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.

Unconstitutional elections?

I have copies of two letters:

One, by the Election Commission of Bhutan, authorizing the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement “…to issue directives to the relevant authorities to hold elections where the tenure of Local Governments has expired or expiring”.

And two, by the Ministry of Home Affairs informing all 20 Dzongdags to conduct elections where the tenure of Local Governments has expired.

Both letters are unconstitutional. The Constitution and the Election Act mandate and require the Election Commission to hold elections for Dzongkhag Tshodus, Gewog Tshogdes and Thromde Tshongdes.

Clearly, the Election Commission is not yet ready to hold Local Government elections. But why authorize other agencies to conduct these elections? And why the urgency if the Election Commission will be, by its own estimates, ready by 2009?

The Election Commission should retract its decision and accelerate its efforts to complete its groundwork for local government elections. In the meantime, any elections to Local Government could be unconstitutional.

The end of school

Galek, my daughter, age 9, class 4, finished her final exams yesterday.

Today, her last day at school, is significant.

It’s significant for me because she’s completed yet another year at school – a reminder that she’s growing up; that time flies.

It’s significant for Galek too – today marks the completion of her first academic year since the introduction of democracy in Bhutan; the completion of one of the five academic years that we’ve given the DPT government to improve our education system.

So I’ve been thinking: what has the DPT government done so far to improve the quality of education? And how have their policies made education more meaningful for our students? I’ll have to think, and think hard, about this for a while.

Meanwhile, Galek will get her results today.

Lyonpo Thakur, you’ve completed your first academic year as education minister. How would your report card look?

Not if, but when?

I’ve just returned from a UN dinner to say farewell to the outgoing UNDP Resident Representative.

In attendance were the prime minister, cabinet ministers, Speaker, Chairman of NC, secretaries to the government, constitutional post holders, heads of international agencies, and diplomats. As far as I could tell, this very distinguished group had assembled in a small room in the Hotel Riverview without any noticeable extra security arrangements.

The terror attacks in Mumbai reminded me that this is not a good idea.

Bunching our most important people together is risky. If we must, take the necessary precautions. Otherwise, sooner of later, we’ll be in trouble.

Mumbai blasts

I strongly condemn the indiscriminate attacks by terrorists in Mumbai, and offer my condolences, solidarity and support to the victims and their families.

My thoughts and prayers are with the government and people of India.

Happiness for me – 2

A repeating problem

Jigme Dorji has a problem – he passed Class 12, but wants to repeat Class 12!

He secured an overall result of 65% percent, including a high of 75% in geography, which, I think, is quite good. But he feels that it’s not good enough and insists that he needs to repeat, and get better results, in order to do well in life.

To do well in life means to get a job in the civil service or, at the very least, a big corporation. For that he needs a bachelor’s degree.

65% didn’t get him admitted to Sherubtse College, Gedu College of Business Studies or any of the other free government colleges.

Actually he did qualify for the colleges of education in Paro and Samtse. But he’s not interested. He’s convinced that a B.Ed degree is good only for teaching. And that teaching would confine him to schools and not allow him to progress.

He could, like the thousands of Bhutanese students every year, study privately in India. But his parents are simple farmers in Trashigang. And they have 4 other children to look after. So Jigme can’t afford to even think about studying privately.

He could have enrolled in the RIHS or any of the VTIs. But they are for Class X students. And, he feels, that having completed 12, it would seem like a big setback. Besides he wants to progress and not stay as a technician all his life.

So the only option for him, as he sees it, is to repeat Class 12, study even harder, get better results, and qualify for Sherubtse College. I think this option is difficult, risky and wasteful.

Jigme is not alone. Every year too many students repeat Class 12 although they have passed, some, like Jigme, with quite good results. What a big waste.

What should the government do?

First, it should improve counseling services. This would allow students to plan their future based on their abilities and a better understanding of the careers that are available.

Second, it should develop multiple pathways to and within work. This would make it possible for a person who starts work a technician to become an engineer. Or a nurse to become a doctor. Or a teacher to become a manager. The idea is to keep all doors open by creating bridges and ladders.

If this issue not addressed in earnest, expect more wastage and frustration. Expect more problems.