Land ceiling

The draft national land policy, particularly the proposal to remove the 25 acre landholding ceiling, has already become controversial. That’s why Thinlay demanded “to hear OL’s views on this very important issue.” When I didn’t respond, Thinlay sent this reminder: “do you … have opinion on this, because this issue is to important to be ignored?”

Yes, the issue is important. And yes, I do have an opinion on this matter.

Removing the existing maximum landholding restriction of 25 acres will be the quickest way of stripping our farmers of their property.

But the policy has caught me by surprise. I never dreamt that the land ceiling would be lifted in the foreseeable future. So I’m scrambling to gather information and consult people before presenting our views to the public and to the Government.

Meanwhile, I request Thinlay to grant me a little more time.

Banking on vouchers

Happy banker

Happy banker

B-mobile’s strategy to market their cellular phone services in rural Bhutan is aggressive. In Sombaykha, for instance, where they introduced their services recently, B-mobile had a representative traveling from village to village dishing out free SIM cards and offering recharge vouchers at initial discounted rates.

Our farmers were delighted. Everywhere the B-mobile representative went, farmers rushed to welcome him. In addition to giving free SIM cards, B-mobile automatically doubled the value of each farmer’s initial purchase of recharge vouchers, subject to a maximum purchase of Nu 500. This meant that if a farmer was willing spend Nu 500, she’d walk away with a free SIM and vouchers valued at Nu 1000.

Obviously, astute farmers wanted to double the value of their money by buying as many recharge vouchers as possible. And they did. How? By simply getting hold of people – friends and relatives – who weren’t otherwise going to subscribe to the cell phone service, and requesting them to purchase the maximum Nu 500 worth of vouchers.

Take my cousin, Sangay Dorji. He got 7 people, including himself, to get SIM cards. For each card, he purchased Nu 500 in vouchers. B-mobile matched every Nu 500 with an equal amount of free recharge vouchers. So, he ended up getting a total of Nu 7000 worth of recharge vouchers.

“Wai, Sangay!” I chided him, “Do you really need so much talk-time?”

“I’ll need to buy vouchers anyway,” he replied, “so I might as well get them now at half the price.”

“Besides, I won’t use up all the vouchers for talking,” he continued, “or for sending text messages. I’ll use most of it as money.”

“Money?” I enquired, “What do you mean?”

“You see, if I want someone who is in Samtse – say, my neighbour Aum Kunza – to buy me Nu 200 worth of tea leaves, I can just transfer that amount of talk time to her phone, instead of sending her cash. It’s simpler. It’s quicker. And it’s much safer.”

“Similarly, I can transfer my talk time to Ap Nado when he ploughs my fields, or to Ani Gaki for a bottle of her ara, or to Zow Samdrup for husking my paddy. And naturally, they could use their talk time to pay me for using my mules.”

Voucher banking. The possibilities are endless. And for our village folk, who still don’t have farmers’ banks, this unintended service might become essential.

It’s good thing that B-mobile is aggressive.

Connecting Bhutan

Many of you would have noticed that I was able to regularly update this blog during my recent visit to Sombaykha and Gakiling. And, that I was able to tweet about my experiences there. Romeo, a regular commentator, was sufficiently impressed to remark:

It is indeed incredible that you are connected through out your trek and able to keep us informed of your whereabouts and also update your informative blog. How is this possible? Are you carrying your laptop along and that you are connected through satellite to the internet? Hasn’t Bhutan progressed in terms of communication?

Yes, it is incredible that I could stay connected through most of the trip. After all, both Sombaykha and Gakiling are remote gewogs that can be reached only by undertaking an ardous journey on foot.

But no, I did not use a satellite service to connect me to the internet. That would have been expensive and cumbersome.

What I did use was B-mobile. You see, they had recently expanded their coverage to many parts my constituency, and wherever I could catch their signal, I could access the internet. This is possible because I have subscribed to B-mobile’s 3G services.

