Thimphu structures

Thimphu’s biggest structure is easily the 169 feet Buddha statue in Kuensel Phodrang. Which is its second biggest structure?

Radio gaga


Tourists visit Bhutan for many reasons. Most do so to catch a glimpse of the last Shangri la, that is, to experience our unique culture and enjoy our pristine environment.

But many tourists visit our country for specialized purposes, and because those purposes can be fulfilled here more so than in any other country in the world. For instance, tourists visit us to do the arduous Snowman Trek, ride the treacherous Drangmechhu, or complete the grueling Tour of the Dragon. Enthusiasts pay to look for rare butterflies, catch a glimpse of stunning birds, or soak in the beauty of the blue poppy. And experts visit us to enjoy our stunning textiles, wonder at our intricate thangkas, or photograph our breathtaking dzongs.

Some have come all the way here simply to meditate. And, given the opportunity, many visitors would willingly blow up their life savings to fish the legendary mahseer, scale our virgin peaks, or safari in Manas.

Yes, we’ve been endowed with more than our fair share of unique tourism products. And most of us think we know all of them. We don’t.

Yesterday, for example, I met Iain Haywood and learnt about another special reason why tourists are willing to pay big money to visit our country. Mr Haywood, from England, is a ham radio operator and is on a DX-pedition to Bhutan. That means that he’s here primarily to operate his amateur radio. And for that he’s arrived with, and already set up, his aerial and other equipment to receive and transmit radio signals.

So why does Mr Haywood find our country so interesting? Because there are very few amateur radio operators in Bhutan. And because, as such, ham radio operators all over the world would jump at the opportunity to hook up with a radio signal originating from Bhutan.

That’s why Mr Haywood, who’s been licensed by BICMA to use the call sign A52JF, has not left his hotel room in Olathang, Paro, since he checked in two days ago. But by the time I met him yesterday, he was already enjoying a “pile up”, a position of privilege in which ham radio operators rush to connect with him. And by that time, he had already logged about 400 “conversations”, or data exchanges, with operators from Europe, Asia and Africa. His goal: 2,000 conversations in five days followed by a two-day trip to Punakha! His dream: to return to Bhutan to do a “summits on the air”, that is to operate his ham radio from our high peaks.

Other ham radio enthusiasts have also visited Bhutan. And they, like Mr Haywood, used the services of Yeshey Dorji, Bhutan’s national operator, to organize their special tours.

I’m surprised at the amount of trouble amateur radio operators will go to advance their hobby. But I’m glad that that interest translates to tourism and, more importantly, goodwill for Bhutan.

Today, incidentally, is World Radio Day.

State of our civil service

I watched the last part of the People’s Voice debate on BBS TV this evening. The motion was “Civil Service – efficient and accountable?”

The team arguing against the motion won by a huge margin, 692 votes to 184 votes. Obviously, they were able to convince the viewers that our civil service is NOT efficient and accountable.

But the votes are compiled from viewer SMSs (only one SMS per phone number is recognized). So the result also reflects widespread discontent at the state of our civil service.

What do you think? Is our civil service efficient and accountable? Please take the poll. And please share your views. This is an important issue. And the more of us that think about it, the better it is for our country and our people.


Exciting news

There’s excitement in the air. The media fraternity has finally launched the Journalists Association of Bhutan. The journey has been long: it began way back in 2006, and has included a UNDP funded project and the establishment of the Bhutan media foundation.

So, naturally, our journalists are excited. I’m excited too. I congratulate our journalists. And I wish them success in their mission to improve the quality of journalism in Bhutan. Congratulations also to JAB’s office bearers, especially to their first president, Passang Dorji.

But there’s another reason for that excitement. The media fraternity has been preoccupied by a state of commotion, confusion and suspicion.

Kuensel informs us that most of them had no idea what was happening and “most came to know about the election only on the evening before.” Kuensel also informs us that two elected members of JAB’s powerful steering committee have already resigned, and that several media houses have questioned the election process, that they have called for a re-election, and that they have been thinking about boycotting the association.

In his letter to the JAB general secretary, Tenzing Lamsang, one of the two steering committee members who resigned, has complained that “… since last evening powerful forces both inside and outside the media have been hard at work to undermine the elections and along with that JAB as an organization.”

