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དུས་མཐུན་བཟོ་ཡོད: 24 min 11 sec གི་ཧེ་མ།

An independent office to address water shortage: PM 

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:12

Younten Tshedup 

The government has lawfully nominated Tenzin Lekphel as BIMSTEC secretary general in the best interests of the country, according to Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering.

Lyonchhen said that given the roles and responsibilities of the BIMSTEC secretary general that included promoting business and commerce in the region and maintaining good relations among member countries, Tenzin Lekphel, was the ideal candidate for the post.

According to the Memorandum of Association (MoA) on the establishment of the permanent secretariat, the secretary general of the organisation shall be nominated by a member country on the principle of alphabetical rotation.

Lyonchhen said,  “When the opportunity was presented to us, Tenzin Lekphel was our first choice. However, we could have nominated anyone. But personally, my first choice was Tenzin Lekphel and I have nothing to hide here.”

He said that there could be other better nominations but given his political experience, interests and the rapport with the government, the former two-time Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) Bartsham-Shongphu candidate from Trashigang made the ideal candidate for the position.

The government was criticised for nominating a registered party member, who also is one of the founders of the party, for the position.

To this, Lyonchhen said that the Tenzin Lekphel’s curriculum vitae (CV) submitted to the BIMSTEC member countries clearly outlined his political career since 2008 including highlights as the DNT’s founding father and secretary general, the party’s strategist and as an advisor to the government.

“99 percent of his CV is on politics because that (SG) is a political post. If we consider this, we’ll not have a better candidate than Tenzin Lekphel.”

Lyonchhen said that there could have been more educated and capable candidates than Tenzin Lekphel, but given the strength of the CV especially for that position, he was the ideal candidate for Bhutan as well as for all the BIMSTEC member countries.

He said that nowhere in the Election Commission’s guidelines reflected  that the nomination of Tenzin Lekphel, a registered political party member, for the post of BIMSTEC SG, was wrong.

Tenzin Lakphel, according to Lyonchhen, contributed not only to the DNT party but more so to the strengthening of the entire democratic process in the country for more than a decade. “Nominating him for this post was the least the government could do.”

“After everything he has done and still continues to do for the democratic process in the country, when there was a job vacancy that the government had full right to make the nomination, I personally thought there was no harm in nominating him.”

Lyonchhen said that despite not making through the elections personally, on two successive occasions, Tenzin Lekphel continues to support and constantly guide the government even today.

With all the rights he has, Lyonchhen said that if he could not help a person like Tenzin Lekphel, he would be the most unhappy person.

Responding to the criticism on the lack of transparency, Lyonchhen said that there is nothing that the government was hiding or could have possibly hidden from the public.

He said that people were also accusing the government of unfair practices and not conducting an open competition of the position.

“If there was a requirement for an open competition, it must be done. However, since there was no requirement, we didn’t do it. And it was I who decided on this.”

Lyonchhen said that if the procedure was deemed unlawful, he would not have done it in the first place.

The National Council in a recent letter stated that the House of Review was of the view that the nomination could possibly contravene sections 54, 58 and 63 of the Anti-Corruption Act of Bhutan 2011 (ACAB).

Sections 54, 58 and 63 of the ACC Act pertain to active trading in influence, commission amounting to an abuse of functions and failure to declare a conflict of interest.

The NC has requested the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to validate any contravention of the provisions and sections of the Act. The government is yet to hear from the commission.

“If the ACC finds anything wrong, we’ll not argue. If I’m mistaken, I’ll not justify myself further. If I’ve breached any of the existing laws of the country by nominating Tenzin Lekphel, I would personally take the responsibility and beg pardon from the citizens.”

Meanwhile, seven of the eight-member countries (including Bhutan) have endorsed Tenzin Lekphel’s nomination.

Bhutan’s first govt. bond, worth Nu 3B, well-received 

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:12

MB Subba

The issuance of the first-ever sovereign or government bond worth Nu 3 billion (B) with a three-year maturity period has been well-received and fully subscribed.

The bond has been allotted. The Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) on behalf of the government had offered the bond for subscription from September 7 to 22 at the annual coupon (interest) rate of 6.5 percent.

A total of seven institutions and 48 individuals subscribed. Financial and non-financial institutions including pension, insurance companies and CSOs participated.

The finance ministry will pay the coupon on a half yearly basis. The maturity date is September 26, 2023, on which the principal amount and final interest will be paid.

The issuance of the bond is aimed at supporting the economy to recover from the pandemic while diversifying financial sources.

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering said that the capital will not only be mobilised for Covid-19 purposes but also to bridge the financial gap.

“Our annual budget normally comes with a budgetary gap and issuance of the bond is one of the means of meeting the resource gap,” he said. The issuance of the bond, he said, also would help circulation of money in the economy.

The finance ministry has described the issuance of the first-ever government bond for public subscription as a historical move and that it had significantly expanded the government’s fiscal management space.

The new financing instrument, which was supported by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), is a monumental step in tapping into the domestic resources market and preparing Bhutan to enter the international capital market, a press release posted on ESCAP’s website states.

The ESCAP provided its assistance in the form of research studies, training workshops and study tours.

United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bhutan, Gerald Daly, has congratulated Bhutan on the successful completion of the offering of the bond despite the small economy, according to the press release.

“The UN system stands ready to further support Bhutan in its efforts to mobilize financial resources and build resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond,” she said.

The plan to issue the sovereign bond began years ago. But the Covid-19 pandemic has provided impetus for the government to take much-needed measures to support the economy.

The ESCAP states that the innovative project serves as an example of how Least Developed Countries with underdeveloped financial infrastructure could issue sovereign bonds as a tool for economic recovery and capital market development.

“The bond issuance is a major step to independently finance Bhutan’s fiscal needs as the country normally relied on overseas development assistance (ODA) and concessional loans.”

Bhutan and Bangladesh to sign preferential trade agreement

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:11

Bangladesh to give duty free access to 16 more products

MB Subba 

Bhutan and Bangladesh have finalised the draft terms and conditions for signing a preferential trade agreement (PTA) that is expected to increase trade between the two countries.

Bangladesh already gives duty-free access to 18 products, including boulders, oranges and apples. The signing of the agreement will give duty-free access to 16 more products from Bhutan. 

Under the agreement, Bhutan will provide duty-free access to 100 Bangladeshi goods, including garments, processed agricultural goods and electronics.

Trade between the two countries operates under the Bilateral Trade Agreement signed in 1980. The PTA will serve as a formal legal document on trade between the two countries, according to the economic affairs minister.

Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma said that the PTA would make Bhutanese goods competitive in the Bangladesh market due to the duty benefits.

The products from Bhutan that will be given duty-free access include milk, natural honey, wheat, jams, fruit jellies, marmalades, and mineral water and carbonated water.

Other Bhutanese goods that will be eligible for preferential treatment in the Bangladesh market are wheat bran, quartzite, cement clinkers, portland cement, soap, wooden particle boards, ferrosilicon, iron bars and rods or non-alloy steel and wooden furniture among other products.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the two countries have agreed to a draft text of the agreement, which will soon be given a final shape by a commerce secretary-level meeting. The two countries’ economic affairs/commerce ministers are expected to sign the PTA in the near future.