3G allows me to connect to the internet at a blistering speeds of up to 7.6 Mbps (but more likely 2 Mbps as the bandwith is shared among concurrent users). But 3G is currently available only in Thimphu. In other parts of the kingdom, the 3G subscriptions automatically downgrade to EDGE or, if that is not available, to GPRS. EDGE, which is available in all dzongkhag headquarters, allows speeds of up to 128 Kbps, and GPRS, available everywhere else, up to 54 Kbps depending on signal strength and hardware configuration.

All this means that I can now connect to the internet on my phone or, if I use a data card, on my laptop anywhere I am able to receive a B-mobile signal. That was basically how I blogged and tweeted through most parts of my constituency.

But that’s not all … Tashi Cell, Bhutan’s second cellular service provider, has also expanded to my constituency. And, I’m sure that they too provide mobile access to the internet. So, I actually had a choice!

Yes, Romeo, Bhutan has indeed progressed in terms of communication.

Road to Merak?

Breaking ground

On 7 January, Kuensel reported that:

A 28 km farm road will connect Merak to Radhi, the nearest semi-urban centre to the gewog. On January 5, a simple groundbreaking ceremony of the farm road was conducted, which was attended by villagers of Khardung, Tokshingmang and Merak. The road will begin in Khardung, pass through Tokshingmang and end in Merak.

The same article went on to quote Lyonpo Jigme Tshultim, who is the Speaker of the National Assembly and the MP of Radhi-Sakteng constituency, explaining that the new road would benefit many people and that “Merak is one place with potential for tourism and, with access to road, tourism can be promoted.”

Exactly two weeks later, on 21 January, Kuensel quoted the Prime Minister as saying that: “…Places like Laya, Lunana and Soe in the north-western part of the country and Merak and Sakteng in the east would not be linked by road.” And that: “A road connection to Merak and Sakteng … would bring the community less benefit.”

So will Merak get a farm road? Yes, they will. Kuensel’s photograph clearly shows that Lyonpo Jigme Tshultim will give them a road even if he has to dig it himself!

Gakiling eggs

Searching for markets

Guess how much an egg costs in Gakiling? Two ngultrums! Yes, farmers there are willing to sell their eggs for a pittance. And still they still don’t get any buyers. That just shows how little access they have to markets.

“Yoed ba chin tsong sa med. May ba chin nyo sa med,” is how Ap Tshering Wangdi had described their predicament a few years ago.

But some farmers have now decided to take matters into their own hands: they’ve decided to, collectively, sell their eggs in Thimphu. And, Rinzin, a young farmer, has volunteered to collect the local eggs and bring them to the capital every week.

So look out for Gakiling eggs – organic eggs laid by free range indigenous chickens.

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.

Highway to Dorokha

Yesterday, I was at Dorokha. We drove from Samtse to Yabala, and walked the rest of the way.

The trail to Dorokha is broad. And, its alignment is comfortable – the path hugs the mountainside and gradually descends to Dorokha. But, because of the heavy traffic at this time of the year, the trail can get rough. The migrating cattle, work horses and constant stream of people marching on the “highway” to Dorokha and back takes a toll on the road. There are pebbles, mud, dust and loose stone over the rocky outcrop that is the trail.

Still, the road bears a busy, almost festive, look. Farmers seem rush to sell their cardamom and mandarin oranges. And then they rush back home with provisions for the year – rice, cooking oil, soap, tea, sugar, salt and clothes. Only to rush back transporting more of their cash crops. Shopkeepers in Dorokha and beyond stock up on goods for the year. Petty contractors transport construction material. Semi nomadic farmers tend their cattle and transport butter and cheese. And, enterprising locals set up temporary tea shops to cash in on the seasonal traffic.

Next year, however, at this time of the year, the trail will not be as busy. In fact, most of it will not be around. The motor road which is being constructed, much of it on the trail itself, will have been completed, and a lot of today’s transactions will be aided by vehicular traffic.

So as I walked to Dorokha, I did so deliberately, fully aware that that would probably be the last time I get to tread on the old highway, one that has quietly borne witness to the unfolding of Bhutan’s remarkable history.

Hospitality business

Shebji

Shebji is Sombaykha’s northernmost village. And, civil servants, especially Dzongkhag officials, traveling to Sombaykha normally spend a night in there. After walking continuously downhill from Tergola (at about 4000 meters) through alpine meadows, giant rhododendron forests, and subtropical jungle to Shebji (about 1500 meters), most travelers are happy to rest their tired knees in this little hamlet.

