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དུས་མཐུན་བཟོ་ཡོད: 14 min 15 sec གི་ཧེ་མ།

Focus point

13 hours 34 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Conducting board exam amid the pandemic is our best option: PM

13 hours 34 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Yangyel Lhaden

The Ministry of Education (MoE) will conduct the board exams for Classes X and XII as scheduled from February 14 to 28.

The ministry issued a notification yesterday asking schools in the country to operate in self-containment zone immediately.

The notification also mandates the dzongkhag and thromdes to make necessary arrangements for students to take the examination.

It also stated that boarding schools should admit day scholars as boarders immediately, and all-day schools should make necessary arrangements like hostels and kitchen facilities to accommodate students on campus. “All students and teachers should be tested for Covid-19 before entering the school.”



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Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that conducting board exams according to the schedule was necessary rather than postponing, as there’s no guarantee that the situation will improve. “We cannot keep on postponing the date because there are Covid-19 positive cases. It is better to conduct exams with the best control measures in place.”   

However, parents are raising concerns on social media platforms about day schools making accommodations for boarding facilities.

A parent said schools that do not have boarding facilities would not have the needed levels of nutrition, warmth, comfort, and hygiene.



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Another parent said that in thromde schools, parents would be more responsible and better caregivers, and preferable to containing students in school. “Students can be quarantined at home and tested once every week with strict Covid-19 protocols in school.”

Education Minister Jai Bir Rai said that the ministry was also concerned with the issues raised by the parents, but those were secondary reasons and parents should be more concerned about letting their children take the exam. “Postponing the exam is an easy thing to do, but what if we cannot conduct the exams due to the situation even after a year?”

He said that arrangements were being made to provide the best facilities the government can, but people should also remember that due to lockdown, there are challenges to providing the best accommodation. “I request that students be flexible, as it is only for a month.”

According to the minister, each student will be paid a Nu 1,500 stipend for the month.



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He said that parents could also support the government in providing better accommodations. “Many parents have volunteered to pay half or full stipends for their children.”

Meanwhile, all Class X and Class XII students, except for those having to undergo quarantine, have to report to their respective schools by January 31.

Health ministry mobilise staff for  hospitals in outbreak areas

13 hours 35 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Nima | Gelephu

While no positive cases in Sarpang have needed any medical care and hospitalisation to date, the Ministry of Health is planning to mobilise health staff.

Officials from the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), at the press conference yesterday, said that there were requests from hospitals across the country to mobilise health staff.

A member of TAG, Dr Tshokey, said mobilisation of the staff would be rationalised and sent where it’s genuinely required.

The health ministry is working on it.

If hospitals face a shortage of doctors and nurses, staff would be mobilised from the unaffected districts, as it was done during the lockdown in Samtse and Phuentsholing, according to the official.



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“We have already started working on what is really required. We have identified medical officer nurses to go down. If things get worse, we will provide the necessary support, give best to everywhere,” said the official.

“We have also requested Royal Civil Service Commission to release medical doctors undergoing training in Royal Institute of Management, considering the current situation. They already have working experience,” said Dr. Tshokey.

Officials said the workforce in health is limited in the country and is difficult to know which district would be affected at this juncture.

It was also highlighted that measures were in place to ensure no hospital is overwhelmed while following the virus elimination approach in the country.



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In the past five days, Gelephu and Sarpang reported 138 cases, 90 from the community and close contacts.

Isolation ward and three hotels serve as isolation facilities in the dzongkhag today.

The dzongkhag reported almost 10 cases everyday in the past six days since the first community case on January 16. There are children and vulnerable individuals exposed to the virus in Sarpang.

Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said no positive case from Gelephu needed medical care and hospitalisation so far. “Until the formal admission to ICU, all physicians can manage the cases. It would be good to have a specialist but mostly generalists can manage it.”



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He added that there have been more than 3,000 positive cases in the country to date,  and only the first index case required ICU care. There are mobile backup teams from regional referral hospitals from Thimphu and Mongar.

“Even though not in number,  in function we are ready,” said the Prime Minister.

Health ministry defers booster dose for general population 

13 hours 37 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

 … govt. trying to bring vaccines for children as soon as possible

Phub Dem

The health ministry’s plan to roll out Covid-19 booster dose for the general population on January 24 is now on hold owing to the lockdown and movement restrictions.

According to National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG) member Dr Sonam Wangchuk, the booster rollout would have started by now if it weren’t for the lockdown.

Considering the risk of infection and crowding at the moment, the rollout was deferred until the lockdown ends. However, he said that the ministry would roll out the booster dose for those dzongkhags in the green zone. “We will roll out the booster dose as soon as the lockdown is lifted.”



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He said that the ministry was ready with the vaccination programme and that the vaccines were already deployed to the dzongkhags.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that except for those between 18 and 64 years without medical conditions living in low-risk areas, 98.8 percent of priority and the high-risk groups were given the booster dose. “The ministry deferred the vaccination programme not to complicate the situation when the 70 percent of the dzongkhags went through lockdowns, and there is a potential outbreak.”

The priority groups include 18 years and above residing in high-risk areas; those above 65 years; people above 18 and living with chronic medical conditions; health workers; front-liners; and outbound travellers.



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Lyonchhen said that efforts were underway to secure vaccination for children aged five to 11-year-old and two to four years old against Covid-19. The government has completed the financial norms and sorted out the legal document.

He said that Pfizer agreed to send the vaccines, but it was difficult to confirm the exact date of arrival. “As the nation is threatened with another outbreak, unvaccinated children are at higher risk as they don’t have immune protection. We’ll get it as soon as possible.”

Lyonchhen said that the health and foreign affairs ministry were exploring a source of vaccine for the fourth dose (second booster), as some countries had already rolled out the vaccines.