Although Bhutan will give duty-free access to more goods to Bangladesh than otherwise, the economic affairs minister said that that would not impact the trade balance which today is in Bhutan’s favour mainly due the export of boulders and minerals.

In 2019, Bhutan imported goods worth Nu 625 million from Bangladesh but exported goods worth more than Nu 6 billion to Bangladesh.  Bhutan’s exports today are mainly agricultural and mineral products.

The PTA is expected to benefit Bhutan more as the number of duty-free goods to Bangladesh will almost double. The economic affairs minister also said that Bhutan could benefit immensely given the huge market in Bangladesh.

“Our industries are expected to increase their production level with the signing of the preferential trade agreement with Bangladesh,” he said.

Bangladesh has agreed to allow Bhutan to use Chittagong and Mongla ports for export and import of goods.

This, the minister believes, will make the export of Bhutanese goods beyond the neighbouring countries easier. “We are hoping that we will be able to make use of the sea ports once we sign the agreement,” he said.

“The agreement will help us enhance our trade. It also helps us in strengthening relations with our trading partners,” Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said.

The tobacco dilemma

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:11

The government, despite severe criticisms from several groups and political parties, went ahead with the decision to allow the sale of tobacco in the country. It made the Bhutan Duty Free Limited the main vendor of tobacco products.

The idea was to curb the illegal trade of tobacco along the border, seen as high risk of contracting Covid-19 by the illegal movement of people, and to control the tobacco black market in the country. It was well received, especially those who use tobacco and who had been paying through the nose after the closure of the border.

Today, tobacco is available and cheaper even if it takes hours or days and a lot of patience waiting in line at the outlets.

However, it seems like the idea has only partially worked. The black market is as thriving as it was before the pandemic or before the state-owned enterprise ventured into distributing tobacco. We have not heard of people getting nabbed for crossing the border illegally to smuggle in tobacco, but judging by the black market, the supply has not been disrupted by the government’s initiative.

Many are suspecting that those in the black market are making the most of the government’s idea. When the government decided to allow the Bhutan Duty Free to sell tobacco, there were concerns that it would fuel the black market. Although there are no records, it seems that this is what is happening. The criticism is that the government has replaced the tobacco sellers in Jaigaon.

Those in the black market have tricks up their sleeves. It is not surprising, like many suspect, if they are buying tobacco from the outlets, hoard it and then resell it. It is very easy to hoodwink authorities. The monthly quota, 750 grams or 75 packets of chewing tobacco and 800 sticks per person, is enough to make a good profit margin when sold in the black market. The trick is that anybody with a citizenship identity card can buy a month’s quota. At the outsourced outlets, it is not sure if a person coming daily is checked for his or her details.

If the government’s decision is fuelling the black market, it is the biggest irony. Black markets are difficult to curb and the pandemic has restricted inspectors to move around as freely as those in the illegal trade. About 10 businesses licences were cancelled for illegal possession of tobacco in Thimphu. But this is just scratching the surface. There are shops selling tobacco all over the city. Everybody knows them, perhaps except the authorities or officials trying to go after them.

A decision, to allow the sale of tobacco, has been made. It has to be streamlined. If policy makers are lost of ideas, they could ask a tobacco user. Many say that rationing or not giving 800 sticks of cigarettes or 750 packets of chewing tobacco could help prevent hoarding by the black marketers.

The tobacco issue is an old issue without successive governments finding a good solution. It is time to relook into the policy. The Tobacco Control Act should be amended when parliament session resumes if we are to find a longer-term solution. However, the best, if we can do is continue with advocacy and strategies to make people kick the bad habit. Tobacco is bad from the health and religious, and even from the financial point of view.

Netizens on social media are neither an investigating officer nor a judge

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:10

Netizens becoming both judge and jury is one of many negative impacts of social media in Bhutan. It has become a trend in recent times where an anonymous post with unsubstantiated facts and allegations are gaining momentum. These posts are often filled with vested interests and hominem arguments. Though most of them originate from anonymous profiles, they often get shared, liked, commented, character assassinated, and mob-lynched by many netizens. 

Freedom of speech, opinion and expression indisputably lies at the centre of democracy and “check government tyranny” but it is not absolute. For example, under Article 7(22) of our Constitution, one individual’s fundamental right ceases the moment it infringes on the rights of another.

Unverified and unsubstantiated facts or allegations are a gross violation of not only the fundamental rights of people but also illegal and ethically and morally wrong. It may destroy many innocent individuals and their families as they face mental trauma and social stigma for no reason.  

 Constitutionally, any investigations based on presumptions or passing of judgments without due process of law are unconstitutional and illegal. Under Article 7, a person’s right to life, liberty, and security can be deprived only with due process of law. Due process “is fundamental rationality and fairness.” The right to a fair trial is considered “a central pillar of our criminal justice system”.

 A fair trial is designed to ensure the right to presume innocence until proven guilty guaranteed under Article 16 of the constitution. Most importantly, such posts deliberately undermine the fundamental principles of justice, the equality before the law and a person’s right to privacy and protection of honour and reputation and his or her family.

The Information, Communications, and Media (ICM) Act of Bhutan 2018 makes it accountable for any content one generates. Section 464(2) defines content as “any information, sound, text, data, picture (still or moving), other audio-visual representation, signal or intelligence of any nature or in any combination thereof which is capable of being created, processed, stored, retrieved or communicated electronically or in other forms.” Thus, anything one does on social media constitutes content under Section 464(2). 

 Under Section 426 of the ICM, posting, sharing, or commenting on photos, images, or information in any form may constitute a criminal offence of online harassment. The accused could face both imprisonment and liable to pay compensation to the victims. Section 464 (52) harassment “includes persistent conduct which is calculated, or likely to cause insult, injury, intimidation, enmity, obstruction, stalking, annoyance, distress, or extreme irritation to any person, making use of such ICT device, apparatus or facility or system.”

 A person can also sue the content generator for defamation. Defamation is both a criminal offence and a civil wrong in Bhutan. It can attract up to five years in imprisonment and hefty compensation.  

The least understood negative impact of any criminal conviction is on a person’s opportunity to contest any election in their lifetime. Section 179 of the Election Act of Bhutan, disqualifies any candidate from participating in any elections during an entire lifetime if convicted.” 

Therefore, netizens must use social media for productive discourse and healthy debate to build a vibrant democracy instead of investigations and passing judgments based on presumptive and unsubstantiated facts. If unchecked, such fallacies of personal attacks could become a threat to our nascent democracy as they can generate undesired sentiments, generate unhealthy and divisive discussions and debate in society. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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

Nu 3B soft loans availed from ADB and WB for Covid-19 related activities

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:10

Block grants unaffected by re-prioritisation exercise

MB Subba 

The government wants to keep the economy ticking over during the Covid-19 pandemic by boosting public spending, but there are challenges as the strategy is faced with not only budgetary constraints but also lack of skilled labour.

The domestic revenue has decreased while the pandemic has opened floodgates for expenditures, budgets for which were not allocated initially.

Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), Thinley Namgyel, in an interview with Kuensel said, “Our resources are limited. We have to use them in the areas that gives us the best results.”

