Tshering Namgyal | Lhuentse
Travellers between Lhuentse and Mongar dread the notorious Rodpazhong area. The landslide prone area had been a nightmare for travellers every monsoon for decades.
To address this perennial issue, the 84th session of the National Assembly then resolved to construct a bypass from Autsho-Gorbaktang via Tsakaling in Mongar in 2005 following the request of the people of Lhuentse.
The Asian Development Bank conducted a feasibility study and started the construction of an approximately 51km highway in 2009 with its own funding. The highway-standard road was constructed from both Mongar and Lhuentse side. From Mongar, around 12km was constructed until Chali top, while from Autsho, a 15km with base course was cleared till Gumbrang village, the border of Tsaenkhar gewog in Lhuentse and Tsakaling gewog of Mongar. There are 16 households in this village of which seven are from Tsakaling and nine from Tsaenkhar.
But the construction of the ambitious highway was brought to a halt since a decade ago for reasons not known to local residents including officials from Lingmethang regional DOR office.
Although the incomplete road has benefitted a huge number of households of Konbar, Takchu in Mongar gewog and villages in upper Chali and parts of Tsaenkhar gewog, the desired objective is yet to be achieved.
However, a 2.8km farm road connecting Takhambi village and Gumbrang and an ongoing Takhambi-Jakechhu road to connect Tsakaling gewog centre is likely to ease the connection. The construction began in February and around 2km of the six km has already been completed. The gewog hopes to complete the remaining 4km in five to six months.
The Tsakaling gup, Karma Sonam Wangchuk, who is also the Mongar dzongkhag tshogdu chairman said the road will not only benefit 60 households of Takhambi village who often miss gewog meetings because of the distance, but also serve as a bypass for Rodpazhong from Doleptang (the take off point for Takhambi) near Autsho to Horong (the take off point of Tsakaling GC road).
He said the road is a highway-standard road with a width of 6-7m through the rocky terrain of more than 4km at an estimated cost of Nu 28 million. The work is awarded on a hiring system with the block grant of Nu 4.5M, while the GNHC has committed a supplementary budget of Nu 24 million. “Although the gewog budget is exhausted, we are continuing with the work and if the running bill is claimed we have no more budget,” He said.
He added that SDP has also approved Nu 23 million to carry out the base course of the 8-km Jakechhu to GC road, which is scheduled to start soon. The gewog is also planning to widen the 2.8km Takhambi-Gumbrang farm road in future.
“Our intention is to make it a bypass in case if Rodpashong gives a problem, and with this only around 10km between Tsakaling-Chali top will be left even if it’s to be connected to Gorbaktang directly,” Karma Sonam Wangchuk said.
Tsaenkhar gup Tsheten Wangdi said the bypass, if completed, will not only benefit the people of Gumbrang and the nearby villages to get access to Mongar easily but help others to avoid inconveniences of Rodpashong.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
The cutting work on the Sherubling access road in Trongsa has become a problem for the commuters.
A massive landslide from the cutting has partially damaged the road towards the police station. Families and police vehicles have been moved temporarily to Thruepang.
The households above the slide area are worried too.
Phurpa, a commuter, said that the particular stretch of road was important as it led to the hospital. In case of emergency, it is difficult for the people to reach the hospital.
With having to use the road regularly, we have to take our vehicle to workshop frequently.
Another resident said that the taxis had stopped using the road. Office goers from Sherubling drive until the construction area and walk the rest of the distance.
Thromde thuemi, Karma Lethro, said that road condition towards Sherubling was worsening. “It has become difficult for the people, especially for those going to the hospital”.
Pema Tshering, who is executing the work, said that the road condition would be improved in about a week.
Trongsa Dzongdag Tenzin Dorji said that the authorities were aware of the problems facing the commuters. “But everything has been done with the best of intentions.”
He said that the work was expected to be completed before the monsoon, but this year the monsoon started early due to the cyclone amphen.
The access is to enable the east-west national highway widening.
According to the dzongkhag administration, the work will begin only after monsoon based on the recommendation from experts.
The slide areas will be observed and monitored in the meantime. However, the work beyond the landslide areas will continue.
