Works on the restoration of Drugyel Dzong to its former glory was stopped for 28 days during the second lockdown, causing a financial burden of about Nu 2.3 million (M).
According to the project manager, Namgay Dorji, workers had to be paid during the lockdown although they did not do any work.
He, however, said the loss would not impact the progress of the project, as work percentage was ahead of budget utilisation.
Although the reconstruction work went through two lockdowns depriving the project of 44 days and Nu 3.5M loss, he said that the work would complete within the dateline.
“The project will complete within the approved budget and deadline,” he said.
The project resumed work on January 17 after the national taskforce declared Tsento gewogs as a green zone.
The project is currently working on phase V, which has some targeted works to be completed by June 2021.
Namgay Dorji said the project completed 70 percent of phase five. “The project has also completed 50 percent of phase VI, which is planned for the next financial year.”
Drawing experience from the first lockdown, he said that the project management was prepared for another lockdown.
As the project workers stay in a self-containment zone, the management stocked up sufficient essential items for those residing within the area.
The project in consultation with the Department of Culture decided to procure and store all the construction material at the site which would last for a month for possible lockdown.
Namgay Dorji said that the decision was to address the shortage of materials if the projects were allowed to work in the self-contained zone.
The project is expected to complete by December 2022.
The reconstruction works began in April 2016 after His Majesty The King’s command to celebrate the birth of His Royal Highness (HRH) The Gyalsey, to commemorate the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the country in 1616 AD and the birth year of Guru Rinpoche.
Neten Dorji | Rangjung
Rangjung residents in Trashigang, who claim they have been facing drinking water shortage for more than a decade, say it is hampering the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Shop owners say authorities ask people to wash hands with soap and water but without sufficient water, they hesitate to tell customers.
Residents also blame the delay in completion of a drinking water project for aggravating their water woes.
Municipal officials in Trashigang say damage of intake pipes by landslides and other natural disasters caused the water shortage.
An official explained that once they replace the old pipelines, residents would get clean and continuous water.
However, the town representative, Karma Sonam Tashi, said the drinking water shortage in the town is not severe.
He said residents would not face any problems once the water project, with source at Thromwang, is complete.
The Nu 45.32 million (M) project started on November 25, 2019. Asian Development Bank funded the project.
Project manager, Sonam Chojur, said the work progress is about 65 percent. “We have completed all major works and laying the pipes are in full swing.”
Construction of reservoir tank and eight break-pressure tanks were completed.
Trashigang dzongkhag tender committee extended the deadline to June this year. The initial deadline was January 24, this year.
Sonam Chojur explained coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns affected the work.
With the completion of the new water supply system, residents of Rangjung including two schools, Rangjung Woesel Dratshang, Vocational Training Institute, hospital and other offices would benefit.
There are more than 2000 people living in the town including dratshang, training institute, hospital and schools.
… MoF forecasts GDP growth of 3.3 percent in the next fiscal year
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth projection for 2020 has been revised further downward to negative 6.8 percent following the second nationwide lockdown.
The finance ministry communicated the projection figure to budgetary agencies in its budget call notification for the fiscal year 2021-22 issued on January 18. The ministry annually reviews the economic performance and comes up with growth estimates before issuing the budget call notification.
The 23-day second nationwide lockdown, which began on December 23 last year, severely impacted the economy besides overwhelming the public healthcare system.
A contraction of GDP means loss of jobs, a decrease in people’s income levels and consumption capacity. It also results in lower profits for companies, including government corporations, which in turn means lower stock prices for some of them.
However, the finance ministry has forecast a positive economic trajectory for the fiscal year 2021-22 with a growth of 3.3 percent.
According to the ministry, the Cabinet recently endorsed a resource envelope of more than Nu 45.46 billion (B) for the fiscal year 2021-22 based on macroeconomic performance and outlook. This comprises the projected domestic revenue of Nu 34.641B and external grants of Nu 19.436B.
While the finance minister was not available for comments, Tengye Lyonpo (economic affairs minister) Loknath Sharma said that it was natural for the economic growth to be downgraded as most activities were affected during the lockdown. “Imports and exports couldn’t be carried out as usual and most shops had to be closed,” he said.
However, he added that the government’s preparedness with lessons from the first lockdown in terms of sustaining trade and imports, and facilitation of all exports had provided some cushion on the impact of the second lockdown. He said that activities including export of oranges continued amid the lockdown.
Since the detection of the first case, the government’s primary focus has always been on saving lives.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that although the economy had suffered some loss, the strict protocol and the lockdown measures had prevented the virus from reaching villages and hydropower projects sites. “People and businesses have suffered, but if lives are protected then the livelihoods can pick up.”
He said he was hoping that businesses and other activities would pick up soon with the lifting of the lockdown. He said that he was hopeful that the economic growth could be slightly better than what has been projected.
Earlier, following the first lockdown in August 2020, the government had revised the GDP growth at negative 2.1 percent. The finance ministry after the detection of the country’s first Covid-19 in March last year but before the first lockdown, had projected the GDP at 1 percent.
In a recent virtual meeting with finance ministry officials, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said all the sectors that 2021 was crucial for economic recovery, and insisted on effective implementation of capital investments. He urged all sectors to revisit and prioritize activities that were new, innovative and effective to revive the economy.
