Nima Dorji

One of the Youth Development Fund’s most active programs is its young volunteers in action, better known as Y-VIA. The volunteers are typically young students still going to high school.

Last week, in Changjiji, Y-VIA put on a delightful show to launch UNICEF’s state of the world’s children report. They sang, danced, acted and joked for their President, Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, and other guests from the civil service, education system, international organizations, and the local community.

But the Y-VIA volunteers also used the occasion to launch their own report, based on three case studies they had done on extreme poverty among urban youth. The stories are painful, but they must be heard. So I’m reproducing below, in their original, their case study about Nima Dorji, a trash collector who lives in Thimphu’s landfill …

Nima Dorji is a 14 years old boy who works and earns his own livelihood by collecting trash and selling to the scrap dealer in Phuntsholing. Nima is from Samdhingkha in Punakha. Both his parents are working. In fact his mother is in the civil service while his father is a carpenter. Nima left home at the age of 11. He has two younger sisters. He was a student of Babesa Primary school and then later he became a monk out of his own interest. His journey from a monk to a trash collector motivated us to look deeper into his life.

We found Nima, when out of curiosity to see if we could find children in the land fill of Memelakha.  We saw this thin and filthy looking boy rummaging through the piles of dirt along with the dogs. He ran away when he saw us for the first time. We made contact with him by giving him a set of clean clothes and some food. His story unfolds with him living with his parents in olakha. Both his parents work so there is some income in the family. He never enjoyed school. He refused to do his school work and this annoyed his mother. He wanted to be a monk instead. After failing in class two for two consecutive years, Nima‘s mother finally put him in a monastery in Samdrupjonkar. The same year, a lama advised the parents to send Nima to Trongsa dratshang. However, Nima was greatly disappointed when he saw the bad behavior of his monk friends and senior monks. He was bullied and beaten often. His learning according to him did not progress much. With great disappointment and despair he ran away to Thimphu. He found a friend in Thimphu who did trash business. Afraid to go home, he decided to become a trash collector and found a home with ten other young trash collectors. The two room house became Nima’s home and his friend, his new family.

We found his parents living in a hut in olakha. Ten members of the family live all together in this little hut. According to his mother, she is waiting to get him registered in a shedra. We took Nima to meet his mother to see their reaction. While Nima remained quiet, the mother was indifferent. It was difficult to see love or any family bond between Nima and his mother. We also visited his school and the teachers couldn’t recognize him as he had changed and aged drastically.  Nima did not draw too much attention from his teachers. He was just an average student who did not enjoy school. His friends were in class 5 and they too did not recognize him. They do remember one thing about him. He was passionate about becoming a monk.

Nima never got into drugs or any criminal activities. He was never a naughty boy when he was little. He hardly gave any problems. His only problem was not taking interest in his school studies.

As a trash collector he earns Nu 1900 a month. Nima is known to be a hardworking trash collector who also sends money to his mother. He still hopes that a day will come when he can have another opportunity to go back to school.

Nima along with his ten friends, live in the filthiest environment that we can ever imagine. They live with the trash of the entire Thimphu city. They work bare hands with no masks and their clothes are filthy. They work is hazardous to their health and they are prone to communicable diseases as they often rummage through wastes from the hospitals. Their hands often get cut and poked by syringes that are thrown in the rubbish.

Their diet consists mainly of potatoes and rice. Their day begins at 7 in the morning with the leftover of their dinner. Lunch is around 3 or 4 in the evening. The wife of one of his friends and her sister cook for the boys. Living with are two little toddlers whose playground is the land fill.

They do not have access to clean drinking water and electricity. They use a solar light in the night. They often get sick with diarrhea, cough and cold, headaches and other ailments brought about by poor hygiene and sanitation.

Nima often feels depressed with what he has become. He regrets leaving school and wishes he got sound and adequate guidance from his parents and teachers. He looks furlong and hopeless. He feels he brought this situation upon himself. This is just a story of Nima but the eyes of his friends told their own pathetic sad stories.


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.

Zoom on zoom

Quick updates on my previous post:

  • I’ve uploaded some photographs in the gallery.
  • Most of the officials who were invited to the art festival never did show up …
  • But, many other visitors turned up, especially on the final evening …
  • And, the prime minister made an unscheduled and unannounced visit to the closing ceremony of the festival. I applaud our PM.

Zoom on garbage

Screaming for help

Are you an important government official? If so, did you receive an invitation to attend Young Zoom on Garbage, the art festival currently on at the Clock Tower Square? And if so, did you make it to the festival?

Chances are that you didn’t.

Young Zoom on Garbage is meant to be an innovative and powerful way of drawing much needed attention to a very serious problem. So the organizers sent out more than 200 invitations for yesterday’s opening function. But only a handful showed up: barely 10% of the invitees were able to attend the inaugural ceremonies.

That’s too bad.

The participants – about 60 children, mostly students, who, incidentally, took part in the project’s many activities during much of the last year – have put on quite a show. They have transformed the Clock Tower Square into an awesome display of Thimphu’s waste, as they caused discarded cardboard boxes, beer bottles, cement bags, newspapers, mobile voucher cards, prayer flags, cigarette boxes, computers, and heaps of plastic bottles, wrappers and bags to effortlessly morph into a video dome, a walk-in pinhole camera, a robot, a towering monster, giant raindrops, a plastic monument, a photo gallery, and an enormous hand clutching our vulnerable world.

At the Clock Tower Square, our garbage looks strangely attractive. But the message is not lost: we produce too much waste.

I congratulate VAST, the organizers of the event, for continuing to champion what their founder, Asha Karma, calls ABC on NGP (Advocacy Behavioral Change on National Garbage Problem).