Although it is not mandatory, Lyonchhen said there is a requirement for a second booster.



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“If we order the vaccines now there are chances that the vaccine we buy may not be effective later. The government is discussing and considering such risk factors as well,” he said.

Currently, the country has 370,000 doses of vaccine.

The ministry received 150,000 doses of Moderna on January 14 to roll out the booster dose for about 300,000 populations. In phase-I, the ministry has completed the booster dose program for general populations in Samtse, Sarpang, Samdrup Jongkhar, and Chhukha.

With the completion of booster dose vaccination in four dzongkhags, the vaccine coverage stands at 98.8 percent for priority and the high-risk group.

Meanwhile, 97.5 percent of the eligible population (above 12 years) are vaccinated with the first dose and 93.5 percent with the second dose.

Finding the source of the outbreak difficult: EC-19TF chairperson

13 hours 37 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar

Health officials and taskforce members are screening and conducting Covid-19 tests in targeted and vulnerable places after detecting two positive cases from the community in Samdrupjongkhar town on January 19.

Eastern Covid-19 Task Force (EC-19TF) Chairman Dasho Pema Chewang said a 30-year-old man who tested positive on January 19 lives in the main town. “Most of his colleagues stay in the National Housing Development Corporation Limited’s (NHDCL) housing colony.”

He said the health team and taskforce members are collecting samples from the NHDCL housing colony, the main town, the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) colony, and other vulnerable places for the RT-PCR test. “Health officials will also collect samples from where the dzongkhag staff stay.”



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Dasho Pema Chewang also said their priority is to carry out risk assessment, contact tracing, and detect the cases to ensure safety in the community, and not to find out the sources. “It is difficult to find the source anyway.”

He said they had put the primary contacts under facility quarantine, and patients in non-hospital isolation centres. “Health officials will continue to collect the samplings from the targeted places.”

He said there are monitoring systems and standard operation procedures (SOP) for the loaders in place, adding that the taskforce has deployed designated security at the loader’s containment area and keeps reviewing the SOP based on the situation. “We have asked them to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) to monitor the loaders and desuups would also monitor them.”

Meanwhile, eight more Covid-19 positive cases were reported in Samdrupjongkhar from the community, and one from the quarantine facility yesterday morning.



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Health officials traced 11 primary and 53 secondary contacts in Samdrupjongkhar, two primary and six secondary contacts in Dewathang, 11 primary and 35 secondary contacts in Gomdar and Wangphu gewogs and six secondary contacts in Orong gewog.

Officials are still carrying out contact tracing and testing.

About 15 positive cases have been reported from the community in Samdrupjongkhar since January 11.

Live with the virus?

13 hours 39 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Living with the virus is not an option for the government, according to the Prime Minister. Imposing restrictions, it seems, is the government’s way to get out of the current pandemic. In other words, despite the exploding cases of the Omicron variant, lockdown and preventive measures are the ways to “eliminate” the virus from society.

Eliminating the virus, especially the highly infectious Omicron, is a challenge everywhere. We need not look far. In the north, even with the most stringent rules, the detection of Omicron in many cities in China, shows how difficult it is to maintain a zero Covid policy. It is seen as unsustainable and unnecessary. In the south, even with thousands of daily cases, schools are re-opening, election rallies are held and lockdowns are being lifted.



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At home, we detected 141 cases in just one day: yesterday. While the consolation may be that majority are from quarantine facilities or imported, cases in the community are rising, too. Our worst fear was a case in the community. We have now 801 altogether and rising even with lockdowns.

It is an uphill task both for the government and those on the frontline. We have always prioritised life over livelihoods in this pandemic, and we have been successful with only three deaths reported since the first case,  in March 2020.

A lot has changed, including mutations of the SARS-Cov-2. With the current outbreak that is spreading with record cases every day, is it time to rethink our strategies?

The pressure on livelihood and the economy could be blamed for the current situation. Had there been no pressure from various sectors to relax, had our quarantine centres not been overwhelmed by foreign workers, had we not considered letting projects run their own quarantine centres, we would not have been overwhelmed.



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Or, with the Omicron variant, was it a matter of when and not if?

It may be a case of “ifs” but we are living the reality. In just a few days, the virus has been reported in more than five dzongkhags and the number is increasing. Experts are convinced that vaccinations even with a third or fourth round will not achieve  herd immunity. Many countries are seeing a drop in daily cases even without restrictions as they pass the peak of Omicron infection. What is also proven is that the vaccine protects people from hospitalization and deaths.

One theory is that countries with high vaccination coverage could develop immunity through infection as immunity through vaccines has failed. That bodes well with us. We are in a better situation. We have covered 80 percent of the entire population with two doses of vaccinations and 93 percent of the vulnerable group with the booster dose. We will soon roll out the booster dose and then vaccinate children below 12 years of age.



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A week-long lockdown is completed. As we plan for another, albeit a relaxed one, it is a good time to think. We could wait for a week or two to trace, screen and isolate positive cases. Depending on the situation, we could also relook at our strategies to deal with Omicron or living with it.

The rule of law must dictate justice not the social media

13 hours 40 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

The power of social media and the internet is immeasurable.  It has been both beneficium and pernicious in the world. In recent weeks, people have resorted to social media accusing the judiciary of a miscarriage of justice and it’s becoming a trend. While there may be some genuine reasons, there can also be unfounded facts and wrong information adversely affecting people’s confidence in the justice system. One post indicated that the appellate court refused to hear the case because the opposing party was not in the country and caused him miscarriage of justice. These are half-baked stories with no understanding of the legal system and legal processes, yet many netizens believed it.  The truth, in this case, was that the appellant had already withdrawn the appeal. Once the appeal has been withdrawn, the court does not have the authority to again conduct hearings.  



