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དུས་མཐུན་བཟོ་ཡོད: 9 min 44 sec གི་ཧེ་མ།

Should Bhutan stop importing non-essential items?

སྤེན།, 08/05/2022 - 10:32

More than 5,000 vehicles imported in seven months

Thukten Zangpo

With foreign currency reserves depleting, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering during his recent visit to Bumthang informed that the government could stop the import of non-essential items if the country’s economy does not improve.

The government even urged people to show solidarity to choose essential items over non-essentials. 

The trade department has not drawn up lists of non-essential items as of now. 

However, since April 2021, Bhutan has seen a decline in forex reserves because of surging imports, declining inflows of remittance, meagre earnings from export, and no earnings from tourism.

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Import bills, meanwhile, are skyrocketing amid high commodity and fuel prices in the global market fueled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign currency reserve declined by over 30 percent to USD 970.4 million (M) as of December last year from USD 1.5 billion(B) in April. The reserve is only able to pay for 13.4 months of essential imports. The latest figure for this year is not available.

In a recent interview, finance minister Namgay Tshering, said that the country’s foreign  currency reserve would meet 14 months of essential imports. This is only two months more than the constitutional requirement to maintain a minimum reserve to meet the cost of not less than one year’s essential import.   

Many countries in the region are trying to restrict import of non-essential items to save foreign currency reserves. Nepal banned the import of luxury goods including automobiles, motorcycles with a capacity over 150cc, pricy mobile phones (above USD 300), whisky and tobacco, diamonds, television sets larger than 32 inches, toys, cards, and snacks. 

The Nepali government also decided to introduce two public holidays – Saturday and Sunday to save consumption of petroleum products.

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Bangladesh tightened its rules for luxury and non-essential imports like sports utility vehicles, washing machines, air conditioners, and refrigerators in May this year. By April end, Bangladesh’s foreign reserves was at around 44B, enough for a six-month import cover.

Pakistan lifted the ban on import of non-essential and luxury items last week. However, the ban on automobiles, mobile phones, and home appliances still remains. The government at one point urged people to reduce their consumption of tea to reduce import bills. 

If Bhutan’s foreign currency reserves situation does not improve, the country has to ban the import of non-essential items, an economist said.

Bhutan imports more than 80 percent of its goods from India. Although Bhutan and India have an internal arrangement where Bhutan can borrow Indian Rupee through a standby credit facility, the country also sells convertible currency (USD) to replenish the Rupee stock.

Since 2008, the Bhutanese economy has been in a trade deficit. With the country’s import bills rising to Nu 90.2B in 2021, the trade deficit widened by 75 percent to Nu 32.2B from Nu 18.4B in 2020.

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In the first six months of this year, Bhutan’s trade deficit was recorded at Nu 21.2B, more than  the trade deficit of 2020. If Bhutan had not exported electricity to India during the period, the trade deficit could have increased to Nu 27.3B.

Bhutan imported fuel worth Nu 8.4B in 2021. In the first six months this year, Bhutan imported fuel worth Nu 3.4B.

Import of rice increased from Nu 2.4B in 2020 to 5.7B in the first six months this year.

The country imported vehicles, aircraft, and associated transport equipment worth Nu 6.3B in 2021. As of June, this year, the import bill was Nu 1.9B. Bhutan imported more than 5,000 vehicles between October 2021 and May 2022 – in less than seven months. 

Meanwhile, Bhutan’s import of smartphones worth Nu 2.4B in 2021 increased to Nu 5.1B in the first six months of this year.

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The finance ministry projected that the country’s trade deficit could widen from 7.1 percent in the fiscal year 2020-21 to 17.8 percent of the gross domestic product in the fiscal year 2021-22.

The economic affairs ministry, early this year, during the pandemic ensured the 30 listed essential items must be available in the economy.

Some of the items include liquified petroleum gas and fuel, industrial raw materials, and raw materials for hydropower construction.

Making Machines Understand Languages Is the Next Great Frontier in AI

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 12:13

Rob Toews’ article titled “Language is the next great frontier in AI” published on Forbes.com in February this year caught my attention because of my interest in this subject. My Ph.D research was on Natural Language Processing and Text Mining. Building machines that can understand language has been a central goal of the field of artificial intelligence for a very long time. If some predictions had come true, we should now have machines fully capable of understanding the human language. But it has proven “maddeningly elusive”, says Toews.

Yet, there has been major breakthroughs in language technologies in recent years. For example, I have been fascinated by the freely available Google Translate app that you can use to point at foreign language texts such as Chinese or Japanese using your phone camera and get instant translations. 

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“The technology is now at a critical inflection point, poised to make the leap from academic research to widespread real-world adoption. In the process, broad swaths of the business world and our daily lives will be transformed. Given language’s ubiquity, few areas of technology will have a more far-reaching impact on society in the years ahead”, adds Toews.

What are Language Technologies?

Language Technologies (LTs) are computer applications that help us do useful things with human language, whether in spoken or written form. So, they are also known as Human Language Technologies (HLT). Text to speech converters, speech to text converters, text classification programs, machine translation systems etc. are just a few examples of LTs.  

LTs deal with the computational processing of human language, whether in spoken or written form to ease both interaction with machines and the processing of large amounts of textual information. 

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Why Language Technologies matter

Why are advances in language technologies (LTs) important? The answer is simple. Without language, we cannot reason abstractly or develop complex ideas and communicate to others. The civilization as we know it simply would not have evolved without language. 

LTs form a key technology that will drive advances in AI and computing in general in the near future. An article in the Harvard Business Review published in September 2020 titled “The Next Big Breakthrough in AI Will Be Around Language” has this to say: “The 2010s produced breakthroughs in vision-enabled technologies, from accurate image searches on the web to computer vision systems for medical image analysis or for detecting defective parts in manufacturing and assembly, as we described extensively in our book and research. GPT3, developed by OpenAI, indicates that the 2020s will be about major advances in language-based AI tasks”.