The country has availed soft loans of nearly Nu 3 billion (B) from the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), according to him. But he added that availing grants was challenging as the pandemic had affected almost every country.

Before the 21-day lockdown in August, the estimated domestic revenue in the fiscal year 2020-21 was Nu 33B, which was a 14 percent decline from the previous fiscal year. The revenue may have decreased further after the lockdown.

The GNHC secretary said that the government had no option but to defer some of the activities that are relatively less important. He said that reprioritisation of activities was not a one-time exercise and that some of those deferred activities could be brought back towards the end of the 12th Plan depending on how the Covid-19 situation evolves.

However, the GNHC secretary said that the allocation of block grants has not been affected by the reprioritisation exercise.

“Block grants are provided by the centre and it is for the Dzongkhag Tshogdu and the Gewog Tshogde to decide where they want to put the money as per the local government Act,” he said.

But he added that the GNHC was requesting local governments to prioritise food security, health, education and activities such as job creation that would enhance the local economy.

Asked if the overall budget ceiling would decrease with the re-prioritisation exercise, the GNHC secretary said, “There’ s no chance of increasing the budget (from the previously allocated estimations). But we are trying to maintain at the same level at the moment.”

The capital budget for the 12th Plan is Nu 116 billion (B). For the current fiscal year, the recurrent and capital budget allocations are Nu 32.9B and Nu 36.25B respectively, excluding the allocation for principal repayment and on lending.

To bridge the fiscal gap, the government has offered bonds worth Nu 3 billion (B) with a maturity period of three years for public subscription for the first time.

The government is expected to issue more bonds of the maturity period ranging from three years to seven years during the fiscal year 2020-21.

According to the finance ministry, the main objectives of issuing the bonds include creating opportunities for domestic investors and domestic liquidity management during liquidity shortfall in the economy. Earlier in August, the government also offered Treasury Bills (T-Bills) worth Nu 3 billion (B) for sale.

The GNHC secretary said that the construction sector would receive the government’s priority.

However, he highlighted the issues in getting skilled workers in implementing the activities. Many Indian workers have expressed their desire to return to their homes amid the pandemic while some have already left.

The only Covid-19-proof economic bedrock was the hydropower sector, from which revenue had increased by 14 percent as of August, according to the Druk Green Power Corporation Limited.

When the government presented the annual budget 2020-21 in Parliament, the GDP projection for the year was 1 percent. Post-lockdown, the GDP growth projection for 2020 has been revised downward to negative 2.1 percent.

Wholesale traders waiting for SOP to start importing

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:09

Rajesh Rai  | Phuentsholing

Not many wholesalers of goods, especially essentials, have enough stock to last more than a month should there be another lockdown in Phuentsholing, which is still a red zone.

The traders attribute the depleting stocks to problems in importing essentials. Increased loading and transshipment charges at the mini dry port (MDP) and incomplete warehouse Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) as required by the Covid-19 safety protocol are the two primary reasons.

An official from UT trading, Deepen Ghalley said most of their stocks have been transported to Thimphu already. The company is currently working on the SOP for its warehouse, commonly known as godown. Several facilities such as holding rooms and separate toilets for drivers and labourers have to be constructed, according to the SOP.

“Once the SOP is approved, we will start importing,” Deepen Ghalley said.

With their own warehouse ready with SOPs, traders will be able to bring in consignments directly to their go-downs—without having to go through the unloading and transshipment at the MDP. With this system, dealers could also avoid the loading and transshipment charges at the MDP.

Traders are also faced with the problem of workers at the MDP. While there are not many loaders, traders said those available are inexperienced. Today there are only 38 loaders at MDP. Prior to the lockdown, there were more than 140 loaders.

“Transshipping is a problem. Loaders cannot fit goods from a small truck to a bigger truck as they are inexperienced,” said a trader.

A Thimphu importer, Sonam Tshering said the essentials he stocked prior to lockdown has already exhausted and that dealers have been requesting the government for approval of new imports.

“As there are limited labourers for unloading they are restricting import,” he said.

“But we are asking the government to allow import from Pasakha by following protocols and unloading our goods by our own labourers so that we don’t put pressure on the government.”

Although FCBL may have stock but it could be limited at this time, Sonam said. He also said people preferred rice brands that are not with the FCBL.

“Their stocks are also getting depleted and should there be another lockdown, we will be in big trouble.”

A manager with the Tashi Commercial departmental store, Subash Rana said they have a month’s stock of essentials.

“We will have the last few consignments come today,” he said. “We have everything—starting from personal care products to all essentials.”

Subash Rana, however, said that there were problems with unloading and transshipment at the MDP. Loading charges have increased by more than Nu 1,000 compared to the past.

A Zimdra Impex manager said most of their stocks are stuck in Jaigaon. Including those stuck at Jaigaon, Zimdra Impex has a month’s stock of essentials.

Meanwhile, wholesalers will also have to import directly from the factories from now on. This means they will have to get dealerships for essential products they import. This was made compulsory recently, importers said.

Tamzhing Enterprise’s proprietor, Sonam Rinchen said they have contacted at least 10 companies and have signed agreements with them.

“Now we are working on the SOP for our go-down,” he said, adding that some infrastructures have to be built.

Tamzhing Enterprise that supplies essentials across the country doesn’t have much stock. The enterprise only imported what its clients had ordered. Imports will be allowed after the SOP is approved, Sonam Rinchen, who is closing his go-down to work on the SOP said.

“There is a lot of pressure from the customers,” he said.

A grocer and wholesaler, Kelzang Thinley said importing directly from the manufacturers is challenging. Kelzang said he has dealerships for five companies. However, there are many products, mostly, small ones for which even big dealers have no trade with the manufacturing companies.

Meanwhile, FCBL’s stocks are also currently lower than the required quantity. As of September 19, FCBL had a stock balance of 6,317 metric tonnes (MT) of rice. It is supposed to have 8,407MT of rice at any given point in time.

The corporation had 1,220MT of oil and 260MT of pulses.

The corporation has already started working on procurement.

In Covid-19 preparedness, as per the government instruction, FCBL had imported and stocked up 16,815MT of rice, 1,657MT of cooking oil and 675MT of pulses. Just prior to the lockdown on August 11, the corporation was left with 11,188MT of rice, 1,537MT of oil and 617MT of pulses.

Post-lockdown assessment show high rate of compliance

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:08

Younten Tshedup 

Three weeks after the lockdown, Thimphu has not recorded any positive cases from the community so far. 

However, the capital city remains the most vulnerable given its high population density and one of the highest mobility rates.  

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that as per the Covid-19 risk assessment criteria, should there be an outbreak in Thimphu, disease containment would be very challenging.  

Thus, even during the lockdown, Thimphu saw one of the highest frontline responders deployed beside the high-risk areas (southern dzongkhags) to prevent the disease.

Also, with most of the headquarters of agencies located in the capital city, measures were put in place for some of these agencies to allow them to function from a containment centre during the lockdown. 

With the lockdown now lifted, officials from the health ministry said that it was imperative to assess the compliance to Covid-19 safety precautions in the containment centres and also to ensure the safety and wellbeing of frontline responders during the post-lockdown phase in Thimphu.        

