was made through mainstream media, two employees took two Toyota vehicles at a discount of 48 percent each.

It was alleged that the sale agreement for an employee was completed on the day the 48 percent discount was uploaded on the company’s website.  The RAA was of the opinion that public had no access to information of enhanced discount offer, as the announcement was made on the company’s website for a day and not through mainstream media.

Audit also found that a Toyota Prius was sold to the company secretary at Nu 1.5M at a discount of 34 percent, and a Toyota Liva to a general manager at Nu 697,523 although the original price was Nu 780,999 without any public offers.

The management justified that the decision was taken to clear old vehicles in stock through discounts since the company’s cash flow was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and keeping the vehicles in stock incurred losses to the company. “The intention of the management was to sell the vehicles at competitive rates, similar to that parallel models offered by Honda, Isuzu and Mitsibushi since the vehicles were lying in stock for almost two years and there was pressure from Toyota also to clear the stock,” the response to audit stated.

Meanwhile, the TATA division in Phuentsholing purchased two 12-wheeler trucks costing Nu 3.2M for a client in 2018, but the sale was not completed since the buyer did not pay 50 percent of the cost.

It was reported to RAA that the trucks were in the stockyard in Phuentsholing, but auditors found the buyer misused the trucks without obtaining legal ownership.  The trucks were engaged for transport of boulders outside the country without completing the sale and formalities for registration of vehicles.

STCBL board members told Kuensel that they had asked the board’s audit committee to study the RAA’s report, which will be discussed in a meeting on March 28. 

Lyonchhen will be the second person to receive Covid jab

Tue, 03/23/2021 - 10:52

Blessed: Following the arrival of additional doses of Covishield vaccine from India yesterday, the Zhung Dratshang’s Dorji Lopon and Laytshog Lopon conducted Thruesel and blessing ceremony at the Paro international airport. It also marked the end of the three-day Medicine Buddha prayers held at the airport in preparation for the mass vaccine rollout on March 27.

Followed by his family members and other Cabinet ministers 

Phub Dem and Younten Tshedup

The stage is set. With 550,000 doses of Covishield vaccine at hand, Bhutan will roll out the nationwide vaccination campaign this weekend.

In line with Buddhist astrology, the first recipient of the vaccine on March 27 would be a 30-year-old woman, born in the year of the Monkey. The nationwide campaign would begin in Thimphu.  

After the woman, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering would take the jab while in the quarantine centre. Lyonchhen’s family members would follow him. Other Cabinet members would also get the inoculation on the same day.    

Bhutan received the second consignment of 400,000 doses of Covishield vaccine from India yesterday. Indian ambassador Ruchira Kamboj handed over the vaccine to Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo. 

Zhung Dratshang’s Dorji Lopon and Laytshog Lopon conducted Thruesel and blessing ceremony at the Paro international airport.  It also marked the end of the three-day Sangay Moenlha drupchhen held at the airport in preparation for the mass vaccine rollout. 

With the arrival of the additional doses, Sowai Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the distribution of the vaccine would begin today for the eight western dzongkhags.   

Touched down: Health personnel in full PPE gear unload the vaccines yesterday

For the eastern and central regions, the distribution would start on March 24.  For the six eastern dzongkhags, Drukair will carry the vaccines to Yonphula domestic airport. “Once the vaccines reach Yonphula airport, respective dzongkhags would come and collect their share.” 

Lyonpo said that of the total 495,000 plus people who have registered for the vaccination programme, 397,640 people were eligible for the vaccination as of last night. This doesn’t include pregnant and lactating mothers.

However, she said that these women who wish to get inoculated could do so at their respective vaccination sites.

The health ministry has identified 1,001 vaccination sites which include 363 schools and ECCDs across the country.

The entire vaccination sites are categorised under 140 clusters manned by a doctor each. For this, the ministry has mobilised resident doctors from the national referral hospital.   

The ministry had also line-listed some 1,200 people who were eligible to receive the vaccine but could not walk. For these groups, a home-based immunisation option is available after the seven-day mass vaccination campaign concludes. 

Lyonpo said that about 8,900 people who are above the age of 70 years would be inoculated in a health facility. People residing in cohorts including monks in Shedras, students in colleges, and trainees in other training institutes would also be vaccinated after the seven-day campaign mode.  

However, she said that except for those schools identified as vaccination sites, the remaining schools and institutions including offices would operate as usual. “Office goers would be given preference during the weekend but if they want to get inoculated during the weekdays, they will be allowed to leave work.”  

Lyonpo said that while every individual receiving the vaccine would be mandatorily observed for 30 minutes for side effects after the vaccination, in the event a person experiences any adverse events following immunisation (AEFI), the person should immediately report to the respective doctors.  

“Some people would experience some AEFI, which is normal, such as fever, soreness at the injection site, nausea, and chill. We encourage them to report as we would be documenting this.”

For those who have missed the online registration for the vaccine, spot registration would also be made available on the day of the vaccination. People are encouraged to carry with them any form of identification documents such as a citizenship identity card.  

While inter-dzongkhag movement would be restricted during the weeklong programme, people can travel after an identification mark (a black line on the left thumb) is acquired following the immunisation.  

Meanwhile, after receiving the additional doses of the vaccine yesterday, Chidrel Lyonpo (foreign minister) Dr Tandi Dorji thanked India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for unconditional assistance to Bhutan’s effort to manage the pandemic.

He said that the second consignment’s timely arrival enabled the launch of a nationwide vaccination programme. The ‘generous gift’ from India, Lyonpo said was a testimony of India’s commitment towards its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. 

Bhutan was the first country to receive the vaccine from India earlier this year under ‘Vaccine Maitri’.

A press release from the Indian embassy stated that Bhutan would be the first country to protect its entire population against Covid-19 as the country gears for the nation-wide vaccination programme. 

India supplied more than 60 million doses to over 70 different countries worldwide under the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative.

Former thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai wins by a vote in dhamngoi zomdu 

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:25

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Former Phuentsholing thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai, 39, secured a vote more than 38-year old Tashi Wangchuk in the dhamngoi zomdu on March 20 and was nominated to contest the thrompon elections from Neydrag constituency.

He wrested 33 votes, while Tashi Wangchuk got 32 votes. Neydrag has a total of 84 eligible voters, the lowest in Phuentsholing thromde.  Of these, 65 turned out to cast their votes.

The zomdu started at 9am and concluded at 2pm.  Election officials give time until 3pm to close the voting.  However, candidates can decide whether they want to wait until 3pm or conclude before the stipulated time.

The aspiring candidates were given 10 minutes each to deliver their speeches before voting began.

Humble in defeat, Tashi Wangchuk said, “When two bulls fight one has to win and the other has to lose. So I was defeated by a single vote.”

When the results were declared Tashi Wangchuck remained indifferent.  Later, he said, “But I was disheartened for those 32 voters, who must have expected me to win and fulfil their expectations to serve them hereon.”

Meanwhile, dhamngoi zomdu was held for Pasakha constituency yesterday.  But the demkhong didn’t have any thrompon nominee.  Today, dhamngoi zomdu will be held for Pekharzhing demkhong, which also doesn’t have a nominee.

Tomorrow, two candidates will vie for nomination from the Phuentsholing Maed constituency (core town).  Former thromde tshogpa Chhungku Dawa, 40, and 31-year old Tandin Wangchuk will contest to make it to the next round.  Tandin Wangchuk contested in the 2016 thrompon election.

On March 24, dhamngoi zomdu will be held for Phuentsholing Toed demkhong.  Former Phuentsholing thromde engineer Devi Charan Dhimal, 56, and Deepen Ghallay, 34, will be seeking nomination from the constituency.  Phuentsholing Toed has 206 eligible voters, the highest in the thromde.

Karma Gelay, 53, is the lone candidate from Rinchending constituency.  Dhamngoi zomdu for the constituency will be held on March 25.

Phuentsholing thromde has a total of 926 eligible voters.

Pasakha and Pekharzhing with 138 and 194 eligible voters respectively will play a key role in the thrompon race this time.

