Thousands of Bhutanese who were directly affected by the coronavirus pandemic would have woken up this morning with smile on their faces, some money credited in their account, and a sense of relief on their minds.
The Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu has started rolling out. Nu 150 million has been granted in the first disbursement benefitting 13,006 people. Recipients of the full kidu, those whose livelihoods were directly impacted, will receive Nu 12,000 for three months. Those that saw a reduction in their income from the pandemic will receive Nu 8,000 for three months. Those affected with children will also see an additional Nu 800 per children for three months.
More than 20,000 people from across the country had applied for the kidu. This is the first batch screened from 18,880 people. The kidu will continue and more people will receive the kidu.
The generous Kidu emanated from the wisdom of His Majesty The King who always believed that people’s welfare at all times, and in all respects, was the sacred duty of the King and that it will be ensured that those people deserving of kidu received it.
The numbers are not final. There is a committee who is still assessing thousands of applications. More people will receive the kidu, in full or half, depending on how badly affected they are.
His Majesty’s kidu is all-encompassing. Long before the monetary kidu, recognising the difficulties faced by people in meeting their loan repayment obligations, His Majesty commanded loan interest waivers and loan payment deferrals. There are talks that committees recommended only those affected to be beneficiaries of the waivers, but it was His Majesty’s wisdom that the waivers to benefit all those who have availed loans. Therefore, we have people not affected benefiting from fiscal measures.
On the command of His Majesty, the interest waiver has now been extended to people with non-performing loan accounts for the same period of three months. Depending on the situation, the Royal Kidu will continue and would cover more if more people are affected.
The royal kidu, besides benefiting thousands of people directly, will leave a lasting impact. In just about two weeks, officials and volunteers who participated in the massive kidu programme verified 18,000 applications. In doing so, they have developed new systems riding on technology, learnt how to improve efficiency and service delivery.
Hundreds of young men and women involved in the programme at various capacities are convinced that service delivery could be improved and professionalised if like-minded people work together for a cause. The exercise proved how efficient Bhutanese are. The team built a database, initiated IT-based systems on the spot and linked many organisations to improve efficiency within days.
Beyond the kidu, a far-reaching impact of the Royal kidu initiatives will be learning from this pandemic. It was an indication that it is not about whether we can do or not, but whether we are doing or not.
From the experience and the lessons, the greatest appreciation of receiving the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu would be shouldering our responsibilities sincerely to serve the King, Country and the people. It is said that we become wiser after an event. Covid-19 has shown us our strength and potentials.
Yangchen C Rinzin
The staff of Samdrupjongkhar district court have been busy working in their vegetable garden for the past few weeks. This happens besides the court hearings.
With the borders closed and lockdown in India due to Covid-19 pandemic, the court staff decided to invest their time in growing vegetables—to not have to depend on import. The 50-decimal land behind the office proved just the right space.
Drangpon Kalden said that in the wake of Covid-19 where everyone was preparing in case the situation got worse. Likewise, the staff decided to make a vegetable garden so that if the situation deteriorated, they would not face vegetable shortage.
“The fear of unavailability of vegetables led us to take up farming. Self-sufficiency is very important,” drangpon said. “Attaining self-sufficient is not difficult, really.”
The staff work in vegetable garden during weekends. There are beginning to show already—mustard spinach, beans, spinach, ladyfingers, chillies, pumpkins, radish, watermelon…
“We can have our own fresh and organic vegetables,” drangpon said. “It’s been a little more than two weeks. All this is good. But we ensure that no court hearing is disturbed because of gardening.”
We are accustomed to thinking in terms of ‘smart cities’, generally, and of ‘smart towns’ occasionally. But, how about ‘smart villages’? This is where the soul finds its natural home. Native joy, primeval innocence, and pure contentment are said to dwell here. But my ancient dream of every village being a school, and every home a classroom, and my village, my responsibility sounded a bit too ambitious or plain impossible for most observers, at best, and not fancy enough, at worst.
Be that as it may. But, as a country, we have had bigger and more compelling messages emanating from the golden throne. It was as early as the 1970s. The youngest monarch in the world had seen it all even as he was still recovering from the irreparable loss of his beloved father, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Bhutan’s Fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had two inescapably clear messages of supreme significance for the long-term security and sustainability of Bhutan, among many other vital commands. They pertained to self-sufficiency, and self-reliance, not as an end in themselves, even though these ends are much to be desired as ends in themselves, but more as a strategic means to a strategic end.
In the unprecedented Covid-era, this royal vision returns to us with ever greater force and relevance as the whole world seems bereft of the benefit of any certainty and as even the most robust systems have been rendered visibly precarious and clearly vulnerable. The irony of our times, however, is that many leaders and citizens in the so-called developed world are restless and itching to open their cities for business because their economy is suffering, never mind the loss of precious lives to the ever-growing pandemic.
The sad truth is that once the virus is defeated, and we hope we can beat it, and beat it sooner rather than later, the world might get back to its old habits and behaviour as if there was no such thing as Covid-19, and as though nothing had ever happened. The world will be back to its normal grind and cut-throat competition and the pains and gains of the current misery might well be tragically wasted, with no lessons learned, sans any sense of guilt felt, till much-abused Nature unleashes another havoc to catch humanity off-guard.
We may not be able to influence global habits into looking inward and consciously choosing a more sustainable and life-friendly path to development. But, as a country, we have the rare benefit of royal vision and direction articulated with great clarity and force. Now is time to re-affirm and re-assert the power of these insights and pave a development path charted by ourselves, founded on our strengths and pursued at our pace.
These past several weeks since the advent of the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Bhutan have shown the country’s unique capacity and will for extraordinary leadership at the highest level and the resilience and commitment of all our citizens at all levels to rise to the challenge and stand out despite several constraints that the system faces. Bhutanese citizens have demonstrated that with our King at the helm, we are prepared for anything to secure the well-being of our people and the security of our country. The spontaneous manifestation of goodwill and basic human goodness across the society has been most chastening and inspiring.