Nima | Gelephu
Farmer Deepak Chhetri of Samtenling, Gelephu, is a recipient of the government’s economic contingency plan budget for winter vegetable production.
Along with the budget, the farmer, who has been leasing private land to grow commercial and organic vegetables for the last seven years, was allotted five acres of government land in March last year.
He invested more than Nu 700,000 to construct nine greenhouses and set up drip irrigation technology to enhance production, and other infrastructures to produce organic pesticides.
Deepak Chhetri was, however, stopped from working many times, claiming the government land he was allotted did not have clearance from the Department of Forest, which issued notifications to allow farmers to cultivate on private fallow lands and not on government land.
“I am not sure if I would be allowed to continue next season,” he said. “If I lose this plot I have to stop farming.”
He said the returns of his investment on the plot was not even half. “I was asked to work sometimes and on other times they stopped me.”
Deepak Chhetri said different officials brought different notifications and directives.
The farmer was the one who supplied chilli seedlings to the farmers in Sarpang this season.
He is not alone.
A class 12 drop out from Dekiling, Man Kumar Rai, is another farmer who was allotted government land.
He said it would be difficult to recover the investment he made on the leased land if it was only for one year. “Nothing is clear for now but if they stop us like this, it will discourage the farmers like me.”
He said he took up commercial farming with the support from the dzongkhag administration and the agriculture sector last year amid the pandemic.
The government initiated an economic contingency plan to revive economic activities affected by the pandemic and allotted more than Nu 40 million (M) to the seven southern dzongkhags for winter vegetable production.
Sarpang received the highest share of the agriculture ECP budget of Nu 21 million to enhance vegetable production and to supply vegetables to northern dzongkhags in winter.
With more than 100 people, groups, and individuals approaching the Sarpang dzongkhag agriculture sector, requesting to lease government land to start commercial farming, over 52 acres of government land are under cultivation today.
According to Samtenling gewog adminstration, three farmers from Samtenling gewog were allotted 15 acres of government land to produce winter vegetables on a large-scale.
Samtenling gup Kumar Mongar said the gewog administration was asked to allot plots, as there were chances of vegetable crisis in northern dzongkhags during the pandemic.
He said that after allotting the plots, they were told that there was no clearance from Forest Department. “The agriculture ministry issued notification asking us to allow people to use fallow private lands.”
According to the gup, allotting private fallow lands to interested farmers would be difficult, as private fallow lands are dispersed and scattered. “The risk of wildlife damage is more and many are without water and irrigation facilities.”
Dzongkhag agriculture officials said farmers were encouraged to take up commercial farming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We couldn’t formalize the lease. There was no clearance from the forestry department.”
The issue was also discussed last year during two day Dzongkhag tshogdu after the LG officials from Sarpang raised the concern, as most farmers have started working and producing vegetables.
However, the DT resolved to solve the issue as per the Land Act of Bhutan.
Meanwhile, Deepak Chhetri said he worked hard from 6am till 11pm in the night on the leased land and with uncertain future, he wished he did not pin so much hope on it. “I encouraged my son to pursue higher studies in organic farming but with problems like this at the ground, we will not be able to put our passion into practise.”
A vegetable supplier from Dagana, Pema, came to Thimphu yesterday to deliver vegetables to his regular customer, a vendor at the Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM).
With 950 kilograms (kgs) of chillies in his supply this time, 17 other vendors at CFM demanded equal distribution of chillies and the agriculture minister had to intervene.
By the time the chillies were weighed and distributed at the CFM, there were only 843kg and about 80kg went missing in between the trade.
Since Pema was not allowed to come out of his delivery van, another dealer at CFM weighed and distributed his chillies.
He is unhappy that he incurred a huge loss. “When I usually sell to one vendor, he adjusts the few kgs that weigh less here.”
Pema said he asked the 17 vendors to buy other vegetables from him but they only wanted chillies and profit from it. “About four to five metric tonnes of vegetables are rotting in the fields in Dagana as there are no buyers.”
He said that he collects chillies from farmers at a farmgate price at Nu 300 a kg and takes about Nu 50 as a profit but the wholesalers and retailers at CFM robs consumers by charging more money.
“I collect chillies from remote parts of Dagana like Karmaling, where the roads are risky and then we have to spend a night at Sunkosh,” he said. “It takes two days to transport vegetables to Thimphu.”
In the previous two trips, Pema directly sold the vegetables in the identified zones but was told to bring it at the CFM, from where the vegetables would then be supplied to the zones. “I am the one running into loss because of the change in venue.”
Sanam Lyonpo (Agriculture Minister) Yeshey Penjor said that the government’s concern was reaching the chillies in all the zones in Thimphu where people faced a shortage of chillies.
“He wanted to distribute in the zones but I requested him to distribute equally among the CFM vendors so that we have access in all the zones,” he said.
Name of the supplier in the story was changed upon his request
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Three main exporters in Samtse exported a total of 373.42 metric tonnes (MT) of oranges worth Nu 15.01 million (M), bringing an end to the export for the season.
Although export was expected to start in the first week of December 2020, an issue related to importing the wooden (packing) boxes from India delayed it. Export began on December 22 after the issue was solved. The last consignment left Samtse for Bangladesh on January 17.
The proprietor of Adhikari Export, Dadiram Adhikari, said he has dismantled his depots and returned to his village.