Bhutan Today laments that “Everyone wants to hold the reins. But there is a proper way to get there. “By hook or crook” should not be in the dictionary of the Fourth Estate …” And they ask “Where are we failing? Is it the tyranny of the minority but powerful players?”

There’s no doubt that the JAB elections were controversial. But then, on the other hand, every one seems to endorse the new president. If so, where is the controversy? And why did Tenzin Rigden and Tenzin Lamsang resign from the steering committee? Who are the “powerful forces both inside and outside the media” seeking to undermine JAB? Who are those that crave power even “by hook or crook”? Who are the “minority but powerful players” in the media?

There’s excitement in the air. But it could be just a storm in a teacup. Or it could be a dangerous storm, one that is actually about power politics. Either way, we, the people, would be obliged if the media could tell us what all the fuss is about; if they could shed some light on what’s really taking place; if they could give us the really exciting news.


Walk the talk!


South Korea is home to 50 million people. They have the 13th largest economy in the world and are a member of the G-20. They are the world’s leading exporter of some of the best electronics (think of Samsung), home appliances (LG), cars (Hyundai Kia) and ships (Hyundai). They have hosted the Olympics, the World Cup and the Asian Games. They have the world’s best education system, enjoy one of the highest internet penetration rates, and boast a popular culture that has taken much of Asia by storm.

But in spite of all their successes, South Koreans are still grappling to identify themselves. And try as they might, they have not yet been able to brand their country successfully.

On the other hand, Bhutan, a small country tucked away in the Himalayas with barely 600,000 people and with one of the smallest economies in the world, possesses a powerful brand. Not may people know about Bhutan, but those who do know – almost every one of them – associate our country with GNH and happiness. GNH is a powerful brand, one that is the envy of some of the richest and most powerful nations.

The GNH brand was not created overnight. Instead it developed gradually – naturally and effortlessly – over several decades, during the period that our beloved monarchs worked tirelessly to improve the social and economic conditions of our people in an equitable, just and sustainable manner.

Today, however, that brand, GNH, is being undermined on two fronts. When we talk, we overuse GNH, and by overdoing it, we risk demeaning GNH to a hollow slogan, a trite cliché. But when we work, we ignore GNH, and by not practicing what we preach, we risk making our own people skeptical and cynical of GNH and its promises.

The GNH brand is a national asset. We must treasure it. We must nurture it. And we must celebrate it. But we must also remain faithful to it. For that, we, ourselves, must first understand what it really means, and then we, collectively, must work hard at putting it into effect.

Otherwise, we will diminish our brand image. And, as a small country, with barely 600,000 people and with one of the smallest economies in the world, we will find it exceedingly difficult to rebrand ourselves. And we will find it impossible to revive the GNH brand.

Reckless power

The minister for economic affairs, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, is in New Delhi. He’s meeting his counterparts in the Indian government to discuss the hydropower projects currently under construction. And he’s attending the empowered group meeting that will consider future hydropower projects, including those that will be developed as joint venture projects by public sector companies of the two governments.

I hope that Lyonpo Khandu will remember the question that I had submitted during the last session of the Parliament. I didn’t get to actually ask it due to time constraints. But, as required, I had submitted my question in advance, in writing, so he knows that the opposition party has serious concerns about the joint venture hydropower projects that the government is negotiating.

Here’s my question:

The Government has reportedly allowed Indian Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) companies to build and operate 4 big hydropower projects under a build, operate, own and transfer (BOOT) mode as joint venture partners with Druk Green Power Corporation.

Will the Hon’ble Minister please explain why the Government should go ahead with the joint venture projects when the demands of the PSUs violate the Government’s sustainable hydropower development policy and create excessively favorable conditions for themselves?

Hydropower is a valuable resource. It is the cornerstone of our economy. And it is its main driver. So we must develop it. But we must do so carefully. We must ensure that each and every hydropower project contributes meaningfully to our economy, benefits our people, and strengthens our sovereignty. We must be careful. We cannot be reckless.

But that’s exactly what the proposed joint venture projects are: reckless. The government seems to be willing to ignore and violate important provisions of the sustainable hydropower development policy for the Indian government PSUs. Those policies were carefully developed just 3 years ago, so undermining them basically amounts to recklessly compromising the interests of our country and people.

