Keeping watch

Today’s issue ofThe Bhutanesehas only three announcements (one each by BOB, CBS and TCB), and one felicitation message (by Lhaki Group).

Public resources control media?

About four months ago, on 28 April, The Bhutanese complained in their editorial that the government was increasingly “using their advertisement revenue to ‘fix’ critical papers …”

Last Saturday, Business Bhutan published a copy of a circular, marked “confidential”, directing all departments within the Ministry of Information and Communication “not to provide any advertisement, announcement, notification, circular, etc” to The Bhutanese. The letter, dated 2 April, was issued at the instruction of the Minister.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, the minister of information and communications, has clarified that the circular was a result of miscommunication; that he had meant “Bhutanese media”, not “The Bhutanese”; and that he had withdrawn the circular as soon as he had seen the error.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai’s clarification is welcome. But it seems unlikely. And, anyway, it is not sufficient. He should answer why he would have wanted to issue a blanket ban on all advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in all the media houses – print, radio and television – in the first place.

He should produce the office order withdrawing the circular in question.

And he should explain why government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in The Bhutanese have fallen, and fallen drastically, since April.

The latest issue of The Bhutanese, for example, printed on Saturday, 11 August, carried just three notifications (two by Bank of Bhutan; one by Bhutan Power Corporation) and one message (by DHI). There was nothing – no advertisement, no announcement, no notification, no circular – by any of the government agencies.

Compare that with the Saturday, 11 August issue of Kuensel which carried more than 10 notifications (by National Assembly, ECB, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, RBP, Ministry of Agriculture, Tsirang Dzongkhang Administration, Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag Administration, Samdrupjongkhar Thromde and STCB) and more than 10 announcements (by Druk Air, RAA, BNB, DGPC, NPPF, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Mangdechhu Hydropower Project and RBP). Most of these notifications and announcements were made by government agencies.

In terms of content, The Bhutanese wrote 15 articles and, for comparison, Kuensel wrote 17 articles in their 11 August issues.

But Kuensel enjoys a wider and bigger reader base – yes. Plus Kuensel is older, more established and would have a better marketing division – yes, yes and yes. Yet, the huge difference in advertisements between the two newspapers is too big to be explained just by these factors, especially since The Bhutanese also enjoyed much bigger government advertisements only a few months ago.

Is the government misusing public resources to control the media? It certainly looks like it. And if that is the case, we cannot allow it. But what can we do? To start with, we can take a closer look at the newspapers. We can study the contents of the newspapers, and scrutinize all government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars.

That way, the government will know that we know if and when they misuse public resources to control the media.

Here’s a copy of the MOIC circular that appeared in Business Bhutan:

Acting late

Four years ago the prime minister pledged to enact a right to information law. The prime minister didn’t give a definite time frame, but he promised that it would be done “soon”.

It’s already been four years since the government made that promise. And we are still waiting for them to keep their word. Now, however, finally, there seems to be some movement: the Department of Media and Information has conducted an RTI awareness workshop, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has distributed a draft RTI Bill for public comments and feedback.

But all this is for nothing. The government has been inactive for so long that whatever they do now will be too little, too late. Parliament has only one session left. And we need at least two sessions to pass a law. So, in spite of any assurances from the government, and any last minute flurry of activity, we might as well accept that the government will not fulfill their promise to give us an RTI Act.

We, the people, will not have an RTI Act during this government’s term in office. But what we have is the Constitution. And Article 7 Section 3 of the Constitution declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. So in the absence of a law regulating the right to information, we, the people, can continue to enjoy unqualified and unconditional right to information as an important fundamental right.

Expensive talk

The Ministry of Agriculture says that the prices of local vegetables is increasing. They are right. In fact, the prices of local vegetables have not just increased; they have skyrocketed.

Between this time last year and now, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the price for local cabbages increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75. That’s an increase of 30.25%. The price of local chillies increased from Nu 270 to Nu 300 or by 11.11%. And the prices of potatoes and beans have jumped by a massive 47.22% and  39.40% respectively.

So what’s driving the prices of local vegetables?  The Ministry of Agriculture has blamed inflation, the seasons and the rupee crisis.

Yes, inflation would have caused price increases. The last quarter recorded inflation at 13.53%. That’s the highest rate we’ve seen in years. But that’s nowhere near the 47% increase in the price of local potatoes. By comparison, the price of imported potatoes, which was Nu 17.83 per kg last year, increased only slightly, to Nu 20 per kg this year. We import most of what we consume from India. So inflation rates here follow those in India. And since the price of imported potatoes (and other vegetables) went up only marginally, inflation cannot be blamed for the huge increase in the cost of local potatoes (and local vegetables).

Nor can we blame the seasons. In their report, the government compared vegetables prices between two years but at the same season. So when they say that the price of local cabbages have increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75 per kg, they are talking about  prices in June last year, versus prices in June this year. More significantly, the government has found out that production of local vegetables have gone up. All this means that we can’t pin the blame on the season.

The third excuse that the Ministry of Agriculture has offered for increasing vegetable prices is the rupee crisis. I agree, the rupee crisis is to blame. But not for the reasons that the Ministry of Agriculture thinks; not because the ngultrum is fetching fewer Indian rupees at the informal exchange market.

The rupee crisis did indeed cause a sudden hike in vegetable prices. But they went up due to an unlikely event. On 12 April the prime minister went on national TV to talk about the rupee crisis. During that talk, the prime minister announced that the government would no longer permit vegetables to be imported from India. Prices of local vegetables went up immediately. And haven’t come down since.

Studying pedestrian day

On pedestrian day, the number of vehicles driven is halved, and the number of people walking is doubled. At least, that’s what a study by the National Environment Commission says. Good.