It was learnt that the experts from the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement and Department of Roads, visited the area twice.
The work began in the last week of January and should be completed by November.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Where are the graduates of the vocational training institutes (VTI) or the technical training institutes (TTI)? This is the question the plight of the automobile workshops in Phuentsholing is asking.
A lucrative and a busy business, the workshops have sailed through the pandemic so far, but their business is affected, not because of a slowdown, but due to the lack of skilled manpower. Most of their skilled workers from across the border in Jaigaon are stranded after the border gate was shut in response to the pandemic.
Workshops recruited Bhutanese youths to fill the shortage, but skilled workers are in short supply.
One of the oldest workshops in the town, Natshok Engineering doesn’t have a single person to work on for denting and painting. Its owner Natshok Dorji said not having this expertise is the biggest challenge.
Natshok Dorji said that Bhutanese don’t have welding, denting or painting skills. Every year, he put requisitions for welders with the labour office but failed to get one.
The proprietor of Noryang Automobiles, Norbu Gyeltshen said he had applied with the labour office and TTIs in Thimphu but was unable to get help. His workshop is functioning with just one mechanic today. The workshop had 32 workers before the pandemic. Although there are customers, Norbu Gyeltshen said his workshop was able to tend to just three to four vehicles a day.
Another workshop owner, Lhatu Dorji said that his workshop is not doing any business.
“I don’t have a single person working,” he said. “I have advertised for TTI graduates on social media forums but none has come so far.”
Despite the demand for service, workshop business has drastically decreased, workshop owners said.
Zimdra Automobiles, however, managed to recruit 13 fresh graduates from TTIs. The workshop had about 150 technicians working in its workshop, prior to the pandemic, but today it has just about 20.
Zimdra had also proposed to bring skilled workers from across the border after the government announced that relevant agencies could bring skilled workers. However, nothing has come up, the workshop’s general manager said.
“Looking at the number of vehicles the business still looks profitable. But the problem is with manpower,” he said, adding that the workshop caters to just four to five vehicles per day.
Natshok Dorji also recruited nine unskilled Bhutanese including two former draying employees. Except for a foreman who has been with him since the workshop started, Natshok Dorji said his shop is run by new recruits now.
The workshop owner, meanwhile, said that the Covid-19 pandemic is a blessing in disguise.
“It is a lesson for both owners and employees,” Natshok Dorji said. “I have learned that we cannot depend on non-Bhutanese.”
Natshok Dorji also claimed that he paid the new workers whatever they demanded. There was no option than to pay and keep the workshop running, he added.
There are 23 registered workshops in Phuentsholing.
Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
Kinley Peldon’s 15 students are home, either in front of a television or on Google classroom. But then, two students—a boy and a girl—have been missing their lessons since school closed in March.
These students are at Esuna village in Lunana, Gasa. The village has just four households. Except for the locals and a few people from Ramina village, no one knows how to reach Esuna.
According to Bjishong Central School’s principal, Karma Sangay, there were six students from Esuna. The students are aged between 7 years and 14 years old.
After the school was closed due to the pandemic, a parent guided them home.
Aerial view of the Esuna village shows a small cluster of houses on a cliff. The village is at three days’ walking distance from the nearest road point in Goenshari. Mobile network almost never connects.
Teacher at Bjishong Central School, Kinley Peldon, said that she had tried to call the two students studying in Class II. She had even asked help from Ramina chiwog tshogpa.
Ramina is two days’ walking distance away from Esuna.
“We think that tshogpa visits the village often. And one time the tshogpa said that the students were listening to radio for lessons,” Karma Sangay said.
Without a guide for teachers to reach Esuna and none coming from their village to Gasa, the Self-Instructional Materials (SIM) have been lying idle in the school for months.
Karma Sangay said that there were teachers willing to visit the village and give lessons to the students. “We don’t have anyone who knows the route to the village. And most people in the village have also left for cordyceps collection.”
Today, with lessons almost coming to an end and the schools preparing for assessments, the only hope to send the SIM materials to the students is during the cordyceps auction in Punakha.
The cordyceps auction is usually held between late July and early August.
Retaining students from Esuna village has also been a challenge.