On September 4, after the lifting of the lockdown, a team comprising health officials (TAG), police, De-Suup, thromde and dzongkhag administration assessed 62 containment centres between Dechenchholing and Chuzom. 

Findings   

Almost 95 percent of the centres had maintained either the Druk Trace QR code or logbook facility to keep a record of any visitors at the facilities. The centres also had functional water supply (92 percent) and soap in the washrooms (90 percent). 

It was found that 66 percent of the containment centres had mess facilities of which 48 percent had their cooks and helpers. They were equipped with necessary protective clothing.      

Seventy-nine percent of the centres had designated health focal points and 82 percent had a contingency plan developed. 

On the individual behaviour, the rate of compliance to safety and precautionary measures of Covid-19 such as hand hygiene, mask-wearing, cough etiquette, and physical distancing, among others, stood at 94.6 percent. 

In case of a health emergency, 93 percent of the centres had established a clear reporting channel and referral system for the frontline responders. 

Recommendation 

On the recommendation of the inspection team, the health ministry’s technical advisory group (TAG) developed a protocol to test the frontline workers. The team had also recommended that good quality face masks for all including public be made available at the centres. 

Given that maintaining physical distance was a challenge in most of the settings, the team recommended focusing on other precautionary measures such as increasing ventilation in the rooms. 

The team also recommended that food should be served by cooks or helpers instead of self-serving.       

Stations report drop in air pollution during lockdown 

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:08

Choki Wangmo 

Confinement measures imposed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic last month have resulted in an unprecedented fall in air pollutants across the country.

All four air quality monitoring stations reported about 50 percent drop in the particulate matter during the nationwide lockdown. The records with the National Environment Commission (NEC) showed comparative improvement in the air quality this year.

In Thimphu, the lowest concentration was recorded on August 17 where the particulate matter (PM10) level was only 2.08 µg/m3 which is the lowest recorded so far for PM10. Last year, the lowest concentration was recorded at 3.62 µg/m3.

The concentration level decreased drastically within a few days of the nationwide lockdown, said an official with the Climate Change Division in NEC.

“The PM10 concentration for 2020 was observed to have decreased drastically in comparison to 2019,” she said.

Particulate Matter is one of the most important causes of health impacts in urban areas across the world. The concentration of particulate matter less than 10 µm in diameter (PM10) is the parameter measured and monitored through all four NEC stations.

In Rinchending, although the PM10 concentration level for April 2020 was higher than that of 2019 by 15 percent, in May, the concentration dropped by more than 50 percent compared to 2019.

The concentration in June and July was similar in both years but the concentration level dropped almost by 50 percent in August this year, the official said.  The PM10 concentration for 2020 was observed to have decreased drastically in comparison to 2019.

In Dewathang, the highest concentration was observed in December 2019 and February 2019 with concentration levels exceeding 111.93 µg/m3 and 110.05 µg/m3 respectively compared to the permissible limit of 100 µg/m3 on a 24-hour average basis.

While the PM10 concentrations for February, March, and April were lower compared to 2019, the PM10 concentration in May and June this year showed an increase in the concentration by 30 percent and 24 percent compared to 2019, before drastically dropping in July 2020.

The data for August, however, couldn’t be obtained due to lockdown in Samdrupjongkhar during the data collection period.

Air pollution in Bhutan is still largely particulate matter and comes from a variety of sources such as vehicular emissions, space heating using wood and other fuels, forest fires, and open burning of agricultural debris, among others.

The current Ambient Air Quality Standard 2020 sets the permissible limit of total suspended particulate matter of PM10 in a day at 500 µg/m3 in an industrial area, 200 µg/m3 in a mixed area, and 100 µg/m3 in a sensitive area.

“Mixed Area” refers to areas where residential and/or commercial activities take place. And similarly, “Sensitive Area” refers to areas where there are places such as hospitals, schools and sensitive ecosystems.

The overall concentration of PM10 in Bhutan is within the permissible limit of the ambient air quality standard of 100 µg/m3 on a 24-hour average basis.

The first international day of clean air for blue skies was celebrated on September 7 to boost cooperation to tackle air pollution and provide clean air for all.

High aerosol transmission risk at Bhutan-India gate in Gelephu: TAG

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:07

Nima  | Gelephu

Gelephu to date reported eight Covid-19 positive cases including the cases detected from the facility quarantine, containment facility, and outside the quarantine.

Of the total cases, six are frontline workers who were on duty at Bhutan-India border gate and the point of entries.

According to the health ministry’s technical advisory group (TAG), there was high risk of frontline workers getting exposed to the virus while opening the border gate for the incoming vehicles.

Indian drivers on the other side of the gate were found without a mask and the Bhutanese officials talk to them through the gate breaching the physical distancing measure.

Chief programme officer with the communicable disease division, Rinxin Jamtsho, said that the virus spreads through aerosol.

“The virus survives for hours and there are chances of transmission through aerosol created by the crowd. Police officials have to get inside India while opening the gate,” he said.

TAG recommended avoiding close contact with the drivers while talking and not allowing drivers to come near the gate.

Another high risk for the frontline officials working at the gate is while collecting documents after the dropbox used to store documents of the incoming vehicles is filled.

“It is confirmed that the virus survives on the various surface of the material. It is up to five hours for papers and two to three days on plastics. If the driver is infected, the virus would be there on the paper. There is no concrete schedule when these documents would be picked,” said Rinxin Jamtsho.

He added that there was not much risk if PPEs were being used properly but risky if PPEs are not used and if they become complacent.

“There is no evidence and there is no exact identified source of two cases here. All these should be taken into consideration,” he said.

TAG recommends the compulsory use of PPEs and to handle the documents after five days if feasible.

TAG concluded that the transmission through unintentional breach of safety protocols at the POEs could be the possible source of infection at the containment facility.

The highest number of vehicles entering Bhutan was from Siliguri followed by Guwahati and Bongaigaon, India where the Covid-19 case is on the rise. Assam reported over 150,000 cases to date.

Four drivers entered Bhutan with consignments for more than 10 times in the lockdown.

The high frequency of trucks entering Bhutan and unloading goods at designated points poses a high risky for the frontline workers if the safety measures are not in place, according to TAG.

The first community Covid-19 case from a frontline worker was detected on August 27, the second also from the frontline worker was on September 11, and the man was the secondary contact of the first case detected from a frontline worker. They were working together at the main gate.

Three primary contacts of the second case tested positive for Covid-19 after they were placed under the facility quarantine on September 17.

The test for the primary contacts are done either after three of five days of their last contact with the index case.

 

48 high-risk POEs and villages in Sarpang 

The assessment conducted by the technical advisory group included over 70 points of entries and villages located along the border in the dzongkhag.

TAG identified 48 villages and POEs under the high-risk category. These villages and POEs are less than five kilometres away from the neighbouring Indian villages.

Four routes that reported illegal activities were also a high-risk area.

Fifty-nine Bhutanese villages are adjacent to Indian villages and there are high chances for interactions for any kind of business, casual interactions, and smuggling.

TAG recommended the dzongkhag to carry out surveillance and study on possible involvement in smuggling, carry out public awareness and advocacies, and to strengthen security and surveillance system.

The official said it would also help in preventing other communicable diseases that were often transmitted through porous borders.

