Life is normal and business continues as usual in Jomotshangkha drungkhag in Samdrupjongkhar today.
However, things were different a few weeks ago.
The reclusive drungkhag in the south is the only community in the country to go into lockdown after a shopkeeper tested positive to coronavirus on the rapid diagnostic test on April 30.
A weeklong restriction on movement of people was imposed as a preventive measure.
While anxiety and fear gripped the community, the local authority and residents say they managed to come out of it ‘successfully’.
Drungpa Lamdrak Wangdi credits the feat to the proactive role the local task force played including the cooperation and support from the community residents during the lockdown.
Walking the extra mile
Everything was closed except the hospital in Jomotshangkha where treatment continued as usual. The small group of staff remained prepared to provide any emergency medical service.
The hospital had line-listed all pregnant mothers, people with comorbidities and disabilities including the elderly. The mobile health clinic was activated to provide services at the doorstep to all these vulnerable groups.
Health assistant, Pema Lhadon ran the mobile health clinic single-handedly. Her husband, a Desuup, assisted her during her visits to various far-flung villages. Given the shortage of official vehicles, the couple used their private bolero to move around.
“We were already briefed on our responsibilities should we enter such a situation. There were not many challenges except for the bad weather and poor road conditions,” she said.
The health assistant delivered basic health services to about 140 people that included elderly care, immunization and family planning services and follow-up and delivery of medicines to patients with comorbidities and those with mental health issues.
Pema Lhadon said she also treated OPD (outpatient department) cases as people could not visit the hospital.
“As a health worker, it was routine work for me. The only thing different was that I had to go to the patients myself,” she said.
Pema Lhadon said that it was a learning experience for her personally and that her husband was supportive.
“But, my parents were worried about our safety.”
Back at the hospital, the lone doctor was seen rushing for a delivery case immediately after attending an emergency meeting that concluded around 10pm. The baby had to be resuscitated nearly for an hour after the delivery. The hospital team managed to save the baby. Both the mother and baby are in good health today.
Local hotline 1210
To disseminate accurate information during the lockdown, the drungkhag had established a local hotline service, 1210. Three individuals manned the centre 24-7 for a week. The centre is operational even today.
Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary’s chief forest officer, Ugyen Tshering, who is the planning team leader of the local task force, said there were over 300 calls so far. Most of them enquired about Covid-19 and its symptoms.
Some enquired about roadblocks, reported on illegal price hike on commodities by shopkeepers, and sighting new people in the community. “People also called for food items and health services. Our team delivered the essentials to their doorsteps,” Ugyen Tshering said.
Essential goods were delivered to about 115 households including liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders to 15 households.
The CFO said that they have made about 190 outgoing calls to the public. “We had to call them back when hotline operators could not answer their doubts immediately,” he said, adding that correct information was gathered after discussing with officials concerned. “It was a challenging week and it could have been more difficult if the lockdown had prolonged.”
The restrictions were lifted on May 8, after the 55-year-old shopkeeper tested negative for Covid-19 for the third time during the week.
Drungpa Lamdrak Wangdi said that despite the shortage of manpower to reach all the scattered communities, the drungkhag effectively managed the weeklong lockdown. “Compared to a partial lockdown, it was easier to handle a complete lockdown situation.”
He said that because the drungkhag was already in a state of isolation due to the closure of border gates, things did not escalate, as it would have otherwise. “However, if the lockdown had prolonged, we could have faced further difficulty as the stocked essential goods would have exhausted.”
The drungpa said that from the experience, everyone was now better prepared to handle a similar situation in the future.
Jomotshangkha drungkhag shares porous international border with two Indian districts – Udalguri in Assam (south) and West Kameng, in Arunachal Pradesh (east). The drungkhag has one formal entry point and over 20 informal entry and exit points along the international boundary.
Supply of materials and critical components resolved
Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue
The Punatsangchhu-II hydroelectric project (PHPA II) is readjusting its manpower to ensure continuity of work after the issue of import of critical materials and components are resolved.
With the help of the government and the Indian Embassy in Thimphu, import of critical materials such as drilling accessories, construction materials, structural steel and lubricants are continuing.
The PHPA II imports materials worth Nu 4 to Nu 5 billion on an average every year. Work is expected to complete as per schedule.