Two nominated for Gelephu thrompon so far

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:25

Nima | Gelephu

Of the six demkhongs in Gelephu thromde, dhamngoi zomdu was conducted in two demkhongs, where two thrompon candidates were nominated as of yesterday.

In Jampeling demkhong, there were two candidates.

Former Gelephu thrompon Tikaram Kafley was nominated from Jampeling demkhong, where he obtained 83 votes out of the 117 votes cast over a former aspiring politician, Harka Singh Tamang, who secured 34 votes.

Harka Singh Tamang was the former Zhemgang dzongdag and Gelephu thromde’s executive secretary.

Jampeling demkhong has 279 registered voters.

From Tashiling demkhong, Tshering Norbu secured 83 yes votes and five no votes during dhamngoi zomdu held yesterday.

The businessman is contesting for the thrompon post for the second time.  He also contested for the National Council elections in 2018.

Dhamngoi zomdu for the remaining four demkhongs are scheduled this week.  About 1,400 people registered to vote until yesterday for the Gelephu thrompon.

Pledges 

The candidates pledged to make best use of the vast space and realise the vision of turning Gelephu into a model city in the country.  Drinking water crisis and making the town safe and secure was common issues presented to the people of two demkhongs so far.

Tshering Norbu said that Gelephu has huge potential, considering the location and its proximity to the Indian market, to become a regional economic city.

“Today, socio-economic activities are not in line with the capacity of the throm. Thromde, unlike other institutions, thrives on revenue people generate and the service delivery has to be very fast, effective, and efficient. With changing time, ICT has to be involved,” he said.

He pledged good governance, quality infrastructure, 24-hour drinking water supply, coordination with the stakeholders and people, clean and aesthetic city by promoting environment resilience through innovative waste management.

He added that Gelephu has an opportunity to resolve national challenges, enable even development, and create more employment.

The candidate promised to resolve green belt issues of the thromde that had deprived residents living in those places of equal access to basic facilities such as roads, street lighting, and drainage system.

“There’s no proper drainage system. And it’s a big threat to safety and cleanliness.  Development should prevail equally in all demkhongs through prioritisation,” said Tshering Norbu.

Former Thrompon, Tikaram Kafley from Jampeling demkhong said several plans need to be completed and pledged to complete important plans if elected again.

“Gelephu has the potential to be the biggest thromde in future and it should be developed as per its vision and potential. I’d be able to complete all the planned activities with the experience I gained in the past five years,” he said.

He added that he worked with thromde for 21 years in various capacities, encouraging him to participate in the election again.  “I have all sorts of knowledge and technical background. I was in touch in preparing and implementation the plan. I’ll be able to take ahead.”

Tikaram Kafley pledges to make Gelephu a special economic zone, prepare local area plans and other matters in consultation with Thromde community and implement diligently.

Design and develop uninterrupted water supply schemes, initiate the development of sports complexes for youth and other thromde community, install state of the art crematorium facility.

Tikaram Kafley promises to induct and complete infrastructure works like urban corridor, royal boulevard, ring road, and children’s park that is in the planning.

Sewerage, waste management, drainage, quality streetlights, water supply, and initiating urban agriculture are a few of the common promises from the candidates nominated so far.

Space and budget constraints prevent schools from installing locker system 

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:24

Loten Zangmo

Almost three years after the Royal Education Council (REC) sent circulars to dzongkhags and thromdes, recommending schools to install lockers or shelves in classrooms so that students need not carry heavy bags, it was found most schools have not installed either.

Many teachers say schools could not install lockers or shelves because of budget and space constraints.

They claim they had instead adopted a homework policy where there was a timetable to ensure all teachers did not give homework to students at the same time.

A school principal said the homework policy ensured students carry only a few books every day. “They carry books on subjects that have homework.”

Tsimalakha Middle Secondary School’s principal, Phuntsho Tashi, said the school adopted a homework schedule based on the age of the students. “We don’t give homework for students studying from pre-primary to class three. For students of class four to six, they will be given a subject to study for 30 minutes. For students of class seven to nine, we give two subjects where they can study for an hour.”

The principal of Udzorong Central School in Trashigang, Sithar Dendup, said they implemented homework policy once but did not follow it anymore, as most students were studying as boarders. “We’ve only a few day scholar students but they also live nearby.”

Meanwhile, teachers also explained students did not follow the homework policy but took all their books home, as they feared the books might get stolen.

“Without proper locker, students don’t feel safe to keep their books in the class,” a teacher said.

Students in Thimphu disagreed on the homework policy.

Students claimed many teachers give them homework together and not many followed the homework policy.

“Carrying heavy bags exhausts us physically,” a student said. “I walk to and from school every day.”

Online sources indicate carrying heavy school bags cause problems like body pain, forward bending, slouching, bad posture, stunted growth, poor lung function, and psychological stresses, apart from long-term implications.

REC’s specialist chief, Ugyen Dorji, said they could not follow up if schools had followed their recommendation. “But if they implemented a homework policy, it shows our recommendation had an impact.”

He, however, said they were now developing an online learning management system (LMS) where projects and homework could be submitted online.

Ugyen Dorji said LMS is currently implemented in three schools in Paro and three schools in Thimphu as a pilot project. “Boarder students are allowed to access from the computer lab since they aren’t allowed to use gadgets.”

He also said REC has made all the textbooks available on their website www.rec.gov.bt. “Students can access textbooks online without carrying them home.”

PM to attend Bangladesh’s Independence Day celebrations

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:23

Twenty-two artists from Royal Academy of performing arts (RAPA) and four journalists from Bhutan arrived at Hazrat Shahjalal international airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh on March 19 morning. They are part of Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering’s delegation to Dhaka for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of their independence.

 The 10-day golden jubilee celebrations started with Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birthday on March 17 and it will conclude on March 27 with the Independence Day celebration on March 26. Sheik Mujibur is also known as the father of the nation.

 Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering will arrive in Bangladesh on March 23 to attend the celebration on March 24.

Paro tshechu to go live on television

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:23

Phub Dem | Paro

There was no snowfall in most parts of the country this year but natives of Paro believe it could be because the annual Paro tshechu was held behind closed doors last year.

As Paro tshechu is scheduled for March 24, local leaders say the people were worried if the tshechu celebration would be a closed-door affair like last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Paro Dzongkhag Tshogdu chairperson Tshering Dorji said that, considering the locals’ sentiments and adhering to the health protocol, the dzongkhag proposed live streaming of mask dances on BBS television.

He said that it was risky to conduct the usual celebration as the tshechu attracted a huge gathering, and there were possibilities of outbreak anytime.

Doteng Gup Letho said that people associated every disaster with not having the usual tshechu celebration. “If tshechu isn’t conducted, as usual, they believe that crop yield will be poor.”

Following the concerns raised by the natives, the dzongkhag wrote to the Ministry of Home and Culture Affairs to seek approval to live stream the tshechu programme except for entertainment.

The live streaming will include boechhams, monastic mask dances, Woochupai Zhey and chipdrel procession.

The public and monastic mask dancers would have limited interaction with separate practising halls. “Gathering of spectators will not be allowed, and those who must participate in the event will follow strict Covid-19 protocol.”

As per the dzongkhag’s directives, the mask dancers have to remain in a quarantine facility from the beginning until the end of the tshechu to contain the risk of infection to the public.  They also have to undergo testing before they leave for their homes.

Paro’s culture officer Sangay Dorji said, “Starting from nangcham to the last day of tshechu, including Thongdrel, will be screened on BBS.”

Last year, the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs had also issued a notification stating that any significant event, including tshechu and religious ceremonies for the year, should be conducted inside the Rabdey to avoid public gathering.

Chilli plants are dying in Trashiyangtse

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:22

Chilli disease worries farmers in Trashiyangtse

Neten Dorji | Trashiyangtse

With chilli plants dying in Trashiyangtse, farmers, who earn good cash income from the crop, are worried.

Choden in Bayphushhot is busy uprooting diseased chilli plants from her garden.  She looks nervous and weary.

Like her, many farmers in Rulay and Mindung are also worried. They say the chilli plants rot from the roots as they grow.  Some say a disease attacked the stem and roots, which resulted in wilting of the plants.