This positive energy and this renewed sense of purpose and dedication provide the natural conditions for collective thought and action to deepen our appreciation of the wisdom of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the vision of Gross National Happiness, the planned Gyalsung programme and other vital national initiatives. It is also a time to re-think our economic development pathway that frees the country from the strain of looking at the league table and checking where we stand in relation to others.
GNH is meant to be a departure from GDP. The current global predicament could in some uncomfortable ways be seen as a vindication of the limits of the GDP-obsessed model of growth fuelled by reckless production and mindless consumption to the inestimable detriment of our dear Planet Earth.
Despite the economic downturn, one of the positive consequences of Covid-19 has been on Mother Nature that has received much-needed respite all over the world, including our own towns and industrial centres. The natural environment is greener, the sky is bluer, the air cleaner and the water clearer. The pace of life has slowed, family-time has increased, and people have become more reflective and found many creative ways to tide over the unprecedented situation. The spirit of caring and sharing is truly heartening.
Given our stark realities, it makes irrefutable sense to build ‘smart village’ even as we plan smart cities and decent towns that do not exhibit opulence but that provide space for all to live a life of dignity. The whole vision of decentralisation, democratisation, and the efforts of successive governments are intended to bring about equity and justice in the sharing of resources and for the flourishing of all parts of the country.
Some beautiful things are already happening. There is renewed and enhanced interest in agricultural, horticultural, livestock activities among our farmer and educated youth; there is a quick adjustment between jobs; and Bhutanese living abroad are returning because they know there is no place like home. Innovation and enterprise of diverse scale and significance are taking place across the country.
Now is an appropriate time to plan for smart and sustainable villages that have all the necessary public services within easy reach but without compromising their integrity and charm that set villages apart as wide, green open spaces endowed with all physical facilities and enriched by social harmony, cultural pride and spiritual nourishment in a live and vibrant environment that supports all life-forms.
Self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-respecting, smart villages will be the pride of Bhutan and the bulwark of our strength rather than crowded, restless, impersonal cities devoid of a soul. The best of Bhutan is still in our remote villages.
It is in the fitness of things to discover the unique potentials of our villages and invest them with pride and creativity befitting the grace and integrity of our still-surviving pastoral heritage. The secret to Bhutan’s long-term sustainability might lie in its inner, authentic self.
Thakur S Powdyel
Former Minister of Education
The Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) says that the interest waivers and the CIT/BIT deferment for tour operators should be continued beyond the three months as part of the government’s support to the tourism sector.
ABTO predicts that unlike other sectors it could take up to three year for the tourism sector to recover fully.
As per the terms of the short-term working capital available for tour operators, the concessional 5 percent interest will revert to normal rates, which is between 11 and 12 percent.
At a meeting held at Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI) in Thimphu on April 29, ABTO representatives said that the deferment CIT/BIT deferment and interest waivers should be extended to at least seven months.
The association also suggested long-term concessional loans to tour operators given the ban on tourism would continue beyond the three months.
Former BCCI president, Ugen Tshechup, who chaired the meeting, said that he would submit the comments and suggestions to the government. He said that concessional loans with longer durations would be proposed, as the short-term working capital was not viable.
ABTO’s executive director, Sonam Dorji, said it would take about two to three years to get back to where the tourism sector was but that the monetary measures provided were only for three months.
“That also depends on how robust our marketing strategies are. The deferment of BIT and CIT is also only for three months,” he said.
Sonam Dorji added that the short duration of the interest waivers and the tax deferment would leave tour operators without fund after the three months. The three-month concessional 5 percent working capital being provided to pay salaries and rents are collateral-based, according to tour operators.
The executive director said that while he had heard through the media about a working committee having been formed to look into the issues but that he was not aware of that as a stakeholder. “We would very much like to be part of it,” he said.
Whatever was being done, he said, was for immediate relief only. “But the bigger concern for ABTO is recovery of tourism,” he said, adding that ABTO had not seen anything coming up in terms of short-term, medium-term, and long-term recovery plans.
Ugen Tshechup was of the view that there should be some differentiation among various tour companies as some would be able to sustain longer than others.
“My suggestion is that there must be some internal agreement among tour operators, and some would take more and some would take less. This is the time for rich companies to use their accumulated profits, not ask the government a bailout,” Ugen Tshechup said.
The government, he said, could go bankrupt if every cost was put on the government and that a middle path had to be pursued. He suggested ABTO to submit long-term suggestions to the government as soon as possible to reach the government and Parliament on time.
The former BCCI president was of the view that even if tourism opened there would be few tourists until a vaccine is available. He said that financial institutions were expected to create “dead zones”, which means that the loan-servicing period would be extended by the length of duration of non-payment of EMI/interests.
“The government and banks cannot sustain continued waiver of interests and EMIs. He said that it may not be possible for banks to continue interest and EMI waivers beyond three months,” he said.
He suggested that the government open up the domestic economy after three months so the burden on the government to spend on those who lost jobs would reduce.
Ugen Tshechup was also of the view that the central bank should release a certain percentage of banks’ statutory reserve to be provided as soft loans.
“Banks keep the statutory reserve with the central bank at a zero percent rate. Even if a small portion of the reserve is provided as soft loans to us at a very minimum interest rate, the banks would earn some income,” he said, adding that the plan would be proposed.
ABTO representatives said that tour operators also needed soft loans for marketing. “Due to lack of business, there is no money for marketing, which actually should happen before tourism opens,” ABTO executive director said.
However, Ugen Tshechup said that requesting soft loans for marketing would need strong justifications due to priority issues. Given their investment on infrastructure and maintenance, he said hoteliers might in fact need more support than tour operators.
But the ABTO representatives reiterated that tour operators will play a crucial role in reviving the sector as hoteliers and guides benefit through them. There are about 3,000 tour operators, about 200 of which do marketing, according to ABTO.
Ugen Tshechup said that a better option would be to ask the government to inject funds for marketing after four or five months.
Some members of ABTO expressed concerns about lack of fulfillment of the government assurances in terms of carrying out infrastructure and professional development plans when tourism has remained closed for two months.
ABTO representatives said the association had come up with various infrastructure and professional development programmes.