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“Imagine being able to talk to your car and have it respond intelligently, giving detailed advice on routes or summarising up-to-date news you just missed on the radio. Or, being able to speak or type queries to your Web search engine in ordinary language, just as you would ask a person, and have it return just the document you were looking for, perhaps in summarised form for easy reading, translated from another language and with the key points for your purposes highlighted. Some of these capabilities are already here, and others are on the horizon”, according to the Centre for Language Technology, Macquarie University, Australia. 

With the advances in Machine Learning and Robotics, people predict that human like servant robots may be invented to do household chores in the future. Advances in LTs could enable seamless two-way communication between the human masters and servant robots, much like the communication between two humans. 

Recent breakthroughs in LTs

The invention of the transformer by a group of Google researchers in late 2017 is considered a major breakthrough. It is a new neural network architecture that has unleashed vast new possibilities in AI. “Transformers’ great innovation is to make language processing parallelized, meaning that all the tokens in a given body of text are analyzed at the same time rather than in sequence”, says Toews’ article mentioned above. Many new innovations have now taken place on top of Google’s original architecture, including Facebook’s 2019 RoBERTa model . 

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Some common applications of LTs

Text to Speech systems

As already pointed out, text to speech systems are quite well developed in major languages like English. A great app that I often use is a Text to Speech app to read me e-books I have downloaded in pdf format. The app simply opens the e-book I have saved on my phone and reads it to me as I drive. It is a free app, but the quality is quite good. It doesn’t really feel like a robot reading it to me. The app I am referring to is @Voice Aloud Reader (TTS Reader) by Hyperionics Technology. You can also download it for free from Play Store and try it out.

Speech to Text systems

These systems are used to capture what you say and convert to text. This is already possible on most keyboards on your smart phone and also to search on Google using your smart phone. This basically eliminates the need for a keyboard. 

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Chatbots are used by many companies to answer to common customer queries. In 2019, media widely reported that a Chinese software engineer designed a chatbot to chat with his girlfriend while he was busy at work. 

Spoken Language Dialog systems

These systems enable you to talk to a computer via a telephone. “These can be used to call up on the phone and talk to a machine in order to buy or sell stocks and shares, or to get route directions from one city to another” according to sources.

Automatic code generation

OpenAI has announced Codex, a transformer-based model that can write computer code astonishingly well. Human users can give it a plain-English description of a command or function and Codex turns this description into functioning computer code. 

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Machine Translation

Machine translation technology takes a document in one language and translates it into a document in another language. The best example of this is Google translate. I am sure most of you have already tried. Machine translation is still not perfect, but improving. A day may not be far off when the need to learn another language is entirely eliminated! 

What about LTs for Dzongkha?

We have to carry out NLP research for Dzongkha and develop relevant language technologies that can promote its use and help its preservation. Sadly, big research projects are not interested in minority languages like Dzongkha because of the small potential market for products or services for such languages. 

“Special concession” on export of wheat and sugar to Bhutan 

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 11:03

Dechen Dolkar  

The Government of India (GoI) has given a special concession on the export of wheat and sugar to Bhutan.

The Embassy of India in Thimphu has written a letter to the foreign affairs ministry on July 25, stating that “in view of friendly relations with Bhutan, the concerned authorities in India have made a special exception for Bhutan by permitting the export of 5,000 metric tonnes (MT) of wheat from India to Bhutan on the government to government request basis.”

On July 1, the government requested GoI for permission to import wheat from India.

GoI has authorised to export 5,000MT of wheat and 10,000MT of sugar.

Officials from the department of trade said that it would be imported based on the requirements in the country.

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Wheat is not high on the import list. In the last three years, Bhutan imported an average of 5,000MT of wheat annually.“Based on average consumption, the government has requested up to 5,000MT,” the trade official said.

The official said that the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) will import the wheat for traders, which they make flour and for the general people’s consumption.

“There are few medium industries which require wheat as raw materials and they will be importing wheat themselves,” the trade official said.

According to the Bhutan RNR statistics 2021, wheat production over the five years has decreased gradually. In 2017, 3,883MT of wheat was produced and last year only about 1,169MT of wheat was produced in the country.

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In May this year, due to sudden changes in the global supply chain affecting the price and availability of wheat and sugar, the GoI restricted the export of these two commodities to manage the overall food security of the country and to support other vulnerable countries.

GoI has also given a concession to import 10,000MT of sugar, out of which 6,156MT will be imported by FCBL for general consumption and the rest will be imported by industries as raw materials.

The trade official said that although the restriction is an interim measure, the import of sugar and wheat is only allowed with special permission from the authorities concerned in India.

Previously, GoI had made various trade concessions for Bhutan including lifting the restriction on the export of potatoes and ginger from Bhutan.

GoI has also agreed to supply Nano Urea /Nano Nitrogen fertilizer at a special concessional rate and supply coal to Bhutan.

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Meanwhile, the government is also anticipating the lifting of restrictions on the export of areca nuts to India from Bhutan.

Riverside Walk in Thimphu inaugurated

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 11:02

Staff reporter

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, inaugurated Riverside Walk, a walking path along the river by the Farmer’s Market yesterday.  

The walking path loops between the Bazam (traditional footbridge) at the Farmer’s Market and the concrete Dechen Zam. The 1.8km loop is designed so walkers need not cross the road at any point. 

The loop that connects the modern and traditional bridges includes rest stops, view points, mini-gardens, and water filters for drinking water. 

The Royal Commission for Urban Development designed and developed the walking path

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The Riverside Walk was developed by the Trashichhodzong Garden Project as part of an overall plan to develop green public spaces and gardens encircling  Trashichhodzong. The project has developed a Rhododendron garden at Zilukha, above the dzong, as well as lawns and gardens in the one kilometer radius around the dzong. 

At the Riverside Farmer’s Market, the project has developed several gardens, including a dinosaur park. 

The small inauguration event was attended by members of the Royal Commission for Urban Development (RCUD) and those who were involved in designing and developing the path. 