The travel restriction and the closure of the border affected the project with many of its labourers stuck in India. Workers who left for India for the Holi festival couldn’t come back.
According to the project Managing Director, Amresh Kumar, about 34 Bhutanese labourers were employed in addition to 50 Bhutanese already engaged at the Downstream Surge Gallery
(DSSG), where a portion of the tunnel collapsed in 2016.
The project floated vacancies of 268 skilled and unskilled labourers. “In areas where work is hampered because of manpower, the management is today diverting manpower to critical locations, and recruiting Bhutanese nationals,” said the managing director.
The project is today challenged with lack of highly skilled manpower for DSSG works, hydro-mechanical and electromechanical works.
However, the management said the government recently approved to mobilise around 11 specialists for grouting, drilling and erection of dam gate.
Mobilisation will be in accordance with the health ministry’s Covid-19 standard operating procedures, which would mean that the specialists would be quarantined for 21 days.
Today, PHPA II has about 2,700 employees. “Best efforts are being made to mobilise the manpower further” MD Amresh Kumar said.
Meanwhile, project officials said that about 87.24 percent of work at PHPA II has been completed. The dam, they said is 86.5 percent complete, while the headrace tunnel is about 99 percent complete. The powerhouse complex is 76.3 percent complete.
“Civil works are in advance stage. Critical works of DSSG and additional Surge tunnels are progressing satisfactorily,” MD Amresh Kumar said.
Technical solutions to the collapse in DSSG in March 2016 has also been implemented.
The project is today transitioning to commencing hydro mechanical and electromechanical works. Two draft tubes have been installed in the powerhouse and erecting of the third is in progress. Stator fabrication at the site has also commenced.
PHPA II suffered a major setback when a flash flood in August last year wreaked havoc damaging properties and infrastructure. “Procurement and manufacturing of the components damaged in Phelreychu stream outburst has also started. Despite the travel restriction and supply chain disruption, the project works are continuing with determined efforts to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and deliver the project on time,” MD Amresh Kumar said.
With over Nu 66,203 million budget spent, PHPA II is expected to complete by July 2022.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, PHPA II staffs are made to work from home on alternate basis so as not to congest the area. For the workers at the site, hand washing points are set up at all locations and mealtime has been scheduled differently to maintain social distancing.
Further quarantine facilities for 60 heads are set up at various locations in case the need arises.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Continuous rainfall for almost two days in Mongar damaged a newly constructed single-storey house partially due to landslide in Jaibab village in Mongar on May 21.
The gewog officials and around 20 villagers helped to remove the water that had entered the rooms and supported the walls with planks to avoid pressure from the mudslides.
The dzongkhag dispatched a backhoe to clear the mudslide at around 10am yesterday. It is expected to complete today. Dzongkhag officials visited the place for inspection yesterday.
Tashi Wangmo was in the house with her mother and son when the mudslide occurred.
She said the family had a busy night trying to dig drains. “We couldn’t even eat dinner,” she said.
“We gathered and placed our belongings in a corner of the sitting room.”
Only a month ago, the family shifted from a shack into their new home constructed with a loan of Nu 350,000 and additional amount borrowed from neighbours. Tashi Wangmo’s husband has started work at a private company to repay the loans.
“A part of wall and the window has been slightly damaged but I am relieved after the machine has come to clear the debris.”
Following a heavy downpour, a retention wall in Tsamang Primary School fell apart and broke through the window of the girl’s hostel. The wall was constructed just about five months ago.
In Balam gewog, a retention wall of the gewog’s ECCD attached to the primary school collapsed partially.
In Drepong gewog, a windstorm damaged an acre of wheat yesterday. It also affected maize fields of a few households in Jurmey gewog.
Cyclone Amphan left a trail of damages on the farm roads in Mongar. “Almost all the farm roads in 17 gewogs and the GC roads in Jurmey, Kengkhar, Dramitse, Saling and Silambi gewogs were damaged. Narang road suffered major damages,” dzongkhag disaster management officer, Karma, said.
He said an assessment of the damages would be done once the weather improves.
Meanwhile, two roadblocks, one below the dzong and another at Dorjilung, stranded vehicles on the Gangola-Lhuentse highway had been cleared by Friday evening.
It’s about time the Thimphu Thromde dispensed with its could-care-less attitude. Altogether.