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The Kuensel came out with a damning headline “Judiciary’s silence more dangerous than online videos” and mentioned that the Supreme Court admitted the appeal after the story appeared on social media. Such news is not only calamitous to public confidence in the judiciary but indicates its vulnerabilities to social media pressure.  Section 1 Article 21 of the Constitution states that “the Judiciary shall safeguard, uphold, and administer Justice fairly and independently without fear, favour, or undue delay in accordance with the Rule of Law.” The rule of law means the due process of law which means the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code (CCPC) must be applied for adjudication in the court. The admissibility of appeals must be not pressured by social media but by the merits of the case.  



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Once the proceeding starts in court, the public must refrain from any form of discussion online, conduct media trials or otherwise in the interest of justice. If anything is wrong, the courts can hold such persons under contempt and other offences. Parties can also obtain “gag order” to prevent others including the media from talking about the ongoing case.  However, once the judgment is rendered, it is completely right to discuss the decisions of the court including criticizing the decisions since the public can see the full story including rationales applied by the court in such instance.  



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Section 96 and 109 of CCPC, the judgment becomes final if no appeal is made within 10 days.  It also mandates the courts make the judgments accessible in the public domain. However, even after more than a decade, the judiciary is reluctant to do this. This duty was imposed on the courts to create transparency in the interest of the judiciary. Many legal systems enjoy a lot of respect and strong public confidence because every decision is made accessible to the public. The public knows the reasons for the court’s decision. 



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The lesser the transparency, the more the people will doubt and use social media to gain public sympathy and exert pressure on the system. If judgments are made publicly accessible, the system will progress faster and better.  Sharing information for public discourse on social media is only useful when there is a complete story. The netizens must remember that if only one side of the story is told, there is another side to the story too. It is not right to form opinions based on just one side as such posts may have baleful and abhorrent intentions against the system.  

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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

How and where Covid-19 spread from Wangdue

13 hours 41 minགི་ཧེ་མ།




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Bringing hydropower project workers untested questioned 

13 hours 42 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Phurpa Lhamo 

To meet the workers demand at Punatsangchhu Hydroelectric Project II, after approval from the national covid-19 taskforce and inspection by the TAG team, workers for the project were allowed to enter Bhutan.

However, Antigen tests weren’t conducted for foreign workers entering Bhutan at the entry point because of issues related to sending them back home after testing positive, said an official from the technical advisory group (TAG).

At the press conference yesterday, he said that antigen tests had drawbacks of not testing those in the early stages of infection. “Even if we had done some antigen tests, we could have missed some.”

The first batch of workers at PII entered through Phuentsholing in April. The second batch came on November 28 and the third batch entered through Gelephu by January 4.



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The TAG official said that having workers contained at Rurichhu was more convenient than having them near the border.

“We have had several issues with testing of foreign workers at the point of entry. We had issues on workers testing positive and sending them back home.”

“When testing workers in Phuentsholing, we didn’t have many positive cases, so there weren’t any issues, but when bringing from Gelephu, there were concerns that they won’t be accepted back,” the official said.

The workers were segregated into vaccinated and those who weren’t. “Those who didn’t complete their vaccination were kept in Gelephu for risk assessment,” said the TAG official.

The official agreed that with over 100 individuals in a containment area and with over 50 individuals testing positive, the viral load in the air could have been heavy.



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“The viral load is so heavy that it could happen to leak out somehow.”

Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering said, “Since that area is the epicentre (Rurichhu) and when someone inside and outside tests positive, there was some breach in the barrier. We aren’t trying to justify that.”

However, Lyonchhen said that the containment area was an isolated and dedicated newly constructed quarantine facility, approved by the national Covid-19 task force and qualified by the TAG team.

Officials also said that the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases was because of the transmissibility of the Omicron variant and also because of the population density in PHPA area.

“Living with virus” not an option for Bhutan: PM

13 hours 43 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Phub Dem 

While some nations around the planet make subtle arrangements to “live with the virus”,  living with the virus is not an option for Bhutan, according to PM Dr Lotay Tshering. .

The country is locking down dzongkhags, clinging to ‘zero-Covid-19 cases’ from the community, he said at a press conference yesterday.

Lyonchhen said the focus of the government, for now, is saving lives by enforcing lockdown whenever there is a community case. “Lockdown is to eliminate the virus from society.”

He said that the government’s focus is not to have local infections and eliminate them when cases come. “The choice is to save lives as opposed to livelihood.”



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Lyonchhen added that announcing complete lockdown indicates a “not living with the virus” strategy, adding that such an approach will be of grave risk to the elderly and those living with comorbid conditions.

The health ministry developed the Omicron strategy, emphasising on elimination and saving lives over economy or livelihood issues.

Although the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, it requires minimum hospitalisation compared to the Delta variant, said the chairperson of the technical advisory group (TAG), Dr Sithar Dorjee.

He said that the health team isolated and protected the elderly groups and those with comorbid conditions while screening the contacts. “The team monitors them and prioritises them even during the vaccination programmes.”



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The strategy also includes protecting the health workers. Dr Sithar Dorjee said it was essential to protect health workers as Bhutan has limited health specialists to provide services continuously.

He said that living with the virus was the ultimate end, and the strategy could be quickly adopted.

He said that even if the country considers living with the virus if the elimination strategy fails, the country has to undergo intermittent lockdown depending on how hospitals are occupied and overwhelmed. “If hospital beds are occupied when living with the virus, the country has to undergo lockdown.”

Some people, exhausted with the hardships and disruptions of the pandemic entering its second year in Bhutan, welcome the new stance—‘live with the virus’. But other people are against the strategy, saying that it was risky to underestimate the dangers posed by the Omicron.



