Walking tall

Record setter

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha are three villages perched precariously on the steep slopes of a mountain opposite Dorokha, Denchukha and Dumtoe.

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha were, until recently, part of Mayona Gewog under Samtse. In 2007, these three villages and several equally remote villages of Dumtoe (Samtse) and Samar (Haa) were combined to form the kingdom’s newest gewog, Gakiling.

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha hold the disagreeable distinction of being among the poorest villages in Bhutan.

They also hold the most unfortunate record of never having had a dzongdag visit them. That’s correct: no dzongdag has ever visited these villages, never when they were part of Samtse, and not since they became part of Haa. That is, not till today. Earlier today, Dasho Karma Weezir, the Haa Dzongdag, crossed a make-shift cane bridge over the Amochu, completed an arduous trek uphill, and, just as dusk was settling in, became the first dzongdag to ever visit the three forgotten villages.

The simple residents of Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha are overjoyed that their dzongdag has finally visited them. I joined them in welcoming the CEO of our dzongkhag. And in congratulating him.

Dasho Karma Weezir became Haa Dzongdag in May 2009.

More food for thought

Sangay made three critical observations to my last entry. Most of you would already know that I try not to reply to criticism, especially those targeted at me. But Sangay’s comments are constructive. So they deserve serious consideration.

First, Sangay cautioned: “… don’t just add up those figures – I am pretty sure that these are overlapping figures.” Sangay may be correct. In fact, Ken Shulman, a friend and journalist in America, also made a similar comment in my Facebook profile.

But look at the numbers again: 37% of our children are stunting; 4.6% are wasting; and 11.1% are underweight. Now, if the figures do, in fact, overlap, the numbers may be smaller (but can never better 37%), but the problem could be bigger. Overlapping figures give rise to three possibilities: one, that children who are stunting are also underweight (which would compound the impact of stunting); two, that stunting children are wasting (a terrible possibility); and three, that underweight children are wasting (ie., are starving).

I agree with Bhutanese Blogger: a study of the trend would be more meaningful. Still, with or without knowing the past, the facts speak for themselves: at least 37% of our children are seriously underfed. And, even if we intervened with full force, there’s little that can be done to reverse the adverse effects that stunting has already had on these children. But – this is what’s terrible – we will not intervene wholeheartedly. We cannot. Not unless we accept the problem.

Second, Sangay blames capitalism for “robbing our children”. This is a point of ideology. So it cannot be argued.  Everyone would want to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. And, there’re basically only three ways to do that: make the rich relatively poorer; make the poor relatively richer; or do both.  Personally, I favour the second approach. I want our poor to become richer relative to their present state, and relative to the rate at which the rich may grow richer.

And third, Sangay did not like that I had raised an issue (undernourished children) without offering solutions. This, specifically, is what Sangay wrote: “And, Don’t mean to be harsh but just don;t give a food for thought (being the OL) – which is the biggest problem. It is easy to make noise but I would assume that in your position, you should come up with ideas which will really give us a REAL FOOD FOR THOUGHT. I can go on complaining about every statistic in the country but I can’t come up with REAL IDEAS – which is what we need at the moment.”

Other readers have expressed similar concerns too. And, about six months ago, I wrote about why I sometimes raise issues without offering solutions. In other words, why I make “noise”. “Food for thought” sought to bring attention to the desperate and shameful state of our children.  The facts were presented in the Annual Health Bulletin, and the story was run by one newspaper. Still, this critical issue has not been given any meaningful attention.

Numbers generated by our government tell us that about half our children go to bed hungry every night, and yet we – yes, all of us, not just the government – refuse to discuss, let alone accept, this fact. That’s why I made noise.

If the noise is just that, noise, then don’t give it any more attention. Don’t waste your time.

But, if the noise points to an important issue, then let’s think about it. Even if it makes us uncomfortable. And if you have suggestions, please share them here.  Let’s discuss them. They will help me craft the letter I intend to submit to the government concerning our undernourished children.

Food for thought

The future

The future

I’m still reeling from the announcement in the Annual Health Bulletin that 37% of our children are stunting, that 4.6% of them are wasting, and that 11.1% are underweight. That means that 52.7% of our children are under nourished. In other words, more than half our children do not have enough to eat.

Wasting, also called acute malnutrition, causes body fat and tissue to “waste” away, or to degenerate. And it is generally caused by extreme hunger, i.e., famine. So, even as I write this entry, one in every twenty children may be coping with famine.

Stunting or chronic malnutrition is caused by nutritional deficiencies over a long period of time. The bodies, organs and brains of children affected by stunting do not, and will never, develop fully. The effects of stunting are permanent, and many of those afflicted with it will die early. 37% of our children are stunting. That is, more than one in every three children is stunting.

We may lecture about GNH. And our HDI ranking may be improving. But the reality is that poverty is rife and that most of our children are hungry. The reality is that more than one third of our children have already been permanently robbed of their full potential. The reality is that, at this rate, we risk losing a whole generation of Bhutanese.  Left unchecked, the future of Bhutan cannot be bright.

Our government should be alarmed.

Poor villages

No Shangrila

No Shangrila

Our government estimates that 23.3% of our population live in poverty. And that the incidence of poverty in our villages is significantly higher than in our towns. In fact, the poverty rate in rural Bhutan is 30.9%. That is, almost one in every three of our villagers lives below the poverty line. Compare this to the urban poverty rate of just 1.7%, and it becomes clear that our villages need serious and immediate attention.

But, the amount of money allocated to local governments, and hence to rural Bhutan, for this financial year, again, is negligible. Only 22.8% of the national budget has been earmarked for the dzongkhags. And, a paltry 3.5% has been kept aside for the 205 gewogs. The rest is in the hands of the centre.

The government reasons that much of the money budgeted for the ministries is actually for the villages. They say that roads, schools, hospitals and RNR centres will be built for the villages. I say, let local governments do their own work. And, give them the means – money and people – to do so. After all, they know, better than anyone in Thimphu, what they need. Plus, they, unlike most of us in Thimphu, have a stake in their own progress.

So, if a programme, say school education, benefits only one gewog, let that gewog handle it. If it benefits more than one gewog, let that dzongkhag handle it. The centre, as far as I’m concerned, should be involved only for national-level programmes.

But, look at how this year’s education budget has been allocated. A very generous 17.5% of the entire budget has been earmarked for education. That’s very good. However, none of it – not a single chetrum – will be in the hands of our local government. All Nu 5,309 million will be handled by the centre. That’s not good at all.

This is no way to wage war against poverty. And, at this rate, the scourge will prevail.

The photograph is of Thangdokha, a village in my constituency.