There was a time when complaints about lack of quality service were few and far between. It, however, doesn’t mean that the service delivery systems were impeccable. Far from it. The people had nowhere to complain.
Thanks to social media and the encouraging growth of traditional media, the people now have found platforms where they can voice their concerns. Because Thimphu is the capital and biggest city in the country with a large and growing number of population, the thromde’s services are talked out often, but not in good grace.
It is appalling that the thromde still finds it convenient to turn deaf ear to complaints and suggestions from the residents. For the many projects that the thromde administration has been able to execute successfully, we thank you. But the thromde can and must do a lot more.
For example, the Thimphu Thromde can focus a lot more on building safe infrastructure in the city and work hard—very hard—to cut corruption in the system root and branch. According to a latest audit report for the thromde, financial mismanagement is one of the biggest issues. Millions of ngultrums are lost in excess, inadmissible, and unnecessary payments to the contractors for the construction and maintenance of roads, drains and footpaths, among others.
But let us look at the city’s roads, drains, and footpaths. Where did the money go? The city roads are filled with potholes. Drains and footpaths are becoming dangerous by the day. There are far too many spots to name them here. Anyway, the thromde administration, we believe, know it all too well even though it chooses to be blind, deaf and least concerned.
Any proof of mismanagement is a sign of poor leadership. The thromde’s aspirations have to grow and efficiency with it.
A couple of days ago, the Fire and Rescue Division of the Royal Bhutan Police were involved in rescuing two bulls that had fallen into an open drain at Motithang. The operation took hours. The bulls rescued and set free, the people began asking serious questions.
Why do we have open drains and ditches at all? Only the thromde can answer. We haven’t heard a word from the office yet.
Neten Dorji | Trashiyangtse
Trashiyangtse this year did not see many cordyceps collectors due to Covid-19 risks. Only 57 people from Bumdeling have registered for fungus collection.
Bumdeling Mangmi, Tshering Wangchuk, said that the number of collectors this year was half what was last year.
“Many are concerned about Covid-19 infection,” said Tshering Wangchuk.
The gewog administration will issue the permit on June 4 and collection will begin by June 24.
Kuenzang Namgay and his family member from Longkhar decided not go for collection this year.
“We decided not to go for collection this year because of Covid-19 situation across the border,” Kuenzang Namgay said.
The dzongkhag administration has introduced strict rules and guidelines in consultation with the collectors. Collectors have to form a group of five to 10 member. A leader will be chosen from among them who will lead the party.
Trashiyangtse Dzongdag Thuji Tshering said that there was a guidelines from Ministry of Agriculture and forest for collection and advice from health ministry. “We have also introduced separate guidelines and set rules for the collectors. This year, collectors have to sign undertaking letter to make sure they don’t cross the border.”
Surveillance team, including foresters and Royal Bhutan Army will be there to monitor.
“Those who cross the border or fail to abide by collection guidelines will be quarantined in Bumdeling,” he said. “They will have to bear the expenses for 21-day quarantine. After completion of quarantine period, they will dealt as per the Penal code of Bhutan and other laws of Kingdom,” dzongdag said.
Before collector depart, health officials will carry out thorough health screening for all collectors. “Those who are unfit must sign an undertaking letter.”
The dzongkhag administration will also install three oxygen supplement stations in three areas, Shingphel, Lawoo, and Pemaling.
Entry and exist point will be installed at Lawoo, about two-days walk from Bumdeling.
“We have instructed all collectors to stay home for 21 days after they return,” said dzongdag.
MH says problem solved with pollinizers provided
Rajesh Rai | Chukha
Having heard the prospects of hazelnut, Tsagay of Tsimakha village in Chukha planted 175 hazelnut saplings in his 50 decimal land four years ago.
The hazelnut has grown and reached fruit-bearing stage. Unfortunately, they have not started fruiting. Tsagay is the “hazelnut tshogpa” of the village. He said about 30 farmers who ventured into hazelnut are waiting in Tsimakha.
“We have given up hope of earning from hazelnut,” said Tsagay. As the tshogpa, he knows the reason. He attributes the fruitlessness to the lack of male trees (pollinizers) when they planted the samplings four years ago.
The male trees were provided just few months ago.
In Chukha, by 2016, about 1.3 million hazelnut trees were planted in about 260 acres of private land that were left fallow in several gewogs.