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Some took to social media that such an elimination strategy was expensive on lower-income groups significantly whose livelihood was disrupted by the pandemic. Others shared that such an strategy was essential to protect the unvaccinated children and vulnerable groups.

Lockdown could end in 2 weeks if all follow the norms strictly: PM

13 hours 44 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Thukten Zangpo

Two weeks should be more than enough to lift the lockdown if everyone follows the lockdown norms very strictly, said Prime Minister Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday.

However, he added that all people have to be compliant and agree not to mix during a lockdown.

Bhutan’s lockdown indication is the elimination of the Omicron and not flattening the curve which would take a little longer, Lyonchhen said.

However, Lyonchhen said: “Two weeks is the longest incubation period of the Covid-19 (Omicron) and, beyond that, a positive person is either non-positive or non-infectious. Mass testing is a must at the end of lockdown.”



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Because of that, he said, Thimphu and Paro dzongkhags were arbitrarily kept for another two weeks until January 30.

“Even if we have missed some from the screening process, they would be non-infectious,” he said.

Lyonchhen said that by epidemiological definition, if we have no community case for two weeks at the end of lockdown,  there is no real need to swipe the community.

It is assumed that no symptomatic person has come forward to get tested and nobody has tested positive, he added.

Lyonchhen also said that the health ministry would test Bhutanese who did not come for the test and have stayed at home despite bearing the symptoms.



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However, Lyonchhen said that if there are positive cases or active cases beyond two weeks, then people have not followed the lockdown norms strictly.

He also said that Omicron being more infectious than Delta, it is easier to pick up from the community.

Lyonchhen said that the switch in the colour coding of red where there are positive cases, yellow where there are traced primary contacts, and green which is free of the virus will be guided by the case profile and surveillance.

Research finds digital literacy vital to achieve Digital Drukyul vision

13 hours 45 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Research found that emphasising digital literacy is crucial if the Digital Drukyul Flagship is to succeed. Otherwise, regardless of various digital literacy trainings initiated by the Department of Information Technology and Telecom, the efficacy of knowledge imparted through such initiatives is questionable.

“A Study on Bhutan’s Readiness for HM’s Vision of Digital Drukyul by Assessing the Digital Literacy Among Different Cohorts” showed that more than 80 percent of civil servants who took part in the study indicated that their information and communications technology (ICT) skills were basic/intermediate.

“It is alarming as these sectors represent the majority of the population that has been provided with ICT training by the government,” Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies (CBS) researchers Sonam Choden and Tenzin Yangzom concluded in their study.



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Sonam Choden and others involved in the research stated that digital readiness emphasises the critical need to provide a more conducive environment for learning where trust and confidence are integral. The definition of a digital divide in this era is no longer confined merely to access to digital technologies.

This is why a more comprehensive understanding of digital literacy should comprise a person’s level of preparedness in terms of assimilation, utilisation, and operation of digital technologies to create a digitally inclusive community. In turn, these would also contribute to successful execution of Digital Drukyul.

The study, which was conducted through a quantitative method, included 100 participants: 50 civil servants and 50 non-civil servants. Participants were compared based on computer and Internet skills, online security and protection, internet banking, media skills, and e-governance.

The study found that there was a lack of digital skills required to find information, lack of use of government-provided online services for education, business services, public grievances reporting, and thromde services. These online resources did not ensure that people would be able to navigate the Internet’s large number of sites efficiently. Any technologies will be inefficient if people are not able to understand how to put these online services into use effectively. This indicates people are not trained to make use of such services.



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“The government must undertake initiatives to provide proper guidance to make use of such technologies and provide additional human capacity development in the government offices,” the study recommended.

The government must improve user abilities to use ICT tools and access online services, raise awareness, develop digital literacy training programme, and build ICT skills among citizens to make technology usage a success.

The study revealed that the lowest level of digital literacy was with the use of database applications and e-safety awareness. Several literature reviews have also proven that improving one aspect of digital literacy will contribute to the growth of others. Digital literacy is important, especially in terms of digital safety while browsing, sharing, or surfing the internet. Going by the findings, it was also revealed that e-safety awareness was low and needed to be elevated.

Bhutan has adopted various e-government initiatives in its efforts to improve online public service delivery. But the study found that having infrastructure, applications, and systems in place did not guarantee the success of e-government initiatives. Research showed that the country has low digital literacy even within government agencies, impeding the execution of e-government initiatives.



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Low digital literacy was more evident among the rural population. This was despite the government launching a number of ICT initiatives aimed to improve digital literacy. However, the majority of the rural population was unaware of such services. Initiatives included establishing a formal diploma, ICT courses, incorporating ICT into education curriculum, and ICT training for civil servants.

The research also found that certain digital e-services were rarely used except for e-Kaasel, BoLT, a judiciary services, educational services, and thromde services. However, these services were also not used as much in rural areas because they probably did not have the knowledge to do so.

The study stated, “This clearly indicates that just the sheer accessibility to technology will not help in achieving our aim of Digital Drukyul. It’s important that we have more user-friendly e-services which will also help illiterate people access the service.”

Many e-services need a legally verified identity where one needs to notarise the documents and then scan and upload. Such processes have often led to redundant e-services, where the service ends up being more complex. Some services are not fully digitalised, requiring the person to visit the office in person, proving the e-service to be redundant.



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Availability of resources, high-speed internet access, smartphones to download and upload information from multiple sites, or platforms are some of the main challenges when it comes to digital learning.

 

What should we do?

The study recommends conducting similar context-based and local research in the country to determine citizens’ technological requirements, computer literacy skills, and technological hurdles. There is also a requirement to design and adapt training programmes by educational decision-makers to enhance students’ digital literacy skills. It should cover topics such as sexting, online phishing scams, piracy, and cyberbullying.