The former BCCI president assured that he would work with the government towards implementing such programmes. He said that the government’s attitude towards such issues had been positive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the closure of many sporting events. Many referees have thus become jobless like professional players and athletes.
Of the 15 sports federations in the country, four sports associations, and 15 dzongkhag sports associations under the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC), football referees in particular are affected the most by disruptions.
One of the chief sources of income for the referees is from the football matches. Major tournaments such as Bhutan Super League, Bhutan Premier league, and Women’s League have all been closed for now.
Phurpa Wangchuk, a freelance referee, said that the referees don’t have work at present. “I depend entirely on tournaments and local matches. The referee make Nu 500 from every local match and Nu 750 from club tournaments.”
The referees are paid Nu 1,000 for BFF-organised tournaments, which works out to about Nu 40,000 a month.
Phurpa Wangchuk said that of the 58 freelance referees in the country, 23 were in Thimphu.
“Because we are left with no other source of income, all 23 of us have applied for the kidu,” said Phurpa Wangchuk.
Currently, there are 27 coaches and 58 freelance referees registered with the BFF.
BFF’s competition officer, Kinley Dorji, said that all the coaches under the BFF were paid salary as usual.
Of the 13 registered football clubs under the BFF, most are continuing with the salary for the coaches.
BOC’s programme officer, Jamyang Namgyal, said that including the sports federations, associations and dzongkhag sports associations, there were about 200 coaches under the BOC. “All the coaches are getting normal pay.”
In most of the federations and associations, coaches work as a referee, said Jamyang Namgyal.
More are being verified
To mark an auspicious beginning for the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday deposited the relief kidu funds to the bank accounts of 108 beneficiaries.
Assessments have been carried out only for 18,880 applications from all 20 dzongkhags received between April 14 and 23. Of that, 13,006 have been assessed as beneficiaries. Others are under further review.
The monthly relief kidu comes in two categories: a full amount of Nu 12,000, and partial amount Nu 8,000. Of the total kidu recipients, 9,716 were assessed as being eligible for the full amount.
Those employees of affected businesses who have been laid off, or placed on unpaid leave or reduced pay were assessed for the full amount. It also includes self-employed individuals in the tourism sector who have lost their earnings, and Bhutanese workers who have returned home from abroad because of the pandemic and have no other sources of income.
Self-employed individuals in tourism-linked businesses and other businesses affected by social distancing, mandatory closures and curfews have been assessed for the partial amount of the Relief Kidu.
In addition, a child support of Nu 800 a child per month has also been granted as kidu, which will be, disbursed within the first half of this month following additional verification.
His Majesty The King in the address to the nation on April 10, commanded that: “Many of our people working in the tourism and hospitality sector, including small restaurants, entertainment centres, truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc., have suffered the loss of jobs and income, and are finding it difficult even to pay house rents.
It is of utmost importance to extend immediate relief to the vulnerable people before the situation deteriorates. Therefore, the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu will be granted to support the people, provide relief, and enable them to withstand their ordeals through this period.”
The relief kidu, Lyonchhen said was more than financial support and akin to being blessed with a wish-fulfilling gem. He said that Bhutanese have always been privileged with His Majesty’s kidu throughout.
The remaining applicants have errors in citizenship identity numbers, bank account numbers and other necessary details.
“These applications are also being worked on in the meantime,” Lyonchhen said.
Finance Secretary Nim Dorji said that the payments were made through the government’s electronic Public Expenditure Management System (e-PEMS). He said that system has come handy in disbursing payments and supporting the physical distancing enforcement during the time of Covid-19.
“As the Relief Kidu is granted to an individual for a period of three months, it will be critical for the recipient to seek employment opportunities,” a press release from the committee stated.
The government, in partnership with the private sector, would also facilitate the creation of employment opportunities for affected people by expediting and accelerating the implementation of the reprioritised activities of the 12th Plan through frontloading of budgetary outlays.
The government would also actively match individuals with job openings, which will allow affected individuals to find employment, thereby enabling them to transition out of the Kidu.
“It will be of utmost importance for all Bhutanese to participate in the nation-building process to support their livelihoods and sustain national economic activities.”
The committee’s press release stated that the continuation of the Relief Kidu would depend on the evolving nature of the pandemic and the government’s Covid-19 containment measures.
“If the situation worsens over time, more individuals will have to be supported, and the Kidu amount will be determined on a downward sliding scale to ensure wider coverage.”
About 137 officials from various government agencies and corporate offices have volunteered to work for the relief Kidu centre in different capacities. “Some were working even more than 12 hours every day since the launch of the Relief Kidu,” RMA’s deputy governor Yangchen Tshogyal said. She leads the technical support team for the relief kidu.
“Their dedication has been truly amazing, and we are all motivated and inspired by His Majesty.”
During His Majesty’s second visit to the centre yesterday evening, His Majesty interacted with all those helping at the centre and extended His appreciation.
“This was an especially emotional moment for all of us. We are all feeling the weight of the trust that His Majesty has placed on us to implement this historic Relief Kidu which will touch the lives of many, many Bhutanese people in their hour of need,” she said.
The team excludes officials in the dzongkhags as well as the finance ministry’s e-PEMS team and the bank officials who are also helping the team.
The online application is temporarily suspended for the next three days to improve the form and carry out some data analysis to be able to target the Relief Kidu better, Yangchen Tshogyal said. It would be available from May 4.
However, officials will respond to calls to the toll-free number 1188.
The Relief Kidu application process is designed to ensure accessibility and transparency with the simultaneous application through online methods as well as through walk-in centres across the 20 dzongkhags and a toll-free line (1188) to respond to queries from the people.
9,964 people tested so far
The government has so far spent more than Nu 15.5 million (M) on testing for the novel coronavirus.
There are two testing methods currently in used – reverse transcription- polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) that uses a machine and rapid diagnostic test (RDT) using test kits.
A single RT-PCR test costs about Nu 3,500 and while the unit cost for a RDT is about Nu 1,000. As of yesterday a total of 2,234 RT-PCR tests and 7,730 rapid tests were conducted in the country.