“The business this time was average.”
He exported 13 truckloads of mandarin to Bangladesh and a few truckloads to India.
Dadiram Adhikari said the production, however, was decreasing each year.
“This has to improve.”
Other two export houses were Damzo Export in Samtse and Sipsu based DPGS Export.
Proprietor with the DPGS said the export business was not as expected this year, as pandemic resulted in escalation of transportation cost.
Usually, oranges from Sipsu, which is about 50kms away from Samtse, were directly exported from the nearby Jitti border. This time Jitti was closed due to the pandemic and exporters had to use the Samtse-Chamurchi route, which added the cost.
Transportation cost from Sipsu to Samtse and Bangladesh, transhipment and other road expenditures cost about Nu 30,000 this year compared to usual Nu 14,000 to Nu 15,000.
“The cost of packing boxes, including its transportation costs, also went up,” the DPGS proprietor said.
“We paid farmers the usual market. We ran in a loss.”
The Government of India (GoI) had agreed to open four new trade routes, such as Nagarkata, Agartala, Jogighopa, and Pandu on December 1 last year. Nagarkata route gives access to Jitti border but it has not yet opened.
Meanwhile, Phuentsholing is still exporting mandarin.
As per the Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives (DAMC), a total of 117 truckloads, equivalent to 972MT of oranges worth Nu 37.3M have been exported so far.
Unlike Samtse, exporters didn’t face much problem related to importing the packing boxes and the export first started on December 3 last year.
Exporter Sonam Tobgay of Druk Phuensum Import and Export said they faced labour shortage issues in the beginning.
“But this problem is there even in other places.”
DAMC’s marketing chief, Yonten Gyamtsho, said there was a minor issue of labour shortage because workers had to stay at containment mode.
Pharmacies in Thimphu sold seven emergency contraceptive pills (ECP) on average daily during the second lockdown.
Thimphu Thromde allowed all the pharmacies in the capital to open from the start of the lockdown so that they could cater needs of the public and ease delivery of health services.
The public call centres such as 1010, 1009, and National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) helpline number 1,098 reported that they got fewer distress calls from individuals seeking ECPs compared to the first lockdown.
NCWC received only one such call during the entire second lockdown. The commission received 18 distress calls during the first lockdown.
One of the de-suups with 1010 call centre said that it must be because all pharmacies were open and people could buy from them.
Thromde health officer, Kinga Gyaltshen said that drawing lessons from the first lockdown the thromde allowed all pharmacies to open.
He said that during the first lockdown procuring ECPs and delivering posed manpower and monetary challenges to the thromde office as people thought it would be free.
There are 13 pharmacies and four pharmaceutical wholesalers in the capital. An individual can procure medical supplies from the pharmacies in their respective zones.
Kinga Gyaltshen said that in some zones where there were no pharmacies thromde delivered ECP and other medical items to individuals.
Thimphu thromde delivered 18 ECP excluding other family planning services during the second lockdown
The proprietor of Kuenphen pharmacy, Jharna Rai, said that at least 10 emergency contraceptives were sold daily. She said that she received some distress calls from individuals asking for ECP late at night saying they had crossed 72 hours.
“I received many calls from people asking for abortion pills,” she said.
Kuenphen Pharmacy receives walk-in customers and frontline workers asking for ECP daily. The pharmacy also carries out delivery services for which they charge a small fee.
Jharna Rai said that during the first lockdown they did not charge for delivery but sometimes to deliver a single pill they had to go out of the town which incurred losses.
Karma Pharmacy’s manager, Norbu Gyeltshen said that the pharmacy sold at least six ECPs daily. The pharmacy followed a schedule for delivery covering all the zones in Thimphu from Monday to Saturday.
He said that besides calls some walked in to fetch the medicines. The shop is also linked with 1010 call centre and all the medical requirements are noted and delivered according to the schedule.
Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA)’s nicotine replacement therapy (NTR) received just about 200 individuals in the last two months.
The therapy was launched to provide an option for people to overcome tobacco addiction.
The therapy provides clients who want to quit with gums and patches to help overcome withdrawal and cravings.
A smoker said that the services were helpful for smokers. “The therapy helps to quit smoking by reducing the withdrawal symptoms.”
The therapy also aims to enhance harm reduction services–the prevention or reduction of negative health consequences of certain behaviour such as smoking and chewing tobacco.
BNCA’s deputy chief programme officer, Sonam Jamtsho, said that during the lockdown BNCA delivered NRT gums and patches to various zones for clients.
He said that not many came forward to avail the replacement therapy despite promotion and free distribution. “This may be because tobacco products are made easily available from various outlets.”
Clients undergo a session on the usage and possible side effects of the NRT. More than 40 individuals called for assistance on NRT in the second lockdown.
Individuals can avail the therapy by registering through BNCA at toll-free number 1011 or from the psychiatry department at JDWNRH.
BNCA provided online counselling to more than 90 individuals with substance abuse issues.
Sonam Jamtsho said that the online counselling was provided to voluntary clients experiencing withdrawal symptoms and cases referred by the police and the court.
BNCA’s Facebook page has contact numbers 17828242, 17518348 and 17314058 for those wanting to avail of its services.