At Tashigatshel, Sangay Zam has stopped tending to her 700 hazelnut trees in an acre of land, since last year.
“The trees are still there, but I have stopped taking care of them,” she said.
Sangay Zam said she spent about Nu 60,000 in works related to the plantation. She also claimed that some farmers had not received the male trees. Another farmer, Mikha Dorji said he spent about Nu 400,000 in planting more than 3,000 hazelnut saplings in more than 10 acres of land in Bjachho village. However, due to water problem, his plants didn’t do well, he added.
Officials from the Mountain Hazelnuts (MH), a foreign direct investment company, clarified that when hazelnut trees were distributed, farmers were told that the pollinizer trees (for male pollen) would not be ready for at least two years, to which farmers had agreed and went ahead with planting the production varieties, even though the nuts would be delayed.
MH’s communication officer with the corporate department, Lhaki Woezer said this problem has been addressed after distributing pollinizer trees and the grafting programme.
On the delay in providing pollinizers, she said they had limited number of pollinizers because of production difficulties, which has now been resolved.
“In many of the orchards the pollinizer trees were planted a year or more later than the production varieties. Some patience and adjustments are always required as plants acclimatize but fundamentals are sound,” she said.
Lhaki Woezer also said that the grafting programme underway is the fastest method to fill the gap in more mature orchards.
“By 2021, they will see a very large commercial harvests.”
MH has invested more than Nu 20 million (M) on a large-scale grafting program in more than 4,000 acres of hazelnut orchards that will rapidly increase nut production. They also trained more than 150 field staffs to carry out the programme alongside more than 50 master grafters with the support of experts from the agriculture ministry. This year the company carried out grafting in 5,000 acres.
Lhaki Woezer said MH’s business model is a long-term partnership in which the foreign investor will receive no income for more than a decade despite investing millions of dollars.
“Likewise, the farmers invest their labour and inputs for a number of years prior to making a financial return,” she said. “The waiting time is generally less than with apples and oranges. Also, hazelnut’s risk from uncertain market demand and plant health is minimal, especially compared to these other crops.”
MH, the officer said has held advocacy programmes in more than 80 gewogs across the country, with more than 1,000 local officials, gewog administrators, RNR staffs, and growers to provide information on the pollinizer grafting programme.
In communities where water is scarce, MH has designed cost-efficient methods to collect, store, and distribute water to orchards and has equipped over 130 growing communities with materials and technical support to ensure water is available for irrigation during dry winter months.
With more than 200 field staffs stationed across 18 dzongkhags to provide technical guidance to growers, promoting intercropping and incentives to support mechanisation of orchard management are among many facilities the MH is providing.
Neten Dorji | Trashiyangtse
The students of College of Zorig Chusum in Trashiyangtse is making the most of the closure of schools and institutes due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the skills they acquired, they are killing two birds with a stone. While they keep honing their skills, they are also earning a decent income from doing temporary jobs painting or carving. Some, meanwhile, have returned to their villages to help their parents in the farms.
Karma, who is pursuing National certificate level three, stayed back in Trashiyangtse after the institute closed last month. He and a friend, Sangay Wangdi are engaged in painting. He said although they have to sit for examination on skills, their instructors created WeChat groups and other online forums to teach them.
“While the mornings and evenings are occupied with online classes, I use the free hours during day to paint thangkas (scrolls),” he said adding that his dream is to become a skilled painter and make a living out of painting.
Another students, Karsang Dawa said his parent supported him to stay at Trashiyangtse and learn skills. “I could earn Nu 20,000 this month carving on a choeshum (altar). I got another two ordered,” he said. “As we have focus more on practical work, it is difficult to learn lessons sent through online, but we are learning on sketches that teachers send us online.”
Kelzang Dawa stayed back with his relatives who are teachers of the institute. He is engaged in painting a debri (wall painting) together with his teacher inside teachers room in Trashiyangtse. “I could learn more this way than listening to theories in the class,” he said. “In practical, I can learn through mistake and also teacher correct me.”
He said, he decided to stay with relatives and learn additional skills by doing practical works. “I didn’t reached that level to learn, but it would help me in future. I can also earn pocket money.”
Meanwhile, Choining Dorji, 23, from Chagkadeymi has returned to his village to help his parents after the institute closed. He said as most of their lessons are practical, it was difficult to learn lessons online. “The general students can learn through television and other facilities, but it is difficult for us as we have to learn more doing practical,” he said.