But what would be better, essential in fact, is for the government to study the impact that pedestrian day has on the quality of our lives. And the impact that it has on doing business in Bhutan.

Royal Grandmother

My last post was about Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. Dr Leatham, along with others, like Dr Albert Craig, had been invited to Bhutan by Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, to care for His Majesty the Third King.

Between then and now, Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother has also spearheaded innumerable programs to care for the health of the people. They include, among many others, the introduction of, for the first time in Bhutan, drugs to fight leprosy and tuberculosis.

What’s more, Her Majesty, now in her eighties, continues to work to improve healthcare and alleviate the sufferings of our people. Just last week, Professor Ian Frazer, the scientist credited with developing the HPV vaccine, was in Thimphu at the invitation of Her Majesty.

The human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer, a leading cause of death among Bhutanese women. So Professor Frazer’s work and the HPV vaccine have contributed immensely to improving the quality and length of the lives of our women.

But the vaccines are expensive. They currently sell for US$ 120 per shot in the market, and a full course, consisting of three doses, costs a whopping US$ 360. Luckily, under Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother’s patronage, the Ministry of Health’s extended program of immunization has received US$ 32 million worth of HPV vaccines from the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation.

The program to prevent cervical cancer began three years ago. That is when girls, throughout the country, started getting the HPV vaccines. The idea is to cover all women … and to put an end to cervical cancer.

For this, and for much more – for introducing modern healthcare in Bhutan, for eradicating leprosy among our people, for controlling tuberculosis – I humbly thank Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother.

Thimphu High Street

Thank you for taking part in the last Big Picture. Your answers were varied – Changangkha, Phobjikha, Gangtey, Wangdue, Paro, Bumthang, Dagana, Lhuntse and Thimphu town – and rightfully so. The old photo, after all, could have been taken anywhere in Bhutan.

The picture, as you can now easily see, was taken outside the Tashichhodzong. It shows the beginnings of modern Thimphu complete with offices, shops and, in the background, the dzong undergoing major renovation and expansion.

Dorji, “Pothery” and “River” all identified the place correctly. But the first correct answer came from Ugen, who wrote, “Settlement outside Tashichhodzong in Thimphu in early 50′s.” This picture was actually taken in the early 1960’s, but it couldn’t have been that much different in the 50’s, so I’m awarding the prize to Ugen. (Ugen: please email me to claim your prize.)

The photo is from a book “Hearts and Life and the Kingdom of Bhutan” by Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. This book is mainly about developments in the field of cardiology since 1945. But the author has included a chapter about his experiences in Bhutan, and that’s what gives the books excitement for us, and a sense of magic and mystery for other readers. He has also included almost 100 photographs, most of which show what Thimphu, and Bhutan, looked like in the 1960’s. Lovely. As we would expect, Thimphu has grown and changed beyond recognition, but the rest of Bhutan, luckily, has not changed very much.

So what is the connection between cardiology, Dr Leatham and Bhutan? The doctor was invited to Bhutan in 1963 and again in 1964  on a very important mission: as a physician to His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo. He nursed the Father of Modern Bhutan, and claims to have extended our King’s life by more than a few years. The significance of his service is not lost on the author who writes:

My patient, the King, with premature coronary artery disease (before the days of coronary artery surgery, dilatations and stents), survived for eight years, giving time for his son to take over; he died whilst on safari in Africa. I was presented with the Order of Bhutan by the Queen for restoring hi to health until his son was ‘of age’.

His Majesty the King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck passed away on 21 July, 1972. His son, the Crown Prince, ascended the Golden Throne to become the Fourth Druk Gyalpo at the tender age of 16.

 

About relief

Consider this: His Majesty the King issued a Kasho yesterday granting Nu 200 million towards the reconstruction of the Wangduephodrang Dzong. Nu 100 million was granted from the armed forces, and Nu 100 million from His Majesty’s Kidu Foundation.

Now consider this: The government has allocated Nu 20 million per year to the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund until the balance reaches a ceiling of Nu 100 million. The Relief Fund was passed by the Parliament in the last session. Nu 20 million per year is woefully inadequate. I said so in the Parliament. And I wrote about it.

How much is Nu 20 million? It works out to under 0.06% percent of the government’s annual budget estimated at Nu 34,515.549 million for 2012-13.

Big Picture 13

Where, in Bhutan, is this place? The best answer wins a packet of Nado’s zurpoe incense.

Shopping for poi

Come try this

Walk into a shopping mall, and you’ll be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes.

Walk into the Norling Building in Changangkha, and you’ll also be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes. But there’s one big difference. The customers in the Norling Building, in Nado Poi shop to be exact, would be trying out different types of poi – traditional incense sticks for religious offerings.

That, at least, is what I saw the other day. I went to Nado’s to buy some poi, and bumped into a group of Taiwanese tourists. They, like children in a sweetshop, were excitedly trying out various types of incense – lighting the sticks, comparing fragrances, and identifying the best offerings to take back home.

Nado, an ex-monk from Tharpaling Monastery, started the incense factory more than two decades ago. The factory, Nado Poizokhang, has come a long way. They manufacture at least 13 types of poi, ranging in price from Nu 30 per packet to Nu 370 for a packet of their top-of-the-line Zurpoe.

Producing poi needs at least 30 different ingredients and one whole month of hard work involving no less than 12 full time employees. Most of the poi is consumed within the country. But a good amount ends up in homes and monasteries abroad.

The next time you are in the Changangkha area, I recommend that you try out the wonderful fragrances at Nado Poi Shop – you’ll add a whole new dimension to your shopping experience.