“I don’t know why plants are dying but I’m uprooting the infected plants,” Choden said.

She is worried that she might not be able to harvest and earn income like in the past years. “I doubt if I can earn Nu 10,000 this time.”

Another farmer, Yeshi, said she even sprayed pesticide, but it didn’t work.

“I’d be grateful if the government could look into the matter and find a permanent solution.”

Farmers say the chilli plants got infected four years ago.

Mona, 72, said it was time for the plants to bear fruits. “But they’re wilting and dying.”

Farmers in the locality say chilli brought them good income to educate their children and improve their living standards.

They say more farmers grew chilli as the government encouraged them to do so.  The early chilli production gained popularity in the community.

More than 66 households from Phuyang and Yalang grew chilli. 

On 18.5 acres of land in Phuyangshhot, about 68 households cultivated the early chilli this time.  Chilli growers increased to 23 from eight households in Rulay and Mindung.

Farmers, however, said they would soon grow it only for their self-consumption if the plants kept dying. “It would just be a waste of time and energy,” a farmer said.

Yalang gewog agriculture extension officer, Ugyen Geleg, said waterlog in the area and lack of management practices cause the chilli to die.

“We distributed fungicides to control the diseases and advised not to step in infected fields. The only solution is to manage the plant and field well,” he said.

The agriculture extension officer reported the matter to the dzongkhag agriculture sector and they are monitoring it weekly. “To control the diseases, farmers were told to burn the infected plants and manage the chilli plants by spraying fungicides,” said Ugyen Geleg.

Meanwhile, the first green chillies to hit the market come from these places and farmers earn between Nu 100,000 to 150,000.  Some even earned Nu 300,000 annually.

Sarpang local leaders fear gewog merger will worsen rural issues

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 15:18

Nima | Gelephu

While acknowledging the need to merge gewogs, local government officials in Sarpang say the plan needs proper research and consultation with people and gewogs before implementation.

Gewog officials also say Sarpang plays a strategic importance in ensuring safety and monitoring the long porous border.

Gakiling gup, Nim Dorji, said the gewog merger plan lacked proper research. “Some gewogs existed for a long time and there are some that share historical importance. We need to study those well.”

He said that monitoring cross-border situations and providing required services for the community along the border would be challenging if gewogs in the south were merged.

He claimed officials took months to reach all people in the gewog for assessment, and traveling during monsoon was not possible to some remote settlements today. “The places are without proper bridges and roads.”

Gup Nim Dorji said officials working on the merger should not only consult government agencies but also local government officials and people.

It was learnt that Sarpang would be reduced to five gewogs from the existing 12 gewogs if the gewog re-organisation plan was implemented in the third local government election.

Local leaders say there were only one or two gewogs that could be merged in Sarpang, considering the total population and reliable service infrastructures of the gewogs.

Gelephu gup Ugyen Wangchuk said the current plan to merge gewogs would worsen rural issues such as gungtong and rural-urban migration. “It would also affect service delivery.”

He said the gewog merger plan is not in line with the idea of decentralisation. “Local government plays a vital role in providing required service to the people. It’s early for us to go for the reorganisation. It would worsen the situation of people left behind.”

Officials said that it was too early for the merger without required infrastructure and services not in place for the communities.

Some, on condition of anonymity, said that the Mangmi could be replaced by other important technical officials in the gewog.

“They’re given pay and benefits like gups, while most of the work is done by administration officer and gups. These are few changes we could bring in to improve service delivery at the gewog level,” an official said.

Gup Ugyen Wangchuk said Bhutan would not be ready for merger in another 15 years.

He said it was important to understand the capacity and living standard of people before deciding on the merger. “We rely on digital services but there are challenges concerning few online services that are done at the gewog level.”

Local leaders also said the consultation regarding the merger was done twice in the western and eastern regions but not in the south so far.

Sensible planning

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 11:10

Going by the pattern of development we have been and are, pursuing, there is an urgent need for a change.  Without significant development in the agriculture sector, there cannot be true development.

Agriculture is still the biggest employer in the country—more than half the country’s population is engaged, or employed, in the sector.  Yet we continue to import food items.  Numbers are growing by the year—there are records to go to and establish the facts.

The question is: why, even as we are an agrarian society, are we struggling to take agriculture forward?  Going by the plan documents, there has been a steady fall in budget allocation to the agriculture sector over the years.

All these developments, however, must be seen and understood from the perspective of rising unemployment, in particular, youth unemployment.  Long-term implications can be serious.

When the issue of water shortage is increasing in the villages, rural to urban migration happening at an unprecedented rate, and farmhand shortage increasing by the year, portraying a picture that agriculture is the country’s mainstay is ridiculous.

In fact, some of the major plans to take Bhutan’s economy forward say literally nothing about agriculture.  The idea of economic development of the nation should rest on the development of agriculture.  It is not as if all other sectors are less important.  Agriculture, tourism, hydropower development must go hand-in-hand, always together. This is not happening.  

That’s why the many skilling and activation programmes are going to waste.

Bhutan’s agriculture may be limited by many factors.  We have, for example, less than 3 percent arable land, but what can we not do in the small cultivable space for a population of less than a million?  We are yet to reap the full benefits of organic and commercial agriculture.

Linking the farms to the market is another problem, but done right, everybody stands to gain—connectivity, once the major hurdle, is no longer a problem.

What the planners do not seem to understand is that not having self-sufficiency, particularly in food, means that we can be forced to depend on others.  Put plainly, food self-sufficiency is about nationalism; it’s about being able to stand on own feet.

The many projects—irrigation and electric fencing—may have failed, but what we need today is the courage to look beyond.

If agriculture development does not feature in the overall economic development of the nation, whatever plan we make, is destined to fail.  If the lack of space is the main challenge, innovations must come in.

More than anything, there has to be long-term and sensible planning. 

Oral diseases becoming a growing health concern

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 11:09

KGUMSB, JDWNRH, and the health ministry organised a webinar on oral health to observe the World Oral Health Day on March 20 (Photo: Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan Facebook page)

Thinley Namgay 

Oral diseases have become a major burden on the national health care system over the years, according to experts.  They attribute the increase in the number of cases to the lack of awareness among people.

For instance, 390,097 people or more than 51 percent of the population never availed oral health (OH) services in the entire year of 2019. In the same year, 194,366 oral morbidity cases were reported at health centres across the country.

Dental caries, cancers of lips and oral cavity, Periodontal diseases, tooth loss, precancerous lesion, gum diseases, crooked teeth, and oro-dental trauma are critical oral diseases prevailing in the country at present.

Health experts take part in a webinar on oral health

Dental caries, a major public health problem globally, is also a widespread form of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Bhutan. Currently, 2.3 billion dental caries and 560 million early childhood caries were reported globally.  South-East Asia region alone accounts for more than 60 percent of these cases.

A Dental Surgeon at Tsirang hospital, Dr Tshewang Gyeltshen, said that in Bhutan dental caries is most common among school children (63 percent), preschool children (81 percent), and pregnant mothers (68 percent). Periodontal diseases are 60 percent. Cancers of the lips and oral cavity constitutes to be among the top causes of mortality from cancers.

He said that oral health was not perceived as a priority due to other daily competing priorities because of the low level of oral health literacy. “There is difficulty in obtaining affordable and appropriate transport to the health facility, especially rural communities, and lack of availability of specialised care needs in districts.”

Dr Tshewang Gyeltshen said that there was a lack of funding for an oral health programme and dental services and a lack of integration of oral health with other mainstream health programmes.

“Services are not commissioned based on oral health needs assessments, and workforce not trained to meet the population’s specific needs. There is limited adoption of prevention and oral health promotion activities,” he said.

The oral disease morbidity in the last 20 years was always on an increasing trend, he said. “Comparative trend of dental to other NCDs per 10,000 people are high.”

Dr Tshewang Gyeltshen said that to strengthen oral health service in Bhutan, there has to be faculty of dentistry and oral health in Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB), a national dental hospital, and national programme for oral health. He also said that current dental service standards in referral hospitals and district hospitals needed revision.