With over 100 tests per day, Bhutan has one of the highest Covid-19 testing rates (test per million) in the world today.
Officials from the health ministry said that testing is the most important component of the country’s containment efforts. “In the context of Covid-19, testing, is like the seed of the overall national response system to the pandemic,” said an official.
He said that based on the tests conducted, interventions including contact tracing, quarantine and isolation can be executed.
Who gets tested?
Irrespective of symptoms, all those completing the 21-day mandatory quarantine period are tested (RDT) on the 22nd day. Symptomatic people at the point of entries and flu clinics are also tested using the rapid test kits.
Health workers, DeSuup and soldiers among others, working in the frontline are also tested using the RDT method.
The confirmatory test, RT-PCR, is conducted mainly for five different groups of suspects. Swab samples from the throat of symptomatic people in quarantine including the primary contacts of the confirmed Covid-19 cases are collected for PCR test.
Health officials said that symptomatic individuals meeting the Covid-19 case definition, confirmed cases before releasing them from the isolation wards and symptomatic health workers are also RT-PCR tested.
A total of 9,964 tests were conducted in the country as of yesterday.
As a part of the containment efforts, the health ministry continues to screen anyone entering the country both via land and air.
So far, over 2.4M people, including foreigners, at the point of entries (border gates) and 13,924 people at the Paro international airport were screened for the disease.
Ministry officials said the proportionately large number of people screened at the border gates could be anyone entering through the border checkpoints. After the border lockdown on March 22, people with permits to enter are screened.
Health officials and trained law enforcement personnel and DeSuup conduct the screening that involves checking for fever, general signs and symptoms and recording travel history.
Similar screening is also conducted for airline crews, ground and other operational staff at the airport.
In addition, 36,817 people have also been screened at 54 flu clinics across the country. Save for the flu clinics at the national referral hospital, Mongar, Wangdue and Trashigang, which remain open 24/7, rest of the clinics operate between 9am till 3pm.
Meanwhile, of the seven positive cases detected in the country, there are only two active cases as of today.
Despite interest waivers on housing loans for three months starting April, most building owners have not announced any rent waivers for hotel and restaurants.
Representatives of hotels and restaurants raised this issue during a meeting with Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI) officials in Thimphu yesterday.
The representatives said that their incomes had dropped by 80-85 percent because they have to now depend solely on local customers. They said that they faced difficulties with paying rents and salaries to their employees.
Former BCCI president Ugen Tshechup who chaired the meeting, said that he would apprise the government about the issues.
Restaurant and hotel operators said that almost everyone was affected by the pandemic. They were quick to thank His Majesty The King and the government for the relief measures.
“The gracious support from His Majesty The King and the government has been beneficial to deal with the situation,” one of the participants said.
The representatives said that hotels were paying their salaries and other benefits as per the law.
Ugen Tshechup said that landlords who were eligible for interest waivers were expected to waive rents.
“The interest waiver is to benefit people who have problems. The kidu benefit is expected to be shared among the affected people,” he said.
The representative also said that the government’s recent decision to close all shops by 7pm had further affected their business.
Ugen Tshechup said that businesses were expected to open gradually. He also assured that he would apprise the government of these issues.
Although the drop in business began in March, a hotel operator told Kuensel that he had paid the rent in full last month.
“The month is ending. But there is no sign of any reduction in rent for my hotel space,” he said.
A restaurant operator said that the affected businesses should share the benefit of the rent waivers. He said that it was the landlords who should come forward instead of tenants lobbying for exemptions.
One of the objectives of the interest waivers on loans was to encourage landlords to waive off house rents.
However, the government and financial institutions (FIs) are of the view that waiver of rents should be left to house owners. Officials say that it is a moral responsibility of landlords to see if the loan deferment could benefit their tenants.
Officials said that landlords are expected to come forward voluntarily as the relief measure is expected to generate confidence and positive vibes during the pandemic for a “better and more prepared tomorrow”.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
A policeman has allegedly stabbed a 22-year-old man in Samdrupjongkhar around 8pm on April 27. The incident occurred near the Food Corporation of Bhutan’s (FCB) office.
A patrolling team stopped the victim and his friend near the FCB office and frisked them. The victim and his friend were returning home after dropping their friend around 8pm.
A relative of the victim said the duo asked the patrolling team if they could go and one of the patrolling team members told them to stay because they deserved punishment. The victim and the friend allegedly asked the reason for the punishment.
The relative said the suspect then stabbed the victim after questioning why they were out at late hours. “The victim sustained a severe cut on his head.” The victim’s friend also sustained a minor cut on his hand.
Despite excessive bleeding, the suspect told the victim and his friend to report to the police station instead of taking them to the hospital, the relative said. The friend took the victim to the hospital.
Health officials said the cut was about five centimetres long and 0.5-millimetre deep. While the skull was exposed, it was not affected, and there was no brain damage. The wound required four stitches.
Meanwhile, Samdrupjongkhar police have registered the complaint and are investigating the case.
Sources alleged that the two men were also under the influence of alcohol during the time of the incident.
Despite successive governments’ efforts to boost agricultural production over the years, the import of food products has increased.
The import of rice increased to more than 84,584 metric tonnes (MT) in 2019 from 71,503MT in 2018, according to annual RNR statistics. This is an increase by 18 percent.
Rice includes semi-milled rice, red and broken rice. Rice in husk and husked (brown) rice are mostly imported by industries.
The report is based on the analysis of import data sourced from Bhutan Trade Statistics, published by Department of Revenue and Customs. The volume and value of import of cereal by types from India during the period from January to December 2019 are compared with the same period of the previous year.
The import of cereals from countries other than India is negligible, according to the report.
The import of wheat and meslin increased to 4,891MT in 2019 from 3,071MT in 2018, an increase by almost 59 percent. Wheat and meslin include seeds and others of wheat and meslin.
The import of rye on the other hand also increased to 4.31MT in 2019 from 2.47MT in 2018, an increase by almost 75 percent. Rye is similar to wheat and is used for making flour and bread.
