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.


Fighting poverty

Very low income housing

A popular attraction at the recent Tarayana Fair was the Lhop house. The house, which barely measures 8 feet by 9 feet, had belonged to Ap Pen Tshering, and in it, he and his wife, Aum Gagay Lham, had raised their four children.

75 year-old Pen Tshering’s house had been dismantled and transported to Thimphu, where it was carefully reassembled to showcase the lifestyle of the Lhops, Bhutan’s first inhabitants. And Pen Tshering had been more than happy to abandon his house. After all, he had no need for it.

Ap Pen Tshering, you see, had built a bigger, better and stronger house – one that has four rooms, a separate kitchen and a CGI roof. He’d built his new house with help from Tarayana Foundation.

But his is not the only house that Tarayana has built in Lotukuchu, easily the poorest and the most neglected part of our country. In fact, Tarayana has helped almost every household in the three villages that make up Lotukuchu build better homes. At last count, 73 families have already moved into new dwellings. And houses for the remaining 10-odd families are already being constructed.

And it’s not just housing. Tarayana has helped the Lhops – in Lotukuchu and elsewhere – acquire the resources and skills needed to increase farm productivity and improve income generation. That’s why today’s Lhops are no longer living in abject poverty, completely cut off from the rest of the country. Today’s Lhops boast decent housing, piped water, proper sanitation, an oil expeller, a maize grinder, a cornflake making machine, a power tiller, a traditional paper factory, and a cooperative shop.

And it’s not just in Lotukuchu. Since its establishment, seven years ago, Tarayana has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our poorest people – simple subsistence farmers who live in some of the remotest corners of Bhutan. Before Tarayana, very few officials had visited them. And no one cared about them. They had been forgotten.

Not any longer. Today, Tarayana is intimately involved in 36 villages across 5 dzongkhags reducing poverty levels, improving the quality of lives, and giving hope to entire communities.

How do they do it? Raw determination. And the support of donors, volunteers and well-wishers. But also by making every ngultrum count.

It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication to transform the lives of our Lhops. But Tarayana’s war against poverty in Lotukuchu cost them only US$ 100,000. That’s about the price of a new Toyota Prado. And that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Imagine what we could have done with US$ 9.2 million!

On the warpath

Six weeks ago, the Annual Health Bulletin announced that 37% of our children are stunting, that 4.6% of them are wasting, and that 11.1% are underweight.

This week, we learnt that the Right to Food Assessment Study concluded that 26.6% of our households are undernourished. That would also roughly mean that about a quarter of our population is undernourished. The study, it seems, was conducted sometime last year by FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture.

And recently, the Basic Health Worker in Chali has reported that “the number of malnourished children under the age of five in Chali geog under Mongar has almost doubled in just one year.”

We now know, from independent sources, that our people are undernourished. And that our children are stunting, wasting and underweight. So what are we doing about it? Not much. In fact, we seem to be doing nothing to specifically address this crisis.

What should we do? “Wage a WAR AGAINST MALNUTRITION,” cries Zekom. This is what Zekom implores:

Reducing poverty, especially rural poverty, is an obvious answer.

But, children cannot wait for Drukyul to get richer. Our nation’s future is being made NOW.

Wage a WAR AGAINST MALNUTRITION. Take the nourishing food to where the children and infants are — in schools and beyond schools — targeting the nutrition and trace elements missing in their diet.

Make sure to measure outcomes, in physical growth rates of beneficiary children, very frequently. You’ll be amazed how fast it works, if it’s done right. There’s nothing better than rapid positive results to fuel the FIRE in change agents’ belly, and inspire others to join hands.

Countries such as UK, Germany and Japan benefited from such programmes after the World War II. Concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil were delivered to every household with children under certain age in UK. Milk and various sources of vitamins were delivered to every infant and school lunches in Japan. Who financed these? USA. It was the top priority in their postwar reconstruction assistance efforts.

Recruit UNiCEF, UN World Food Programme, and other UN agencies as partners, and tap their global know-how on how to do it and do it right.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

More food for thought

Sangay made three critical observations to my last entry. Most of you would already know that I try not to reply to criticism, especially those targeted at me. But Sangay’s comments are constructive. So they deserve serious consideration.

First, Sangay cautioned: “… don’t just add up those figures – I am pretty sure that these are overlapping figures.” Sangay may be correct. In fact, Ken Shulman, a friend and journalist in America, also made a similar comment in my Facebook profile.

But look at the numbers again: 37% of our children are stunting; 4.6% are wasting; and 11.1% are underweight. Now, if the figures do, in fact, overlap, the numbers may be smaller (but can never better 37%), but the problem could be bigger. Overlapping figures give rise to three possibilities: one, that children who are stunting are also underweight (which would compound the impact of stunting); two, that stunting children are wasting (a terrible possibility); and three, that underweight children are wasting (ie., are starving).