It is also recommended to create more awareness on the already implemented e-government solutions through major promotion or marketing campaigns, and implement a solid and effective channel-management plan. Incorporating citizens’ and institutions’ perspectives into the design and delivery of e-services is also vital.

Contributed by Yangchen C Rinzin

Kuensel Research Fellow

Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Studies

Gungtong impacts rural residents

13 hours 46 minགི་ཧེ་མ།

Tshering Namgyal | Mongar

Although most basic amenities are in place in rural areas, many houses are empty in the villages.

Remote Ganglapong chiwog in Tsamang gewog, Mongar, is one example. Out of 75 households, there are 15 gungtongs in the chiwog.

Tsamang gewog has more than 20 gungtongs, including five households in Banjar chiwog and three in Tsamang chiwog.

In Banjar chiwog, it is mostly aged parents who stay in the villages.

Residents say the houses have been left empty after most of the younger generation have gone out looking for jobs of a different nature and took along their parents either to live with them or babysit.



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“When there are gungtongs, we are compelled to contribute extra labour in the planned developmental activities like irrigation water schemes,” Kelzang Choden from Tsamang said.

Another resident, Minjur, 60, said gungtong and fallow lands attract wild animals into the field.

Former Tsamang gup Sonam Darjay, who is from Ganglapong, said a proper road network and completion of bailey bridge construction at Rindibichhu is expected to bring some residents back.

The chiwog is connected to Autsho town, a regular shopping place in Lhuentse, and he said the road cuts the distance to one and half hours from the four-hour walk it used to be.

Through the suspension bridge from Dorjilung area via the gewog centre in Banjar, it takes about a nine-hour walk uphill, while it takes about six hours from the gewog centre.



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“Unless there is urgent work in the gewog, Autsho town has been the shopping destination of the people of Ganglapong and they come here,” Sonam Darjay said.

Similarly, gungtong has been an issue of concern in most of the gewogs in Mongar.

Given its impact, Tsakaling gewog tshogde had endorsed a penalty of Nu 4,500 per household for gungtong in 2018.

The issue was also deliberated in the dzongkhag tshogdu, which proposed a penalty to tackle the issue, but the resolution didn’t go through.

Kengkhar has the highest number of gungtongs, with more than 70.

Kengkhar’s gup, Pema Chedrup, said there are numerous negative impacts of gungtongs, like not enough people at monthly and annual events and gatherings, besides problems pertaining to tax collection and contribution for social service.

“There is also a labour shortage issue,’’ he said.



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The 2017 census recorded 4,800 guntongs in the country, out of which Mongar has 455. Most of the 17 gewogs have at least 20 gungtongs.

Local leaders said even planned work is delayed or cancelled due to an inadequate number of end-users or inability to contribute to voluntary work.

Meanwhile, the National Land Commission (NLC) has been mapping gungtongs with support of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in the country to carry out an analysis of prevalence and causal factors.

Sarpang records 55 community cases

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:29

The virus spreads beyond Gelephu thromde

Nima | Gelephu

Seven new community cases have been reported in Sarpang Central School, and Sarpang dzongkhag started detecting community cases from outside the Gelephu thromde yesterday.

A student from Sarpang CS reported to a flu clinic in Sarpang hospital with flu-like symptoms and tested positive both on antigen and RT-PCR tests.

The student was isolated.

Two friends accompanying her tested negative on both antigen and RT-PCR despite having flu-like symptoms, according to the health officials.

They were also isolated as a precautionary measure.

There were 26 roommates of the index cases staying in the girls’ hostel in Sarpang CS. Six of them tested positive, and the test results of the remaining swab samples are awaited.



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Officials said 13 staff and four cooks working at the school were also tested.

There were 12 new cases from the quarantine facility in Gelephu, who are close contacts of the cases reported in the past five days.

Four new cases from the community yesterday were students.

Before the detection of community cases from Sarpang CS, positive cases were detected from Rabdeyling, Namkhaling, and Jampeling demkhongs in Gelephu thromde. The task force identified 12 red buildings to date.   

With a total of 23 new cases, Sarpang reported the highest number of new community cases in one day yesterday. Sarpang has 103 active cases to date, including 55 community cases. Seven of them are frontline workers.

There were 28 community cases up to yesterday.



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Officials from the dzongkhag Covid-19 task force said the dzongkhag was in a comfortable state, with most community cases concentrated within Gelephu, until yesterday.

“There might be sporadic cases from other areas. Sarpang reported cases too,” an official said.

Meanwhile, the dzongkhag Covid-19 task force formed a ‘Care Team’ to look after the welfare and wellbeing of the individuals in the isolation facilities.

The dzongkhag also plans to convert hotels used to quarantine routine travellers into isolation facilities.

Two task force members are leading the Care Team and a psychiatric nurse will be deployed with the team. Three hotels and an isolation ward located inside the old Gelephu hospital currently serve as an isolation facility in Gelephu.

With increasing cases reported from the community every day and health workers exposed to the Covid-19, Gelephu CRRH has started working in a containment mode.



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Health staff will be working for seven days in turns. Both incoming and outgoing staff should produce a Covid-19 negative test before exiting and entering the containment. Respective departments in CRRH have developed a contingency plan.

The dzongkhag taskforce yesterday directed the medical team to strengthen the hospital contingency management plan and to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Taskforce officials claimed only support staff have been exposed to the virus directly until now.

Movement between high-risk to high-risk areas via India is facilitated upon producing negative RT-PCR results. Only light vehicles and passengers are allowed.

The movement from the dzongkhag to Nganglam and Panbang is facilitated after a negative antigen test.