Financial institutions had loaned out Nu 147.5 billion (B) as of October 2020, which was an increase by 6 percent from December 2019, according to the monthly statistical bulletin of the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) for January 2021.
While the tourism and service sector took a severe hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the agriculture sector was given a high priority in terms of access to credit with the aim of creating jobs and substituting imports.
However, the credit to the agriculture sector did not see a significant increase.
The total credit lent out to the agriculture sector increased by Nu 247 million (M) from December 2019 to October 2020, which is an increase by 6 percentage. On the other hand, credit to the tourism and service sector, which was severely affected since March last year, saw a 10.4 percent increase in the credit during the same period.
In absolute terms, the total credit to the tourism and service sector increased by Nu 3.87B.
The RMA report also shows that despite the government rolling out various credit schemes targeted to the agriculture sector in the wake of the pandemic, the share of the credit slightly decreased from 4.5 percent to 4.4 percent of the total credit during the period.
The share of credit to the tourism increased from 26.6 percent to 27.78 percent, an increase by 1.16 point percent.
A bank official said that many hotels were approved by the government before the Covid-19 pandemic and the loans were provided in 2020. He said that the growth in agriculture credit was small due to relatively smaller amounts that are availed by farmers but he said that the credit in agriculture was one of the biggest in terms of number of clients.
The government fast-tracked the implementation of 12th Plan activities and wherever possible frontloaded the investments. Amongst others, revitalising the rural economy, and creating employment opportunities were given emphasis and the focus sectors include agriculture.
With a total budget of Nu 944M, agriculture stimulus plan, the government aims to strengthen food security through domestic production while creating employment and income opportunities.
Construction was also one of the hardest hit sectors due to restrictions on the movement of materials and shortages of workers. But credit to the construction sector increased by 9.5 percent or Nu 3.525B from December 2019 to October 2020.
The construction sector is the second largest in terms of credit distribution by financial institutions.
The share of credit decreased by about 1 percent in first 10 months of last year. The total credit in the sector stood at Nu 40.685B as of October last year.
No other sector has suffered disruptions as much as education. Schools have remained closed for a long time—since March 2020. Adjustments had to be made for students of Classes X and XII. When positive cases emerged in Phuentsholing and Gelephu, students from some schools in the south of the country had to be transferred to schools in safer dzongkhags. Online or e-learning, our immediate response after the closure of schools, continues to be a formidable challenge for both teachers and students. It is against this backdrop that the education ministry’s decision to reopen schools, early childhood care and development, non-formal education, and community learning centres across the country is welcome. But the ministry must also guarantee a robust system to ensure safety on the campus and classrooms.
We are told that the ministry now has a plan and guidelines developed to reopen the schools. What does this all mean, though? Schools will adopt strict health and safety measures such as compulsory wearing of face masks on the campus at all times. Physical distancing will be maintained and there will be adequate handwashing stands. The ministry has also asked schools to come up with their own idea to better implement these measures and other safety protocols. All these are absolutely necessary but a question lingers still: Will these be enough to guarantee total safety? Challenges are many and the answer is “no”.
Some school administrations have said that they would ensure that boarders and day scholars do not mix. This will be challenging even with the strictest of monitoring. How will, for example, physical distancing be possible in a class of close to 40 students? Creating classrooms for day scholars will demand far more resources than just extra teachers and space. Parents are worried and rightly so. They feel it may be a little too early to reopen schools. The argument is that the schools were closed when there weren’t local transmission of Covid-19 and the ministry deciding to reopen the school when cases of community transmission of virus, particularly in Thimphu, looks and sounds ill-advised at best.
Thankfully vaccines have started arriving in the country but it will be a long time before the vaccination programme will be rolled out. Not to forget that inoculation programmes are generating debate and resistance among the people elsewhere. With the decision to reopen schools for the academic session 2021, the ministry and the school administrations must commit to ensure safety on campus. The danger is that falling any short has the potential to be vastly dangerous.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
All trucks ferrying gypsum and essential items to Nganglam, Pemagatshel will be escorted from Tshobali to Nganglam and back to Tshobali.
This is to prevent the importation and transmission of Covid-19 to low-risk areas from the high-risk areas of Nganglam drungkhag because the drungkhag remains a high-risk area.
Nganglam Drungkhag Covid-19 task force opened a switching, holding, and transshipping station at Tshobali on January 18. The station will facilitate the movement of vehicle and people with the standard containment protocols between the high-risk and low-risk areas.
There are two checkpoints (CP) at the station, one each for low-risk and high-risk areas.
According to the standard operating procedure (SoP), the travellers would require a movement authorisation from the respective Covid-19 incident commander and register on the checkpoint management system (CPMS).
“It would be optional to switch drivers of the vehicle ferrying consignments or transship consignments at the station or either ferry directly without changing or transshipping from the low-risk to Nganglam,” the SoP stated.
The switching or transshipping would be done on the first-in-first-out basis based on the CPMS registration. The driver switching or transshipping would be done at the buffer area between the two CPs while the drivers or individuals would remain in the respective holding place.
“If the loaders and unloaders are required, the drivers or individuals should arrange on their own from the high-risk area while the vehicles would be disinfected before the transshipping,” SoP stated.
Vehicles are not allowed to stop on the way, and their movement would be monitored based on the travel time taken between the two CPs while the vehicles plying from the low-risk areas without switching or transshipping would be escorted from the Gashari Bali CP until unloading place in Nganglam.