The import of maize decreased to 15,924MT in 2019 from 21,759MT in 2018, a decrease by almost 27 percent. Maize includes seeds and others of maize product.
The import of buckwheat increased to 122.09 MT in 2019 from 120.56 MT in 2018, an increase by 1 percent. Buckwheat includes seed of low imported volume and other buckwheat for consumption.
However, the import of other cereals decreased by almost 57 percent. The import of cereals decreased to 17MT in 2019 from 39MT in 2018.
This is attributed to an increased local production. According to the 2019 RNR census, the highest production among cereals is irrigated paddy and maize, respectively with 63,404MT and 55,254MT.
Other cereals grown in the country are buckwheat, wheat, millet, barley, quinoa and amaranthus.
At a private sector meeting held yesterday, one issue that dominated was the rent waiver. Expectations are high that landlords or building owners would waive off or discount rents following the fiscal measures announced earlier this month.
There are expectations because the landlords need not pay interest on their housing loans. The equated monthly installments are also deferred for three months.
The fiscal and monetary interventions came as a huge relief to landlords. They could offer discounts or waive off rent completely for three months. There is no loss.
The interest waiver and loan payment deferral cover all loans. The intention is that it would help all those who have availed loans from financial institutions. This is a generous kidu. The purpose of kidu or incentives is to help someone in need, affected by disasters, misfortunes or calamities. In this case, it is for those whose sources of livelihoods are affected by the new coronavirus.
While hotels are the worst affected, no business is spared. The 7 pm restrictions on all businesses, many say, have worsened the situation. Without business, those renting space will not be able to earn enough to pay rents. And we know commercial space is expensive not only in the capital city but in every town. A small pan shop under the stairs of a building, for instance, pays about 8,000 in the capital city.
The government has not asked building owners to reduce or waive off rents. They have left it to the house owners.
Not all landlords are rich. Some do not earn enough rental income to pay the monthly installment. For some, after years of becoming a jinda (owner), the interest waiver could be their first profit from their property. This too could be ploughed back to help tenants. Help need not be only in rent waiver. It could come in the form of ensuring proper drinking water supply, creating extra parking space or for some, a thorough cleaning up of the surrounding.
Landlords should also be able to judge which of their tenants are affected or not. The loan interest waiver and the deferment of EMI payment cover everyone who availed loan from banks or financial institutions except those who defaulted or those who availed staff incentive loans.
The beneficiaries are all, those affected and not. Some are actually benefitting from the Covid-19 pandemic. How they help others in need, for instance from a 50 percent saving on rents for three months and the interest waiver on the loan he/she took from banks is also left on their ‘moral responsibility.”
Some are expecting tax deductions on rent waivers. While this could benefit all those renting space for residential or business, it could come at a huge cost to the government. The government is bearing 50 percent of the loss to financial institutions from the three-month interest waivers.
The government cannot be too generous during a pandemic. However, with the generous support from development partners and well-wishers, to help us in specific areas, including improving fiscal policies, It is a good time to relook into our lending policies.
Today, the banks are blamed for everything from increasing cost of goods and services to house rents.
Phuntsho Thinley (PhD), a wildlife biologist, won the prestigious Whitley Award yesterday for his lifelong work to preserve the rare alpine musk deer.
He was among the six conservationists to be recognised this year for their achievements in nature conservation.
The Whitley Awards, often referred to as Green Oscars, is awarded annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). The award, in the form of project funding, is worth 40,000 Pounds.
The award, which will be released to the Royal Society for Protection of Nature for musk deer conservation would be used to increase anti-poaching patrols and monitoring, to reduce illegal incidents by 50 percent by training all park staff in the Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP).
The park has only 16 staff patrolling 74,500 ha of the area.
Although musk deer is a protected species under the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan, it is targeted by poachers for musk pod. Around a 100 deer is killed in Bhutan each year.
Musk pod is worth more than gold on the international black market for its perceived pharmaceutical properties.
JDNP is a habitat of the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger overlapping with snow leopard. About 700 people live in the area, depending on yaks and collection of medicinal plants. The Alpine musk deer forms an integral part of the food chain and its loss is expected to have a catastrophic effect on the area’s ecological balance.
Phuntsho Thinley said that he was humbled and it was an opportunity for him to give back to nature. “Bhutan has developed sound environmental policies which are globally acknowledged, and I intend to uphold this unique environmental stewardship and pass it on to future generations.”
He said that the award was a testament to Bhutan’s exemplary efforts towards nature conservation. “It is a tribute to our strong conservation policy and strong political will to preserve nature under the benevolent guidance of our visionary monarchs.”
Since its establishment 27 years ago, WFN has given 17million Pounds to more than 200 conservation leaders in over 80 countries. This year, WFN received 112 applications.
The ceremony in London for the winners was postponed due to the pandemic. However, the recipients will be invited to attend a ceremony and related events in London later this year.
Phub Dem | Paro
As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe, the aviation industry has been hit hard. However, Bhutan’s two airlines—Drukair and Bhutan Airlines—are flying to bring Bhutanese from abroad home.
Until yesterday, Drukair carried out 30 relief flights, including three cargo relief flights.
Drukair’s flight to South Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East repatriated 2,459 Bhutanese.
The Chief Executive Officer of Drukair, Tandi Wangchuk, said that after the lockdown, the movement of flights was restricted. “To fly to India, we need to have permission from Nepal airspace, Bangladesh airspace, and Indian air space. We need landing permissions too.”
After the lockdown, the flights were not allowed to take any passengers from the country. “The outgoing flight is empty. But we have to cover the cost.”
The chartered flights usually have two costs–direct and fixed cost. Direct cost includes fuel charges, travel and direct subsistence allowance, navigation, landing, parking, and handling charges.
For instance, the landing cost at Katmandu airport is USD1,400.
Fixed cost includes the overall cost of running the company.
According to Tandi Wangchuk, the chartered flights usually covers direct and part of fixed cost. However, during emergencies, direct cost is calculated as the charge of chartered flights.
Drukair charges for a chartered flight, he said, was reduced by 50 per cent. “The chartered flight cost is what the airline is paying out to the landing airport. There was no profit.”