Riverside Walk is expected to encourage residents to spend more time on healthy recreation and social activities by offering a green and beautiful walking path in the heart of the city.

Tsirang Thromde proposes to do away with 30-minute parking system

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 11:01

Choki Wangmo | Tsirang

The Tsirang Thromde instituted 30-minute parking system. A year later, today, the tromde’s representative is requesting the Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) to do away with it.

Thromde Thuemi Dema Drukpa said that while the system helped reduce traffic congestion, it was damaging to vehicles.

The system introduced by the police and Road Safety and Transport Agency requires the vehicle owners to keep their parking lights switched on for 30 minutes after which traffic police ensure that they move out.

This, Dema Drukpa said, is not good for vehicles and requested the DT members to explore other measures to tackle the challenge of vehicle congestion.

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Introducing parking fee system is one of the suggestions.

The motion, however, did not receive support from the DT members.

Mendrelgang’s mangmi, Tshering, said that  changing decisions in a short period was illogical. He instead recommended public awareness to achieve efficiency related to the parking problem.

In an earlier interview, Tsirang’s Superintendent of Police (SP), Colonel Gyem Tshering, said that with the increasing number of population in Damphu town, the number of vehicles had also increased, creating traffic congestion, resulting in the lack of parking space, and inconvenience to shoppers.

Some DT members said that the system could be reviewed once the new town development is completed.

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There are mixed responses from system users.

A resident said that an alarm system could be installed to ensure strict compliance. “Currently, there is no strict monitoring.”

“You can’t even finish a coffee in 30 minutes. It is an unnecessary hassle,” another said.

The shopkeepers, however, said that the system was convenient.

The 30-minute parking system is implemented from 9am to 6pm during which time residents and business owners are allotted separate parking spaces within the town.

Trashigang DT raises issue of budget constraints

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 11:01

Neten Dorji | Trashigang

The Trashigang’s dzongkhag administration is preparing to write to Gross National Happiness Commission and relevant agencies for additional budgets for the construction of a bailey bridge in Khaling.

This was decided during the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) meeting yesterday.

Khaling’s mangmi, Sonam Rabgay, submitted that there was a need for an additional budget to complete the bridge in Jerelayme Chiwog.

He also said that the construction of the bridge was proposed long back in the 1990s.

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Sonam Rabgay said that the foundation of the bridge was completed. “However, with the lack of budgets in the gewog, it is impossible to complete the bridge.”

The bridge, he said, would benefit more than 150 households and a primary school.

He also said that the gewog spent about Nu 4.8 million to construct the wing wall and abutments for the bailey bridge.

Gup Sonam Dorji said that the gewog needs about Nu 13 million to complete the bailey bridge. “If we spend all the budget on the bridge construction, it will hamper other development activities. We need only bridge part to open to traffic,” he added.

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He said that every summer the stream swells and disconnects the chiwog from rest of the gewog. “It is difficult for people to cross during monsoon. A bridge is crucial for the people.”

Trashigang’s dzongrab gom, Wangchuk Dorji, suggested that the dzongkhag would write to Gross National Happiness Commission.

Thrimshing gup also submitted that a new bridge be constructed in place of the one that was recently washed away.

“After [the bridge] was washed away by the floods on July 17, the chiwog is in dire need of a bridge,” he said.

Saying no to sexual harassment

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 11:00

Thimphu dzongkhag court convicted a director of Bhutan Power Corporation Ltd of sexual harassment this week and sent him to prison for eight months and ordered to pay a compensation of Nu 45,000. The judgment should send a strong message to those who consider their subordinates or colleagues as easy targets.

This is not the first time. And going by the way things are, it might not be the last.

Most Bhutanese men and women today grew up witnessing some sort of sexual harassment that the victims shrugged off casually. It was a common sight to see men and women wrestle playfully at work in the fields or during celebrations. Or throw comments loaded with sexual connotations. Today, it is a different time. 

We have to be aware that people are now sensitive about their private space and self-esteem, image, and there are laws protecting individual rights and freedoms.

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Unfortunately, quite often, we hear of incidences of sexual harassment at workplaces. In most cases, it is brushed off as trivial and a harmless flirtation, and if not intentionally done, it is not sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a serious issue and we must treat it so, irrespective of gender. Since it is a criminal offence, failure to report to law enforcement agencies is also a criminal offence under the Penal Code of Bhutan.

The current penalties, both administrative and criminal, are mostly seen as inadequate and there are not enough mechanisms to adequately compensate victims and take care of them including counselling services.

UN Women reported that in 2020, globally, an estimated 736 million women reported some form of sexual violence of which few than 40 percent of victims sought help and less than 10 percent sought the help of police. These are mostly in the least developed countries such as Bhutan.

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As we work towards becoming a high-end destination for our visitors, fixing such pertinent issues becomes very equally important. Offices must have proper checks and balances in place, including robust complaint and redressal systems. 

Even as we discuss the judgment, there are more cases of sexual harassment and abuse emerging. The recent incidences have made us all think. Such abuses are an ongoing behaviour in our compassionate Buddhist society. The imagery of a child abuser in chains is unnerving; that of one in formal clothes, looking like any of us, is even more chilling.

Today it is more important to reflect on the trends that we see than to react to individual incidents. And we do have much to think about.

Picture story

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 10:59

Druk PNB bank inaugurated a branch office at Olakha, Thimphu yesterday morning. Finance Minister Namgay Tshering and Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor attended the ceremony.

People misusing border exit relaxation 

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 10:59

…current restriction is the continuation of the existing protocols. Monkeypox is adding on the risk.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Unless it is necessary, people will not be allowed to travel across the border until the international gate opens.

This comes after some Bhutanese were found crossing the border for “petty issues.”

Some sources in Phuentsholing town said that a woman had gone across the border seven times for no particularly good reason.

Some were even caught trying to smuggle in drugs.

However, the Southern Covid-19 Task Force’s (SC19TF) chairman, Kinlay Tshering, said the decision to restrict “unnecessary movements” was not because of such cases.