Based on the number of trips goods are imported so far, TAG identified seven shops and agents that fall under high-risk groups: Bhutan Oil Distributor, Dechen Tshongkhang, Dugar Grocery, FCBL and Gelephu Grocery among others.

Paro court convicts six in smuggling case

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:07

Phub Dem | Paro

Paro dzongkhag court sentenced six men involved in smuggling goods via the Bhutan-China border earlier this year to a prison term ranging from three to six months.

The court convicted Lhap Tshering, Passang, and Dargo from Paro for smuggling of the goods. They were found guilty as per the section 279 of the Penal Code of Bhutan (PCB) which states that a defendant shall be guilty of the offence of smuggling, if the defendant secretly and illegally imports or exports the restricted and prohibited goods or substances including animal parts.

Among the smuggled goods were also sex toys.

The court convicted them for petty misdemeanour. They can, however, pay Nu 21,875 each in lieu of imprisonment.

As per section 280 of the PCB, the defendants were imprisoned on value-based sentencing.

Another man, Thinley, helped transport the smuggled goods from Lemdho to Zamsa. The court convicted him to three months imprisonment as per section 125 of PCB of aiding and abetting.

Kipchu was found guilty of solicitation, as the defendant requested Dargo, one of the smugglers to smuggle ten boxes of sex toys worth Nu 51,500. He has to serve two months and 28 days in prison or could pay Nu 11,000 in lieu of imprisonment.

The court also convicted Ugyen for solicitation, aiding and abetting as he asked Passang and Lhap Tshering to smuggle blankets, mattresses, tea leaves and gloves worth Nu 95,275 and helped transport the goods. He has to serve a prison term of five months and 25 days or pay Nu 21,875 in lieu of imprisonment.

Paro police arrested six of them in November last year.

The seized goods were bound for India through an illegal route.

Eight out of nine red zones test negative

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:05

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

581 individuals from eight clusters of the red zones in Phuentsholing tested negative for Covid-19 yesterday. The clusters will now remain under surveillance for a week.

Health minister Dechen Wangmo announced this at the meet the press session yesterday in Thimphu.

The residents completed their second lockdown of 21 days yesterday.

Lyonpo said that Project DANTAK camp residents will be tested after two weeks. With Project DANTAK premise, there are nine clusters identified as Red Zone in Phuentsholing.

Meanwhile, people from these eight clusters did not know if their lockdown was slightly relaxed since yesterday.

They were also unsure what was for them in-store after the one-week surveillance was over.

One of the residents, Sangay from NHDCL colony, one of the eight clusters, said that people followed the lockdown rule as usual and didn’t come out in the open yesterday.

“It is the 46th day for us here,” he said. “People are finally happy about testing negative.”

Sharing his lockdown experience, Sangay said considering the close proximity with Project DANTAK, the second phase of 21-day lockdown was “very strict” compared to the first one.

“For about one week, there were difficulties to get essentials,” he said, adding that the delivery eventually improved.

Sangay said staying inside the house could be a depressing experience. “If the lockdown continued for two months, people will go through many social and psychological problems.” 

Another resident, Sonam Tshering also remained indoors. He didn’t know about lockdown relaxation.

“I don’t have movement card,” he said, adding that nobody has disseminated information of the relaxation.

“But we are under surveillance for another week.”

JDWNRH records one suicide case every fourth day

ཉིམ།, 09/26/2020 - 21:02

Younten Tshedup

In a disturbing trend, the national referral hospital’s forensic department recorded at least one suicide case every four days this month.

There were seven suicide cases including an attempted suicide in the last 26 days in Thimphu.

On September 24, mushroom collectors found a 39-year-old man hanging from a tree in the forest of Ngabiphu. He had fled after hitting his wife with a knife. Police had been on the lookout for him.

Just the day before, a 25-year-old university graduate was found dead at her relatives’ house in Babesa, Thimphu. Following an argument with her elder sister in the morning, the woman had locked herself inside her room. She was known to be hot-tempered and used to frequently lock herself up after arguments.

When her sister went to check on her later that day, she was found hanging inside the room. She was unemployed.

Similarly, a 24-year-old man was also found dead inside his room on September 19. The body was discovered when the deceased’s brother and mother returned from an evening walk.

According to health officials, his relatives said that he was suffering from depression. However, no medical records were found during the time of the investigation.

It was learnt that the deceased who was helping his brother with a private business had recently shared about suicidal thoughts with his family members.

On September 18, a 43-year-old corporate employee was found dead with a suicide note. It mentioned about his paternity issues. He had an extramarital affair with a colleague who became pregnant.

Officials said that the note read that he committed suicide because of the guilt and embarrassment he had to endure.

A person reported missing was found dead in the early hours on September 17. The 27-year-old labourer left a suicide note in an empty room adjacent to the house where the deceased and his friends lived.

After finding out about his wife’s extramarital affair, his suicide note expressed his feelings for her. The deceased had visited the emergency unit at the national referral hospital the previous day with mild symptoms. However, with no major issues, he was allowed to go home the same night.

A 35-year-old woman was found hanging from a tree some 100m from her house in Chubachu on August 30. It was learned that the deceased was not in good relation with her husband. She had made suicide threats in the past. She worked as a sweeper.

On September 16, a 28-year-old woman had attempted her fourth suicide by trying to hang herself in the bathroom. The recently divorced woman had issues especially with the custody of her child who was with her husband after the divorce.

Health officials said that there was no foul play observed in any of the cases. However, the sudden spike in the number of suicide cases has left them worried.

Forensic specialist with the national referral hospital, Dr Norbu said that although the sudden spike happened following the lockdown, it could not be directly related to the impacts of the lockdown.

There were also varying circumstantial evidence among the six cases such as family issues and extramarital affairs, among others.

Dr Norbu said that trend was concerning. “We have never had such a spike in the past. These six cases otherwise would be in reported in six months.”

He said that since 2016, the health ministry started a national suicide registry which recorded on an average of about 12 suicide cases a year at the national referral hospital between 2016 and 2019.

The department has recorded 12 suicide case so far this year. There were 9, 12, 16, 15, 13 suicide cases in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 respectively.

Meanwhile, the department is studying the profile and characteristics of the deceased to find out possible causes and reasons for causing suicidal tendencies among people.

As per the World Health Organisation, Dr Norbu said that for every suicide there are at least 20 suicidal attempts.

Meanwhile, a newborn was found abandoned in a plastic bag near Babesa area yesterday. The baby was rescued and taken to the JDWNRH. Police are investigating the case. 

12th Plan reprioritisation focuses on social sectors

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:28

Yangchen C Rinzin

The 12th Plan is being reprioritised based on four key priority areas related to Covid-19 pandemic with health as the number one priority sector, followed by education, food security, and infrastructures, Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) officials said.

Establishment of a mini dry port in Gelephu, installation of fuel (POL) reserve depot in Mongar, and granular sub-base work (GSB) of 201 farm roads are the new activities  in the 12th Plan following the reprioritisation.

These are new activities in the plan as per Covid-19 related activities, the GNHC secretary Thinley Namgyel said.

Other new activities are the construction of Gomtu-Tading road, construction of Samrang-Jomotsangkha road, and establishment of a mini dry port in Samtse.