The government, for example, has allowed the Indian PSUs to own 51% of the joint venture projects although the policy explicitly states that, “For Public-Public partnership, the RGoB undertaking shall have a minimum of 51% shareholding.”

What that means is that Indian government PSUs will have managerial and decision-making control over the joint venture projects. That is not good. That is reckless.

But that’s not all. The government seems to be giving in to even more demands of the Indian PSUs. These demands would create even more favorable conditions for Indian PSUs by simply ignoring even more of the government’s hydropower policy.

For instance the PSUs have demanded that the joint venture projects be exempted from paying royalty power to the government. Hydropower is a natural resource that belongs to the State. So royalty must be collected for exploiting that resource. That’s why the hydropower policy requires that, “A minimum of twelve percent (12%) of electricity generated shall be made available free of cost to the RGoB as Royalty Energy during the first 12 yeas of commercial operation of the project and a minimum of eighteen (18%) thereafter …”

The PSUs have also demanded that they enjoy ownership of the joint venture projects for 35 years. That also violates the hydropower policy according to which “The project shall be allotted to a Developer for a concession period of thirty (30) years, excluding the construction period.”

And the PSUs have demanded payment of “fair market value” of the projects when they are handed back to the government at the end of the “concession period”. What does the hydropower policy say? “At the end of the concession period, the entire project shall be transferred and vested in the RGoB at no cost and in good running condition.”

If joint ventures with Indian PSUs make sense, go for it, develop our hydropower resource, strengthen our economic base, and reinforce the strong ties of friendship that we enjoy with India.

But if the joint ventures don’t make sense, if they aren’t attractive enough, if they compromise our own policies, if better partnerships are available, then take a step back, pause, review the situation, and do what’s best for our country and our people.

There’s no need to be in a hurry. And there’s certainly no need to be reckless.

Nervous and scared

Full of promise

The Class XII results are out. 8,576 students took the exams last year. And a good 86% of them passed.

They’ve completed school. Some of them will go to college. Some will undergo training. And the rest will enter the world of work. They’ve begun a brand new chapter in their lives, a chapter that should be full of promise and excitement. So we should be happy for them. And we should be excited for them.

But I’m not. I’m not happy. And I’m not excited. Instead, I’m nervous. And I’m scared.

More than 7,300 students passed the Class XII exams. The Royal University of Bhutan’s 10 colleges have room for only 2,000 students. And fewer than 250 students will receive scholarships to study abroad.

The rest of them – about 5,000 students – will have to fend for themselves. They’ll have to look for money to continue their studies. Or they’ll have to look for jobs.

Youth unemployment is already high. So securing jobs won’t be easy. That means that many parents will be forced to take out loans to send their children to study in India. And that means that the remaining thousands of students face the dreadful prospect of unemployment.

The government has promised full employment, especially for educated youth, by creating 75,000 jobs during the Tenth Plan. And most of those jobs were to be generated by the accelerating Bhutan’s socio-economic development (ABSD) program for which McKinsey was employed.

McKinsey’s consultants have come and gone. The Tenth Plan will be over by June next year. Youth unemployment is already high. And thousands of Class XII students will now need jobs.

So it’s time for the government to make good on their promise. It’s time to show us the jobs. Otherwise, it’s time for us, all of us, to get nervous. It’s time to get scared.

About financial crisis

If you, like me, want to know more about the global financial crisis, here’s a quick two-step process.

First, get hold of Justin Cartwright’s novel Other People’s Money. Okay, it’s fiction. But it’s very readable. And you’ll find that the story, which revolves around a failing London bank, provides an enjoyable introduction to why financial institutions collapse, and how rich bankers, powerful politicians and influential journalists conspire to prevent the bank from crashing.

Justin Cartwright’s story also mentions Bhutan – not as the land of gross national happiness, or as an up and coming financial centre, but, interestingly, as a refuge for the mysterious yeti!

Second, download Getting up to Speed on the Financial Crisis: A One-Weekend-Reader’s Guide by Gary Gorton and Andrew Matrick. This paper, also quite readable, is a summary of 16 other documents, and explains what happened during the financial crisis 2007 – 2009.

The one-weekend guide also has a Bhutan connection. The paper was recommended by Dorji Wangchuk on one of his many informative tweets. Dorji Wangchuk is an economist and financial expert working in the UK.


Gyelpozhing: who’s right?

