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Updated: 43 min 37 sec ago

Govt. to revisit the non-hydro debt ceiling

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:14

Tshering Dorji

The external debt ceiling on non-hydro loan, which came into effect with the public debt policy initiated by the former government, is now under the radar of the current government.

The public debt policy, which was introduced in 2016, sets thresholds for non-hydro power debt stock at 35 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) during the Five Year Plan period, while the general government debt is capped at less than 22 percent of domestic revenue in any given financial year.

The policy also states that Bhutan’s annual debt service obligations of total external debt should not exceed 25 percent of total exports of goods and services.

The thresholds can be breached only in times of economic crisis and other times when the government has no means to raise additional debt to maintain socio-economic stability. The government will have three years to stabilise the economy under such conditions.

Even with regard to the hydropower-related external debt, the government has to maintain a ratio of debt service to hydropower export revenue of less than 40 percent. The debt to equity ratio of hydropower projects cannot exceed 70:30.

The thresholds are to reduce the undue debt burden that might arise from indiscriminate borrowing for social projects that do not necessarily guarantee financial returns. Other considerations are aimed at ensuring fiscal discipline and avoiding ad-hoc, short-term borrowing that are, generally, costly.

However, the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said this ceiling, especially the non-hydro debt, was restricting the financial needs of the country when capital investment is required the most. 

He said that the finance ministry was asked to come up with a report as to how much and what kind of borrowings the country could avail as LDC and to identify the capital investment needs. 

“After we graduate in 2023, interest rates become higher and some doors may close,” he said. “This is the only time we can borrow at zero or minimum interest and we are restricting ourselves…If we have to borrow more, we might have to change the policy.”

As for the 12th Plan the fiscal deficit is Nu 29B; the government will source Nu 25B from domestic borrowing. The remaining Nu 4B would be sourced through subordinated debt with zero interest from World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

However, Tthe government’s pledge to establish another national referral hospital, provide free wi-fi, launch sung joen app and provide breast-feeding allowances, among others, are not budgeted in the 12th Plan.

If the government is to implement all its pledges, Lyonchhen during the first meet-the-press session held in December last year, said that projected fiscal deficit, which is the budgetary gap between the total expenditure and resources (revenue combined with grants), could touch Nu 40B against the projected Nu 29B.

According to the figures from the RMA, of the Nu 188B outstanding loan as of June this year, Nu 4.9B pertains to debt availed from World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IFAD, Austria, and Japan, basically the non-hydro convertible currency debt.

About Nu 14B outstanding debt are on account of GOI line of credit and RBI swap arrangement. The remaining are the hydropower debt which the IMF also labelled as debt with modest risk and commercially viable.

Steel export to India plummets

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:12

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Bhutan is not a steel producing country, but the little it exports to India has plummeted since the introduction of the Indian Goods and Services Tax (IGST) regime in 2017.

Perfect TMX TMT is the sole manufacturer of reinforcement bars in the country. It is an incorporation of four major steel companies in the country—Lhaki Steels and Rolling Private Limited, Bhutan Rolling Mills Limited, Druk Iron and Steel Pvt Ltd and Bhutan Steel Industries Limited.

These companies were integrated in 2014.

As per the figures from Perfect TMX TMT, total export sales prior to the introduction of IGST was around 27,642 MT in 2016. After IGST was introduced in June 2017, the company registered an export figure of 8,128 MT.

However, the exports were mostly from the period (June 2017) before the introduction of IGST.

The company exported only 748.56 MT so far this year, which is a decrease of more than 95 percent as compared to the period prior to the introduction of IGST.

The CEO of Perfect TMX TMT, Pema Tenzin said their export sales to India is negligible, which is currently hovering at around two to three percent of the total sales. “We have cut down production to ensure that we only produce that quantum of steel that’s required by the domestic market.”

Pema Tenzin said they have kept almost 25 percent of their capacity “under shut down” ever since IGST was introduced in India.

Manufacturing steel in Bhutan for export is disadvantaged because of the high logistical costs. Majority of the raw materials are imported from various parts of India and the world, and after value adding in Bhutan, the finished goods again have to be transported back to various parts of the Indian market.