Paedodontist at JDWNRH, Dr Sonam Ngedup, said that health centres provided 9,428 prophylaxis, 4,660 scaling, 49,993 fillings, 61,794 extractions, and 68,491 other services in 2019.

He said that between 2018-2020, 27 dental patients were sent to Kolkata and Vellore in India. Each patient costs Nu 0.15 million for referral between 7-21 days.

Dr Sonam Ngedup said that to prevent oral diseases, an evidence-based approach, network among dental personnel and alliances, and comprehensive health policy were necessary. 

Human resource constraint remains a major issue.

In 2020, Bhutan had 68 dentists, three oral and maxilla facial surgeon, an oral medicine specialist, one pedodontist, two prosthodontists, four orthodontists, 76 dental hygienists, and 44 dental technicians.

Oral Medicine Specialist at JDWNRH, Dr Gyan Prasad Bajgai, said, “We have a shortage of specialists and sub-specialists.”

The dentist-patient ratio in 2021 as per the WHO is 1:7,500. However, in Bhutan, it is 1:11,500, and the specialist ratio is 1:194,000. “Doctor to patient ratio is even higher,” said Dr Gyan Prasad Bajgai.

Oral disorders rank first in the world in 1999 and 2019, according to experts. At least half of the world’s population still does not have full coverage of essential health services. About 100 million people still pushed into extreme poverty, and over 800 million people spent at least 10 percent of their household budget on buying health care.

Professor OP Kharbanda from AIIMS, India, said that the poorer section of people is a victim of OH diseases. “Treatment for oral health conditions is expensive and usually not part of universal health coverage (UHC). In most high-income countries, dental treatment averages 5 percent of health expenditure and 20 percent of out-of-pocket health expenditure.”

The draft resolution on oral health was proposed by  Bangladesh, Bhutan, Botswana, Eswatini, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jamaica, Kenya, Peru, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the EU member states, which will be discussed in the 74th World Health Assembly.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that for a resource challenge country like Bhutan, the government must invest in public health prevention. “We can focus on fundamentals, that is, prevention. The unit cost return on investment on prevention is much higher than that of the curative aspect.”

Lyonpo said that there was a huge gap in knowledge of oral health. “Investment in building the competency and capacity of our professionals will be a priority to deliver effective services. The government has passed the legislative on taxing heavily on sugary drinks and tax-free commodities that promote health and well-being.  We’re integrating oral health into our MCH screening tool to address knowledge and service gap.”

KGUMSB, JDWNRH, and the health ministry marked World Oral Health Day on March 20 with a webinar on ‘oral health and dentistry in Bhutan: call for action to address a public health urgency’.

The question of documents

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 11:08

MB Subba 

With the nomination of candidates for the third thromde elections underway, some candidates and observers have expressed concerns about the lack of a provision for aspiring candidates to produce documents at the dhamngoi zomdu.

A registered voter of a constituency within a thromde who fulfils the criteria as prescribed in Section 178 of the Election Act is eligible to be nominated as a candidate.

The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), accordingly, does not ask aspiring candidates to produce all the required documents at the zomdu.  Although this provision gives more time for candidates to process their documents, it has a demerit.

For instance, if a dhamngoi zomdu rejects a person, who has got his documents ready and nominates another person, who has not got his documents ready, the constituency could go without a candidate in the election despite having nominated one.

Aspiring candidates have about a week to get their documents ready for the upcoming election.  ECB has prescribed March 29 and 30 as the last dates for filing the nomination and scrutiny of documents respectively.

The nominations of candidates that do not fulfil the required documents will be rejected.  

One of the candidates for Thimphu thrompon, who graduated from the Royal University of Bhutan, said that it took about two weeks for him to get his university documents attested by the department of adult and higher education.

“I heard that it takes longer for those, who’ve graduated from abroad. It’s a critical issue because there are chances that a person may not get the required documents on time after being nominated,” he said. 

However, he added that processing other documents, including tax and audit clearance certificates, did not take time.

One of the aspiring candidates in Phuentsholing also expressed his concern about the issue. “If there are two candidates at a zomdu, there are chances that the one who doesn’t have the documents may get nominated,” he said, adding that it would be a loss for both the constituency and the other aspiring candidate who lost to the nominee.

An aspiring candidate said that his documents were being processed and that they would be ready on time.

Officials said that there was no legal requirement for aspiring candidates to produce all the documents at the dhamngoi zomdu.

ECB’s head of the civic and electoral department, Phub Dorji, said that the documents were scrutinised by the Returning Officer (RO). “By law, there’s no need to produce documents at the zomdu.”

However, Phub Dorji added that election officials would brief voters and aspiring candidates about all the requirements.  He said that the voters should think about whether a candidate would be able to produce his documents within the prescribed time and cast their votes accordingly.

The dzongkhag election office will hold a dhamngoi zomdu in every thromde tshogpa demkhong to select a candidate wishing to contest election to the post of thrompon.

As per the Election Act, a person is qualified to be elected as a local government member if he or she is a citizen of Bhutan and a registered voter of that constituency and fulfils other criteria prescribed by the law.

Such issues are not new as they emerged in the second local government elections held in 2016.

In one of the incidents, a person was selected as the nominee for the post of gup of Damji chiwog in Khamaed gewog of Gasa by defeating another aspiring candidate at the zomdu.  But four days after the zomdu, he received a call from ECB, saying that he was a registered member of a political party.

Similar other cases were also reported in local government elections in Tsirang.  Four candidates, who had completed filing their nomination papers in 2016 with the RO, were disqualified on similar grounds.

Autonomous schools turn autonomy-less

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:46

Yangchen C Rinzin

With the finance ministry discontinuing the practice of transferring grants to central and autonomous schools, principals of these schools question the status of their autonomy.

The ministry decided to allocate budget for central and autonomous schools in the local government’s Annual Grants through Multi-Year Rolling Budget (MYRB) and electronic public expenditure management system (e-PEMS).

The practice so far was to transfer the budget directly to the schools’ Current Deposit (CD) account. The CD account has now been closed.

Now all schools have to route their budget through local governments. Earlier, they had autonomy over the budget. All central schools were granted autonomy since 2015. Some schools were operating as autonomous schools with financial autonomy.

Many say that with the CD accounts closed and no autonomy over the budget, central and autonomous schools will function like the remaining schools that depend on the local government’s budget.

“This is a clear indication that schools have no autonomy, and our school surrendered Nu 4,000 balance left in the account,” a principal said. “The autonomy has become only a namesake.” 

As per the finance ministry, all schools were asked to close the CD accounts. Schools were told to meet all the pending bills or expenditures of last Fiscal Year (FY) 2019-20 through CD account balance and any spending for 2020-21 through annual grants.

Schools were asked to surrender the balance left from the CD account to the Department of Public Accounts.

With the autonomy in question, principals said this would affect the tripartite Delivery and Performance Agreement signed between central or autonomous schools, dzongkhags and education ministry for school autonomy.

The agreement recognises the autonomous school initiative that provides schools with policy settings and freedom to tailor high-quality learning opportunities. The agreement also sets out the performance and accountability expectations of the school, the resources and support provided by the education ministry and dzongkhag.

The school autonomy when it first started was an initiative to strengthen the sense of belongingness, accountability and transparency among teachers and students.

However, some principals told Kuensel that although the agreement would provide autonomy over the finance and human resources, schools never had autonomy over the human resources, except finance.

“But this autonomy is no more now,” a principal of one of the autonomous schools said. “The agreement ensures how the schools will perform and achieve certain things for school development. It is going to be useless without finance autonomy.”

Principals and teachers said that when there was autonomy, school administrations could decide on the year’s plans and implement the budget.  Schools will now have to follow a bureaucratic process like applying note sheet for budget and approval for any kind of works.

When the schools were autonomous, principals could decide immediately based on the budget availability or use the budget for any emergency activities.

“But now, even to procure a lock, I have to wait for the note sheet to be approved from the dzongkhag,” a principal in central Bhutan said. “I had to procure materials for maintenance work in credit from the supplier, and the note sheet was approved only after a week for the payment,” another principal said.

For instance, one of the principals said if the school has a budget of Nu 500,000 for the TADA/DSA and if the school spends only Nu 200,000, the balance is re-appropriated in other developmental activities.