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“We all know the international border is still closed,” she said. “And the pandemic is still on and highly transmissible Covid-19 sub-variants and monkeypox cases are being reported in the neighbouring countries.”

Due to this, unnecessary movements cannot be allowed, she said, pointing out that people shouldn’t get exposed to such threats.

Despite the international border gate still being closed, the chairman said the task force has been facilitating an exit for important programmes and agendas, such as further studies, capacity building, and health and medical services, including for death cases.

All these were done through travel clearance from the department of immigration.

However, the task force was directed by the government to do away with the travel clearance last month.

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“People definitely misused this relaxation,” the SC19TF chairman said.

SC19TF said the numbers of people exiting the gate and the positive cases were increasing drastically.

The international gate in Phuentsholing will be opened on September 23.

A multi-facility terminal is being constructed at the border gate.

Picture story

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 10:58

Both Open and Women Teams won the match against San Marino and Myanmar with a score of 3:1 yesterday.

Sonam Choden with the victory recorded a hat trick and it was the second win for Karma Gyelmo. Pema Yangsel Dorji, the youngest from the Women’s Team, secured her first win and was the first to finish the game. The fourth member of the Women Team, Asha Limbo faced a World Chess Master with 1979 FIDE rating but she gave a tough match right till the end. It was a swift win for Kelzang Tshering, Bhakta Bahadur Monger and Ugyen Wangchuk against better ranked opponents. 

Beast of burden becoming a burden in Tsento gewog

པ།, 08/04/2022 - 10:57

Villagers are selling off horses, a source of income once

Dechen Dolkar

For years, people in the five chiwogs at Tsento gewog, Paro, have depended on horses not only as a beast of burden but also for cash income. Villagers earned a good amount during tourist seasons as they hire out horses and mules to tour companies.

The business has come to an abrupt halt since the Covid-19 pandemic.  Today, even as the opening of borders to tourism is announced, villagers have sold almost all their horses and mules to highlanders of Laya, Soe, Lingzhi, and to people in other chiwogs.

For half the population of Tsento gewog, their livelihood depends on horses. The people of all the five chiwogs hired out their horses to trekking and hiking companies. There are more than 5,000 population of people in the gewog.

Out of five chiwogs, Shana-Mitsi, Chunjey-Zamtsa and Nyamjay-Phando chiwogs sold most of the horses. Each household had an average of 11 horses with some owning  20 to 30 horses.

Tsento Gup Chencho Gyeltshen said that people started selling their horses in 2020 because they could not afford to feed them since there was no income due to the pandemic.

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The gup said that from last year, the price of horse feeds has increased drastically. “Almost all the horses in these three chiwogs were sold and they have kept only one or two for personal use,” the gup said.

Porterage was a good business and a lucrative source of income. During the peak tourist season, each household with a minimum of seven horses used to earn a minimum of Nu 100,000.

Shana-Mitsi was one of the chiwogs with the maximum number of horses in the gewog. Every household in the chiwog at least owned seven horses. 

Their main source of income was also from porterage since they cannot cultivate paddy.

Shana is 12km from the Drukgyel dzong.

Tshogpa of Shana-Mitsi chiwog, Tashi Lhamo, said that since the start of the pandemic villagers have sold 200 to 300 horses to highlanders in Laya, Soe and Lingzhi.

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The Tshogpa said that without tourism, the beast of burden was becoming a burden to people.  If it was difficult to feed them, it became harder for villagers to take care of the idle horses. “Without income from horses, now people are growing potatoes and wheat,” the Tshogpa said.

Horses are sold at Nu 80,000 and mules for Nu 130,000

Chencho Dorji, from Shana chiwog, said that he did not sell his 30 horses for two years although he did not earn any income.

However, with the cost of feed becoming expensive from last year, he said he sold all his horses. “I have kept only seven horses and now they are also let loose in the forest,” Chencho Dorji said.

Chencho is now driving a taxi.

Lekey from Nyamjay chiwog sold seven horses and kept only four. He kept four horses after hearing that tourism would start next month and trekking could resume.

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Lekey used to earn Nu 70,000 to 80,000  a year from hiring out his horses. “I am thinking of buying more horses since tourism is reopening soon.

Villagers in Yaksa-Nubri chiwog,  one of the remotest chiwogs, held onto their horses as the chiwog is not connected with a road. People in the chiwog bought additional horses from other chiwogs since they have to transport their rations and goods.

Gup said that people have also received Kidu from His Majesty the King since they could not earn income due to the pandemic.

National savings fall by 6.14 percent

ཕུར།, 08/03/2022 - 11:37

…enough to finance only 39 percent of domestic investment

Thukten Zangpo 

The country’s gross national savings last year fell for the fifth consecutive year to Nu 26.4 billion (B), below 2019 level of Nu 40.1B.

In 2021, it saw a drop by Nu 2.4B from Nu 28.8B the year earlier. This, according to the National Statistics Bureau’s (NSB) 2022 report, is down by 6.14 percent.

Last year’s national savings was equivalent to 15.39 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).  It was 16.73 percent in 2020 and 22.48 percent in 2019.

Of the total national saving, government savings declined sharply to -Nu 6.3B in 2021 from Nu -23.2 million (M) in 2020.

The pandemic continued to weigh on the country’s national savings.

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However, private savings, which include households, private and public corporations, increased to Nu 32.7B, which is an increase of 3.9B from the previous year.

National saving is the difference between a nation’s disposable income and what it spends on the consumption of goods and services—it comprises household, corporate, and government savings.

It also indicates a nation’s financial health and provides a source of funds for domestic investment, which in turn is a key driver of labour productivity and living standards.

According to the report, the consistent increase in the government’s final consumption expenditure with the declining inflow of loans and grants from abroad has resulted in a fall in national savings. “The gross national savings could not meet the investment requirements of the economy.”

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In an economy open to trade and capital flows, the difference between the level of investment and saving in the economy is equal to the current account balance.