“Reprioritisation of the plan will be more of a regular kind of an exercise now, as the pandemic is uncertain,” the secretary said. The reprioritisation of the Plan was done to create fiscal space for new critical activities.

The secretary said that the purchase of personal protective equipment, Covid-19 testing kits and mandatory quarantine were activities out of the 12th Plan.

“This is why we had to reprioritise other activities to create fiscal space to meet these expenses. Almost Nu 2 billion (B) has been spent,” he said.

Thinley Namgyel said that Gomtu-Tading road had to be included to facilitate the transport of cement export from Gomtu where about Nu 300 million (M) has been allocated as of now.

“The importance of this road was felt during the lockdown. The budget, however, is subject to change,” the secretary said.

Another Nu 29M is kept for the Samrang-Jomotsangkha road where the detailed project report (DPR) is completed and Project DANTAK will construct the road. The road is being frontloaded so it would help people of Jomotsangkha.

Although the 12th Plan had only DPR of mini dry port in Gelephu, it is now being fast-tracked and tentatively about Nu 460M has been allocated for the project. Department of Trade is already working on the establishment of the dry port.

The secretary said that besides this, a small mini dry port was also established in Samtse to enhance the export of  boulder. 

Another Nu 600M was adjusted for the construction of a new Mother Child Health care hospital in Mongar at the Royal Guest House.

On the farm roads, the secretary said that the plan is to have one GSB farm road in each gewog in the first phase and Nu 2.5B has been mobilised.

“For this, we don’t require foreign workers as the work can be carried out with the locally available resources and materials,” he said.

The plan is to start with 201 farm roads with the mobilised budget, which means 1,552Km is expected to complete in the next seven months. However, it would require Nu 15B to cover all 2,311 farm roads.

Deferred activities 

Thinley Namgyel said that following the reprioritisation of activities, some major activities were deferred so that the allocated budget could be used for new activities. The deferred activities are construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan highway, Lhamoidzingkha-Sarpang highway, and Maokhola bridge.

“The budget allocated for the deferred activities were re-allocated in the new activities planned for Covid-19 related activities. We deferred activities that were not critical at the moment or during pandemic and activities that did not have resources mobilised yet,” the secretary said.

Other deferred activities include the construction of dzongkhag courts for Thimphu and Chukha, construction of offices, staff quarters, training, study tours, workshops, and establishment of premiere institutes or schools.

“While reprioritising the  activities, it was not easy to shelve activities because the resources or budget available were not our’s,” the secretary said. “Out of Nu 116B total capital budget for planned activities, Nu 68B is from external grant.”

This means the GNHC should have concurrence from donor countries or seek their agreement for reprioritisation although many donors have been forthcoming.

As for Government of India, although the discussion is still on, the secretary said that they have agreed in May to reprogramming of almost Nu 3.5B worth of activies and re-allocate them. “In certain cases, it’s difficult since they’ve to have agreement from the headquarter and they have their own priority activities.”

The secretary said that although there is a plan to boost the economy by spending and slashing some of the activities, it was difficult with limited resources and resources tied with external financing. “We want to invest but we need resources to invest. So, we need to reprioritise or cancel activities.”

The reprioritisation of the Plan created Nu 4.5B for the economic contingency plan for tourism, agriculture, GSB of farm roads and Build Bhutan project.

Almost Nu 600M was created for the agriculture sector in addition to its regular allocated budget. The plan focused on construction of green house, three cold storages, distribution of seedlings, and poultry, among others.

While domestic resources have decreased, the expenditure related to Covid-19 has increased.

The secretary said that the only way to cover the expenses was to defer the less important activities to the 13th Plan or continue in the later part of the 12th Plan.

“However, this would happen only when the domestic revenue improves or the situation improves,” the secretary said.

The GNHC also plans to review the progress of road construction projects that were awarded but work not started.

“If we find that the work cannot be completed,  we’ll reprioritise and use the fund for activities related to Covid-19,” the secretary said. “Whatever the reprioritisation will be, we want to make sure construction activities are continued although getting skilled labour would be a challenge.”

Coming together important to fight Covid-19 pandemic: PM at the UNGA

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:27

Younten Tshedup 

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, in his inaugural statement at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 22, highlighted the importance of multilateralism, the theme for this year’s General Assembly, among member countries in the wake of the pandemic.

The annual meeting, which commenced on September 21 in New York, was held online this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the pandemic high on the agenda, among other issues of global concern.

In his first virtual participation at the General Assembly, Lyonchhen said that the Covid-19 pandemic, like the impacts of climate change, has once again reminded how countries across the world are all interconnected.

“If we don’t strategise and if we don’t act together, Covid-19 and future Covids will turnaround the human developments and achievements by decades. And for the poorer countries, it will be almost irreversible,” he said.

Lyonchhen said that issues like climate change and pandemic affected the developing countries disproportionately, which was why the theme for the 75th session was very appropriate and timely.

Among others, who called for member countries to come together to fight the pandemic, the UNGA President, Ambassador Volkan Bozki Bozkir of Turkey said: 

“Today, we must leave our differences and disagreements aside. Today, we must renew our collective commitment to multilateralism. Today, we must combine our efforts to address this global problem, and we must make sure that no one is left behind.”

The ambassador said that the world was witnessing rising levels of mistrust and rivalry between major powers and that international institutions succeed only when they manage to mediate such tensions.

Meanwhile, going forward, Lyonchhen said that 25 years later when the UN observes its 100th anniversary, in 2045, member countries must achieve 100 percent literacy rate to empower everyone with relevant skills and knowledge to help them live a meaningful life.

He added that along with education, everyone must be 100 percent digitally competent to help them explore business and opportunities from anywhere in the world.

“As a doctor, I cannot help but pray that as the UN turns 100 in 2045, our health system should have advanced so much that our life expectancy should touch three digits,” he said. “If the world comes together, driven by common goals and dreams, no challenges can be difficult and no task unachievable.”

Lyonchhen also congratulated the global body for touching the 75 years milestone.

“If not for Covid-19, this event is worthy for a festivity. I take this opportunity to congratulate all the Secretary Generals and their teams who have contributed so much to make the UN a success story,” he said.

With every leader, the organisation rose to greater heights and millions of families were lifted out of poverty, conflicts and crisis, he added.

He said that nations, irrespective of size and location, received a common platform as a member of a common planet. “UN has been a friend who has supported our socioeconomic programmes and also set impetus to keep pace with the rest of the world. I thank the UN and partner countries for the support.”

Thimphu devises measures from the lockdown lessons 

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:25

Yangyel Lhaden

Thimphu dzongkhag charted a long list of things to do after meetings with officials who served during the recent lockdown to improve the arrangements for a future lockdown.

The standard operating procedure (SoP) Thimphu dzongkhag had drawn out before the lockdown came in handy when the lockdown was announced. But there were still many issues the SoP did not cover.

There was no guideline to address issues such as stranded people and vehicles, and the overwhelming phone calls without a proper toll-free number. The livestock feed was not included in the essential items list.

Some of the services provided during the lockdown by the dzongkhag were essential items delivery, livestock feed, movement of stranded people and vehicles, communication and information desk, and health check-ups.