Now, in accordance with our age-old traditions also still practiced throughout rural Bhutan, travelers can choose to eat and drink, rest and sleep in any one of Shebji’s eight houses. Each one of them would feel honoured and very happy to offer their hospitality to any traveler, even if the traveler was not known to them.

Most civil servants choose to rest in Aum Kunzang’s home. Aum Kunzang and her husband, Ap Kinely, who served as a Mang-gi Ap at one time, happily welcome all of them to their two-storied farmhouse and offer them their best tea, food, ara, and bedding. They have a constant stream of visitors to entertain – two to three groups every week during the winter months, some traveling to Sombaykha, others returning to Haa. Yet they don’t charge a thing. There’s no price attached, or expected, for their generous services. And, it would be downright rude to enquire.

So how do they manage? Another tradition allows travelers to gift a little something – in kind or in cash – as a token of their appreciation to their hosts. Naturally, the hosts always refuse. But, if their guests exercise a little determination, they have no option but to accept.

Aum Kunzang’s guests always leave a gift for her. Those “gifts” more than cover her expenses. In fact, she’s embarrassed that she makes a tidy profit from her hospitality – hospitality that she charges nothing for.

GNH and business, not mutually exclusive.

Demand for equity

Consider this: in rural Bhutan, our people are undernourished, stunting and wasting.

Now consider this: in urban Bhutan, our people are overweight and obese.

Time to get serious about the equity in the DPT’s Equity and Justice.

Lost and (not) found

Urbane horses

Urbane animals

“Whoa…sho, sho, sho… Jamu-ya, sho, sho, sho! Whoa…sho, sho, sho…Tsheri-ya, sho, sho, sho,” Tshitem Dorji calls out shaking a feedbag of maize kernels. Jamu, an obedient mare, and Tsheri, a black mule, quickly respond to my cousin’s gentle entreaties. They emerge from the thick rhododendron forests to enjoy their morning meal before being saddled for the day.

It’s a clear, crisp spring morning in the mountains. And Tshochuyala, where we have camped, is beautiful. The rhododendron – several varieties of them – are in full bloom. And much of the meadows are literally carpeted with purple primulas. Giant magnolias punctuate the pristine forests with stately white flowers. And, in the distance, I can see parts of Sombaykha. I’m visiting my constituency.

“There’s enough grass here” Tshitem Dorji tells me, “so the horses stayed close to camp.” I’m happy for the horses and for my cousin.

But most camping sites are difficult. The horses don’t find enough grass, so during the night, they can cover great distances, foraging for food. And, in the morning, my cousin won’t be able to just call for them. Instead, he’d have to personally track them down, sometimes for many hours. I’ve seen this happen often. And yet, Tshitem Dorji, will not tether his horses at night. “They work the whole day,” he explains. “So they need to be free to graze at night.” Of course, he’s right.

So reading about the animals impounded in Motithang got me worried. The horses must belong to farmers like Tshitem Dorji. Farmers, probably from Lingzhi, who trekked to Thimphu to buy essential provisions – rice, cooking oil, salt – for their families. Farmers who refused to tether their horses at night. Farmers who don’t know about the Motithang pound. Or can’t afford the money to retrieve their animals.

We need to take better care of our farmers, those from distant Lingzhi and those in Thimphu. They, and their animals, roamed freely in all of Thimphu for many, many generations before we took their lands away from them.

Yes, we can no longer allow stray horses and cattle in the capital. Still, locking them up for months on end is not the solution. Instead, let’s look for the owners. And return the animals to them. If our farmers can’t afford the fine, waive it off – it costs much more to keep the animals locked up! And if that’s not possible, any one of our readers would be willing to help.

In the meantime, relocate the animals to a farm outside the city. That would be cheaper. And better for the animals. That would also prevent the TCC from breaking their own regulations: no one is permitted to keep cattle and horses inside the municipal boundaries. And that includes the city corporation itself.  They cannot impound animals in Motithang!