Over the years, Bhutan’s investment has tended to exceed savings since the country operates on both trade and current account deficits.

With a nominal investment of Nu 67.3B against a gross national saving of Nu 26.4B in 2021, the country saw a current account deficit of Nu 40.9B.

In real terms, the investment recorded an increase of 12.6 percent in 2021 against a drop of 15.99 percent in 2020, up by 28.59 percentage points compared to the previous year.

According to the NSB, the final consumption expenditure recorded a growth of 5.06 percent in 2021 compared to a contraction of 4.34 percent from the year earlier.

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In nominal terms, it saw an increase of 15.9B to Nu 159.8B.

The private final consumption expenditure, which accounts for 74.53 percent of the final consumption expenditure growth, accelerated to 4.85 percent from a drop of -6.77 in 2020. In current terms, private final consumption expenditure was estimated at Nu 119.1B. Its share of GDP stood at 63.41 percent with an increase of 0.72 percentage points during the year.

The government’s final consumption expenditure which accounted for 25.47 percent of the total final consumption expenditure saw a growth of 5.73 percent at Nu 40.7B. It was an increase of 4.7B from 2020 at current prices.

The saving-investment ratio was 0.39 last year, compared to 0.51 in 2020.

“The national savings was able to finance only 39 percent of domestic investment against 51 percent in 2020,” the report stated.

Forty new HIV cases detected

ཕུར།, 08/03/2022 - 11:36

Nima Wangdi  

Bhutan detected 40 new HIV cases between January and June this year. Of that, 19 are males and 21 females. 

This is the highest number of cases detected in a period of six months to date.

Those between 25 and 49 years constitute 70 percent of the cases and 20 percent are above 50. Children below five years account for five percent.

According to a press release from the health ministry, 13 were diagnosed through medical screening, 12 through contract-tracing, 10 through voluntary counselling and testing, and five through screening of pregnant mothers availing antenatal care (ANC) services.

Between 1993 and June 2022 Bhutan recorded 835 of which 433 are males and 402 are females.

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From 2000 to 2013, the number of new HIV diagnoses rose from nine to 51, according to the press release. At present, about 628 people are living with HIV in the country.

The press release stated that out of 628, 608 are on antiretroviral treatment resulting in 97 percent treatment coverage among the living cases.

“Despite the low prevalence of HIV in the country, the need to intensify HIV counselling and testing is being accorded high priority to bridge the current case detection gap of 35.8 percent of the estimated 1,300 HIV cases in the country,” it stated.

The health ministry updates the HIV epidemic in the country every six months.

Sowai Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the ministry was working hard toward bridging the case detection gap. “Cases detection gap has been reduced significantly since 2019 but it is not enough to meet the national and global target to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”

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“To achieve an AIDS-free generation, all our pregnant mothers must avail the two-time HIV testing during their entire pregnancy period and avoid any risky behaviour during breast-feeding to prevent mother-to-child transmission,” Lyonpo said.

The ministry is currently in the process of carrying out the pre-validation assessment to check Bhutan’s readiness for the triple elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B by 2025, the press release states.

Public health officiating director, Rixin Jamtsho, said that the ministry expanded its HIV testing programs to all healthcare facilities, standalone community testing centre called health information and service centre (HISC) in six major urban areas including the private diagnostic centres”.

Plan to secure tigers of the rivers 

ཕུར།, 08/03/2022 - 11:35

Chhimi Dema 

Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), also known as Tigers of the Rivers, is an endangered fish species found in rivers of Southern and Eastern Bhutan.

The fish is locally called sernya.

Today, the fish faces threats from developmental activities, climate change and illegal fishing, among others.

The Golden Mahseer Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan 2022-2032 identified illegal fishing, hydropower dam, and weak protection of spawning areas as the top three threats to golden mahseer conservation in the country.

The plan, prepared by the Nature Conservation Division under the forests and park services department, aims to conserve viable populations of golden mahseer and sustain its ecosystem.

The division has identified 12 threats to golden mahseer conservation in the country.

Fly fishing and fish handling technique displayed by an angler (NCD, DoFPS)

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According to the plan, illegal fishing is rampant in all mahseer waters threatening its survival and its habitats.

The use of improvised electric shockers is found as the most common tool used to catch the fish in Bhutan.

Moreover, hydropower dams that disrupt the  migratory routes of the fish; weak protection of spawning areas; pollution; dredging of river bed materials; river training; unauthorised fish feeding; sedimentation; irrigation weirs; and introduction of exotic fish species are identified as other threats to the fish’s survival.

“Climate change can affect patterns and timings of migration, and cause range shift and phenology of mahseers,” stated the action plan document.

The document has identified six broad challenges which hamper the conservation of the golden mahseer and its habitats.

The challenges recognised are limited resources and technical capacity, limited studies and data on the fish, and lack of adequate facilities and tailored programmes to promote high-end recreational fishing.

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Poor stakeholder coordination and engagement, weak transboundary collaboration, and international linkages are some challenges hampering the fish’s conservation efforts.

“Species such as the Golden Mahseer play a critical role in all aspects of science (river ecology) and society (culture), making it an extremely important target for conservation,” according to the document.

The division identified four objectives and eight strategies to conserve the fish and its ecosystem.

The four objectives are securing the habitats and ensuring viable wild populations of golden mahseer; increasing science-based information on its ecology; enhancing community livelihoods through the promotion of high-end golden mahseer recreational fishing, and strengthening education on the conservation of the fish.

The 10-year conservation action plan is expected to end on July 2032.

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The native range of golden mahseer includes Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

US interest rate hikes unlikely to trigger another financial crisis in Southeast Asia

ལྷག, 08/02/2022 - 13:53

In the face of the soaring inflation, the US Federal Reserve has no choice but to raise its benchmark interest rate to control commodity prices. The consumer price index in the United States rose 1.3 percent in June, or aggregately 9.1 percent over the last 12 months to hit a 40-year high.