Officials catering services, during a feedback session, said that there was a need for multi-sectoral approach and coordination among agencies with information and direction from a central agency.

The officials also said that an efficient call centre with more manpower and vehicles for service delivery was needed. The dzongkhag has plan to set up one such call centre by November.

Mobile numbers of a few officials were given as contacts for various services but there were too many calls. A toll-free number was installed but it could handle only five mobile numbers.

There were too many contact numbers, officials said, and residents complained the numbers were always busy. They were unaware of the two separate delivery task force for thromde and dzongkhag administration. Vegetable vendors and shops were not identified before the lockdown for service delivery which posed challenges for essential items delivery.

The dzongkhag is now identifying shops, wholesalers, vehicles and drivers for the delivery of essential commodities especially during the complete lockdown and to cater isolated areas during the unlocking period.  The dzongkhag task force will also fix standard rates of vegetables.

During the lockdown, farmers would be provided with transportation to harvest crops or for any important agriculture work. Surplus products would be exported by Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) and Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives for distribution.

If there happened to be another lockdown Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) would monitor uniform price and stock liquid petroleum gas in the main branch.

Delivery of liquid petroleum gas became a challenge with poor monitoring on uniform price and limited stock at the main branch. Additionally, the delivery to far-flung gewogs such as Soe and Lingzhi was difficult.

Local leaders said that FCBL outlets did not have the required variety and that delayed essential items delivery. The gewogs did not have the cash to procure directly from FCBL.

There was no proper guideline on the distribution of tobacco products and led to hoarding.

By the second week of October, FCBL would replenish essential items in identified shops or gewog store, and coordinate with Bhutan Duty-Free Ltd shop on tobacco distribution.

The health team lacked a plan to address some of the issues that surfaced during the lockdown.

There was plan to deliver essential health care services but there was no plan to deploy vehicles for essential health care services. In the first week due to the shortage of vehicle, the delivery of essential medical services was delayed.

Health officials did not have individual movement pass when they were stopped on road by the police and de-suups which delayed attending emergency cases. Hereafter, they would be given movement passes immediately after lockdown is announced.

A hotline number would be set up for each health centre.

Refilling medicines for chronic patients also became an issue.

During the lockdown, the dzongkhag’s health team identified shops for chronic ailment patients to drop and pick their prescription and medicine. However, lack of cooperation between shopkeepers and front liners on-duty lead to loss of prescription and delivering medicines to the wrong location.

The health officials would personally drop the medicines if there happened to be a lockdown.

Livestock farms and agents hereafter are required to stock feed to last at least a month.

Cold chain facility is expected to be improved for livestock products by 2021. During the lockdown livestock products spoilt due to lack of cold storage facility.

Thimphu Thromde ready for a second lockdown

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:24

Yeshey Lhadon 

Suppose there is another lockdown. Thimphu Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee said that the thromde staff were better prepared to provide essential services.

“In case of another lockdown, the thromde will be stringent and professional with provision of services,” he said.

Call Centre 1009

The thromde has decided to not use the many toll-free and cell phone numbers, which created confusion during the lockdown.

The complaints concerning water supply, sewage leakage, waste management and drain blockage, among others were routed through a toll-free number 2550.

Kinlay Dorjee said: “Going by the lockdown experience, we will only use the toll-free number 1009 for all thromde-related services.”

The call centre, which used to be handled by 80 people, will now be handled by 40 De-Suup.

Thromde will use google documentation software to provide the online services.

Wholesalers and retailers in the zones and subzones

Thromde has worked out the supply chain of essential grocery item and has added one more stock centre, taking the number of centres to 9.

The Four wholesalers

FCBL, Zimdra, Sherza Ventures and 8 eleven didn’t have adequate manpower when the first lockdown happened.

“It hampered our service delivery turnover as there were thousands of orders everyday,” said Kinlay Dorjee.

Nine retailers have been chosen after lucky draw based on their capacity and manpower and four wholesalers to render supply and delivery services.

The Thrompon said that some wholesalers were given soft loan by the government to supply the required items.

It is mandatory for the retailers to stock up 21 essential items enough for 21 days.

“We asked the retailers to submit a list of the items they need to stock up. If we don’t get the list, we will consider that they have enough stock for the next lockdown,” Kinlay Dorjee said.

Each retailer should manage at least five vehicles and bear transportation cost.

The retailers also must set up at least three counters to speed up service delivery.

Thromde faced a huge challenge during the second phase of the lockdown in the 45 zones. Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) had allowed about 600 shops to open and people were allowed to go shopping with movement cards.

The thromde took over the opening of shops from MoEA. Kinlay Dorjee said: “If we allow 600 shops to open, the very purpose of lockdown will be meaningless.”

Thimphu Thromde will open about 200 shops in the second phase depending on the size and population of each zone. There will be restrictions.

Vegetables supply

Thimphu Thromde in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MoAF)will start delivering vegetables in the next lockdown.

MoAF will now bring in vegetables and livestock products in the 9 stock centres. Kinlay Dorjee said: “We can deliver vegetables along with essential rations.”

He said that the ground reality could change.  “No matter how much awareness you create, people will still face problems. Thromde will keep the centres ready.”

Construction of vegetable shops

Thromde is also constructing about 24 vegetable shops in the zones. “We are rushing to complete the vegetable shop construction. It might take about two months,” said Kinlay Dorjee.

During the first lockdown, the government supplied vegetables to the grocery shops in the zones with no vegetable shops but the shops were not willing to sell vegetables, he said.

City address system

Lack of a proper city address system is one of the main challenges for the service providers. Thromde in collaboration with the National Land Commission and Ministry of Works and Human Settlement are working together to put the city address system in place.

“City addresses are critical during such unprecedented times. It will take four to five months to complete the city address system. If the lockdown happens next week or next month, we still don’t have the city address system,” said Kinlay Dorjee.

Rethinking education

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:24

Last week, thousands of students returned to school after a long Covid-19-forced break. Parents, students and even teachers are relieved that the schools, although only for selected standards, could be reopened.

A lot of lessons were missed. Teachers would probably have to rush to cover the lost grounds. School might go on until spring to complete the vast syllabus. Classes X and XII will have a board examination, which will determine their further educational journey. For many, it will be the end of their formal education and end up with “vocational education,” still a vocation jeered upon.

The students who returned to formal classes had a brief experience of what is now called the “future of education.” Forced out of classes and left on their own, they experienced online, phone and peer-to-peer learning besides exploring ways for independent learning. What our students and educationists experienced may be just the tip of the new iceberg. Educationists and experts are exploring and are convinced that technology is driving and determining a new education model.

There is a lot of debate and discourse on the future of education and preparing children for the future work as the world prepares for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” characterised by shift in technological developments where new terms like Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, or Supercomputing have become the norm and are already changing the way we live work.

In 2011, the Institute For the Future (IFTF) predicted future job skills. The future then was 2020. All the jobs predicted from Trash Engineers to 3D printing fabricators to Data junkies, for instance, had strong STEM subject background, mental elasticity, critical thinking as the most common skills.

It is way beyond the comprehension of a student or teacher in a remote school in Bhutan where education tools like the internet is missing. But if we are to remain relevant, it is time to rethink.