“But now the balance would be re-appropriated in other dzongkhag activities,” a principal in the South said.

With the budget for Annual Grant already reduced by 50 percent due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some principals said that most of the budget goes into the agriculture sector, followed by other construction activities and education. “The work that we used to do in a day now takes more than a week.”

The heads of the schools that have accountants are confused about the status of these employees. A few said that the decision could be because of a few principals misusing the funds/grants. “Although the finance ministry never explained, because of a few people, why should entire schools suffer?”

A principal said that in 2018 the government took the budget for stipend and salary, and in 2019, the recurrent budget had to be surrendered. In 2020, the CD account was closed, withdrawing the capital budget.

Samtse’s major irrigation schemes in the doldrums

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:46

Rajesh Rai | Samtse

Given the vast and fertile plains of Tashichholing and Norbugang in Samtse, continuous effort and investments have been made to realise the huge agricultural production potential of these gewogs.

The agriculture ministry (MoAF) invested in two major irrigation schemes in Tashichholing and one in Norbugang together amounting to Nu 128 million (M). The MoAF awarded the construction projects of these schemes to contractors and managed them centrally.

However, today the schemes have failed to deliver for many reasons.

Pemaling irrigation schemes

In Chhusilgang-Dramedsa village of Pemaling gewog, the 8km open (drain) channel, which was supposed to irrigate fallow lands of Tashichholing remains idle.

At many points, the drain is covered by thick bushes.

The channel, built at a cost of Nu 62M in 2016, was supposed to draw water from the Biru river and distribute it in Tashichholing.

Heavy monsoon rains caused flash floods and damaged the channel rendering it useless. Its renovation cost an additional Nu 9.6M. Still, the channel could not benefit the end-users.

And today, another irrigation project worth Nu 44M is underway to replace the 8km defunct channel.

The new project will lay pipes inside the defunct open channel and cover it.

But what about the Nu 62M? The additional Nu 9.6M repair budget? The residents of Chhusilgang-Dramedsa are saddened by the country’s loss.

It’s not just that. About 11 households of Chhusilgang-Dramedsa are waiting for compensation for damages the first construction caused to their land and cash crops.

A Chhusilgang-Dramedsa resident, Sherab Choden said the government availed clearance from the villagers in 2014. 

“Then, we were told we will be given seedlings and monetary compensation. The officials said our land won’t be affected,” she said.

During the construction, she told imported workers not to damage the land but due to language barrier, they didn’t fully understand. 

“I told the contractor and he said he will look at it,” she claimed.

Sherab has neither received free fruit seedlings nor any compensation for land and crop damage.

She claimed more than 50 orange trees were lost and about 70 decimals of land damaged. Countless cardamom plants were spoilt due to land and mudslides from the channel construction.

The then agriculture minister had visited the place once and promised to send officials for inspection. Two officials had come for inspection but after that nothing happened, she said.

Another resident, Jag Maya Rai said construction works affected her two plots. 

“One plot was covered with stones and mud from the construction,” she said. “The other saw a landslide. We had to hire labourers to clear off the debris.”

She said both plots, measuring up to 30 decimals, remain useless.

Chhusilgang-Dramedsa tshogpa Yeshey Wangdi said they were told heavy machinery won’t be used during the meetings for public clearance.

“Once they got the clearance, heavy excavation machines came,” he said. “We appealed right up to the ministry but in vain.”

While the construction damaged land and fruit trees, the project also didn’t benefit Sipsu farmers as expected, Yeshey Wangdi said.

Tshogpa said the public initially refused clearance for the second channel. 

“Again, a public meeting was held, the clearance was given,” he said.

Pemaling Mangmi Sangay Penjor said the gewog highlighted the issue at two dzongkhag tshogdu sessions. 

“But we were told it would be discussed separately.”

Agriculture engineering division clarifies

An engineer from the MoAF’s engineering division said after the Pemaling irrigation channel construction, the public demanded the project to be handed over. The former agriculture minister was supposed to do the handing-taking.

“But before Lyonpo could visit, the monsoon rain had caused a landslide at a small but critical portion, which then delayed the handing-taking of the project,” he said.

While the damaged portion was waiting for repair, another landslide occurred. Despite a completion report of the channel from the contractor, the project couldn’t be taken over and rectification works were also left out.

The project remained without rectification until 2017-2018 financial year, when a rectification budget of Nu 9.6M was approved from the Remote Rural Communities Development Project (RRCDP). The damages were then repaired and the channel handed over to the public.

Irrigation water was also supplied after some maintenance work but it had not benefited the majority of the beneficiaries in Tashichholing.

However, less than a month after it was handed over, another landslide hit its intake tank. The gewog was well-informed this time.

The engineer said the landslide further hit the project and crippled it.

Learning from the experience and the soil conditions of the channel area, a cover channel was approved.

“We have proposed for pipes this time to be laid inside the channel.”

However, the intake point will have to be raised at least by half a km further upstream to have enough force. The new scheme will cost Nu 44M.

“Even if this one doesn’t benefit 100 percent, we expect at least 90 percent will,” he said.

The engineer said that usually pipe irrigation channels would be more expensive than open channels. But with an open channel already there, the pipes could be directly laid upon and covered, the engineer said. There is no requirement for excavation which has reduced the cost.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely Chhusilgang-Dramedsa villagers will get compensation as there are no provisions in the National Irrigation Policy to compensate for damages from the construction of irrigation schemes.

The agriculture minister then had made verbal promises to send officials for inspection in regards to compensation and people are still waiting.

“Unofficially, they were verbally told to at least connect a half-inch or one-inch pipe to the channel and use the water for their fields and crops,” the engineer said.

“But we had made it clear that compensation in cash was not possible. They were also told that orange and cardamom seeds would be first provided to them as a priority. No other compensations were agreed upon.”

Singeygang lift irrigation

For more than 30 years, Pukar Chhetri from Singeygang village, Tashichholing has not cultivated paddy in his three-acre paddy field.

When Jitti river was connected with a lift irrigation, which cost Nu 20M, to cater to fallow lands in 2017, he became hopeful. But not for long.

“Today, I just keep clearing the bushes and let cattle graze there,” Pukar Chhetri said. 

“Nothing happened with the lift irrigation.”

The irrigation committee’s chairman, KN Sharma said some repair and maintenance were done last year—but fields still remain parched.

“People from 106 households had even contributed labour. But it has not benefited a single farmer today,” he said.

With the channel without water, hopes of winter farming faded too, KN Sharma said. Most of the land is fallow.

The lift irrigation system was constructed primarily for winter vegetables and areca nut trees.

An electric pump system was supposed to pump water from the Jitti river uphill to Singeygang.

Singeygang residents said that the power bills came to about Nu 1,500 per hour when the pump was used fully. 

However, after the repairs and maintenance last year, the bills were expected to be around Nu 5,000 to Nu 6,000 per month after replacing the motor.

MoAF’s engineering division clarifies

The engineer said the division doesn’t have an electrical engineer or motor-mechanic.

Initially, the understanding was that once the pump was installed in the river system, it would work, as long as there was electricity. 

“We’re working for the first time on such a scheme,” he said.

When the time came to start the pump system, it was discovered it needed a three-phase electricity line. Immediately, the MoAF asked Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC). However, BPC said their planned works were still not complete, the engineer said.

“However, they said they had the provision for the three-phase line at Singeygang,” he said.

After the three-phase line and a new transformer were in place, they learnt that a separate and specific wiring system was required depending on the pump specification.

It was also found that the river systems in India and Bhutan were different and that the pump filtration system manufactured in India was not feasible here.

The engineer also said that there is a need for a specific skilled worker who can handle the pump system.

“That’s how it is left out. We tried our best, with the best of intentions,” the engineer said. “We are still trying our best.”

Singeygang lift irrigation was funded by the Indian government.

Tashichholing Gup Sameer Giri said the two irrigation schemes would have benefitted about 600 acres of fallow land every year in winter. 

“In my gewog, at least 70 percent of the land remains fallow.”

For paddy, people depend on rainwater and river irrigation.