To achieve a so-called soft landing of the national economy, on July 28, the Fed increased its interest rate by 75 basis points and claimed that “another unusually large increase could be appropriate” in September. Over the past few months, it has raised its interest rate several times. Following a 0.25 percent rise in March, the interest rate amounted to a target range of 0.75-1 percent in May.

On June 15, the Federal Open Market Committee emphasized that it is “strongly committed to returning inflation to its 2 percent objective”. Toward this goal, it decided to continue raising interest rates and reducing its holdings of Treasury securities, agency debt, and agency mortgage-backed securities.

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The Fed’s hawkish position is a risky signal for others. Former US treasury secretary John Connally once said: “The US dollar is our currency but your problem.” When one sovereign currency plays a dominant role in lubricating the global economy, accounting for about 90 percent of all foreign exchange transactions before the pandemic, tightening its supply will have profound implications on global capital flows. Specifically, when the value of the US dollar becomes the strongest it has been over the past decades, it inevitably devalues currencies worldwide. At the same time, as interest rates are now markedly higher in the US than elsewhere, investors are motivated to hold relatively conservative investments such as Treasury bonds to pursue higher returns.

Importantly, the risks derived from the raised interest rates are never equally shared. The last decades have witnessed several boom-and-bust cycles in emerging markets-global investors move into these economies during good times but will suddenly back out when the recipient countries expose deteriorations in the macroeconomy or when the US tightens capital supply. In other words, emerging markets often face more risks and vulnerability than wealth and prosperity when dealing with global finance.

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This is why analysts also keep tracking the impact the recently raised interest rates will have on Southeast Asian countries. As they still have a loose peg to the US dollar, the primary challenge is that rising interest rate makes the payments to service existing debt more expensive, which may trigger an outflow of capital investment.

Historically, Southeast Asian countries experienced a similar episode 25 years ago. As the US economy recovered from a recession in the early 1990s, the Fed under Alan Greenspan began to raise the benchmark interest rates to head off inflation. Consequently, the strong dollar made the US a more attractive investment destination than Southeast Asia, which contributed to sudden capital outflows. While not denying the endogenous weaknesses within these economies, like large current account deficits, insufficient foreign reserves, and excessive exposure to foreign exchange risk, raising the interest rate in the US is indeed an indispensable trigger. Hence, in July 1997, when the Thai baht suffered sharp devaluation, a shock wave soon reverberated across the region. The Malaysian currency was devaluated dramatically, and the index of the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange went down from 1200 to 260 points. Southeast Asian countries paid heavy prices to recover from the turmoil.

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However, even though it is necessary to be alert to the potential impacts, there is unlikely to be another full-blown financial crisis in the region. While pressure on exchange rates and bond yields is likely to persist over the coming months, some solid evidence indicates that many economies are better prepared. First of all, they have accumulated sufficient reserves to hedge the risks attributed to external debt. According to the World Bank, the international reserves to total external debt stocks in Thailand reached 126.4 percent in 2020, in contrast to 24.5 percent in 1997.Similarly, the total reserves equaled 111.7 percent of total external debt in the Philippines in 2020, in contrast to 17.2 percent in 1997. Hence, even though Sri Lanka recently announced national bankruptcy because of its inability to pay off external debt, it is more likely an outlier. Many countries in this region have learned from the painful experiences of the past to build resilience to buttress their currency and national economy.

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In addition, many regional countries have also strengthened their current account and fiscal balances. The current account to GDP in Indonesia and Malaysia is 0.28 percent and 3.46 percent in 2021, respectively, in contrast to-2.26 percent and-5.93 percent in 1997.At the same time, the worldwide inflation wave can also benefit countries that export food and commodities.

Overall, despite the hike interest rate backdrop, Southeast Asia is in a relatively solid position. The overheated domestic economy may force the Fed to continue tightening the money supply, which triggers tensions and risks to emerging markets. Nevertheless, we should not overestimate the impacts this time.

Drugpa Tshezhi and the Buddha’s First Sermon

ལྷག, 08/02/2022 - 13:49

Drugpa Tshezhi (དྲུག་པ་ཚེས་བཞི་) or the 4th day of the 6th month is one of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar. It is the day on which the Buddha delivered his first sermon or, to use the Buddhist idiom, turned the first wheel of dharma. Thus, the day is also known as Chokhor Duechen (ཆོས་འཁོར་དུས་ཆེན་).

After attaining perfect enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have remained in solitary retreat for seven weeks relishing the bliss of his enlightenment because he thought the ordinary world occupied by sensual pleasures would not understand his message of enlightenment which is profound, peaceful, subtle and ineffable. However, according to the Buddha’s life story, he agreed to teach after being requested by the kings of gods. The Buddha, thus, journeyed from Bodh Gaya to Benares and delivered the first sermon on the Four Noble Truths to his five former colleagues in Deer Park on Drugpa Tshezhi. In this groundbreaking sermon, he declared:

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“Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates are suffering.

Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

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Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

(Bhikkhu Bodhi (tr.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Saṃyutta Nikāya), p. 1844.)

When the Buddha finished his sermon, all five ascetic audiences are said to have got enlightened and some 84,000 celestial beings are believed to have seen the truth. The sermon began for the Buddha 45 years of his mission. The Four Noble Truths today form the cornerstone of the Buddhist tradition and the Buddha has come to be seen as a powerful and compassionate object of refuge or divinity, whom many will worship with devotion and material offerings on Drugpa Tshezhi.

Yet, if we look closely at the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path, they are not merely a religious sermon, which we should treat with faith and devotion. What the Buddha taught on this day was a novel strategy of solving existential problems. The Buddha was not a god or deity; he was in effect a management guru, an existential strategist and an extraordinary teacher. He declared that the world we live in is full of dukkha (སྡུག་བསྔལ་) which is roughly translated as suffering in English. He taught that dukkha has its origins, and that there is cessation of dukkha and the path to cessation. These are the Four Noble Truths (བདེན་པ་བཞི་). If we substitute dukkha with problems for our context, the Buddha rightly pointed out that life is full of problems, that the problems come from myriad causes, and that there is also a solution to the problems and ways to seek the solution. The Four Noble Truths is thus a mechanism of problem solving and paradigm for Buddhist spiritual and social development.

