Jewel of books

Twenty months ago the Tarayana Foundation invited Bhutanese to compose poems celebrating His Majesty the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Of the more than two hundred entries, 25 poems were selected and compiled into the book “Jewel of Men”. These poems express the deep feelings – of love, affection and reverence – that all Bhutanese hold for our beloved monarch.

“Jewel of Men” was launched yesterday by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, in a warm ceremony commemorating our Fourth King. Present were HRH Ashi Sonam Dechen Wangchuck, who delivered an eloquent welcome, and HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, who gave us a poignant documentary about his relationship with his father and his monarch.

“This book of poems”, Her Majesty revealed to an audience full of emotion, “I hold dear to my heart, for it is a reflection of the sentiments of love and gratitude to His Majesty, who has given this country so much, in particular, a King in His Image, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck”

I thank Her Majesty and Tarayana for voicing my innermost feelings on the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, a giant among men, a king without equal, a jewel.

A matter of power

The Indian minister for power, Sushil Kumar Shinde, was in Bhutan from 4 to 7 December. His visit was busy: His Majesty the King granted an audience; he met the Prime Minister, and the MEA Minister, Secretary and DG; he visited the Tala dam site and Chukha power plant; he visited Dochula; and I called on him.

His visit was successful: a protocol agreement to develop 10,000 MW by 2020 is ready and will be formally signed later this month. An “empowered group” will then be formed to identify and accelerate the implementation of hydropower projects. Both governments are visibly optimistic, and Mr Shinde has even promised to complete the plan by 2019, that’s a year before schedule.

In all this exuberance, we’ve forgotten to involve one player – Druk Holdings and Investment. As far as I know, the government did not involve DHI at all during this very important delegation. They were not included in any of the discussions. And they did not even get to make a courtesy call on India’s Power Minister.

This is unfortunate. Practically all the knowledge and experience with regard to hydropower development in Bhutan resides with the Druk Green Power Corporation and Bhutan Power Corporation, both DHI subsidiaries. Ignoring this valuable store of national expertise does not make sense.

As a matter of fact, DHI should actually be fully involved. Their mandate, decreed by Royal Charter is “… to hold and manage the existing and future investments of the Royal Government of Bhutan for the long-term benefit of its shareholders, the people of Bhutan.” It goes without saying that the development of the 10,000 MW of hydropower would constitute “future investments of the Royal Government”.

The Royal Charter also declares that “DHI shall implement all future commercially oriented projects that are developed by the government”. All the power projects included in the 10,000 MW plan are obviously “commercially oriented” and DHI will, by law, be required to implement them.

If DHI is expected to eventually “hold and manage” these hydropower projects it is only good sense to involve them right from the beginning. If the negotiation, identification and construction of the projects are done by the government, and if the DHI is expected to take over the projects (including all loans) once they are operational, the incentives to work fast, cheap and well may not be strong.

True, DHI does not have the capacity to implement such large projects. But neither does the government. Hence, a few months ago, the talk of creating an entirely separate secretariat for energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. This would be wasteful, inefficient, and tantamount to hiding two ministries under one umbrella ministry.

Develop DHI instead – they have the mandate, experience and the right incentives.

Lucky Sonam

Sonam Tshering beat 135 participants to win the India House Golf Tournament on 30 November. For his efforts, he received the keys to a brand new Maruti Zen Estilo during the tournament’s prize distribution ceremony this evening.

Not bad considering that Sonam, who is only 17 years and in Class VIII in Zilukha LSS, is currently doing his Common Examinations.

Coach Karma Lam introduced him to golf barely four years ago. While he enjoyed playing the game, he quickly discovered that there was pocket money to be made by working as a caddy. (Incidentally, last year’s winner was Karma Wangchuk, 20 years, also a caddy.)

Sonam made about Nu 300 a day carrying golf clubs during the weekends. This weekend his earnings increased a thousand fold! “I’ll sell my car”, he told me, “and save the money in the bank to pay for my further studies.”

With this sort of attitude, he can expect to continue to get lucky.

More pay hike talk

Kuensel’s Tenzing Lamsang is amazing. He’s done it again. He’s written yet another story almost entirely based on government “sources”. And he is thorough – his account is packed with names, dates, places, amounts and important quotes. He seems to know too many details about the confidential debate that the government has been having on the pay hike issue.

Our government is amazing. They’ve done it again. They’ve allowed classified government information to leak, including details of discussions in our highest decision making body, the Cabinet. Is classified information being leaked purposely? Or are they being stolen? If it’s the former, a dangerous game is being played. If it’s the latter, it’s dangerous, plain and simple.