Sameer Giri said land in Tashichholing is favourable for winter vegetable cultivation. Tashichholing would produce vegetables when the high altitude dzongkhags stop production.

Sameer Giri said concerned agencies must observe and research at the local level. 

“These projects were planned at the desk and directly brought here for implementation,” he said.

Tharaykhola irrigation scheme

The artificial lake irrigation scheme in Norbugang gewog would have revived more than 100 acres of fallow land and benefitted more than 300 households.

Located above Bhimtar village, the project, which completed in early 2020, was constructed at a cost of Nu 36.8M. It is a World Bank-funded Food Security and Agriculture Productive Project (FSAPP) under the agriculture ministry.

The problem with the irrigation scheme, villagers say, was between the water source and the lake. They say the pipe joints break and water leaks and doesn’t reach the lake from where the water is distributed to farmers.  The ground where the pipes have been laid was not dug properly.

As the project was awarded and carried out centrally by the ministry, Norbugang villagers claim they have no idea how the management was done.

MoAF’s engineering division says

The engineer with the agriculture engineer division said the construction of the main channel was completed. The project is incomplete without the internal system, which is the distribution network to the beneficiary households.

“After completing the main channel, it was handed over to the people,” he said.

Norbugang Gup Kuenga had earlier told Kuensel that the gewog office had written an appeal to the Samtse dzongkhag, Prime Minister’s Office, agriculture ministry, audit and Anti-Corruption Commission about the channel.

Works for water distribution, worth Nu 7M, for the scheme had also started about six months ago and is yet to complete.

Without significant local production, the country depends on the import of fruits and vegetables in winter. Bhutan’s import in 2019 increased by Nu 144M compared to 2018. Bhutan imported Nu 308.75M and Nu 97.16M worth of fresh vegetables and fruits in 2019, as per the Bhutan RNR Statistics 2019.

Survey finds Bhutanese highly receptive to Covid-19 vaccine  

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:44

Younten Tshedup  

If numbers are any indication, Bhutanese are ‘highly’ receptive to the Covid-19 vaccination.

To understand and assess public perception towards the Covid-19 vaccine, an online survey was conducted in January this year.

According to the survey, almost 85 percent of the respondents said they would take the vaccine.

A total of 7,476 (2,884 females and 4,592 males) took part in the weeklong online survey conducted by the health ministry’s technical advisory group (TAG) members — clinical microbiologist Dr Tshokey and senior programme officer Ugyen Tshering.

The majority of respondents (4,311) said that they would ‘definitely’ take the vaccine if available, including 2,004 people who said they would ‘probably’ take it if made available.  71 (1 percent) people said that they would ‘definitely not’ take the vaccine, while 231 (3 percent) reported they may probably not take the vaccine.  859 people had not decided to take the vaccine then.

Ugyen Tshering said that the acceptance level was higher among the educated groups of respondents.  The majority of respondents were in the age group 18-40 years (82 percent).

He said that the overall positive response of 84.5 percent was comparatively higher than most of the countries in the region where similar studies have been carried out. “Although the willingness to accept the vaccine is sufficient to meet the requirements of herd immunity, there’s a need to conduct vaccine literacy and develop interventions to build trust and confidence to support the uptake of a Covid-19 vaccine.”

While 78 percent of the respondents wanted to wait for more data on the vaccine, the survey also showed that 43 percent wanted to get the vaccines manufactured in developed countries, such as the US and UK.

Fifty-seven percent of the respondents said that they were ‘not really worried’ about the side effects of the vaccine.  74 percent said that the vaccine would protect the ones who receive the jab.

Dr Tshokey said that the survey was taken at a time when news of Covid-19 vaccines was just developing. “It gave us a rough idea of the perception and acceptance level of our people on the Covid-19 vaccine.”

Now that the vaccine has arrived in the country and the mass vaccination campaign starting soon, he said that people today had more understanding and knowledge of the vaccine.

He also claimed the prime minister’s personal efforts to clarify and make people understand the benefits of the vaccine have also worked. “We’ve had enough time to observe what has happened across the world and I think the vaccines have come at the right time.”

On the issues of blood clot and suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine in some European countries, the clinical microbiologist said that, while investigations were underway, there were several evidences that the blood clots were not linked to the vaccine.

“Such issues are common, especially when a vaccine is being introduced for the first time in any country. This is not unusual,” he said.

Dr Tshokey said that people should get vaccinated to protect themselves from the virus and as a duty to the state.

He explained that if a person gets the jab, primarily he or she is protected from the virus. “The protection also includes experiencing a mild form of the disease if infected and protecting those who aren’t eligible for vaccination.”

He said that people should get the vaccine as a duty to the state. “This is because every country must achieve coverage of about 75 percent to get herd immunity. If majority of people don’t take the vaccine, the country won’t achieve herd immunity. That will be a problem for the country as more people would still remain vulnerable to the infection.”

While the vaccine is believed to return things to normal, he said that it wouldn’t be until the second dose of the vaccine was administered to all the eligible population, which had been tentatively planned between eight to 12 weeks after the first dose.

Dr Tshokey said that, only after the delivery of the second dose of the vaccine, and a cushion period of two weeks, an individual would be considered fully vaccinated.  Meaning, things would return to ‘normal’ only towards the end of June or the beginning of July this year.

In the meantime, the clinical microbiologist said that, even after the vaccination, people must continue to adhere to public health measures. “Although it’s proven that the vaccine will protect you, you could still carry the virus and infect others who haven’t received the vaccine.”

Empowering thromdes

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:43

The race for thrompons has begun with more than 11 candidates, including the former thrompons, in two thromdes declaring their interest to contest the election later next month.

This is a huge improvement, at least in number of candidates, from the last election where the two major thromdes – Thimphu and Phuentsholing –  had a lone candidate elected on the “yes” and “no” basis of voting.

Formal campaigning is yet to start, but the messages are coming out as candidates justify their grounds for contesting for the post.  From ensuring water supply to better management of garbage, roads and building “livable” cities, candidates are listing the priorities.

The big question is what difference a new set of thrompons or re-elected ones would make.  The promises sound familiar.   Past thrompons were elected on the same promises.  Unfortunately, after a decade of handing over the management of the thromdes to the elected thrompons, we are still dealing with the same old issues.  The concept of what is called intelligent urbanism – plan for balancing development with nature, traditions, making the city efficient, convivial and friendly with amenities flew out of the window from the pressure of urbanisation and those who wanted to make the most of their land.

There are visible changes.  More water sources are tapped, roads are widened and potholes filled, but the pressure from the growing thromdes has overwhelmed thrompons and thromdes.  They cannot keep up with the pressure on the thromde’s infrastructure.  There is no optimism or excitement.  This arises from the fact that elected thrompons cannot do much, even if they want to and come with the grandest of plans and ideas.

The thrompon and the council are expected to play a crucial role in determining the present and future course of developments of towns and the community.  But they have to rely on the bureaucracy that mans the thromde offices.  Former thrompons are candid in saying that the synergy is missing if not the bureaucracy is the main hurdle.  Thrompons alone cannot do anything.

There is a call for delinking the thromdes from the civil service.  Thrompons had been proposing for the same for years.  Now that the draft 21st century economic roadmap recommends the same, there are more reasons to consider making the thromde an autonomous body.  Thrompons are confident that they can function, and function better with almost half the manpower.  Another way of making thromdes work could be giving them financial authority.  Thromdes are cash-strapped, but they do not have the authority to raise money through taxes, charges or fees besides collecting them.  The Thromde Finance Policy, 2012 intends to support and assist thromdes towards financial sustainability and self-reliance in line with the principles of decentralisation.  But in reality, the thromde depends on the government for budget and cannot even increase fees without the approval of the finance ministry.  Land taxes in Thimphu thromde, for instance, are still based on the rates fixed in 1992.

If thrompons or thromdes are expected to perform better and live up to expectations, they need to be empowered not only by a few hundred votes, but also through autonomy, human resources and finances.

Every court is independent of each other when it comes to judicial decisions

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:42

Kuensel reported on the Gelephu quarantine breach case that the prosecution appealed on the ground that the “convict was not given the highest penalty” as per the Supreme Court’s notification to impose the highest penalty for breach of Covid-19 protocol.” 