Teachers said that the biggest challenge is instructional classes “Some students don’t have access to online facilities, especially those who live in places with poor connectivity. It is difficult for both the teachers and students as we have to teach sketch practically,” said a teacher.
However, he said they keep students engaged sending assignment on other subject like Mathematics, English and Dzongkha on social media.
College’s principal, Kinley Penjore said most of the subjects involve practical hands-on lessons. “It is difficult to teach online,” he said adding that the institute had sent students home with theory notes and other sketch notes to practice at home.
The teachers keep students engage with giving assignments on English and other subjects on WeChat and Facebook messenger services. Students were also provided printed copy of drawing, sketch and other textbooks to keep them engaged.
Phub Dem | Paro
Yaktsa and Nubri are remote villages under Tsento gewog in Paro that depends solely on yaks and cordyceps.
The people here grow cold season crops such as potato, spinach, radish, and turnip.
Earlier this month, the dzongkhag administration of Paro built five low-cost greenhouse in Yaktsa and Nubri with the aim to diversify the highlanders’ diet.
Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer (DAO), Tandin, said that the project was aimed at achieving vegetable self-sufficiency in the chiwog, at least during the summer.
The dzongkhag team helped the villagers make the beds and sow the seeds.
The low-cost greenhouse uses wood in place of steel poles.
“It is a pilot project. If it is successful, every household will get a greenhouse each from next year,” Tandin said.
Cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, mustard, coriander seed were given free to the households.
Due to fertile land and high quality manure, he said that the dzongkhag focused on organic agriculture, as it was feasible in the chiwog.
Each greenhouse cost Nu 12,500.
Tsento Mangmi Chencho Gyeltshen said that years ago similar greenhouse project was tried but failed due to heavy snowfall.
He, however said that the project won’t fail this time as they used woods in place of steel.
Nedup from Yaktsa expects a bountiful harvest from the greenhouse soon.
He said that the highlanders had to buy the vegetables all the way from Paro town and had to hire horses to transport the essential items.
Nedup said, “Besides potato and turnip, we can now focus on different vegetables.”
Tourism Council DG clarifies
Yangchen C Rinzin
Opening tourism would depend on the government’s directives and how the pandemic situation will unfold, according to the Director General (DG) of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhul.
Refuting the claims made by an international media company, Forbes, that said Bhutan is ready to welcome tourists, the DG said that there is no decision taken to open tourism in Bhutan.
The headline of the article in Forbes, which went viral on social media read, “Bhutan Ready to Welcome Back Tourism Following Zero Covid-19 Deaths.” “In the long range discussion with the director general, it is apparent that country is ready to begin welcoming tourists once the borders are open with other countries,” the article reported.
The DG clarified that the interview was focused on how tourism in the country is coping up with the current pandemic situation and the plans to welcome tourists post Covid-19.
The entry of tourists was banned after the first Covid-19 case was detected in 73-year old American tourist on March 6. Bhutan today has no tourist after the only tourist in the country who was the women that tested positive for Covid-19 left in April.
“It was the headline of the story that looked like Bhutan will open up for tourism since there is zero Covid-19 death,” the DG said. “From the TCB’s side, this was definitely not our view expressed during the interview.”
According to the DG, based on the council’s assessment and the current situation Bhutan cannot be opened to tourism at least not before November. “Even if we open after November this year, tourism will still take time to pick up especially tourists visiting Bhutan,” he said.
He added tourists would have to go through certain norms like compulsory quarantine and requirement of physical distancing.
“I can see zero tourists coming to Bhutan in 2020 even if we open unless a few high-end tourists decide to come,” he said. “If it opens in 2021, we might get 10,000 more tourists, which is less than what we used to get so far.”
Dorji Dhradhul said that tourist could be expected only by 2022, but we might receive only about 50 percent of what we see today and start receiving full tourists only by 2025.
“However, this is based on what we have assessed so far. It is going to take time, and we’re already working on the preparation for tourism post-Covid-19.”
The ban on tourist, after the pandemic, has resulted in a national revenue loss of USD 4.4 million after 2,550 international tourists cancelled due to Covid-19 between January 15 and March 23. It excludes cancellations from regional tourists.