If drivers from low-risk vehicles fail to adhere to the SoP have to undergo facility quarantine. They should also arrange the mechanic or hand over the vehicles to the workshops if they have any mechanical failure in the high-risk areas.
“But the drivers have an option to return to the low-risk area unexposed immediately on their own expenses or to stay in the high-risk area and undergo the facility quarantine,” SoP stated.
Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue
Despite the two nationwide lockdowns and issues related to shortage of construction materials, the Wangdue-Khuruthang road is expected to be completed on time.
This is given that the required number of hume pipes at site be procured within a month’s time. Hume pipes are used for sewerage, drainage, culverts, irrigation water supply and for service lines.
The widening of the secondary national highway began in May last year. The Department of Roads (DoR) tendered the works in two packages. Package one includes road widening and blacktopping from Bajo, Wangdue, and the second package up to Khuruthang, Punakha.
Both the packages are being executed by Biky Construction Private Limited.
Chief Engineer with the DoR regional office in Lobesa, Karma Tenzin, said that the department had been trying to import hume pipes. “The delay depends on the hume tubes procurement. There won’t be significant delay.”
On the 8.6km stretch, there are 47 locations that need hume pipes.
Package one of the project is expected to be completed by July 31 and package two by June 30 this year.
With easing of lock down restrictions, work has resumed at site. Ninety-nine percent of cutting works have been completed.
Stacking of materials for granular sub-base (GSB), wet mixed macadam (WMM), dense bitumen macadam (DBM), and asphalt concrete (AC) were also done, said proprietor Birkha Bhadur of Biky Construction Pvt Ltd.
Blacktopping works are expected to begin in April. “If there are no lockdowns, we have assured the DoR that we will complete the work before time,” Birkha Bhadur said.
The 8.6km stretch secondary national highway is almost 10km shorter than the route from Lobesa, Punakha.
Due to the poor road condition, the widening work came as relief to most commuters.
Taxi driver in Punakha, Kuenzang Thinley, said that said the widened and blacktopped road would benefit commuters.
It takes 30 minutes less to travel from the 8.6km route than from Lobesa.
“We charge Nu 150 when travelling from Lobesa and Nu 100 when taking the shorter route,” Kuenzang Thinley.
In the last four weeks, 4,454 people received medical services in Thimphu to refill medicines, routine immunisation, influenza vaccination, wound dressings, and other emergency medical services.
The services were availed from Barshong, Chamgang, RBP jail, Hongtsho, Genekha, Gidakom, Kuzuchen, Lingzhi, Soe and medical desk. Gidakom provided the highest services to 1,069 people.
Covid-19 mass screening was also carried out from January 12 with technical support from the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC).
A total of 4,295 RT-PCR, 423 antibody and 1,671 antigen samples were collected from five gewogs of Dagala, Mewang, Genekha, Kawang, and Chang. With 1,686 RT-PCR and 165 antibody samples collected, Mewang stands the highest among other gewogs.
These samples were collected from the most mobile and active family members and tested at the RCDC.
Dzongkhag health officer, Kencho Wangdi, said all samples tested negative for Coivd-19.
Considering the low risk at Lingzhi, Soe and Naro, the dzongkhag plans to carry out Covid-19 mass screening only if there is a case of flu symptoms within the communities.
Bhutan receives its first shipment of free Covid-19 vaccine from India
The first consignment of Covid-19 vaccine, 150,000 doses of Covishield vaccines, arrived in the country yesterday.
An Indian military aircraft (AN-32) brought it to the Paro international airport at around 3:30pm yesterday after initial plans to drop it at the Lungtenphu helipad could not materialise.
A press release from the Indian embassy stated that the consignment was a ‘gift from the people and Government of India to the people and Government of Bhutan’. This means that the 150,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, locally manufactured in India under the name Covishield is for free.
Four days after India began the world’s largest vaccination drive, Bhutan became the first country to receive the vaccines under GoI’s grant assistance programme — Vaccine Maitri.
Led by Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering, Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo and other senior government officials received the vaccine consignment handed over by Indian Ambassador, Ruchira Kamboj, yesterday.
A press release from the Prime Minister’s Office stated that Laytshog Lopen Sangay Dorji of the central monastic body presided over the prayers for auspicious endeavour, and conducted a thruesoel (purification) of the consignment.
Lyonchhen after receiving the vaccine consignment said, “It was a gift from a trusted friend, who has been with Bhutan all through the decades and in this pandemic too.”
He thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and the people of India for the generous support, which he said symbolises the close relationship the two neighbours shared. “It is the display of altruism at best, and an exhibit of India’s sincerity in the relationship we cherish,” Lyonchhen said, adding that this gesture comes despite the enormous challenges India currently faced due to the pandemic.
“It is of unimaginable value when precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs, as opposed to giving out only after you have enough,” the prime minister said.
Lyonchhen added that the government and people of Bhutan were immensely grateful to the government and people of India for remembering us at this time. “These will all translate into the prayers and prosperity of the people of India, emanating from the grateful hearts of Bhutan. We thank you.”
Earlier, India has also donated essential medicines, medical equipment and personal protective equipment in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. The GoI has also assured to cover the two doses requirement of Bhutan’s target population of slightly over 533,500 and has committed to deliver the remaining consignments soon, stated the press release.