While some Bhutanese living abroad complain about huge flight cost, the airlines say that the cost might appear high because it is empty one way.
Tandi Wangchuk said that the government also provided subsidy on air tickets for students and monks through Drukair.
Bhutan Airlines has so far operated four relief flights and has repatriated 292 Bhutanese. The relief flight cost about Nu 7 million.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked both Drukair and Bhutan airlines to quote their charge for a chartered plane.
“Depending on the quoted cost, the relief flight is arranged,” Tandi Wangchuk said.
Meanwhile, as per the directives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Drukair plans three relief flights to the Middle East towards mid of March.
In early 2019, I stumbled across a post on Reddit which explained the three-bladed design of wind turbines. It was titled: why did wind turbines have not one, or two, but three blades?
I thought the answer was brilliant: it had something to do with gyroscopic precession and reducing drag to maximise energy input. The idea that there was an explanation behind a fact that I took for granted resonated with me. I was so fascinated by it that I decided to write an article for Scientia, a school-based online platform where students could submit scientific materials, like essays and photos.
At the time, Scientia was still small; it was an initiative undertaken by some students to “encourage the whole community to understand the significance of science beyond the classroom, and to exploit their scientific curiosities in a platform that can be shared with others”. It only had four or five submissions when I entered my article, and has grown considerably since.
After joining Scientia and gaining rights to edit and upload articles to the site, I wrote two more articles (one about solar sailing and the other about spaghettification) with inspiration taken from a wide variety of sources. Two other friends also decided to take part in this scientific community, and collectively set goals for ourselves for the upcoming year. Our primary goal was to publish a physical copy of the articles. By this time, we had around thirty or so articles (with a few from other schools as well!) and we decided, as the Scientia team, to choose ten of our favourite articles. One stressful week later, we held the very first copy of “Best of Scientia”.
With most countries under lock down due to Covid-19, we thought this would be a good time to encourage independent research. It’s been a month since my school in Bangkok closed because of Covid-19. At first, all the students were ecstatic to have an early spring break; it was a much-needed relief from the stress of school, and all my classmates were looking forward to it. The day after, it felt luxurious to wake up and still not have to get dressed. It was fantastic to not have to take the train and walk home after online classes were done. It was terrific to have such an excessive amount of leisure time. But soon, the bliss of unexpected school closure wore off and instead, we were left with uncertainty and restlessness.
Especially for a Y12 student, missing an undetermined number of school days is difficult, as we aren’t given the luxury of having our exams cancelled and we have to work from home without the support from teachers to prepare for our senior year. Both teachers and students are beginning to worry about education, and whether online learning is effective enough to teach, in the worst case scenario, an entire syllabus.
What could I be doing? What is something productive that will help further my education? One aspect I find myself struggling with is finding the will to learn; it’s so much easier to actively engage in class when the teacher is present in person. So how do I make sure that academic interest doesn’t disappear?
For me, my answer was to proactively seek ways to stimulate curiosity; as a STEM-geared student, I found myself on science Reddit threads and odd engineering channels on YouTube. I’ve buried myself in books about outer space, genetic research and heart surgery. I found myself finding answers to questions I had never thought to ask. This method of casually stumbling across fascinating ideas and theories brought out an innate love for learning, for just knowing things. Scientia was a way for me to both learn and show others what my late-night internet deep-dives brought up, and I love being part of the group.
For 2020, one of our goals is to start receiving more international submissions, including from Bhutan, as we are a primarily Bangkok-based platform. While most submissions are articles, we also accept photography and poetry about science. As long as it’s scientific, Scientia will be more than happy to display it on our website. I’ve had a lot of fun finding theories and discovering things I had never thought about, and Scientia exists to provide this opportunity for high-school students everywhere.
Ever feel bored in quarantine? We’d be delighted to receive an article from students in Bhutan. The internet provides the same opportunities across countries and unites us in a way never imagined before.
Please visit our website: scientiaproject.com
Sonam P. M. Okuda,
Y12, Bangkok Patana School
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
In the absence of skilled woodworkers from across the border due to the lockdown, the wood-based industries in Phuentsholing have come to a grinding halt.
Given the specific requirement of skilled workers, it is also unlikely the industries would go operational anytime soon.
The deputy CEO of Bhutan Ply, PK Sharma, said that the plants had shut.
“There is demand for wood materials but there are no workers,” he said, the plant had about 100 daily workers from across the border.
The key operators are from across the border, PK Sharma said, adding that it was difficult to find such skilled workers among the Bhutanese.
Bhutan Ply used to pay Nu 200 to Nu 300 (minimum) per day the workers from across the border. The plant paid more than Nu 500 for skilled operators.
The president of the Association of Wood-based Industries (AWBI), Phuntsho Wangdi, said labour shortage was the main problem today. Wood industries even pay up to Nu 700 for skilled carpenters from across the border.
“They even work overtime and get paid extra,” the president said, adding that the wood industries were labour-intensive.
Phuntsho Wangdi said that Bhutanese were not interested in taking jobs in the wood industries which, according to him, was the reason there were not many skilled Bhutanese woodworkers.
The AWBI president also said that the demand had decreased because the construction sector is also facing shortage of labourers.
Phuentsholing labour office, in the meanwhile, has managed to employ many Bhutanese youth and jobless people in different types of work. From parking fee collection jobs to haircutting and ferrying goods at the mini dry port, labour office has employed more than 200 Bhutanese at present. These were the jobs that were all occupied by those from across the border.
However, filling the vacancies in the wood industries did not look possible, a labour official said.
A labour official said taking in fresh candidates and training them took time.
AWBI president said that the plants had long-term vision to replace the old technology.
Phuntsho Wangdi also said that the modern technologies would also reduce the number of wood workers and reduce wastage of wood. Some establishments, he said, have already installed the modern technologies.
The president said that the association discussed the labour issues with the government.
Most wood-based industries in the southern dzongkhags are facing the same problem.
Ugyen Sawmill’s proprietor in Samtse said that not having skilled labourers was the biggest problem today.