The task force would permit working under containment mode for construction, workshops, and industries.

Officials said there should not be any movement in and out of the worksite. “A prior approval must be sought from the task force.”



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The lockdown in Sarpang is extended for another 72 hours.

Wangdue and Punakha 

Twenty-three individuals from the community in Wangdue and three from Lobesa, Punakha tested positive yesterday. Prior to the test, over 1,050 samples were collected in Wangdue and around 1,400 samples from Punakha.

While 21 were from areas near Rurichhu in Wangdue, from which the first community case was detected, two are from Bajo town, Wangdue.

Punakha now has five positive cases.

While cases have been mounting, officials in Wangdue aren’t able to trace the source of the community case.

A water tanker driver with Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) first tested positive in Wangdue from the community on January 15. Only two days later, 110 individuals tested positive from the community in Wangdue.



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Today, with the increasing number of cases, it seems impossible to trace the first person who got the virus in the community.

“There is a possibility that he could have got it from others and not the other way round. It also came as a blessing that he was detected,” said an official.

Officials are collecting samples from areas across the dzongkhag and contact tracing is underway.



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Currently, records with the Wangdue-Punakha Covid-19 taskforce shows that there are 247 individuals with the virus in the two dzongkhags. This also includes 102 individuals from quarantine facilities in Wangdue.

Additional reporting by 

Phurpa  Lhamo

Lockdown extends in Samdrupjongkhar

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:28

The dzongkhag detected five community cases on January 19

Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar

Five Covid-19 positive cases were reported in Samdrupjongkhar from the community on January 19, taking the total community cases to seven since January 11.

An 84-year-old man staying in the Samdrupjongkhar main town tested positive from the community at the flu screening centre on January 19.

The man’s primary contact, a 30-year-old man, tested positive at Gomdar hospital flu clinic. The 30-year-old man’s three primary contacts in Samdrupjongkhar town also tested positive on the same day.

It was learnt the 30-year-old man has interacted with many individuals from Samdrupjongkhar to Gomdar, Orong and Wangphu gewogs.



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While health officials traced more than 60 primary contacts and would continue to trace and test more individuals during the blackout period, the Eastern Covid-19 Task Force (EC-19TF) in Dewathang also declared a 72-hour blackout in Samdrupjongkhar and Dewathang throm, Orong, Gomdar, Wangphu and Dewathang gewogs early yesterday.

According to the taskforce’s notification, all government offices and business establishments would remain closed and all movements shall also be suspended except for the medical and security surveillance team during the first 48 hours.

It stated that a comprehensive epidemiological risk assessment and case investigation is indispensable to ensure no residual virus and safety in the community due to the high transmissibility behaviour of the current Covid-19 variant.



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According to the notification, essential movements, including the transport for the import, shall be facilitated after completion of the 48 hours blackout period, while the export of orange will be facilitated after 24 hours.

It also stated that travel from Samdrupjongkhar town, Dewathang, Gomdar, Orong, and Wangphu gewogs to other places should not be permitted.

However, residents already in quarantine will be facilitated after completing the seven-day quarantine.



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The notification stated that all containment centres in Phuentsho Rabtenling industrial areas approved by the EC-19TF shall be allowed to operate in containment mode, but staff are not permitted to move outside the area.

“Residents can call the control room at 1192 if they require any clarification for assistance,” it stated. “All individuals with flu-like symptoms shall be attended to their respective residence for the RT-PCR sampling.”

Mandarin exports continue amid lockdown 

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:27

Choki Wangmo | Tsirang

Despite the lockdown and related challenges, the mandarin dealers in Tsirang and Dagana dzongkhags are continuing the export of mandarins via Gelephu.

However, dealers said that since there is a short time for harvest allotted in a day, the progress has been slow. A depot owner in Dhupi, Tshering Zangmo, said that the past few days of the blackout have been challenging. “Due to movement restrictions, we’ve to be back home by 5pm.”

If the situation doesn’t improve, she said that they might run into losses.

The production, mandarin farmers said, is less this year compared to the past year.

A depot owner at Changchey, Penjor Rabten, said that a disease outbreak has affected mandarin production in the dzongkhag, which has been already dwindling by the year.



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Since January 16, he could collect two pickup trucks of mandarins from farmers who had already harvested the produce before the blackout was announced. The dzongkhag has instructed farmers not to harvest the produce.

Although there is a 50 percent reduction in mandarin production, Penjor Rabten said that the prices were good. He pays Nu 1,100-1,300 a box to farmers and exports at Nu 1,600-1,700 a box.

In more than a month, he has exported 50 truckloads of mandarins via Gelephu. A truckload can carry 300 boxes.

He said that if the situation did not improve, he would drop the business, as safety is more important.

Sonam Dorji, who runs a depot in Dhupi, said that while work continues, movement restrictions have affected mandarin collection and harvest in the dzongkhag. Within the last five days of blackout, he has exported four trips of mandarins.

The size of the oranges is comparatively small and the production has declined too, he said.



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“I don’t have plans to continue if the situation remains the same,” he added.

Meanwhile, mandarin dealers in Dagana continue to transport the produce at Changchey depot in Tsirang.

Nar Bdr from Tsangkha said that once they got travel permits and tested for Covid-19, they were allowed to travel. “We did not face major issues.”

With the support of gewog administrations, workers could harvest mandarins in the gewogs and chiwogs without challenges, he said.

The production in the dzongkhag, he said, had been good this year.



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Phurba Singh Tamang from Gozhi made two trips to Tsirang in the last five days. He said, however, that prices could have been higher if they could directly export to Gelephu.

Dagapela Officer Commanding Lieutenant Jigme Thugten said that travel permits had been issued to ensure that farmers’ produce is not damaged due to the lockdown.

