The best possible shed

Impressive

I’m in Shaba, a small village in Sombaykha. The recent earthquake damaged all 12 of its houses. Luckily, no one was injured. And thankfully, most of the houses have suffered only minor damages.

But one house was hit hard. It has been damaged beyond repair. It’s still standing. But barely so. And it is no longer safe. That house belongs to Ap Zhep, aged 70, and his family.

Fearing aftershocks, every family scrambled to erect temporary shelters for themselves immediately after the earthquake.

And because Ap Zhep was practically homeless, the entire village got together to build him a shed. They pooled their resources–they contributed tarpaulin, CGI sheets, timber and labour–to build his family the best possible temporary shelter.

I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Ap Zhep’s temporary home. It boasts a spacious room with proper floorboards and a full sized traditional stove. Plus it has a store room and a covered verandah. He claims that the only reason he doesn’t have electricity in his shed is because it’s not safe to climb on the roof of his damaged house to remove the solar panels.

But it’s not just in Shaba that the community joined hands to help one of their own. In Shebji, a neighboring village, the residents got together to build a shed for Aum Sonam and Dorji Wangchuk. And I already know that I’ll hear similar heartwarming stories across other villages in Sombaykha.

 

Yes we can!

Our youth can

The Eighth Asian Youth Congress concluded in Thimphu last Thursday. The congress, made up of youth leaders from the Asia and Pacific regions, aims to build a global network to fight drug abuse.

About 130 youth participants from 14 countries attended this year’s congress. 100 of them were from Bhutan.

At the end of the 4-day congress, two participants were jointly awarded the International Youth Award. The winners were Azmeel Mohamed from the Maldives; and our own Yangchen Dolkar.

Yangchen is a student at Dr Tobgyel School and, at 14 years, was one of the youngest participants. Still, the congress, which included several international university students, decided that the feisty Yangchen Dolkar showed enough communication, decision-making and leadership skills to merit winning the gathering’s highest honour. Well done.

But it was not just Yangchen Dolkar who did well at the congress. All our youth reportedly performed well, and impressed their international fellow-participants with their warmth and friendliness, and their readiness to participate in all the activities. In fact, that’s why the first runner also went to a Bhutanese – Jigme Choeda of Gedu HSS. Good job.

This year’s theme was “Together we can!” So I asked Yangchen Dolkar, who happens to be my niece, “Are you sure you can?”

“Yes we can!” came her immediate answer, “… together we can make this world a better place.”

Truly shocking!

Bhutan Today’s headline this morning was shocking. “People living in miserable conditions: OL” it screamed.

Shocking! But not quite true.

The recent earthquake destroyed many houses. According to government reports more than 4000 houses have been damaged. So many people are unhappy. And they are frightened. And they are impatient. They want the authorities to finalize their insurance claims, so that they can start dismantling and rebuilding their homes before aftershocks inflict further damage to them.

In the meantime, people whose houses have been destroyed beyond repair or are no longer safe, are living in makeshift tents, in temporary huts, or in cowsheds. And many of them have moved in with their neighbours.

Naturally, their living conditions are difficult. But the indomitable spirit of our people, combined with their ability and willingness to come together in times of crises, have ensured that the earthquake victims do not have to live in “miserable conditions”. So to say that they are would be a gross exaggeration. And Bhutan Today should not sensationalize an already painful situation, especially when the OL cautioned them against doing just that.

That is what’s truly shocking!

Tour of the dragon

This year’s Tour of the Dragon was a grand success. At 2:00 AM on Saturday, 45 riders representing 15 teams took off from the town square in Chamkhar and raced towards Thimphu. 28 of the riders managed to complete the grueling one-day, 268 km mountain bike race from Bumthang to Thimphu.

Last year’s fool – the rider who fell off his bike in Trongsa, but stubbornly rode on to complete the race – fared better this time. He didn’t fall. And he clocked a decent 14 hours 16 minutes to complete the race.

But this year’s Tour had better highlights. Here are a few of them:

  • Eight riders broke last year’s record of 13 hours 39 minutes. Sonam Tshering owns the new record at an astonishing 11 hours 31 minutes. (That, incidentally, is how long some motorists take to make the journey from Bumthang to Thimphu!)
  • Yeshi Dema, the only female rider to take part in the Tour, became the first lady to complete the race. She took 17 hours 11 minutes.
  • Pema Khandu, aged 18, was this year’s youngest rider. He rode the 111 km to Chendebji before calling it a day.
  • Colonel Tawpo, aged 59 years, was this year’s oldest rider. He completed the epic journey in what must have been a torturous 18 hours 25 minutes. He rode into Thimphu at 8:25 PM long after the prize distribution ceremony had ended.
  • 857 volunteers (comprising of teachers, students, civil servants and businessmen and women) lined the route to point out potholes and unexpected bumps, direct traffic, distribute water and food, and to generally cheer the riders on.
  • HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck did not compete in the race. He rode, but did not compete. Instead – and in spite of his competitive nature – he chose to support and encourage the riders. He checked on every rider who fell off his bike. And he accompanied most of the riders who struggled through the difficult stages of the race. In the process, he probably rode more than the race’s 268 kilometers.