And I congratulate TCC, for co-organizing the event, giving support and adding to the event’s success.

To register your support, and to make the festival a bigger success, visit the Clock Tower Square, especially if you are one of the 200 important invitees.

Our banner, featuring the “Walk the River” photo exhibition, is an open invitation to you, your family and your friends to zoom on garbage at the VAST art festival. The festival runs through Sunday.

Our garbage

Residents in the capital will have welcomed the government’s announcement that “A massive clean-up campaign of the town and the river bank will begin shortly involving Thimphu’s residents” in preparation for the SAARC summit next month.

Thimphu will look presentable by this time next month. And our visitors will be duly impressed. But we, residents, must ask ourselves if our city really is as clean as it might look. And, if not, what we, residents, should do about it.

I took the following pictures a few days ago while walking to town from Taba.

Taba Rongchu

[Continue Reading…]

Treasure hunting

I met Tobgay today. He’s nine years old and has just completed Class II in Dechechencholing MSS. He was rummaging through my negibour’s waste.

In fact, Tobgay was recycling garbage. He was collecting various tins and bottles, and plastics and metals to sell to a scrap dealer in town. His part-time work would fetch him Nu 5 per kg for iron, steel and certain plastics; Nu 1 for every beer bottle; and Nu 30 per kg for aluminum cans. That’s easy money, he confided, because there’s always plenty of recyclable garbage.

Yesterday he and his friends earned Nu 130. They spent most of that money playing video games and eating. But today he plans to be a bit more cautious – he wants to buy a pair of jeans.

Thimphu’s garbage is screaming for better waste management. And the message is loud and clear: reduce, reuse, and recycle – we can’t afford not to!


I am excited about the prime minister’s assurances that Thimphu will be one of the cleanest cities in the world by 2011. But I am not excited about how he plans to do it.

It appears that the government has decided to buy a waste incinerator capable of burning 40 tonnes of waste at a time. It should reconsider its decision.

Incinerators must burn continuously. So they require a constant supply of garbage. And the bigger the incinerator, the larger will be the amount of garbage needed to keep it running. As a result, we may need to produce more, not less garbage. This is not good waste management.

Incinerators pollute. The pollution will spread throughout our country and to our neighboring countries. Plus the smoke, gas and ash produced by incinerators contain dioxins that can cause cancer. This is not responsible.

Incinerators are expensive. In 2004, THPA paid Nu 4 million for a 2.4 tonne incinerator. Guess how much a 40 tonne incinerator would cost? Upwards of Nu 600 million! This, it seems, is what representatives of a Malaysian firm told the government when they visited Bhutan earlier this year to market their product. This is not cheap.

A much more simple, responsible and cheaper solution to our waste problem is to recycle it.

A businessman has already proposed to establish a recycling plant. This is his plan: he collects waste that has been sorted, washes and compresses it, and sells it as raw material to companies – in Bhutan or abroad – who manufacture products from recycled material.

Who sorts the garbage? That’s the catch – we, the producers of garbage do. Waste must be sorted at the source before it can be used by the recycler. But the good news is that Thimphu’s residents are willing to do so. At least, this was the experience in the mid-1990’s when NEC briefly tried a recycling project. Sorting our own waste teaches us to reduce consumption, reuse packaging and recycle – the all important 3R’s of waste management. Sorting our waste also teaches us to respect the environment. That’s GNH.

And there’s more good news: most of our garbage is recyclable, at least 70% of it is. That would mean that only 30% of our waste would need to go into landfills. And that would mean smaller, safer, cheaper and better-managed landfills would do for Thimphu.

How much would a recycling plant cost? About Nu 3 million. The government should finance the plant (donors are already willing) and subsidize its operating costs for the 10 years it would take before he can start turning a profit. In case you’re wondering, there’s a lot of money to be made from the sale of used plastics, glass, PET bottles and metals. Many companies use recyclable waste as raw material to produce finished goods. So the recycling plant would basically compact the waste so that it becomes easier and cheaper to transport.

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? It is.

Yes, let’s make Thimphu the cleanest city in the world by 2011. But let’s do it responsibly.

(photo of incinerator from

Thimphu’s shame

I went on a field trip today. To the Memelakha landfill. That’s where our garbage ends up everyday.

The landfill was built in 1992 and was designed to last for 10 years. But the actual landfill lasted only for 6 years. Since then the area has been used as a dumping ground. It continues to be used as such.

The landfill should have been lined with layers of concrete, plastic and concrete to prevent leakage. It wasn’t. So potentially toxic liquid seeps out of the walls and flows into a stream, which ends up in our river.

As soon as the landfill reached its capacity, it should have been sealed with several layers of concrete and plastic. It wasn’t. Instead, during the last 10 years since the landfill reached its capacity, even more garbage has been dumped on the landfill. The area has now turned into such a big dumping ground that it’s difficult to spot the original landfill.

Pipes should have been inserted into the landfill to release methane that rotting garbage generates. They weren’t. So the landfill is potentially explosive.

I was ashamed by what I saw. We produce a lot of garbage, some 40 tonnes everyday. But most of it is actually recyclable – plastics, paper and PET bottles. The problem is we don’t recycle. That’s the shame. And the garbage keeps piling.

The wall marked the designed capacity of the original landfill. What’s above the wall is what is now a dumping ground.

Garbage overflowing everywhere

Dogs reign supreme here

More dogs

Potentially toxic liquid seeping out

This must be deadly

Almost all of this is recyclable

Easy pickings

If only this had been recycled

Too little is recycled