Govt. to open mining to the private sector through MMMR 2022

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:27

Mining and quarrying activities dropped by -81.84 percent in 2020

Thukten Zangpo 

After Parliament failed to pass the Mines and Minerals Bill 2020, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) has adopted the Mines and Minerals Management Regulations 2022 (MMMR 2022) to open mining to the private sector.

According to the regulations, a Bhutanese citizen as an individual or a proprietor of a licensed firm, a household, a company, and a state-owned agency can lease mineral deposits and quarries from January 14 this year.

The Mines and Minerals Management Act 1995, in its Section 21, empowers the MoEA to lease mineral deposits to both private individuals and state-owned corporations.

Private participation in the operation of mines was suspended in June 2020, following which the State Mining Corporation Limited took over all gypsum, dolomite, and coal mines operated by private companies.



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The mining and quarrying sector growth saw a contraction by negative 81.84 percent in 2020. Its share declined from 4.80 percent in 2019 to 1.20 percent of GDP in 2020, a drop by 3.61 percentage points.

The new regulations are expected to revive the economic growth that slumped to a negative 10.08 percent in 2020.

In an earlier interview, Minister of Economic Affairs, Loknath Sharma, said that the mines and minerals sector, which has been identified as one of the five jewels of the economy, will play an important role in the recovery of the economy.

He added that activities contributing value addition will be given preference.

According to the new regulations, the ministry shall directly allocate proven mineral reserves to state-owned mining agencies based on their wider economic benefits, high potential for export in primary form, the potential for generating substantial revenue, reliable and affordable supply of minerals and mineral products in the country, or sustainable development of mineral resources.

However, the direct allocation of the proven mineral reserve or leasing of mines to private individuals or companies shall be based on the supply of raw materials for the establishment of a domestic processing industry or supply of critical additives to domestic industries.



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Moreover, private individuals or companies are not eligible to obtain mining leases where they are already leased to state-owned mining agencies.

The regulations also state that the term of initial lease or renewal shall not exceed the expected economic life of a mine or a maximum period of 15 years, whichever is less.

It also stated that private companies are eligible to obtain or operate not more than two mining or quarrying leases at any point in time. However, the limitation of two mining or quarrying leases does not apply to state-owned mining agencies.



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It also stated that if the lessee has not commenced mining operations within a period of two years from the date of grant of the lease or discontinues mining operation for a period exceeding two years, the lease lapses. “However, the ministry can revive and modify the lease if the lessee has written an application that the discontinuance was due to reasons beyond the control of the lessee.”

MMMR 2022 also stated that the lessee has to pay royalties and mineral rent to the government at the rates prescribed by the government. “Also, the lessee has to deposit an environmental restoration bond to the government as security for mine reclamation and environmental restoration in the mine, to ensure the threat of the negative impacts on the surrounding environment are minimised.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Geology of Mines plans to establish a national mineral resources database.

Students attended dharma programme

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:26

Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar

About 75 students from various schools in Samdrupjongkhar attended a free religious and cultural orientation programme at Dewathang Primary School.

Zhung Dratshang supported the programme that began on January 6.

A 12-year-old student, Jamyang Dema, said she learned a lot about history, religion, discipline, and culture. “Such programmes are not only important for students, but for parents and others as well,” she said.

For Tshewang Dorji, 16, this is his first orientation programme. “I promised to respect my parents and do away with my bad habits.”



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Some participants said that it would help them more if the Ministry of Education and concerned authorities could include some components of the programme in the curriculum.

The programme coordinator, Jamyang Singay, said the programme was initiated by the Laytshok Lopon, Sangay Dorji, to engage students meaningfully by teaching various Buddhist practices.

He said the programme first began with students from Thimphu through Zhung Dratshang’s funding, where students learn various Buddhist practices like cause and effect (Lay-Judrey), loyalty (Tha-damtsi), prayers and their benefits for about two weeks.

Gyalsey Trulku Tenzin Rabgye, Tshukla Lopon Karma Rangdrol, Laytshok Lopon Sangay Dorji and officials from various agencies also gave virtual talks on a variety of topics.

More than 500 students have attended the annual programme until now.



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Jamyang Singay said, “It’s important to give religion-related teachings and talks so that our youth can improve themselves and how they think from the beginning.”

He said that the programme was organised in Samdrupjongkhar to keep the students engaged in such programmes because they cannot go anywhere due to being in a high-risk area. “It’d also help them keep away from drugs and other prohibited substances.”

The programme, which was conducted in containment mode, ended yesterday.

Under the pressure of Omicron

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:25

As positive cases of Covid-19 continue to spread, there is a panic. But panic is not the answer; it’s in finding how we get out of such a monumental mess.

Foreign workers had to be brought in, but how those who came in could evade our standing protocols is a thing of wonder. Fixing accountability is not difficult, which must go on along with the many tracing and testing systems in place today.

The people, who are going through a difficult lockdown, for no fault of their own, are asking genuine questions. The 24-hour lockdown is extended to 72. Tracing and testing process is underway, which means lockdown could further extend depending on the results of tests in the dzongkhags.

Lockdowns are inconvenient, but it’s better to extend the lockdown period than open up frantically because our laxity has allowed the virus to come in and play its violent part—we do not yet know how many people are exposed to the virus.



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The incubation period of the virus is yet to be understood. We need time; as to the results, we can only wait and wish for the best.

In the meanwhile, we must reflect. How did we get to where we are today? We have task forces at each strategic point. We also have government officials manning the exit-entry points and data—still so many people could come in and breach the country’s standing safety protocols.

The question is: Who were they, who did not even have to follow the Covid-19 protocols? How could they even be let in? We get the answer from these questions. Was it the monitoring along with the many networks we have put in place? Why is this happening? Who is to blame?