Thanks to the efforts of the volunteers, RSTA officials, traffic police, Dzongkhag authorities and, above all, the Bhutan Olympic Committee, this year’s Tour of the Dragon was a grand success.  Well done.

Earthquake!

As we drove home earlier this evening, my wife noticed that Taba was in total darkness. And she observed that the residents were huddled, in the dark, outside their houses. It was an eerie sight.

We were driving, so we hadn’t felt the earth move. A powerful earthquake, measuring 6.9 units, had hit the Himalayas. Its epicenter was reportedly in Sikkim.

In Bhutan, thankfully, no major damages have been reported. But posts on Twitter indicate that the tremors were felt throughout our country. I’m concerned about our farm houses, old monasteries and dzongs – they, and their residents, are the most vulnerable. And I’m especially concerned about them in our two western most dzongkhags, Haa and Samtse – they border the Indian state of Sikkim.

If required, please help your neighbours. Please cooperate with the authorities. And please, please stay safe.

UPDATE: Hearing reports of cracks in houses, including some in the Tashichhodzong. Also, several landslides along Thimphu – Phuentsholing highway.

UPDATE: Several houses damaged in upper Haa. Three people referred to Thimphu hospital. A few others treated for minor injuries.

UPDATE: More information on PM’s Facebook page.

Freeing horses

Free me ...

Several of you identified the image in the last “Big picture” as a horse. That is correct. Well done.

But Passang’s answer was the most accurate. He said that the image was a “Picture of the horse (lungta) on a faded prayer flag.”

The big picture is, quite literally, a painting of a horse on an old prayer flag. In fact, the prayer flag, with the lungta (or windhorse) printed in the middle, is clearly visible in the painting. To Karma Wangdi, the artist, that lungta, drawn within a square border, looked confined and trapped. So he set it free. That’s why he painted the white horse, emerging from the prayer flag, and galloping at full speed, to freedom.

Karma Wangdi, popularly known as Asha Karma, says that the aim of the lungta prayer flags is to release one’s good nature and positive energy so as to accumulate merit and fortune. But he feels that the lungta printed on the prayer flags are, themselves, confined within a square border. Worse still, Asha Karma laments that most of the prayer flags today are made from non-degradable polyester material that trap the lungta for decades, long after the prayer flags have done their work and have come down, littering the landscape.

So Asha Karma has been busy freeing the lungta from old, discarded prayer flags. He’s been doing that for the past 13 years, during which time he’s completed no less than 40 paintings depicting horses of in various shapes and sizes, all furiously galloping away to their freedom.

Free ... at last

And to help him on his mission, Asha Karma has trained dozens of young artists in his studio at VAST to also allegorically free horses from old prayer flags.

But he and his young volunteers have also literally freed countless lungtas – they’ve visited popular prayer flag sites (like Sangaygang and Dochula) to collect and properly dispose old, discarded prayer flags.

Passang should contact me to claim his prize, a copy of one of Asha Karma’s paintings. For the rest of you, I’ve uploaded some photos from Asha Karma’s “windhorse series” in the gallery.  Enjoy.

We should (not) be proud

I applaud how the prime minister has responded to allegations that he, and other powerful people, were allotted land illegally in Gyelpozhing. He has written to ACC to investigate the allegations, and he has promised that offenders, especially those holding current political authority, will be made fully accountable.

The fact that the head of the government demands to be investigated is a very good precedent. We should be proud.

But I also condemn how the prime minister has responded to the same allegations. He has questioned the motive for and timing of the media’s reporting on the so-called “Gyelpozhing land grab case”. On the one hand, he asked if the allegations had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”. And on the other hand, he asked if the allegations had been aimed at “discrediting the government” just as the all-important round table meetings were in session.

That this response smacks of fear mongering, a tactic used by unscrupulous politicians throughout the world, is not a good sign. We should not be proud.

Big picture

It’s been a while since we last played the “Big picture”. The person who most accurately tells what the picture is receives an appropriate gift.

Lottery issues

Last year, on 29th September, I wrote that media reports about Bhutan’s role in the Indian lottery scam screamed for answers.