“Bhutanese are not used to working in this industry,” he said. “Maybe the government can help us.”
Yangchen C Rinzin
Private schools in the country are hoping to reopen by mid of May, at the earliest.
Representatives from the Private School Association of Bhutan (PSAB) at a meeting yesterday resolved to appeal to the government with the proposal. It was one of the numerous resolutions.
Representatives said that the schools would adhere to the health ministry’s advisory and comply with all the Covid-19 safety measures.
PSAB secretariat officials and principals and owners of schools discussed the impact on schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
To supplement the proposal, the schools suggested holding lessons on alternate days to avoid gathering of all students. “While for boarding schools, the school will ensure students are inside the school only including teachers like quarantine,” a representative said.
The proposals come amidst debate on paying school fee, and the issue popped out in the social media. Although owners felt fees were justifiable because teachers were involved in the e-learning throughout, parents felt otherwise since schools have remained closed.
PSAB general secretary Tshering Dorji said that although schools were not responsible for the closure, they also cannot put parents in the loss.
“This is why we had to come together and come up with amicable solutions for such situations. We cannot ask proprietors to lay off teachers.”
If the government rejects the appeal to reopen by May, the schools resolved to seek support from the government on a cost-sharing basis between government, owners and the parents. A committee has been formed with members from schools to analyse the operational costs.
“If the schools do not reopen soon, the owners would be able to bear full salary for teachers only for the next two months,” Tshering Dorji said. However, he said, if the situation worsens beyond two months it would be difficult to sustain and pay teachers.
The general secretary said that schools also resolved to come up with alternative learning solutions for e-learning and submit to the education ministry.
“We will request the ministry to acknowledge and approve what we come up with,” he said. “Parents have shared their dissatisfaction over tele-education.”
However, if none of the resolutions come through, PSAB resolved to seek an extension of learning duration when the schools reopen.
Tshering Dorji said this means if schools reopen by June or July, to compensate the instructional time losses, the schools would take classes even during weekends, holidays and vacations or teach few extra hours a day.
“This would ensure completion of syllabus on time. It will also help to teach students and have a basis to assess the students to promote.”
The general secretary said these are only some of the ideas and resolutions made from the meeting. The association plans to compile the recommendations, back them with studies and data.
“We’ll be submitting the resolutions to the education ministry and Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. We’re also looking forward to discussing the issues with the education officials.”
Meanwhile, officiating secretary Karma Tshering told Kuensel that education ministry has already started the assessment from Tuesday.
He said the assessment would be based on how actively the private schools were involved in keeping students engaged and the services adopted to ensure students continue the education like e-learning or Google classes.
He said education officials would visit all the 38 private schools and assess the services provided since the schools closed on March 6. It will also collect feedback on the situation faced by the schools because of Covid-19.
“Although we’re yet to complete assessment if the services are found productive, and teachers have continued to work, then it’s genuine. Parents should pay the fees,” he said. “But if such services are not provided then we’ll have to look into it, as schools were closed under the circumstances and not closed on their own.”
He added the ministry would take a decision only after the assessment. The assessment would complete in two weeks.
The ministry is also looking into how to release the fees for class XI in private schools on government scholarships. The official said that the education ministry is waiting for a list from the schools on the exact students they received. “As soon as we receive, we will pay.”
Voluntary task force takes over responsibility to help patients
The number of new coronavirus cases has reached alarming rates in New York City, the epicentre of the pandemic in the United States, but the recovery rate among Bhutanese patients is encouraging.
Of the four patients who were quarantined after discharging from the hospital in the Big Apple, one has fully recovered and was sent home on April 27. This brings the total number of recovered patients to four in New York. The other three patients, who also recovered, are in home-quarantine.
Ten Bhutanese tested positive for coronavirus since March 27. Although three are still kept in an isolation facility, they are in stable condition. One patient is also home quarantined and recovering, according to a member of the task force.
On the command of His Majesty The King, the task force has rented two apartments earlier this month to be used as a quarantine facility for Bhutanese affected by the virus in New York.
Three patients were kept in one apartment and the fourth one, who recovered after 15 days in isolation, was kept in the second apartment, which also houses three task force members on the ground floor.
The seven-member task force formed to monitor the situation within the Bhutanese community members, provide support and relief efforts to affected members. The task force also provides situational reports to relevant government agencies, raise and manage funds and provided vital support to community members.
Taskforce members said that they are providing all the essential supplies at the quarantine facility. “We also cook and provide meals to our patients,” one member living at the quarantine apartment, said. A Bhutanese practising nurse in New York is also monitoring patients at the quarantine facility twice a week.
Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji last week told Kuensel that on the command of His Majesty The King, the foreign ministry informed the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations to render financial support for the quarantine facility that the task force has rented. “However, we were informed that the Bhutanese community in New York has been managing the rents themselves,” the foreign minister said.
One task force member told Kuensel that they came together to support the task force morally and financially. “At present, Bhutan is going through a difficult time because of the pandemic, we don’t want to burden our King and the government when it comes to cost,” he said.
The Bhutanese community supported the task force by mobilising funds to support the patients at the quarantine facility.
The task force also plays the role of health advisory among the Bhutanese community based on the guidelines issued by local authorities. A member said that they received four or five reports saying that they may be affected by the virus.
Taskforce members said the guidelines issued in New York discourage people to get tested for Covid-19 if one has mild to moderate symptoms. In such a case, one has to stay home only.
The advisory guidelines stated that the testing should only be used for people who need to be hospitalised for severe illness like pneumonia.
The US has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world with cases crossing 1,010,507 and 56,803 deaths as of yesterday evening. New York City has more than 160,500 cases with 11,460 confirmed deaths.
Meanwhile, four other Bhutanese who were tested positive for Covid-19 in the Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Doha in Qatar and Mumbai, India are recovering well, according to foreign minister.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With the border gate closed and Jaigaon under lockdown, hardware shops in Phuentsholing have for the first time garnered 100 percent grip of the market.
Demand for construction materials have increased manifold and sales are at all-time high.