People's land

Almost six months ago, Tenzing Lamsang exposed the Gyelpozhing land grab case, and explained how laws of the land had been broken to acquire public land and redistribute them to influential people.

A week after that, Dasho Neten Zangmo, the Anticorruption Commission Chairperson, was quoted as saying:

We will look into the case and if there is any element of corruption, abuse of power and conflict of interest and if land has been taken unjustly from private people then we will further investigate the case.

It’s been almost half a year since ACC’s assurances. So I was happy to hear that they have visited Gyelpozhing and that they “… are in the process of reviewing allotment procedure, eligibility criteria, details of all beneficiaries and even the rationale of acquisition.”

But I’m worried that the investigation is taking too long. And Dasho Neten seems to echo my concern by saying that, “It’s going to take a lot of time going one by one”.

I’m worried. And I’m worried for many reasons. But mostly I’m worried because some of those who are allegedly involved are “powerful and influential people”. They include the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the speaker. And in their case, I’m sure that, as politicians, they would want the investigation to be complete well before the 2013 parliamentary elections. It is in their interests that the investigations are over by then. It is also in the Election Commission’s interest. But mostly, it is in the interest of the electorate, our people.

Even so, Dasho Neten has warned that the investigations will “take a lot of time” and ruled that:

We just can’t investigate only a few powerful and influential people. We have to see and study the background of all the beneficiaries like whether there is a ‘nexus’ between the allotter and beneficiaries.

I agree. We need a thorough and complete investigation. An investigation that is not targeted to “a few powerful and influential people”, but one that examines all the people who were involved, one that is comprehensive in its scope.

That said, all the so-called “beneficiaries” cannot be lumped together; they cannot be treated the same.

I can see at least three types of “beneficiaries”. The first type is the beneficiary who developed a “nexus” with the allotter. That would be outright corruption, and both the allotter and beneficiary should be taken to task.

The second type is the beneficiary who applied for land, and was allotted land even though that beneficiary did not qualify to receive land. If that beneficiary did not seek to influence the allotter’s decision in any way, then the beneficiary cannot be held responsible. It was the allotter’s responsibility to check and to confirm that all recipients of land fulfilled all the criteria. So in this case, the allotter should be taken to task.

The third type is the beneficiary who should never have applied for land given the existence of serious conflicts of interest. Beneficiaries of this type would include all public servants (and their immediate family members) who were directly involved in the acquisition and distribution of land. And naturally, they would also include all cabinet ministers (and their immediate family members), but especially ministers who’s job it was to supervise the dzongkhag administration, or to approve the proposed township, or the authorise the land acquisition, or to endorse the allotment criteria.

We cannot excuse the misuse of inside information, the abuse of government power, or the disregard of conflicts of interest. They are the most damaging forms of corruption. So in this case, the beneficiary should be taken to task immediately.

Photo credit: Business Bhutan who also reported that Gyelpozhing residents protested the plot allotments, and that people who lost land were struggling

Jai Hind!

Good wishes

I spent a couple of enjoyable hours watching India’s Republic Day parade broadcast live from New Delhi on Doordarshan TV. The spectacular procession, along the Rajpath and past India Gate, showcases India’s military might, cultural diversity and national integrity. The annual event is also a celebration of the Indian freedom movement and the successful rise of India in all spheres of the global arena since its independence 65 years ago.

The chief guest at the Republic Day parade is typically a foreign head of state or government chosen carefully to reflect the important strategic, economic and political relationship between India and that country.

This year’s chief guest was Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

India’s 63 republic days have featured chief guests from about 40 countries. Of the forty, only a handful have received this honour on more than one occasion. France leads this very exclusive pack by being the guest of honour four times.

Bhutan has received the honour three times, in 1954, 1984 and 2005. And the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is the only person to have attended India’s Republic Day as chief guest twice while holding the same office.

This special privilege, this unique honour, that India, a big and powerful country, gives Bhutan, a small kingdom, during its most important national day is significant. It is a reflection of the deep and enduring friendship between our two countries.

So today, on the joyous occasion of the 63rd Republic Day, I offer my Indian friends – in Bhutan, in India and the world over – my heartiest congratulations and good wishes for continued peace, progress and prosperity.

Jai Hind!
Pelden Drukpa Gyelo!

“Good wishes” – excerpt from the President of India’s Republic Day Address