When the school term began this year, a girl who was to study in Class III did not return to the school.
In another incident in 2018, Lunana Gup Kaka said that four students studying in Genekha Central School dropped out.
He added that all four students were recipient of His Majesty’s kidu. “Every time we get a student from disadvantaged background, we immediately put in letter for kidu. We have been trying to help them.”
The six students of the Bjishong Central School received boarding facilities and kidu from His Majesty The King.
“The students would narrate tales of them hiding their utensils along the way when coming to school. And they would say that they have to climb some kind of ladder when nearing their home. Maybe because of these difficulties, they don’t return once they leave for home,” Karma Sangay said.
Despite challenges, the students have been performing well in school.
A girl in Class IV also received a double promotion.
According to Kinley Peldon, a girl in her class performed well in Class PP and I.
“The students do well. If they do well, we ensure them double promotion,” Karma Sangay said.
Facilitators visit homes to help children
Chimi Dema & Phurpa Lhamo
The Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centres provided the much-needed relief to working parents both in urban and rural Bhutan. It not only provided early learning and care, but for many, a safe space to drop in their children.
For working parents without a babysitter or parents to look after their child, the centres came as a solution. In rural Bhutan, farmers leave their children in the centres and attend farm works. However, with most of the centres closed following the school closure notification in early March, both parents are coping with the new challenge of balancing work and family. For those with young children at home, it has become difficult.
In Mendrelgang, Tsirang, since the ECCD was closed, Tshering Lhamo has become busier. Besides meeting demands of domestic chores, she caters to her four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son with their preschool lessons at home. She teaches alphabets, painting and drawings to her children with the help of educational videos online and nursery songs.
Tshering Lhamo said, “Although learning at home isn’t as effective, I feel happy when I see my children learning at least something.” Her husband is a teacher in nearby Mendrelgang Central School.
A teacher of the Central school, Namgay, said that she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving her kids alone while both the parents are at work. “Even though the workload is the same, sending children to the centre was safer.”
Namgay has prepared a timetable for her children and assigns them tasks in the morning before she leaves for work.
In Wangdue, a mother of two said that she was forced to leave her children home after the centre closed. With both parents working, children are left at home. There are three ECCDs in Wangdue, but all are closed.
Pema Tshoki, a mother of a four-year-old and a year old child, said that managing home with children was difficult. “I do help my children to study. But with a baby, it is difficult. It is much better if they study at the centres.”
However, facilitators from the ECCDs have started visiting homes distributing study materials and checking on the children.
The facilitator with ECCD centre in Pemashong, Mendrelgang said that the centre is now focusing on parenting education to help keep students engaged. Recognising the role of parents in educating children at home, the facilitator said it was important to educate and sensitise parents on safety measures first.
“We have completed two sessions so far and would continue in the following months,” the official said. The sessions cover directives on keeping students engaged and healthy both physically and mentally while at home.
The official said that they have initiated E-learning in the beginning. “However, given only a few parents owning social media accounts, I didn’t see the initiative effective.”
On visiting students at home, the facilitator said that it is feasible only for those residing in the vicinity, given other official tasks at the centre. The facilitator of Zomlingthang ECCD in Gosarling gewog assigns tasks through social media accounts to keep students engaged.
However, with parents attending farm works, the official said that lessons couldn’t be continued effectively.
The facilitator at Wangdue Dzong reconstruction ECCD, Kinga Dechen said she conducted a meeting with the parents and encouraged them to continue lessons from home.
Today, the three facilitators from the centre visit parents every week to assess the student according to the week’s task.
Another facilitator Dawa Dema said that while the facilitators visited homes, it was difficult to meet parents and the children. “Most of them are working and they tend to not give priority to students going to the ECCDs.” The ECCD has around 25 students today.
Meanwhile, ECCD operators are planning to open the centres. The owner of Lamsel Day Care in Damphu said that they would soon meet with parents to discuss whether to reopen or not. Tsirang dzongkhag education officials are also planning to visit the centre to ensure all the safety measures are in place if the owner decides to reopen.
In Wangdue, most parents are awaiting the opening of the ECCDs. While there are no plans to open the public ECCDs, the three private ECCDs in Bajo are preparing to open.