The Supreme Court issued an order on 27 April 2020 to lower courts instructing the judges to apply sections 187.3 (to meet the ends of justice, courts may alter or add to any charge before the judgment is pronounced) and 188 (right to a speedy trial) of CCPC and to impose the highest penalty as a “deterrence” to the accused.  Such instructions from the Supreme Court and prosecutor using such orders as grounds for appeal are not only against the rule of law but also set a wrong perception and impression among the general public.  It defeats the fundamental principles of criminal justice and infringes the independence of the respective court in the administration of justice without fear and favour.

The judiciary is not just independent of the executive and legislature, but also each court is independent of each other in its decision making when it comes to court proceedings, so that the judges can make decisions without fear and favour and based on the facts, evidence, and laws, under the doctrine of non-interference.  Such a principle is a universal norm in the judiciary across the world.  In Bhutan, section 5 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code (CCPC), 2001, states “the courts shall decide matters before it impartially based on facts and in accordance with the rule of law.”

Article 7 of the Constitution and Section 3 of CCPC guarantees every person equality before the law and the right to life and liberty, which can be deprived only through due process of law established by the parliament.  Since the breach of quarantine is prosecuted under Penal Code, the court is required to sentence an accused only as per the PCB (Section 6), which includes consideration of “mitigating and aggravating factors (S.17)” and fulfil the general requirements of culpability.  This means the prosecution must prove that the accused “acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently” besides other elements required by law (S.53).

Section 96.2 of the CCPC sets that, in case of a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor proves the accusations to the “full satisfaction of the Court has established a proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”  And Section 96.3 requires that judgment be reasoned besides other requirements.  This is because Article 7 Section 16 guarantees “a person charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in accordance with the law.”

Further, the principles of guilty mind (mens rea) and criminal act (actus rea), which includes motive, preparation, committing the crime and remorse thereafter must be considered before sentencing the convict.  The objective of the courts is not to punish the person but to ensure a fair trial and the administration of justice.  The current order instructing to award the highest penalty is a serious infringement on the independent judges and may make the judges uncomfortable in decision making.  Therefore, the prosecutors must stop using such notifications, and the Supreme Court must issue a new order cancelling the existing order to protect the independence of courts and allow the judges to take judicial decision purely based on the rule of law and follow due process of law.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.

Four hats thrown in the Thimphu thrompon ring

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:42

MB Subba 

Four people have expressed their intentions to contest as thrompon in the third Thimphu thromde election, which will be held on April 28.

The nomination of candidates in the seven constituencies of the thromde will begin on March 20 and end on March 23.  Voters can nominate one thrompon candidate from each constituency.

Jungshina-Kawajangsa

One of the first to express his intention to contest the election was Ugyen Dorji, who resigned recently as an executive engineer and deputy chief urban planner of Thimphu thromde.

The 40-year-old from Jungshina-Kawajangsa constituency said that his work experience and academic background gave him the confidence to contest the thromde election.

He worked in Thimphu thromde for 11 years.  He also worked as an assistant lecturer in the Jigme Namgyel Engineering College in Dewathang.

He has an MBA from the University of Canberra, Australia and a Bachelors in Civil Engineering from the College of Science and Technology in Phuentsholing.

He also has certificates in application of GIS for urban planning and urban management; and building public-private partnerships from the Netherlands.

“I resigned to contest for the thromde election because I thought I had the right experience and qualification. Given a chance, I feel that I can fulfil people’s aspirations,” he said.

Ugyen Dorji said that he would prioritise good urban governance to address water shortages, waste problems, potholes and drainage problems. “These problems will be addressed through good urban governance, which is my priority.”

The characteristics of urban good governance, he said, were transparency, equity, sustainability, accountability and engagement of citizens in the development process.

Changbangdu-Olakha

Another aspiring candidate is Kinley Tshering, who is working as a consultant in the private sector in Thimphu.

The 45-year-old from Changzamtog has a Bachelors in Business Administration (management) from Spicer Memorial College in India.

He worked as a manager in Tashi Bank Limited before resigning to join the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) as South Thimphu candidate in the 2018 parliamentary election.

“My intention is to serve people irrespective of whether it’s from Parliament or the local government,” he said, adding that his interaction with people of Thimphu thromde had helped him understand the issues facing the thromde.

Sewerage, roads and drainage, Kinley Tshering said, would be some of his priorities. “For instance, the frequent sewerage leakages in Norzin Lam in front of the Norling building should be fixed.”

He said that he had plans to solve all the problems. “I follow social media to understand the issues.”

Dechencholing-Taba

Sonam Dorji from Taba is also preparing for the election.

The 31-year-old, who worked in the private sector, said that he had a vision for a “new Thimphu” that will be more “liveable” for all residents.

He said that the post of thrompon was one of the platforms for him to achieve his vision. “All my priorities and plans will be in line with the vision. For example, I’ll focus on clean, efficient and high-tech water distribution system to make the city more liveable.”

Sonam Dorji said that in the 21st century, water was not only a basic essential but also a fundamental human right. “The sewerage system would be improved.”

He said the issues of water shortages, potholes and housing would be prioritised and the quality of maintenance work enhanced.

He has a Bachelors of Technology in Civil Engineering, which he says will come handy if elected.

Babesa

The former thrompon Kinlay Dorjee will contest from Babesa, South Thimphu for a third term.

He was the lone candidate in the second Thimphu thromde election.  Kuensel ran a story on his intention to recontest in an earlier issue.  He said that his priorities have changed after completion of two terms.

He says 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.

“Serving the people, city, and my King gives me satisfaction at the end of the day. I want to continue,” he said.

The campaign period will start on April 2 and end at 8am of April 26.  This means that candidates will have more than 24 days for campaigning.

Thimphu thromde, the largest city with a population of about 150,000, has some of the complex issues to address.

Residents say that water shortages, bursting of sewerage and potholes are the biggest problems.

A resident in Changzamtog said that dust pollution was the main problem in his area. “Our business has been affected because the work has destroyed the parking space,” he said.

The ongoing sewerage line replacement and installation of underground cable duct project along Zamdo Lam in Changzamtog has been causing major inconveniences to the public. 

Gender-sensitive neighbourhood planning

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:41

The pursuit of GNH City

Bhutan as a happiness kingdom has been adopting and exercising activities that are aligned with the precepts of the Gross National Happiness.  Despite having championed in fields like environment and culture, gender issues still pervade the spiritual and the senile cultural landscape of the country.

The Global Gender Report 2020, ranks Bhutan 131 out of 153 with a score of 0.635 out of 1.  Similarly, BHUTAN Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors 2014 highlights the disparity that persist in sectors such as economics, politics, and employment sector.  The unemployment rate has consistently been higher for women (3.3%) as compared to men (2.2%) and as high as 7.3 percent for the former in urban areas as compared to 3.9 percent for the latter.  The GNH survey conducted in 2010 concludes that 46 percent of men and 36 percent of women had reached a level of happiness satisfaction.  All of these studies ascertain that gender inequality prevails in the country.

From educational attainment to politics and decision-making, gender equality is increasingly becoming relevant, and with that, women’s participation is catching up with that of men’s.  As government expends its ever-soaring efforts to aggrandise gender parity, there are many areas that can equally evolve and adapt to welcome and enable gender equality.

Neighbourhood planning

Since the advent of the first five-year plan in the 1960s, urban planning has made many feeble attempts to establish its foothold.  For instance, the 14 urban development plans for dzongkhag towns initiated by UN Habitat in the year 1984 and the Thimphu Structure Plan of 2002 were prepared to lead the cities towards sustainable development, but due to the lack of planning approaches that are bottom-up and participatory in nature or that which caters to various section of the society, including women, these plans came to naught.

A response to these is a ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ approach, which is bottom-up and participatory.  It is a tool that investigates the challenges and potentials of a city at the lowest planning unit called the neighbourhood.  Through discussions, surveys and other interactive methods, it is a means to an end which is inclusive, sustainable, and participatory.  However, as gender inequality shows a very tenuous sign of abatement, the need for ameliorating or making these planning tools more gender-sensitive is of utmost importance.