However, that will not be the case for long as the stocks are getting exhausted fast and imports, other than the essential commodities are not allowed.
Supplies of CGI sheets, fans, plywood and many other electrical fittings are already exhausting, hardware owners said.
The proprietor of Agarwal Trading, a CGI supplier in the town, Manish, said while the demand is rising, his shop is running out of stock. “Customers are coming,” he said, adding most customers enquiring about hardware materials were contractors.
Those in the business are waiting for government directives or any sign in relaxing the import of construction materials.
Legphel Enterprise’s owner, Arun, said they have not been able to import materials even for once after the government order to stop the import in the wake of the coronavirus and its prevention measures last month.
“If import is allowed, we will be able to import,” he said.
Arun said the key construction items that are more in demand are CGI sheets, plywood, and bathroom and toilet fittings.
Legphel Enterprise has stopped selling in bulk to ensure the limited stock benefit more people.
Traders in the town said that more than 70 percent of the Bhutanese construction firms and retailers relied on Jaigaon traders, prior to Covid-19 impact. Despite the construction sector being hit, most clients operating today are dependent on the hardware shops in Phuentsholing.
A contractor, Bimal Kumar Ghalley had listed about 13 different construction materials, when he came to the town from Pasakha, yesterday.
“I couldn’t buy more than 90 percent of the materials,” he said, adding that he was hopping from one shop to another.
There are not enough plumbing and electrical materials in all the shops, Bimal Kumar Ghalley said, adding that the prices would shoot up soon if the situation continues.
A hardware retailer from Trongsa, Megraj Ghalley said there is increased demand for construction materials from government offices, contractors and villagers in Trongsa.
“But there are no materials here. I will return with whatever I can buy,” he said.
Traders in the capital city that was experiencing a construction boom, especially hotels, are also seeing demand rise. They could sell most of their goods with the lockdown hampering import.
A trader on the expressway said there is a temporary rush for materials.
“One didn’t even spare my sample lightings,” he said.
Hoteliers import most of the materials, especially furnishings and furniture from as far as Thailand and China.
With some buildings nearing completion, building owners are dependent on what local traders have in stock. Unfortunately, many are running out of stock with the lockdown.
“Even as the sale was increasing, we ran out of stock,” said a hardware owner in Changzamtog. “We do not stock much and what we have is old.”
Those building houses are worried, as delay in completing would mean extra cost. “The loan interest waiver and deferment of payment for three months has come as a cushion,” said a building owner. “The problem is after June.”
A 22-year-old chef has been quarantined after he had come in contact with “potentially exposed cash” that was tossed from a quarantine facility in Thimphu on April 26.
On Sunday, at around 7pm, a person in a quarantine facility had thrown Nu 400 from the window, which was then picked up by the chef. It was learnt that there was another person with the chef during the incident. However, he had not touched the cash. Starting Monday, the chef has been put under quarantine for 21 days.
Officials from the health ministry said that given the assumption that everyone inside quarantine are “potentially infected” until proven otherwise, any item coming out of the facility has to be considered contaminated.
As per the quarantine protocol that is explained to all those entering the facilities, shifting or moving anything out of the facilities including dishes, cloths and other items is strictly prohibited.
Health officials said that this is to reduce the risks of cross-infection and spread of the disease. Save for critical items such as prescribed medicines, nothing goes out of the facility without prior information.
Individuals failing to comply shall be liable of the offence of criminal nuisance as per section 410 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act of Bhutan 2011 and for the offence of obstruction of public service as per section 424 of the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004.
Officials said that in Thimphu alone, they had experienced four similar incidents so far, where people from inside the quarantine were deceitfully sending out items like shoes, clothes and other goods to their friends and families outside. Most of these incidents took place during the night.
“Like His Majesty The King said, it would take only one ignorant person to jeopardize our whole effort to prevent this disease from spreading in our communities,” said an official.
Despite constant reminders, officials said that people inside quarantine continue to throw leftovers from the balcony and windows. “Disposing food waste in this manner is dangerous. The possible contaminated food could infect the dogs outside who eats the leftovers, increasing the chances to spread the disease.”
Every room in the quarantine facility is provided with separate waste bins for general and food waste. Once filled, the waste is carefully collected, disinfected and then taken by Greener Way for incineration.
“There are no particular guidelines from the WHO on the disposal of waste from quarantine facility but we are taking all the precaution as a part of our preventive approach to tackle this disease,” said the official.
The latest labour force survey report shows Bhutan’s employment rate at 97.3 percent. In other words, the overall unemployment rate has come down to 2.7 percent. Youth unemployment rate has dropped to 11.9 percent. Going by the numbers, this is a remarkable development. But we need to consider other conjunctive realities to truly understand where we are and where we ought to be.
The report also highlights that a majority of Bhutanese employed are in the agriculture sector. But there is nothing to be surprised about it. What comes off uncomfortably from all these, in fact, is that even as a large number of Bhutanese are employed in the sector, we are not producing enough.
Our development journey has been unique. We had to jump-start, so to speak, to catch up with modernisation. And that meant prioritisation of development activities. Agriculture, alas, had to somehow take a backseat. Over the years we saw the national budget share for the sector shrink. But we never stopped talking about the need for Bhutan to be self-sufficient, at least in the department of food. The sooner we can get out of this dichotomy, the better.
We are facing a new reality today. Border lockdown has taught us that food self-sufficiency is not a distant dream. Given there is right intervention and enough investment, Bhutan’s agriculture can truly grow. It can become the sector that employs not only the poor but also, more important, young and enterprising Bhutanese. That is what the Bhutanese economy needs today. What we really need today is innovation in the economy.
When agriculture is showing some promise today at long last, we can ill afford to not create conditions to make it more attractive. Losing this opportunity will be our greatest mistake. Because agriculture is our biggest employer, pulling it up with right and sensible policies now is critically important.
All these will require subsidy and investment. Our people, especially the young, are not getting them. Banks have the mandate more than to make money for themselves. Bhutanese billionaires and millionaires—where are they today?—can invest in large-scale agriculture rather than throwing their money on pageant shows and archery tournaments.