On 11th October 2010, I wrote that the government needed to answer certain pressing questions regarding its dealings with Bhutan’s lottery agent in India.

On 14th November 2010, I suggested that, instead of pulling out of the lottery business, the government should use lottery proceeds to fund public service broadcasting.

On 30th November 2010, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Finance Minister to explain what the government had done to investigate the alleged violations in the appointment of Bhutan’s lottery agent in India, and the alleged violations by that agent.

On 22nd June 2011, I observed that the government’s decision to close lottery operations in India and, thereby, forgo revenue estimated at Nu 200 million per year was not a good idea.

Sometime in June 2011, the Royal Audit Authority issued a special report on the lottery operations. I requested the RAA for a copy of that report, but was denied one, as the RAA was still waiting for the government’s responses to their observations.

Also in June 2011, a month after the government cancelled the contract with their lottery agent in India, the Directorate of Lottery approached that agent to sponsor a local golf tournament.

And on 23rd August 2011, the cabinet issued a press release announcing it decision that “moral responsibility and accountability must be fixed”, and that “… it will finally do away with the Lottery operations altogether.”

I welcome the government’s decision to fix moral responsibility and accountability. It means that the government has accepted that violations did take place in the way Bhutan’s lottery operations were handled.

But who will accept moral responsibility? And who will be held accountable for the alleged violations in the lottery business?

The lottery director has resigned. But not because he admitted doing any wrong. It appears he resigned because the government had announced that “… it is washing its hands off from the lottery business.”

The government has shut down the Directorate of Lottery. But it has done so because of its decision to halt lottery operations. That’s why the government has announced that the staff will be transferred to other agencies.

So as of now, no one has accepted moral responsibility for violations that seem to have taken place in the lottery business. And no one has been held accountable, in spite of the fact that the government apparently lost billions of Ngultrums in the way the lottery operations were handled. And in spite of the fact that, even after the contract with the government’s lottery agent in India was terminated, that agent was asked to sponsor a golf tournament in Bhutan.

To make matters worse, the government has decided to terminate all lottery operations because it now views the business as “no less than gambling”.

The lottery scam screamed for answers. But the government’s decision to terminate Bhutan’s lottery operations is the worst possible outcome – it provides no answers, while depriving the exchequer of much needed revenue.

While no answers have yet been provided, while no one has yet been implicated, and while no one has yet taken moral responsibility, the government has already terminated the lottery business, and in doing so, forfeited potentially billions of Ngultrums of national revenue, money which could have been used to finance kidu and relief, public service broadcasting, sports or the activities of NGOs.

So the government must reverse its decision to terminate lottery operations. Otherwise it will be held responsible for squandering millions – perhaps even billions – of Ngultrums that belong to the people of Bhutan.

And the government must, without further delay, fulfill its promise to fix moral responsibility and accountability on those involved in the lottery scam.

Explaining our absence

Captive audience

I got back yesterday. My tour to the eastern and central parts of our country was quick yet fruitful. So the first thing I did today was to visit Dechenphug Lhakhang, my favorite monastery. I went there to thank Ap Gengye, one of our foremost guardian deities, for granting us protection and safety during the tour.

In Dechenphug, I met several groups of recent graduates. They had attended the recent National Graduate Orientation Program, and, as they prepared to enter the real world of work, most of them were still weighing their options.

They could sit for the Royal Civil Service Commission’s “common examinations” and compete for civil service jobs. Or they could seek employment in government owned corporations immediately, thereby preempting competition from fellow graduates who wouldn’t make it through the common exams. Or they could join the private sector.

The graduates had to make important decisions. So they had converged in Dechenphug to seek Ap Gengye’s support and guidance.

I stopped to speak with some of the graduates. I asked them what they had studied, where they had studied, and where they planned to work.

They asked me why the opposition party didn’t have a session at the National Graduate Orientation Program. They told me that it would have been relevant for the graduates to meet the members of the opposition party.  And they added that that’s what they had indicated in their feedback form.

I said that I agreed with them – the opposition party really should have met the graduates to congratulate them and to wish them luck in their careers, but also to explain the roles and responsibilities, and priorities of the opposition. But, I explained that we had not been given that opportunity.

I explained that the government had not allowed us to participate in any of the past NGOPs. I explained that, this year, I had written officially to the labour minister requesting him to grant a session for the opposition party to meet the graduates. And I explained that the labour minister had written back saying that it wouldn’t be possible to accommodate our request.

The upshot of this, I explained, was that I could tour the eastern and central parts of our country … uninterrupted.

Photo credit: Kuensel