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This outbreak that we are facing is the result of a failure from the strategic points. While the people put up with the ordeals of prolonged lockdown, those responsible must also be held accountable.

What we must understand, in the meanwhile, is that the virus has come in and tracing and testing will continue. That means lockdown will likely be extended beyond January 22.

Nothing will do us good until we begin to act ourselves responsibly, each individually. The government has the role to make essentials available with the least trouble to anybody; people, at the same time, must adhere to the standing health and safety protocols.

Even with the Omicron variant getting out of our hands, the plea is the same. It is the call for basic preventive measures – not gathering, staying home, avoiding unnecessary outings and reporting to health authorities.  These simple measures are still the best to contain the contagious virus.

Bhutan should not hurry to revise national minimum wage rate: a study

སྤེན།, 01/21/2022 - 11:24

The government still has not decided to revise the national minimum daily wage rate (NMDW) to Nu 450, which it pledged it would. It is reviewing the NMDW, and the review is expected to be completed next year.

While the review is underway and the raise will depend on the study results, a study suggests that Bhutan should not hurry to revise the wage rate before considering various economic factors.

“The higher the wage rate, the higher the adverse impacts will be on employment, including the prices of goods produced in the country,” the study conducted by Chenpo, a researcher with Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies concludes.

Titled “Implications of Upward Revision of National Minimum Wage Rate in Bhutan”, the study was conducted based on various literature reviews conducted in different Least Developed Countries to see the implications of increasing the wage rate.

The study concluded that an increase in the wage rate would lead to increase in the labour costs and in turn, could trigger price inflation, affect exports, and reduce the level of employment.



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“At this juncture, considering various factors, it would not be a wise decision to revise the wage rate to Nu 450,” Chenpo stated. “Should the government choose to revise the rate as per the existing average wage rate, the government should explore revising the wage rate to Nu 247 instead.”

The above rate is based on the fact that many studies have concluded that a minimum increase in the wage rate has little or no impact.

The national minimum wage rate in Bhutan was initiated in the 1990s. In light of the growing economy, the government revised the wage rate from Nu100 to Nu 125 in 2014. Studies have shown that the wage raise has a greater effect on smaller firms in terms of income and employment, despite playing an important role in alleviating poverty and enhanced livelihood.



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“As per the numerous studies in many developing and least developed countries, it is evident that the employment of less skilled labourers is mostly affected by the increase in wage rate,” the study concludes. “The studies show that the wage raise has a greater effect on smaller firms in terms of income and employment while it has played an important role in alleviating poverty and enhancing livelihood.”

The government, instead, should focus on skills development and capacity enhancement. Considering the current situation of Covid-19 pandemic where private entities are already grappling with challenges, the increase in the wage rate might worsen the current situation.

The study, instead, recommended the government to either initiate minimal revision or defer the revision for a few more years to ensure economic sustainability growth. In the context of Bhutan, the proposed wage rate would have implications on various aspects of the economy, employment, prices, and adverse effect on the construction sector. The study concluded that the evidence has shown that the impact of an increase in wage rate will depend on competitiveness in the market, overall performance of the economy, productivity of workers, and the degree of compliance with policies, among other aspects.



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Possible implication of national minimum wage rate

Risk of exacerbating unemployment issue

Based on findings, it is evident that the major upward revision of minimum wage rate will have an impact on Bhutan’s employment aspects and a major wage raise will affect the employment of many in small Cottage and Small Industries (CSIs) and private sectors. With the revision of the wage rate, the small firms may not be able to sustain the increase in cost of production due to the rising inflation. Many small CSIs are already affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and if the wage raise is revised, it may adversely add to its effects. In turn, many people currently employed in small CSIs and private sectors may lose their jobs.

 

Implication on vulnerable working group

Many literature reviews have pointed out that a major wage revision has adverse impacts on vulnerable working groups such as women, unskilled people, uneducated people, and people with disabilities. The impact on such a working group in Bhutanese context is imminent should there be a major wage revision. If the major revision of wages comes through, the labour cost and production cost will also increase. Although the wage raise may come as a blessing to employees, as it may boost morale and the production in bigger firms, employers may resort to decreasing employees and lay off the people with perceived low skills in small firms.

 


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Increase in prices of in-country goods and services

One of the biggest repercussions of upward revision of the wage rate will be an increase in the prices of goods and services produced in the country. There are many private production industries in the country and prices are already higher than imported goods. If the wage rate is revised, the growing private manufacturing and production sector, the so-called ‘engine of growth’ will be affected.

 

Implication on construction sector

With the revision of the wage rate at Nu 450 per day, the cost of construction will also rise. When the construction cost increases, it may lead to exorbitant house rent, especially in the urban areas affecting the larger population. Currently, the construction sector is already in shambles due to increasing material and labour cost. If the proposed wage rate comes into effect, it will further aggravate the issue.

 



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Legal implications

In the Bhutanese context, the wage rate is heavily tied in with the legal system. The either upward or downward revision of the national wage rate will have an adverse effect on various aspects of the legal system. Currently, the compensatory damages, compensation, penalty amount (thrimthue) in lieu of imprisonment, fines and penalty for violations, and offenses under the Penal Code of Bhutan (Amended) 2011 are based on the current minimum wage rate of Nu 125. Fines and penalties according to Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act of Bhutan 2015 are also based on wage rate. With the major revision of minimum wage rate, the fine and penalty will increase by three-fold, affecting the low-income group.

A detailed report of the study can be availed from CBS and GNH Studies.

Contributed by Yangchen C Rinzin

Kuensel Research Fellow

Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Studies

ཤོག་ལེབ་ཚུ།