Gender-sensitive neighbourhood planning

Neighbourhood planning can empower women by planning neighbourhood and the city altogether into a gender-sensitive city.  Socioeconomic development; infrastructure development; transport and mobility; environmental sanctity; and governance are the main aspects that underpin neighbourhood planning.  And considering the gender disparity that prevails, mainstreaming gender equality in neighbourhood planning can prove to be a panacea to the existing meagre improvement to gender issues.  More importantly, neighbourhood planning facilitates the collection of data that represents gender issues across all mentioned fields of planning, which can eventually facilitate appropriate gender-sensitive decision-making.

Nevertheless, an indispensable change to the current planning process is to conduct focus group discussions with women of a neighbourhood.  Currently, public consultations are majorly represented by men.  So, initiation of such focused discussions would encourage more women to participate, and the neighbourhood plans can be more gender-sensitive in taking suggestions and accounting for the needs of women in neighbourhoods.

A common revelation from such focused discussions, as mentioned in many studies, is that women need multifunctional urban spaces or centres to match the balancing of their multi-tasking daily realities.  Complete neighbourhood centres for mixed-use, with short distances and synchronised timing of services and infrastructures, proximity of work, childcare, shops and public services, as well as safe, frequent and easily accessible public transport systems, constitute the elements of a city that fit the needs of women.  The need for such centres was apparent during the COVID-19 lock-downs, which showed a soaring rate of violence against women.  The need for easy and safe access to such centres within neighbourhoods has become more necessary than ever. 

More importantly, such centres can also capture the ethos of traditional settlements that relies on social integration, especially amongst mothers and women, which is getting lost in the busy and nucleated urban settlements.

The 14 neighbourhood nodes (NNs), as conceived in the Thimphu Structure Plan as the focus of the 16 neighbourhoods (Urban Villages), are the areas that can offer a medium for incorporating aforesaid gender-sensitive aspects to neighbourhoods.  Further, the Structure Plan also views these NNs as a centre of the so-called walkable neighbourhoods that facilitate services like education, health, governance, commerce, and transportation services within a walkable distance.  Incorporating gender-sensitive infrastructure and services in these NNs, such as public toilets, footpaths, parks and open spaces that are essential, safe and easily accessible to women, as well as; establishing home science clubs; NCWC centres; weaving centres; urban gardening group, etc. can contribute towards mainstreaming gender equality by providing a platform for communication and interaction; reconciliation of family and professional work; and security, among others, in the neighbourhood and eventually at the city and country level.

The role of neighbourhood planning in providing a stage for gender mainstreaming right from the local and eventually percolating towards the bigger picture of the city and the nation is indisputable and necessary.  Therefore, the planning approach that has led us here has to accept a gender-sensitive nudge or look through a gender-sensitive lens and incorporate the much-needed participation and role of women hereinafter through the Gender Sensitive Neighbouring Planning approach.  This would not only lead to a holistic planning approach, but also contribute towards solving the issues of gender inequality in our societies.

Contributed by

Tsheten Chophel, 

Thimphu

tshetenchophel@gmail.com

On the International Day of Happiness

Sat, 03/20/2021 - 13:40

Some four decades or so ago, when the youngest monarch in the world then, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, sixteen going on seventeen, challenged the conventional notion of societal progress measured by the highly utilitarian, short-sighted and reductionistic yardstick of Gross Domestic Product, little would anyone have realised that the alternative vision of holistic development called Gross National Happiness would receive such unreserved global attention as it has today.  

Still in his teens, Bhutan’s young King looked at the world and saw it as it really was – sans vision, sans purpose, sans integrity. It was a world consumed by a never-ending jungle warfare fought on the destructive principle of the survival of the fittest recklessly carried onto the social plane. His Majesty realised that this zero-sum game would lead to the tragic dehumanisation of the human race, unsustainable exploitation of the finite resources of our planet earth, and creation of a vastly unjust world. 

Something was not right. The much-touted uni-dimensional development narrative left out many vital elements of a multi-dimensional story of human and societal progress. The clear vision of the Dragon King pierced through the mirage and saw the truth that was always there – that the most passionate desire of all human beings across time and space is happiness, that the most basic needs of mankind are not necessarily material or physical, that there are other non-economic or non-physical elements that give meaning and worth to life. 

The sublime mind of the King cut through the delusion that the more one has, the happier one is! In fact, the level of material possession could often be the cause of much unhappiness and stress. And, an endless cycle of production and consumption, much favoured by the GDP-pundits as the acclaimed producer of revenue or profit, cannot and must not be the goal of life. 

For Bhutan, therefore, His Majesty had a unique vision of development founded on multiple variables that address the diverse claims of life and living within a mutually supportive planetary framework that would secure the well-being of our all-giving Mother Nature, ensure the sustainability of life for succeeding generations of humans and other life-forms in the sea, on land and in the air, consciously build and nurture a culture of justice and equity for all members of the society, mindfully and wisely preserve and live out the virtues and values of our rich cultural heritage, and honourably promote good governance as an instrument of public service.   

Chastised and chastened by the inescapable consequences of an unsustainable, exploitative model of development that has called the deafening tune hitherto, a more mellowed world has discovered that humble Bhutan’s all-embracing model of human progress is a precious balm to ‘still the tooth that nibbles at the soul’.    

Bhutan’s inclusive, sustainable and mindful development vision of Gross National Happiness has been welcomed in many lands across the world and it has inspired individuals and institutions to do some deep soul-searching as they look at the sorry state of the human predicament. The United Nations General Assembly having endorsed Bhutan’s proposal to make ‘pursuit of happiness a fundamental goal of development’, March 20th has thus been declared the International Day of Happiness by the world body. Numerous institutions, clubs and foundations as well as academic programmes have been established around the world dedicated to the study and understanding of Bhutan’s vision of holistic development. 

The World Happiness Foundation, founded by multi-gifted pre-eminent humanitarian worker, Dr. Lius Gallardo, in tandem with allied institutions, for instance, is dedicated to building ‘the most comprehensive global platform that hosts and amplifies the leaders, individuals, and institutions committed to realizing a world where people are free, conscious and happy.’ 

Built on the core values of Discovery, Connection, Gratitude, and Compassion, the Foundation hopes to create an environment for 10 billion happy people by 2050, by engaging some 10 million educators, eight million health professionals, and seven million business and government leaders. This works out to 400 people per change-maker in the next 30 years. 

This week of March 18th through March 23rd witnesses a multi-faceted World Happiness Fest under the auspices of the World Happiness Foundation and it will host the largest and the most accessible digital summit on well-being and happiness on the planet. It will feature an estimated 160,000 attendees, 150 well-being experts, and 120 workshops, streaming live from some 80 cities around the world.  

The Foundation is supported by a Board of Advisors. Its guiding impulse is be.

As we celebrate the International Day of Happiness, we pay our deepest tributes to the sacred fount of the all-embracing vision of Gross National Happiness, revered Druk Gyal Zhipa, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, for this precious gift to Bhutan and to the world. 

We also offer our gratitude to all men and women of goodwill around the world who are working tirelessly to advance the cause of happiness and well-being among all peoples and sentient beings in all realms. 

This special day inspired by the sublime vision of one of the greatest statesmen of modern times, it is my prayer that even as the world looks upon our country as a rare oasis of hope in a visionless world, we do our own share of soul-searching as a nation and as a people. 

Gross National Happiness, like so many other vital national projects, is still work-in-progress. It is incumbent upon us to align our thought and action with the national vision – as the government, bureaucracy, parliament, constitutional bodies, political parties, apolitical institutions, the private sector, civil society, as individuals and common citizens. We could indeed be more deserving of the unconditional care and compassion of our beloved People’s King.

When the rubber meets the road, the well-being of our society and our nation depends upon the attitude and action of each one of us. For surely, as I am, so is my nation.

May the Almighty bless our precious Tsa-wa-sum and peace, happiness and well-being prevail on earth forever.

Contributed by 

Thakur S Powdyel

Former Minister of Education

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