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The Buddha instructed that one must first recognize dukkha (སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཤེས་པར་བྱ་) or, in other words, identify the problem. Just as a physician needs to diagnose the illness, it is important to understand the problem in order to overcome it. In understanding the problem, the Buddha argues that one must trace its causes. One must eradicate the cause of dukkha (ཀུན་འབྱུང་སྤང་བར་བྱ་) or the source of the problem in order to overcome the problem. Thirdly, the Buddha declared that one must attain the cessation of dukkha (འགོག་པ་མངོན་དུ་བྱ་) or the solution to the problem. This, one does, by following the path to the cessation (ལམ་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་) or adopting the techniques and methods for solving the problem. The Buddha proclaimed to his disciples that if a person managed to do these four successfully, there is nothing further to be done to solve all problems in life.

Furthermore, the Buddha laid out a pragmatic process of following the path. He instructed his disciples to firstly have the right view (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་) or understanding of the situation or context including knowing the problem. With such understanding, they must then generate the right intention (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྟོག་པ་) and aim to reach the goal of freedom from problems. It is important then to communicate the intention or plan through the mode of right speech (ཡང་དག་པའི་ངག་). Words then must be followed by right action (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལས་) and such action must be repeated as a way of life or right livelihood (ཡང་དག་པའི་འཚོ་བ་). One must follow one’s righteous way of life with much enthusiasm and right effort (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྩོལ་བ་) while doing so maintain right mindfulness (ཡང་དག་པའི་དྲན་པ་) or awareness of the situation as our efforts can easily turn into mindless habitual drudgery. When one mindfully engages without distraction but with right concentration (ཡང་དག་པའི་ཏིང་འཛིན་) one completes the eight stages of the path, which are required to reach the goal.

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The Noble Eightfold Path, formulated by the Buddha, is thus a practical way of solving problems, and applicable to all issues one may face in life. The topic of the Buddha’s first sermon is not an esoteric and high-flying philosophy or mystical principle but a management device, and perhaps the world’s oldest strategy for problem solving we can all use today to deal with the various problems and issues in life.

Drugpa Tshezhi gives us a special opportunity to relook at the Buddha’s message of Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path, and make it relevant to our wellbeing and progress, unobfuscated by religious dogma and rituals. Many of us will be visiting temples, making prostrations, lighting butter lamps, offering cash and food as a way of commemorating this important event. We will not fail in seeing the Buddha as a powerful and compassionate object of refuge or divinity, and worship him with devotion and material offerings. In the midst of such habitual rituals, it is important to remember that the Buddha is first and foremost a teacher who taught on this day a pragmatic way of solving problems. In order to truly honour the teacher and carry on his legacy, we should study and apply his teachings in our life.

Economic growth rebounds with 4.09 percent in 2021

མིག, 08/01/2022 - 11:50

… GDP records at Nu 187.8B

Thukten Zangpo 

Bhutan’s economic or gross domestic product (GDP) recorded a growth of 4.09 percent or Nu 187.8 billion (B) in 2021, according to the National Statistics Bureau’s (NSB) National Accounts Statistics 2022 released on Saturday, July 30.

The economy saw an increase by Nu 15.5B which is an expansion of 14.1 percentage points from 2020’s GDP growth of -10. 01 percent, equivalent to Nu 172.3B.

GDP represents the flow of goods and services because of economic activities that take place in the economy. It is the sum of the values of all goods and services produced within the economic boundary of the country, which is available for final uses such as consumption, investment, and exports.

An expansion of GDP results in the creation of jobs, and an increase in people’s income levels and consumption capacity. It also means higher profits for companies, including the government and corporations, which in turn means higher stock prices for some of them.

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After the economic shocks from the pandemic, the mining and quarrying sector saw an expansion at 28.27 percent in 2021. It is a 108.69 percentage point increase after having observed a record low growth of -80.4 percent in the previous year.

Mines and minerals like dolomite, limestone, coal, and gypsum among others were the main contributors to the growth of the sector.

Transport and communication also grew at 16.21 percent from a low growth of -14.65 percent in 2020. Telecommunication was the major contributor which saw a growth of 27.31 percent followed by publishing activities and surface transport activities with 19.42 percent and 3.15 percent respectively.

As expected, air transport and travel activities sub-sectors recorded a drop in growth, with -73.28 percent and -72.07 percent respectively because of the challenges posed by the pandemic and border closures.

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Lifting the restriction on the import of foreign workers, improved economic activity in construction and resulted in the construction sector growing by 8.78 percent after three successive years of contraction.  Wholesale and retail trade saw an increase of 7.26 percent.

However, the electricity and water supply sector, financial and insurance activities, and education and health dropped by 3.69 percent, 4.16 percent, and 0.01 percent respectively.

Statistics also show that the gross national savings (government and private savings) saw a decline of 6.14 percent at Nu 26.4B compared with the Nu 28.8B in 2020.

Gross national saving is derived by deducting the final consumption expenditure from gross national disposable income and consists of savings such as personal, business and government.

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“Increased government final consumption expenditure, and continuous decline in the inflow of primary and secondary income from the rest of the world resulted in the fall of the national saving,” the report stated. Unlike in the past years, gross national savings was not adequate to meet the investment requirements of the economy.

Export of goods and services increased by 8.92 percent and at the same time, import of goods and services also increased by 15.74 percent in 2021. This increased Bhutan’s trade deficit to Nu 39.3B in 2021, an increase of 27. 94 percent from a deficit of Nu 28.6B in the previous year.

Among the sectors, the tertiary sector recorded the highest share of the economy with 46.61 percent followed by the secondary sector with 34.2 percent, and the primary sector with 19.19 percent.

Similarly, gross national income increased by 4.1 percent, an increase of 11.24 percentage points at Nu 176.3B in 2021.

