Saving industries

I applaud Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk’s tour to Pasakha to assess the crisis gripping the steel factories. And factory owners welcomed his visit as signs of possible government support for an industry which is seriously affected by the global financial crisis.

The government should support the steel industry, but provided it is of strategic importance to our country. That is to say that the industry should be socially, politically or economically too important to our country to allow it to collapse. So if, due to a failure in the steel industry, many jobs for nationals would be lost, or national security or self sufficiency be compromised, or revenue would drop drastically, then, the government must intervene in full force. Otherwise, it should reconsider.

One strategically important industry that does need the government’s attention is tourism. Our tourism industry has endured the SARS epidemic, Asian financial crisis, avian flu outbreak, and other external shocks only to be seriously threatened now by the global financial crisis. And we cannot allow tourism to take a beating for three reasons: it generates jobs, it distributes money, and it generates foreign currency.

Tourism is a big employer. At last count there were 1,300 licensed guides. And this represents only a fraction of the jobs which are dependent on the tourism industry – thousands of cooks, waiters, housekeepers, drivers, craftsmen, retailers and entertainers depend, directly or indirectly, on tourism.

We all know that tourism is our country’s largest foreign currency earner. But we forget how effectively it circulates money through our economy. All the different types of workers I just mentioned, working in different parts of the country take home pay checks.

For example, consider this: Pem Tazi, about 43 years old, from Tshojo in Lunana, is a “yak contractor”; he organizes yaks for the famous Snowman Trek. This year, Yangphel used him on one trek – he worked 47 yaks for 14 trekkers for 14 days (Laya to Marothang) and charged Nu 500 per yak per day. So he recently collected almost Nu 330,000 for his services. He keeps 10% of this. The rest he divides among the other 18 yak owners. Yangphel also had to hire a similar number of horses and yaks for other segments of the same trek: Paro to Jangothang; Jangothang to Laya; and Marothang to Nikachu.

This is serious money circulating effectively through our economy. Strategically important stuff.

So our steel industries may or may not be strategically important, and the government may or may not help them. But tourism is strategically very important, and the government should address the possible impacts that the global financial crisis may soon have on this industry.

Running vegetable vendors

The other day I bumped into a vegetable vendor along Norzin Lam. She carried a basket of fresh saag and was obviously in a hurry. She wouldn’t sell me any.

But I convinced her to stop for a while, and discovered that she was actually running away from City Corporation officials. These officials, she told me, would seize her basket and fine her Nu 500 for selling vegetables illegally.

Today I met another group of vendors. They are from Wangduephodrang, and travel to Thimphu two to three times a week by taxi to sell fresh farm vegetables. The vegetables are mostly from their own farms.

They didn’t seem to be too worried and even displayed some of their vegetables (damdroo, saag, ola choto and spring onions). I asked them about the City Corporation officials and they said that between 1PM to 3PM they are generally safe – that’s about time the officials have their lunch break! Otherwise, they would be on the run. Some have had their entire stock, complete with baskets, confiscated by city officials, and slapped hefty fines as well.

All that our farmers want is a small opportunity to sell their produce. But existing city rules forbid them from setting up shop along the streets – it adds to the garbage, they say. And in the process, we, urban dwellers, are deprived of fresh farm vegetables during the weekdays.

This is not a new issue. The struggle between the vendors and city officials has been going on for years. This absurd contest, played out in Thimphu’s main street everyday, must end.

We can’t end it forcefully. Not as long as we have enterprising farmers on the one hand, and eager urban buyers on the other. So support the informal enterprises. And regulate them. Allow vegetable vendors on designated parts of Norzin Lam. And if we must, charge them the little money required to clean up each day.

More importantly, the government should address such small issues that go a very long way to discourage farm productivity and dampen entrepreneurship.

And oh, in Thimphu, very few people visit the Sabji Bazaar during the weekdays. What we and our farmers need is small “sunday market” closer to the city centre where we can buy vegetables during the weekdays, without bumping into escaping vendors.