The health ministry has circulated an online survey to collect feedback from the public on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. Health officials said that the survey was being carried out to ‘get an idea of public opinion in general’.
Officials said that the government was still discussing the vaccination campaign modalities and strategies. “The survey may provide some idea but it will not have any definite decision-making bearing on the vaccination programme.”
Unlike the BCG and polio vaccines where the public have no say on the acceptance of the vaccine, health officials explained that the Covid-19 vaccines were not Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI) vaccine. “This is an ad-hoc vaccine, which is beyond the recommended schedule of vaccination for children. Vaccines of the EPI are mandated by public health requirements of a country but Covid-19 vaccine may not fall under such mandates.”
The EPI is a World Health Organisation programme with the goal to make vaccines available to all children.
Health officials added that all the respondents taking the survey were kept anonymous and their responses would not have any bearing individually or as a community at the end of the survey.
… consumers say not good enough
Given local chilli shortage, import ban, and hiked prices, frustration among consumers is growing and some are even questioning the government policies on production and imports.
Some said that agriculture ministry should have a long-term plan and policy to ensure support to farmers and ensure swift supply of chillies in winters at an affordable rate.
“Import ban on chillies should be lifted as there is no scientific evidence that they are toxic as claimed. If chill from Falakata is unfit for consumption, there are other options to import from other Indian states to address the shortage in Bhutan,” another said.
While the government implemented the ban to encourage domestic production the consumers were gravely affected. “But the problem with local production is that the farmers are not ready.”
Since last month, the local green chillies were supplied in the market but still remains unavailable in many parts of the community.
Chief Agriculture Officer Namgay Thinley said that the incessant rain in September and October had damaged most of the chilli nurseries and hampered production.
As of January 15, 27,990 kilograms (kg) of chillies were supplied of which about 5,000kg were marketed within the Thimphu thromde.
Chillies were procured from Tsirang, Dagana, Sarpang, Samtse, Pemagatshel, Zhemgang, Samdrupjongkhar. Low land settlements of Mongar, Wangduephodrang and Trongsa also cultivated chillies in small quantities.
“The production is expected to increase to 294 metric tonnes (MT) in February and 500MT by March,” Namgay Thinley said.
According to the agriculture ministry’s fixed price, a kg of chilli costs Nu 300 at the farmer’s field and Nu 401 in retail shops in Thimphu. But the consumers said that it was 600 per kg.
Last week, in an eight-minute video, Namgay Thinley, on the agriculture production department’s social media page, appealed to the consumers to bear with the chilli shortage and said that the officials were working to ensure a steady supply.
“A decade ago, we imported winter vegetables but since 2011, we had bridged the gap through local production. In winter, we now produce 13 kinds of vegetables and continue to do so,” he said, adding that the country faces chilli shortage for only one and half months.
If we lift the ban, farmers would be discouraged to work. By two years, we would be able to bridge the gaps so that chillies are available at all times, he added.
In response, consumers said that the ministry could have carried out research studies to promote local produce and could have controlled the import instead of imposing a ban.
“Green chilli which costs Nu 50-60 a kg in Jaigaon is smuggled and then sold at Nu 500-600, robbing the innocent,” he said.
This month, four cases of smuggled chilles were intercepted by BAFRA inspectors.
Agriculture secretary, Rinzin Dorji, said that dry chillies are available in the market in various forms.
He said that for this winter, 535 acres in the warmer southern dzongkhags were being cultivated with chilli and the production from these areas is expected to meet the market demand. “These chilli growing areas are provided with inputs such as seeds, fencing, plastic mulching technology and drip irrigation technology.”
Bhutan temporarily banned the import of chilli from nearby areas across the border in June 2016 following the detection of residues of different types of pesticides in quantities above the maximum residue level.
He said the toxicity of the imported chillies were proved by the human health experts from the World Health Organisation and then the decisions to ban the import was made in consultation with the highest authorities.
The latest tests conducted on chillies from the nearby neighbouring states in the first and second weeks of this month still showed the presence of residues of pesticides from five major pesticide groups.
“Importing from long distances will not only increase the cost but aggravate our dependency on imports,” he said.
If imported green chillies contain toxic chemicals, a consumer said that imported dry chillies and chilli powders won’t be fit for consumption as suggested by the officials.
Rinzin Dorji also said that policy shifts, if any, are warranted by circumstances and changing times. “The ministry is guided by the Food and Nutrition Policy of 2014. The policy not only talks about food but takes into consideration the importance of nutrition for health of the people.”
He said that, recently, the ministry had initiated drafting the RNR Strategy 2040 that makes an analysis of the current situation and charts a way forward with well-defined key performance indicators, learning from the situations created by Covid-19 about food self-sufficiency in the country.
Currently, 31 different types of vegetables are grown across the country. Of these, 17 vegetables are prioritised for commercial cultivation. The total area under production is about 16,150 acres with 47,080MT of production.
Thimphu police arrested the 74-year-old man, whose videos with young women went viral on social media during the lockdown, on January 18.
A woman, who was in one of the videos, lodged the case against the man on December 31 but police could not arrest the man, as he resided in a ‘red building’ in Changzamtok.
Police arrested him on January 18 after they got clearance from the health ministry that the building is no more a Covid-19 hotspot.