A small start has been made. Yesterday, the United Nations Development Programme and Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy launched a conversation series. The idea is to spark new thinking and innovative ideas for a more inclusive, resilient, greener and sustainable Bhutan. The first series was on Future of Skills, Work and Education,  relevant issues as we resume work and school.

It brought many issues as to how we can reshape our school or education system in making our young workforce relevant to the future of work. Like the speakers said, the Covid-19 pandemic was a good reminder. The construction sector came to a standstill when hundreds of foreign workers left the country. Tour guides, cooks, drivers, thousands of young people in the service industry became jobless overnight. There was no hesitation to look for odd jobs. The construction sector is short of people but have to skill or re-skill the employed.

Vocational education was for the underprivileged. Thus we felt so far. It is true to a large extent because we failed to make it attractive and competitive. We realised a long time ago that the civil service and the corporations can take in only so much. We have unemployed engineers, but no plumbers. Agriculture is still seen as a backbreaking job as we are still doing it the old way.  We have more unemployed graduates because we produce thousands every year, but have failed to equip them with different skills. No wonder we see 1,000 applying for a job of a Personnel Officer, for instance.

The series talked about rethinking education, blending learning and even independent learning so that each child can discover their potentials and explore opportunities, all naturally. There were many questions about how we change our mindset from chalk to talk, of teachers becoming a guide by the side and inculcating attitude to learn.

These are relevant questions as we rethink and experience the new normal. How can we translate these brilliant ideas into reality? This is by far the more important question.

We have some serious soul-searching to do.

Phuentsholing truckers are jobless

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:23

Rajesh Rai  | Phuentsholing

Without movement beyond the Rinchending check post, many truckers in Phuentsholing have been rendered jobless.

There are more than 100 trucks lying idle in different locations, truckers say. Although a few get jobs to deliver goods until Rinchending from where the consignments are transshipped, 70 percent of the trucks in Phuentsholing do not have work.

A truck driver and owner, Dorji Wangchuk, said this problem had left many drivers and truck owners without any income.

A stranded trucker lives in the truck with his wife and a son in Toorsa area

“When there is no work, it means a big problem,” he said, adding that soon it would be difficult for him to provide for his family.

Dorji Wangchuk said that trucking business came to a grinding halt after the pandemic hit the country and the sealing of the border gates on March 23.

Truckers can still send their trucks beyond the Rinchending check post but drivers from other dzongkhags will have to take over the vehicle and the load from Rinchending.

This, truckers in Phuentsholing said, was not the best option. The driver who takes over from Rinchending takes a certain portion from the total transportation income.

Pem Tshering, who had a load to drop at Rinchending from Toorsa, said that about Nu 8,000 to Nu 10,000 was invested on the driver if he chose to send his vehicle to the PHPA-II project site.

“My driver had come from Thimphu and stayed at Pekharzhing, at his friend’s place, because he is not allowed to enter Phuentsholing,” he said.

Another trucker, Tshering Dorji, said it was also risky to trust other truckers.

“Since there is no better alternative, we are just staying idle,” he said, adding that his earning was zero these days. “I was not able to pay for my insurance. I am hearing that we will have to pay for our loans from next month.”

Tshering Dorji said that the truckers felt it was not appropriate to raise the issue to the government because it was already under huge pandemic pressure.

If the trucks from other dzongkhags come to Phuentsholing, the drivers are not allowed to drive beyond Rinchending. Driver from Phuentsholing has to be managed. This is also an additional cost.

Truckers also raise their concerns that there is no logistic arrangement for the drivers who come from other dzongkhags who have to stay in Rinchending.

Meanwhile, several drivers are also stranded in Phuentsholing after the nationwide lockdown on August 11.

Kinga Dhendup is stranded along with his wife and son. He is currently living inside his truck at Toorsa.

“We came from Thimphu on August 10 and were headed to Nganglam,” he said.

Kinga’s friend, Pema Thinley from Thimphu, is also stranded in Toorsa and sleeps in his truck.

“It has been 45 days now,” he said.“I eat at Kinga’s kitchen inside the truck sometimes. Otherwise I buy from the canteen nearby.”

Kinga Dhendup and Pema Thinley said they called the helpline and registered for their movement. They were told their turn would come after the relocation of Phuentsholing students, they said, adding that they have received no further information.

“But how long will this continue?” asked one truck owner, adding that drivers could become desperate if they don’t earn and may even resort to other illegal activities.

Solar fence proves effective in Shongphu 

སྤེན།, 09/25/2020 - 11:22

Neten Dorji | Trashigang

Farmers of Kharmi and Gurka in Shongphu gewog, Trashigang are expecting a better harvest this year having beaten the denizens of the forests nearby.

Unlike in past, villagers no longer spend sleepless nights guarding their crops.  Following a high rate of human-wildlife conflict, the gewog installed solar fencing in Kharmi and the two neighbouring villages.

With tangible outcomes, the initial suspicion of its effectiveness has faded gradually. Farmers all praise for it today.

Solar fencing benefited about 63 households in Kharmi and Gurka villages.

“After the solar fencing was installed, we don’t worry as much as we used to do in the past years,” Chanu, 70 said.

Chanu spent his entire life guarding the crops in the fields. Despite the hard work, wild boars would devastate their harvest in just one night.

Increasing instances of wildlife predation have led to more fallow lands across the country and also farmers depending more on imported rice.

“Life is much better now as we can devote more time to perform household chores and other farming activities,” Chanu said.

“We needn’t chase wild animals shouting day and night.”

Another villager, Tshewang Namgay said if not for the solar fencing, by the time they approach the harvest season, half the crops would be lost to wild animals.

“Besides the crops, the fencing has helped us to protect domestic animals too,” he said.  “We could harvest 90 percent of what we cultivated in the fields.

“You lose interest in work when such things happen,” another villager, Sangay Choden said. “But since it is our only means of survival, we don’t have any options than imports.”

The 64-year-old farmer said that in the past crops were lost to wildlife despite sleepless nights of guarding in makeshift sheds that dot at every end of the field.

A villager said that it would be helpful if RNR increased the current-voltage or they are allowed to use electric current.

“It’d be helpful for both farmers and the government if they could provide us railing fencing instead of solar fencing,” he said.  “Solar fencing does not last long.”

The only complaint is that the solar fencing is not so effective against monkeys.

Villagers said as monkeys were clever and that they knew that the solar fencing wire does not produce electric current continuously.

“The monkeys tend to touch the fencing and wait for a while before they quickly jump over the fence,” Dechen Dorji said.

“Sometimes porcupine penetrates into a field from space below electric wires and attracts our crops,” the villager said.

Those in the gewog without electric fencing have lost their crops to wild animals.

“When the wild boars couldn’t enter the solar fence, they attracted our fields,” a 45-year-old farmer from a neighbouring village said.  “The solar fencing has proven effective. We hope the gewog would provide us too.”

Meanwhile, Gewog agriculture extension officer, Nim Dem said: “We have proposed another 20 kilometres of electric fencing in the CARLEP project in 2020- 2021 financial year.”

She said that releasing the benefits of electric fencing more villagers were coming up with requests.

ཤོག་ལེབ་ཚུ།