The GDP per capita increased to Nu 248,334 (USD 3,359) from Nu 230,055 (USD 3,104) in 2021. This is an increase of 3.1 percent from 2020.

Celebrating guardians of environment 

མིག, 08/01/2022 - 11:49

Chhimi Dema 

Bhutan observed World Ranger’s Day in Thimphu yesterday to honour those who lost their lives in the line of duty and those who continue to serve.

Across the country, the forest division offices held events to acknowledge the efforts of rangers who are the guardians of the environment.

Rangers continue to face many challenges in their line of duty. Among many threats and challenges that rangers face in the field, confrontations with wild animals and poacher attacks are the most common challenges facing Bhutanese rangers.

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A senior forestry officer, Letro, said that rangers in the field face various life-threatening challenges. “Nevertheless, for the people and the country, we are in the fields giving our best to safeguard our pristine environment and hoping we can gift it to our future generations.” 

World Ranger’s Day in the country was first celebrated on July 31, 2017.

Deputy chief forestry officer, Namgay Bidha, said that the day is observed to acknowledge the contribution of the rangers who are currently serving to protect nature and the environment.

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“This year’s celebration marks the sixth year Bhutan is celebrating her rangers along with the international community of rangers,” she said.

This year’s ranger day in the country was observed with the launch of the online forestry service, nine forestry-related books,  and a showcase of documentaries and animations.    

Online forestry system 

Department of forests and park services’ chief, Kinley Tshering, said that previously people had to visit the range offices for forestry services which they can now avail it online.

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“The online system will drastically cut down the turn-around time for these services,” he added.

Six forestry services such as fishing permit and license application, forestry clearance, research clearance, permit for non-wood forest products (NWFP) collection, and approval for import and export of NWFP or timber is available online.

The users can make payments for the services through the Royal Monetary Authority’s payment gateway.

The celebration saw the launch of books such as Forest-type map of Bhutan, Golden Mahseer Conservation Action Plan, National Interpretation for the Identification of High Conservation Values in Bhutan, and Traditional Practice of Ngeshing Jorma Tea Making in Bhutan, among others.

Rapist sentenced to life imprisonment

མིག, 08/01/2022 - 11:48

Thinley Namgay 

Trashiyangtse Dzongkhag Court sentenced Jangchub Nyingpo, 43, from Toedtsho gewog to life imprisonment on July 29 for statutory rape of his 10-year-old stepdaughter on multiple occasions.

The court also ordered Jangchub Nyingpo, a father of four, to pay Nu 112,500 as compensation to the victim.

The incident first occurred early last year, when the victim had come to visit her mother, who lived with her stepfather, on a vacation. She was studying in class IV.

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Three days after her arrival, the stepfather raped the girl after taking her with him to herd cattle. She was also raped a week later, and on numerous occasions thereafter. He warned the victim not to tell her mother. However, in April this year, when the man tried to rape the girl, he was caught by the mother and reported it to the police.

Jangchub Nyingpo confessed to the police his crime.  The medical report from  khamdang hospital also indicated sexual activity and revealed that the girl has contracted a sexually transmitted infection.

The Office of the Attorney General prosecuted the case and charged the defendant with first-degree felony and demanded compensation for the victim.

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Section 181 of the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004 says the defendant shall be guilty of the offence of statutory rape, if the defendant engages in sexual intercourse with a child below twelve years, or an incompetent person, either with or without knowledge of the other person being a child or incompetent person.

The dzongkhag court said the defendant was supposed to care for and treat the stepdaughter like his own child. The victim had undergone severe emotional and mental stress after the incident, the court’s judgment stated.

The defendant presented to the court in June that he regretted his action and worried about the life of his children. Jangchub Nyingpo has eight  days to appeal to the High Court.

Yathras coming on display again

མིག, 08/01/2022 - 11:47

Nima Wangdi 

With the country, reopening the border to international visitors on September 23, more colourful yathra products have hit the stands at yathra shops in Chumey, Bumthang.

They survived on meagre business for about two years after the Covid-19 pandemic hit Bhutan and stopped tourists, their major customers.

As the pandemic eased, local travellers and pilgrims started visiting the shops and bought yathra products. However, the sales were limited to a few products.

The yathra weavers in the villages sell their products to these two shops. The shops import and supply yarns to the weavers.

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The owner of one of the yathra shops, Thogmey Yeshi said he started importing and supplying yarns to villagers. He could not do this for the last two years since there was no business.

He said rats destroyed his stocks. Fungus and insects destroyed them when the shop remained closed.

He is optimistic that the business would gain momentum once the tourists start coming. “Bumthang, with a number of festivals receive a good number of tourists. We had good business until the pandemic shattered everything.”

“Many products were out of stock but I have started to restock them,” he said, adding that yathra weaving is the main source of income for the people of Chumey gewog.

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He said that besides the imported yarns, local wool is also available from Phobjikha in Wangdue, Dungmeythang in Bumthang and yak hair from Merak and Sakteng. But the products woven from local materials are expensive since they involve a lot of work, which includes spinning and dyeing.

The shops sell carpets, yathra pieces in rolls, jackets, bags, cushion covers, table covers, mufflers and handbags made out of yathra. However, some products like pencil bags that are stitched across the border ran out of stock since the border remained closed.

Another Yathra shop owner, Sonam Choden, 39 said that she has also started buying yathra products from the villagers. She plans to stitch more products from the yathra rolls she has bought so far.

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“With the increase in sustainable development fee for tourists, we might see less tourists but I expect this would bring us enough business,” she said.

She has some products already but doesn’t display them all in front of her shop as she did before. “Only some products are on display but I would display more soon when the tourists arrive.”

One could also see people weaving yathra around their houses and shops.

A woman from Domkhar said that she started weaving yathra and will sell them to shops at Zungey in Chumey. “This was how we used to survive before the pandemic.”

Besides the two shops, yatra products are also sold in shops in Chamkhar town and in other parts of the country.