Police, however, said they would not comment until the lockdown was completely lifted.
It was learnt that there are four cases registered against the man for sharing such videos.
A woman, whose private videos with the man went viral since May last year, had already registered a harassment case against the man. She is waiting for police to charge the case to court.
Guidelines in place to ensure schools’ preparedness to re-open
Yangchen C Rinzin
Both public and private schools will open for Classes Pre-Primary (PP) to VIII for the 2021 academic session from February 1 as scheduled, the education ministry confirmed.
Classes PP-VIII have remained closed since March last year owing to Covid-19 pandemic.
Students of classes IV to VIII will report to school on February 3, while those in PP-III will report on February 15. Teachers have to report to their respective schools on February 1.
But students of Thinleygang and Wangdue PS, Shengana and Dorokha LSS, and Khuruthang MSS will report on April 1. Teachers will report on March 22.
These schools have been hosting students from Phuentsholing Thromde after Phuentsholing was declared red zone during the first lockdown.
Department of School and Education’s director general, Karma Galay, said that schools were told to re-open as per the plan unless there is local transmission again.
“With guidelines in place, we’ll re-open schools as per the directives,” he said. “All schools would adopt strict health safety measures like wearing facemasks inside premises, washing hands and maintain distance.”
The director general added that schools could come up with the ideas to ensure implementaton of safety protocols.
“We’ve even been trying to advise schools to see the possibility to explore if schools could arrange stationery and uniforms in the schools. This would ensure parents and students do not have to look in the market and avoid crowds,” he said.
However, middle and higher secondary schools will re-open in April given that Classes X and XII will have their board examinations in March.
Students of Classes IX, X and XII, have to report on April 1, and class XI students report on April 15. Teachers of these schools are required to report on March 22.
The re-opening decision will also apply for Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD), Non-Formal Education (NFE), and Community Learning Centre (CLC).
An education ministry official said public ECCD, NFE and CLC could likely open from March, as the proposal to re-open has been submitted to the government.
Private ECCDs were given an option to re-open since last year.
“Same guidelines designed for the schools would be followed while re-opening. We’re just waiting for specific directives,” he said.
As per the guidelines issued yesterday, all schools are to resume by adopting strict health safety measures like establishing hand washing stations with 24 hours running water, maintaining physical distance, wearing facemask compulsory in the school, and using Druk Trace App.
Compulsory thermal screening to check both students and teachers’ temperature before entering school campus is also required. Schools should have separate sick room and provide psychosocial support.
The guidelines designed for both day and boarding schools also require schools to plan for staggered reporting and dispersing of students, including staggered timing for the use of washing facilities and breaks.
The guidelines also require schools to create a compartment between the driver and passengers’ area, properly separated with a plastic sheet; drivers to use facemask all times and check the temperature before entering school premises.
“After on Covid-19 or off-campus special duty with external offices, drivers would be required to follow proper health protocol before joining school duty,” the guidelines.
The education ministry has also asked all dzongkhags and thromdes to have alternative provisions if schools are used for managing the pandemic so that teaching and learning of children can occur.
Many school administrations said that preparation were in place as per guidelines. Some schools are also ensuring that they do not mix day scholar students with boarder students although it is difficult to maintain with lack of teaching staff.
Schools like Sarpang Central School had to send some students from Class IX and X to other school, as there was shortage of classrooms.
Nangkor Central School is also exploring with Pemagatshel dzongkhag administration to let shopkeepers bring school uniforms and stationery.
Meanwhile, many parents are anxious with re-opening of schools. Some parents shared that the protocol requires maintaining physical distance, which would not be possible given at least one class has more than 20 students.
“Without enough infrastructures and teachers, how can a school manage to teach in a shift or have additional classrooms,” Dawa Tenzin, a parent, said. “It also requires students to wear facemask all times, how feasible it would be with small children?”
Given the risk of community transmission and second nationwide lockdown, many parents felt it would not be wise to re-open schools. “Schools were shut down when we didn’t have local transmission. Now we’re re-opening when local cases are emerging from every corner,” said one.
Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue
When the Wangdue Dzong reconstruction project management announced 30 vacancies for casual workers on September 17, last year it came as a relief to 21-year-old Kinley Wangchuk.
From Thinleygang, Punakha, Kinley Wangchuk had then been unemployed for four months.
“I worked with Construction Development Corporation (CDCL) for four years,” said Kinley Wangchuk. After that, he found himself looking for a job.
With around 10 youth working with the dzong reconstruction project, the project witnessed a good turnout of youth for the first time since reconstruction began after the fortress was completely destroyed by a fire in June 2012.
Project engineer, Dorji, said that prior to the pandemic, there were just three youth at site.
Among the new workers are youth as young as 19. Most are school dropouts.
Twenty-two-year-old Kharka Nath Rai said that he was waiting for the technical training institutes to reopen (TTI) and wished to join one of the institutes. “I completed class XII from Gelephu last year. Rather than staying home, it is better to work somewhere.”
Dawa, 20, joined work with six other friends (mostly young girls) after learning about vacancies in September. “Parents also supported my decision,” Dawa said.
“For women, work includes carrying mud and stones,” said Yeshi Wangmo, 23.
Workers report to the site at 7:15am and leave for home and their camps at 5pm.