Now back to Tenzing and the ongoing saga of the pay hike.

Today’s piece is his fifth pay hike story. And most of his information, by his own admission, are from “sources” in the government, even from within the cabinet. This must stop. The selected information leaks, protracted discussions, and the government’s indecisiveness have fueled wild speculation and unnecessary anxiety among public servants. And today’s story will make most civil servants a little more anxious, thanks to the leak about discussions in the Cabinet on teaching allowances.

Before democracy, under His Majesty’s government, the salaries of public servants were increased six times between 1985 and 2006. None of these increases were preceded by promises of increasing remuneration. All of them came as pleasant surprises. And public servants were deeply grateful for each increase.

The government will not get such gratitude – it’s gotten itself in a no-win situation. But before the situation gets worse, before the public looses more trust and confidence in the system, before civil service morale suffers irreparable damage, I suggest that the government settle the pay hike issue once and for all.

Now that would be real news.


10 December 2008: I have no evidence that the government leaked information to Tenzing Lamsang, or that he may have stolen information, or that he may have paid for stolen information. My intention is to caution the government about information management, not implicate the reporter in any way.

A second chance…

During the Nasscom annual strategy meeting held in Thimphu last week, Narayana Murthy, Infosys Chairman, announced that he would train 100 Bhutanese in his company. The offer is timely and, if used well, would be the first significant step towards creating the knowledge and skills base required to develop a viable ICT industry in Bhutan.

A similar offer was made by Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s PM, during his visit to Bhutan in June 2005. The visiting PM “…commended the Bhutanese’s versatility with the English language…” and publicly announced that he would be prepared to employ many Bhutanese as English teachers in Thailand. How many have been employed so far? Zero. Why? Because no one was given and no one took the lead to followed up with the Thai government. No one – not RCSC, not BCCI, not Foreign Ministry, not MOLHR – no one.

So this time let’s not squander the opportunity. Let’s get serious. Let’s make full use of Mr Murthy’s offer. Let’s begin by signing an MOU between Infosys and the government. Then let’s start the selection process.

At the least, Mr Murthy’s offer would be a welcome respite for our recent graduates, many of whom are concerned of looming unemployment.

Unconstitutional elections? – 2

Yesterday the ECB responded to my concerns regarding the legality of the forthcoming Local Government elections. (see my blog on 29 November)

The ECB explained that the Local Government elections should go ahead, as an “interim measure”, in accordance with MOHCA’s order to elect Gups where the tenure of the incumbents has expired.

I will object to the elections for several reasons:

First and foremost the elections will be unconstitutional. The Constitution puts the responsibility of conducting elections (NA, NC, Local Government and National Referendum) squarely on ECB. Allowing MOHCA to order elections, for whatever reason, is a constitutional breach;

Second, all elections must be conducted according to the provisions of the Election Act which was approved by both Houses and submitted to His Majesty the King during the first session of the Parliament; and

Third, the Local Government Act came into force in July 2007 and will remain in effect till modified by Parliament. Local Government elections cannot, therefore, be held in accordance with the earlier DYT Chathrim.

I appreciate the constraints that the ECB faces. It must, for instance, finalise the electoral boundaries for the Local Government constituencies before it can conduct the elections according to the electoral laws. But there’s no point in holding elections now, only to repeat the elections in 2009 after completing the delimitations of the Geogs. That would not only be a waste of money. That would be disruptive. And that would be unlawful.

I’ve appealed to ECB to reconsider.

Happy International Disabilities Day

Today is International Disabilities Day. Our people with disabilities, especially the youth, received the perfect gift –a special audience with His Majesty the King who also presented them with individual tashi khadars, and a three-storied cake to enjoy during their celebrations.

I gate crashed the celebrations. More than a hundred people with disabilities had gathered at the RBP mess to commemorate this important day and to enjoy His Majesty’s special soelra. The students with disabilities put on quite a show, from “singing” our national anthem in sign language to performing traditional songs and dances.

The festivities reminded me of the significant contributions that our people with disabilities have made in a wide range of fields including healthcare (Sanga Dorji, physiotherapist; pictured here), teaching (too many to name), music (Lop Kezang, Duptho and others) and IT (Chencho, Kuensel’s webmaster). All of them have served the tsa-wa-sum well.

But the festivities also reminded me of how little we have done to address the special needs of persons with disabilities. The school for the visually challenged (in Khaling) has finally started improving, but we still don’t have a school dedicated to teaching students with speaking and hearing impairments (currently they study in Drugyal H.S). And, notwithstanding the good work of the Draktsho Vocational Training Center, people with physical or mental challenges don’t have enough opportunities for growth. Our public infrastructure and facilities have virtually no provisions for persons with disabilities, making it difficult for them to live and travel independently.