I agree with Bhutanese Blogger: a study of the trend would be more meaningful. Still, with or without knowing the past, the facts speak for themselves: at least 37% of our children are seriously underfed. And, even if we intervened with full force, there’s little that can be done to reverse the adverse effects that stunting has already had on these children. But – this is what’s terrible – we will not intervene wholeheartedly. We cannot. Not unless we accept the problem.

Second, Sangay blames capitalism for “robbing our children”. This is a point of ideology. So it cannot be argued.  Everyone would want to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. And, there’re basically only three ways to do that: make the rich relatively poorer; make the poor relatively richer; or do both.  Personally, I favour the second approach. I want our poor to become richer relative to their present state, and relative to the rate at which the rich may grow richer.

And third, Sangay did not like that I had raised an issue (undernourished children) without offering solutions. This, specifically, is what Sangay wrote: “And, Don’t mean to be harsh but just don;t give a food for thought (being the OL) – which is the biggest problem. It is easy to make noise but I would assume that in your position, you should come up with ideas which will really give us a REAL FOOD FOR THOUGHT. I can go on complaining about every statistic in the country but I can’t come up with REAL IDEAS – which is what we need at the moment.”

Other readers have expressed similar concerns too. And, about six months ago, I wrote about why I sometimes raise issues without offering solutions. In other words, why I make “noise”. “Food for thought” sought to bring attention to the desperate and shameful state of our children.  The facts were presented in the Annual Health Bulletin, and the story was run by one newspaper. Still, this critical issue has not been given any meaningful attention.

Numbers generated by our government tell us that about half our children go to bed hungry every night, and yet we – yes, all of us, not just the government – refuse to discuss, let alone accept, this fact. That’s why I made noise.

If the noise is just that, noise, then don’t give it any more attention. Don’t waste your time.

But, if the noise points to an important issue, then let’s think about it. Even if it makes us uncomfortable. And if you have suggestions, please share them here.  Let’s discuss them. They will help me craft the letter I intend to submit to the government concerning our undernourished children.

Food for thought

The future

The future

I’m still reeling from the announcement in the Annual Health Bulletin that 37% of our children are stunting, that 4.6% of them are wasting, and that 11.1% are underweight. That means that 52.7% of our children are under nourished. In other words, more than half our children do not have enough to eat.

Wasting, also called acute malnutrition, causes body fat and tissue to “waste” away, or to degenerate. And it is generally caused by extreme hunger, i.e., famine. So, even as I write this entry, one in every twenty children may be coping with famine.

Stunting or chronic malnutrition is caused by nutritional deficiencies over a long period of time. The bodies, organs and brains of children affected by stunting do not, and will never, develop fully. The effects of stunting are permanent, and many of those afflicted with it will die early. 37% of our children are stunting. That is, more than one in every three children is stunting.

We may lecture about GNH. And our HDI ranking may be improving. But the reality is that poverty is rife and that most of our children are hungry. The reality is that more than one third of our children have already been permanently robbed of their full potential. The reality is that, at this rate, we risk losing a whole generation of Bhutanese.  Left unchecked, the future of Bhutan cannot be bright.

Our government should be alarmed.

Poor villages

No Shangrila

No Shangrila

Our government estimates that 23.3% of our population live in poverty. And that the incidence of poverty in our villages is significantly higher than in our towns. In fact, the poverty rate in rural Bhutan is 30.9%. That is, almost one in every three of our villagers lives below the poverty line. Compare this to the urban poverty rate of just 1.7%, and it becomes clear that our villages need serious and immediate attention.

But, the amount of money allocated to local governments, and hence to rural Bhutan, for this financial year, again, is negligible. Only 22.8% of the national budget has been earmarked for the dzongkhags. And, a paltry 3.5% has been kept aside for the 205 gewogs. The rest is in the hands of the centre.

The government reasons that much of the money budgeted for the ministries is actually for the villages. They say that roads, schools, hospitals and RNR centres will be built for the villages. I say, let local governments do their own work. And, give them the means – money and people – to do so. After all, they know, better than anyone in Thimphu, what they need. Plus, they, unlike most of us in Thimphu, have a stake in their own progress.

So, if a programme, say school education, benefits only one gewog, let that gewog handle it. If it benefits more than one gewog, let that dzongkhag handle it. The centre, as far as I’m concerned, should be involved only for national-level programmes.

But, look at how this year’s education budget has been allocated. A very generous 17.5% of the entire budget has been earmarked for education. That’s very good. However, none of it – not a single chetrum – will be in the hands of our local government. All Nu 5,309 million will be handled by the centre. That’s not good at all.

This is no way to wage war against poverty. And, at this rate, the scourge will prevail.

The photograph is of Thangdokha, a village in my constituency.