Kinley Wangchuk, who earns Nu 8,000 monthly, said: “I save around Nu 3,000 and rest goes for expenditure.”
Project engineer Dorji said that the management had plans to give the youth promotion from February.
This is because, the workers have been performinv well at work.
Today, casual workers earn Nu 280 a day. Promotion to category four means their daily wage would increase to Nu 421 (more than Nu 12,000 monthly).
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
With more than 250 farmers from five gewogs growing chilli on about 125 acres, Dagana is expected to produce about 165 metric tonnes (MT) of green chilli this winter.
While the gewogs have been producing about 700kg of chilli fortnightly, major production is expected beginning next month.
Agriculture officials said that farmers couldn’t produce more chillies this time around as seedlings planted and initial transplantation in September and October, last year were damaged by the prolonged monsoon.
Dagana Assistant Agriculture Officer Kinley Namgay said, “Our initial expectation was to produce 900kgs a week. But we couldn’t.”
He said that each gewog used to produce about 200kg of chillies a week in previous years.
The dzongkhag has supplied over 1.5MT of chillies to Thimphu since the nationwide lockdown on December 23. Dagana would begin chilli supply to Paro this week.
The produce from high risk areas of Karmling, Lhamoidzingkha and Nichula under Lhamoidzingkha drungkhag is being transshipped through Dagapela to the other parts of the dzongkhag and Thimphu.
About 265kg of chillies harvested from Samarchhu chiwog in Tsendagang gewog were distributed in the local market in the dzongkhag yesterday.
Tsirang has been able to produce only about 200kg of chillies this winter.
Assistant Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer, Sonam said that with winter cold affecting fruiting and resulting in physiological disorder in plants, chilli production suffered. “We are expecting more production by end of this month or early February.”
Tsirang has grown winter chillies on more than 50 acres in seven gewogs. Currently, Sergithang and Barshong gewogs are the major producers.
Sergithang-based farmer, Sanman Subba said that he used to sell at least 1.5MT of chillies every winter. “However, this winter, I’d be able to produce only a few hundred kgs as most of the seedlings were damaged by a heavy monsoon,” he said.
Meanwhile, there have been reports of chilli shortages in local markets.
The Damphu vegetable market has also run short of green chillies as of last Friday. Vendors said that it was difficult to get the produce.
Although the dzongkhag agriculture sector has been trying to meet the local demand in the dzongkhag first, officials said that the production has dropped at the source these days.
Sonam said that farmers are able to sell other vegetables to vendors only if they supply chillies.
Agriculture officials said that chilli shortages in the market could also be due to poor supply from other southern dzongkhags.
A resident in Wangdue said that she couldn’t get chillies even after placing orders at source in Tsirang. “The produce exhausted even before I could go to collect.”
The stars are aligned with what many would want in the next few weeks and months concerning protecting all, Bhutanese and foreigners in the country against Covid-19.
After consultation with the central monastic body for an auspicious date to roll out the now all-important programme in decades, the prime minister on Monday announced that mass vaccination could start only after March 13, when the inauspicious month ends.
It might sound strange to some, but the clergy is an indispensable part of the many big decisions we take as individuals and as a country. Even as Bhutan fought, at all fronts, to keep at bay the invisible enemy of Covid-19, we resorted to the omnipotent force. The energy, the confidence and the beliefs had played a crucial role in managing the pandemic, with or without faults. Today, even a four-year-old can recite the “Om Bekha zey” prayer to the medicinal god in seeking help to prevent us from getting infected.
Bhutan could wait. There are several reasons why we can even if some are panicky. Vaccination programmes have rolled out in many countries, including in neighbouring India, the likely source of our vaccine. There are sceptics including health workers who are not willing to take the jab. The vaccine hesitancy arises from the fact that the vaccines rolled out have not completed full trials. Many feel it is better to wait and see if there are adverse events following the vaccination.
The vaccine against Covid-19 is seen as the ultimate solution as many countries, near and far, start vaccinating the entire population starting with health workers and frontliners. However, what we need to understand is that it is not a race. We have all the reasons to wait and see the impact of the vaccine.
Many countries that have resorted to the vaccine even if it is only authorised for emergency use did so because they are overwhelmed with positive cases and deaths. We are not going through it. We are in a lockdown or have community transmissions, but a lot is under control and the situation has improved, which is evident from the relaxation in the red dzongkhags.
Waiting, like the Lyonchhen said, could give us valuable time to learn lessons from the experiences of other countries including the impact of the vaccines. Many countries that have cases, hundred times more than us are also patiently waiting.
The time could also be used to address the vaccine hesitancy both through learning from experiences and resolving controversies or doubts surrounding the vaccine. The health ministry has started a survey on the vaccination programme, which includes questions if people would want to delay receiving the vaccine.
The large rural population would not doubt the Zhung’s programme, but if the government could convince all through hard evidence and build confidence in the vaccines planned in a transparent way, it would help the entire population get vaccinated.
In announcing the plans surrounding the vaccination plan, Lyonchhen asked people not to get scared of the vaccine. Building confidence of the masses is crucial in achieving the vaccination programme.
The Zakar is in our favour and gives us enough time to study, prepare and build confidence. It is the perfect timing. The health ministry must do whatever it takes to make the vaccination programme another national achievement.