We have a lot to do if we are serious about improving the lives of people with disabilities. To begin with, the government should ensure that sufficient legislative and policy support is made available for people with disabilities so that they have equal access to the opportunities that other Bhutanese enjoy.

And one more thing, from next year, the government should partake in the International Disabilities Day celebrations. This would be a welcome show of support to our people with disabilities.

Meanwhile…Happy International Disabilities Day!

The National Council’s banquet hall

The offices of the Honourable MPs of the National Council were inaugurated yesterday. Their offices are now located on the second floor of the recently built Royal Banquet Hall.

The second floor is actually the attic of the Royal Banquet Hall. But the offices are quite comfortable and the MPs, including the two who have no windows in their offices, are not complaining.

Viewed from the outside the Royal Banquet Hall doesn’t look too bad. I was horrified when the original, historic banquet hall was razed to make way for this new building. And was initially appalled at how ugly the new structure looked while it was being built. Like I was saying, not too bad, but nothing like the quiet and charming original we’ve lost.

By the way, the building was actually constructed as the National Council. At least, it appears that that was the plan and that’s what GOI, the main donor, was told. But that’s not the case, and now the beautiful main hall is used primarily to host banquets. Only the attic is used by the National Council, as offices for their MPs.

And where is the National Council hall? The old conference room adjacent to the banquet hall accommodates this important house of our Parliament. It’s small, congested, uncomfortable, and the Honourable MPs have to undertake difficult maneuvers to enter or leave the Hall when the Council is sitting. Plus there’s hardly any room for visitors. All in all, very, very different from the splendour of the National Assembly Hall.

Naturally this is unacceptable. So there’s already talk about building a completely new structure, one that’ll be more becoming for the important institution that is the National Council.

Such talk should not be acceptable.

About Nu 120 million was spent to build the Royal Banquet Hall. That’s already a lot of money. So rather than spending even more money building a separate National Council – and diverting that money from the people – we should use this building for its intended purpose: as the National Council. The hall is large enough for the National Council, and, with a few improvements, will be as grand as the National Assembly’s.

And where should be host government banquets? In restaurants, naturally. Thimphu already has a few hotels with good banqueting facilities. Many more are already being built. Private entrepreneurs have invested good money building these facilities – it’s time to make better use of them.

An overqualified sweeper?

Meet Sonam Choden. She’s 20 years old.

She completed Class X from Motithang High School in 2005. A year later, she did a six month certificate course in IT at RIIT.

She’s employed as a sweeper in the National Assembly.

Unemployment is real. It’s serious. And it’s growing.

Running vegetable vendors

The other day I bumped into a vegetable vendor along Norzin Lam. She carried a basket of fresh saag and was obviously in a hurry. She wouldn’t sell me any.

But I convinced her to stop for a while, and discovered that she was actually running away from City Corporation officials. These officials, she told me, would seize her basket and fine her Nu 500 for selling vegetables illegally.

Today I met another group of vendors. They are from Wangduephodrang, and travel to Thimphu two to three times a week by taxi to sell fresh farm vegetables. The vegetables are mostly from their own farms.

They didn’t seem to be too worried and even displayed some of their vegetables (damdroo, saag, ola choto and spring onions). I asked them about the City Corporation officials and they said that between 1PM to 3PM they are generally safe – that’s about time the officials have their lunch break! Otherwise, they would be on the run. Some have had their entire stock, complete with baskets, confiscated by city officials, and slapped hefty fines as well.

All that our farmers want is a small opportunity to sell their produce. But existing city rules forbid them from setting up shop along the streets – it adds to the garbage, they say. And in the process, we, urban dwellers, are deprived of fresh farm vegetables during the weekdays.

This is not a new issue. The struggle between the vendors and city officials has been going on for years. This absurd contest, played out in Thimphu’s main street everyday, must end.

We can’t end it forcefully. Not as long as we have enterprising farmers on the one hand, and eager urban buyers on the other. So support the informal enterprises. And regulate them. Allow vegetable vendors on designated parts of Norzin Lam. And if we must, charge them the little money required to clean up each day.

More importantly, the government should address such small issues that go a very long way to discourage farm productivity and dampen entrepreneurship.

And oh, in Thimphu, very few people visit the Sabji Bazaar during the weekdays. What we and our farmers need is small “sunday market” closer to the city centre where we can buy vegetables during the weekdays, without bumping into escaping vendors.