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.

Farmers’ produce

Not much

Not much

Our economy grew by 8.1% last year. That’s not the 9% growth per year promised by DPT. But, given all that happened in those 12 months, from a host of national celebrations to the global financial crisis, 8.1 is really not too bad.

The share of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors to our GDP are 16%, 45% and 36% respectively. And, during the past year, the primary, or agriculture, sector grew by 1.7%; the secondary, or industry, sector grew by 7.5%; and the tertiary, or service, sector grew by 12.1%.

These figures were given to the National Assembly by the Finance Minister. Let’s see what they could mean for the majority of the people – our farmers. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 79% of our population depends on agriculture. Yet, they contributed only 16% of our GDP. This means that our farmers are a lot poorer, economically speaking, than the other Bhutanese. But, we all know this, don’t we?

Now the agriculture sector grew by only 1.7% last year. And that’s much lower than last year’s inflation, which averaged about 7%. So, in real terms, our farmers produced less last year than the year before. That is, they became poorer. This, we didn’t know.

The news for the next financial year is not good either. Our government forecasts that the share of the agriculture sector to the GDP will fall even further, from 16% to 14%. Obviously, we need to focus a lot more on the agricultural sector. After all, most of Bhutan depends on it.

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Gasa tshachu

what we like

what we like

We’re in Punakha, back from Gasa. And other than the heart wrenching sight of the damaged tshachu, our hot springs, the quick trip to Gasa was most wonderful.

Gasa’s famous tshachu, a truly national heritage that, over many centuries, has provided hope to countless ailing patients and rest for weary travelers, is no more. On 26th May, the Mochu changed its course, towards the hot springs, and washed away all the ponds, three shops and a lot of the embankment. Local people and Dzongkhag officials have already tried to locate the springs. But so far, they have not been able to find them.

The good news, however, is that about a year after the last big flood, about fifty years ago, when the tshachu then had also been totally damaged, our people were able to locate the source of the hot springs and redevelop the site. The same must still be possible.

The good news is that, just above the guest houses, there’s a small pond, created by gurgling water. The water is only lukewarm. But dig a few metres and we already may have the possibility to develop a tshachu pond immediately.

And the good news is that tour operators and our government have already indicated their commitment to redevelop the Gasa tshachu. So the recent floods may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to develop the tshachu as a “model” destination for our other hot springs. This, in fact, is just what our tourism sector has been trying to do for a long time.

This was my first trip to Gasa. So I still haven’t enjoyed the hot springs there. But we got to do the next best thing: benefit from a hot stone bath in moenchu, medicinal mineral water.

 

Yangthang’s new bridge

Together we can!

Together we can!

The recent flash floods hit Haa quite hard. A house was washed away, several houses were submerged, bridges were swept away, and many farmers have lost their entire crop. And we know very little about the extent of damage in Sombaykha and Gakiling simply because no one from these gewogs has made it to the dzongkhag headquarters.

But among all this disaster, I witnessed a comforting story. The village of Yangthang (52 households) had been cut off from the rest of Haa as, during the flash floods, the river had breached its banks and created a new course between the village and the highway. So today, the villagers got together and decided to something about it: they decided to build a temporary bridge. But almost all of them were on their side of the river, so no matter how hard they worked, they would need help from the other side to complete their bridge.

And who showed up to help? Civil servants. When the dzongkhag staff heard about the efforts of the farmers, they, led by the new Dasho Dzongdag, quickly made their way to Yangthang, and took up their position on the bank opposite the stranded villagers.

With farmers working on one side of the river and civil servants on the other, it didn’t take long for the river to be bridged. And, the village of Yangthang to be effectively connected to the rest of Haa.

To Gakiling and beyond

I begin another visit to my constituency today. In particular, I’ll visit Gakiling. And from there head to Dumtoe and Dorokha in Samtse. Most families from Samar gewog, including mine, make this journey every year, moving their cattle from the high mountains in Haa to the lowlands in Samtse each winter. This difficult journey has been undertaken by many, many generations at almost the same time each year, along exactly the same path, and to the same pastures. Our people continue this tradition. We have to: we are semi-nomadic people.

So, naturally, I’m excited.

I won’t be able to access the internet, and this blog, for the next 8 days. But, be warned, I’ve already posted a few entries that are scheduled to be published while I’m away, enjoying the beauty of our countryside and its people.

Pictured is part of Sombaykha and Gakiling gewogs courtesy Google Earth. If you enlarge the picture (by “clicking” on it) you’ll see the main parts of Sombaykha and Gakiling. These are some of most rural parts of our country. The river you see running through the middle is Amochu, what most of us know as the Toorsa as it enters Phuentsholing.

Kajana fire

At about 1:30 AM on 14th March, a fire raged through two adjoining houses in Kajana in Haa.

The first house belonged to Aum Dema, aged 60. Aum Dema wasn’t home during the fire – she was at her daughter’s house because she didn’t want to spend the night alone. She would have had to spend the night alone because her husband, Ap Passang, was in Danadingkha Goenpa. And Ap Passang was in Danadingkha fighting a forest fire … as a volunteer. He’d volunteered to spend the night in the goenpa to make sure the forest fire didn’t restart.

Aum Dema lost everything in the Kajana fire. She lost all her possessions including her five cows, all prized jerseys.

The other house belonged to Ap Sangay. He lost his home, his belongings and all the timber for the new house he was building. He wasn’t home. But his family, thankfully, is safe. His family is safe because his son, Sonam Dorji, rescued the other children.

The fire almost spread to Aum Chimi’s house. If it had, it would have spread through Kajana village. And destroyed most of the houses.

The other residents of Kajana are grateful for two factors that saved their village. One, they have a farm road; and because of that, two, the police firefighting team were able to prevent the fire from spreading.

I salute Ap Pasang, Sonam Dorji and the police firefighting team in Haa.

Preparing for storms

A week ago, strong winds damaged 20 houses in Haa, most of them in Katsho. The storm had blown off most of their roofs.

I’m in Haa. And I was delighted to see that most of the houses have already been repaired.

Wind storms are not uncommon in Haa. Just last year several houses had been severely damaged, mostly in Samar.

In fact, wind storms are not uncommon in most parts of our country. My colleague, Dasho Damcho, is currently in Laya meeting farmers still recovering from the effects of last week’s storm. And, barely a year ago, strong winds swept through Eastern Bhutan on two occasions.

So we need to prepare ourselves.

We need to design better and stronger roofs for our traditional houses, especially since the use of CGI is increasing.

And we need to improve the rural insurance scheme. At Nu 150, the current premium is low. But at only 20,000 for a blown roof, the benefits are hardly enough to rebuild and replace a CGI roof.

Pictured is Ap Sanchu’s house in Wangtsa. Photo by Tshewang Dorji, Katsho GAO

Water solution

In “Weather dependent” I’d celebrated the snowfall, without which our farmers wouldn’t be able to plant potatoes. But I’d also agonized that too much snow could be bad for potato cultivation.

These mixed emotions prompted one Anonymous to comment: “You complain when there is no snow and complain again when there is snow. Nothing new – that is the way Bhutanese are and you are a true champion.”

Precisely.

And I’ll keep complaining: it snowed here, but I learnt that other parts of Bhutan, Gakiling and Sombaykha gewogs for example, got hardly any precipitation. There I saw many farmers look helplessly on as the harsh sun scorched their maize and buckwheat saplings even as they barely sprouted. These farmers already fear their worst harvest in many years. This is bad news for, even at the best of times, their farming is barely subsistence.

What can we do? This is what Aum Zekom advises: “See a rough stretch of wilderness just above the farmer in the middle of this photograph? In Sri Lanka, where rain-water harvesting has been practiced for centuries, one finds a small earthen pond in such a position. Apart from using the pond for irrigation when monsoon rain is late, the pond’s seepage into the ground water system below moistens the soil, helps break down organic matters, prevents loss of top soil, etc., and raises land productivity significantly.” (see “More potatoes”)

Sound simple? It is! See what’s being done in Sri Lanka (I recommend downloading the full report). And in Tanzania.

Let’s not condemn our farmers to the vagaries of nature. We are blessed with a bountiful monsoon – let’s make better use of it.

Pictured is our team walking through a parched field in Gakiling.

Home from home

I’m back. And I’m sorry for the confusion my last entry created.

Anonymous Migmar wondered how I’d posted “Celebrating women” with “No road, no electricity and no telephone” in the two gewogs I was visiting. So he asked: “… are you back in Thimphu or is someone from your office upgrading your blog… he..he Explain.”

Aum Zekom suggested that I could be “blogging mobile” as “At some of the highest passes, you can catch the airwave to connect your cellphone.”

Here’s the explanation: I wasn’t in Thimphu; no one had posted the entry on my behalf; and none of the many high passes that we traversed had cellphone connectivity. And the VSAT station in Sombay Ama, which had recently been re-commissioned after almost a year in disrepair, didn’t provide internet access.

So here’s the answer: I was dishonest. I’d written “Celebrating women” in Haa the night before I headed to Sombaykha. I then saved it, but scheduled to publish it only at a later day, on 8th March.

A small trick. But one that raised many eyebrows.

I’m sorry.

Pictured are the first three people we met in Shebji, the first village in Sombaykha.

Going home

I’m off to my constituency.

We’ll walk everyday, some days for more than 12 hours, to visit some 18 villages in Gakiling and Sombaykha. In these remote gewogs live some of our poorest people.

I’m looking forward to meeting our people: to give them my report on the second session of the National Assembly; to ask for directives for the third session; to listen to their problems; to discuss possible solutions; to investigate income generating activities; and to renew growing friendships.

Gakiling and Sombaykha are not connected by car road. And by telephone. So my blog will be quiet for a while.

Pictured is the treacherous tsha zam over the Amochu. Our villagers rebuild the bridge every year after the river subsides. It’s plainly dangerous. And it’s barely useable during the monsoons.

I’ve crossed this bridge several times. But the last time I used it, in October 2008, I froze in the middle of the bridge. I was terrified. And, thinking that a suspension bridge will replace the tsha zam by now, I’d secretly vowed to never cross this dangerous bridge again.

But construction of the new bridge can begin only towards the end of this year. So my promise will have to wait, till I cross the bridge a few more times.