Although, Bhutan is known to have comparatively lower electricity tariiff, this advantage coupled with the exemption of Indian Excise Duty on Bhutanese products prior to IGST, used to offset the additional transportation costs that Bhutanese manufacturers had to bear.

Currently, although the payment of 18 percent IGST on the raw materials required is exempted at source, the value-added finished product is subjected to a payment of 18 percent IGST on the selling price of the goods at the Indian customs land station across the border.

Before the introduction of GST, Bhutanese manufacturers were liable to pay the Indian excise duty on its raw materials imported from India. However, goods exported from Bhutan into India were exempted of excise duty.

After the introduction of IGST, Bhutanese manufacturers were exempted of IGST for import of raw materials from India, however, finished goods exported from Bhutan were levied IGST.

This change in tax regime translated into an additional cost of approximately five to seven percent while exporting to India.

Making infrastructure disable-friendly

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:11

Yangchen C Rinzin  | Paro

Proper signage, street furniture designed to allow free movement, wide footpaths, tactile tiling, ramps, and outdoor parking not more than 50 meters away from the accessible building.

This is how friendly Bhutan’s street should be for persons with disabilities according to the guideline for differently-abled friendly construction.

However, the reality is different.

Persons with disabilities often face challenges in terms of accessibility. These requirements among many are still not incorporated when a public infrastructure is built.

The guideline was endorsed in 2017 after the government directed the works ministry to come up with construction guideline aligning with universal design. However, the guidelines remained only on paper.

In an attempt to create awareness on the guideline to various planners, implementers and programme managers, the works ministry’s two-day workshop in Paro began yesterday.

The national policy for persons with disabilities which was approved this year requires implementation of the guideline.

It also aimed to incorporate water and sanitation hygiene (WASH) components in new public building construction, renovation and in public places.

Engineering services director Karma Dupchuk said that although the guideline was endorsed long ago, it did not work as it should in the absence of a national policy for persons with disabilities and disaggregated data on the person living with disability.

He said with the policy in place, the guideline has to be followed strictly at the national level and beyond infrastructure.

“However, the guideline was not completely ignored, it was implemented in small ways in few structures,” he said. “The sensitisation is to scale up the guideline although it is not that we’re waiting for a national policy to implement it.”

Karma Dupchuk said that this workshop is a first step to push the guideline through Bhutan WASH cluster group and create awareness on the guideline since no such mass awareness was conducted before.

“The guideline was only to guide our infrastructure developers, engineers, architects, city planners on the infrastructure provision.  The workshop would bring them together to ensure they create a friendly environment for persons with disabilities through such guideline aligning with the policy.”

The guideline looks into design considerations for outdoor spaces like footpath, signage, ramp, parking obstructions, and indoor spaces like entrance, access, corridors, and building services.

As per the guideline, the persons with disabilities in Bhutan should have access to universal designs in the public space like no step entrance, accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms, and motion-activated sinks at varying heights.

The guideline also requires planners or engineers to even consider street furniture that has resting facilities provided every 100m to 200m, accurate height of 405mm-460mm from floor level including table with various heights.

If implemented effectively, it also ensures safe footpath designed based on the slopes, to avoid manhole and grates in footpaths, provide handrails of 600mm to 950mm height, and tactile tiling to provide direction changes.

Steps, accessible ramp to link parking with accessible partway, one parking bay for persons with disabilities, and avoid signs to indicate obstructions are some of the guideline’s components to integrate in public infrastructures.

The members were also sensitised on the national policy, sanitation and hygiene draft policy, inclusive settlement planning, and social inclusion.

Some of the members expressed that for a successful policy implementation, there should be enough data on the persons living with disabilities so that such infrastructure and budget would not be wasted.

Participants included representatives from government agencies, state-owned enterprises, thromdes, local government, NGOs, CSOs, and the armed forces.

Drukair starts flying across the equator

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:10

Younten Tshedup

The national airline, Drukair, has added a new destination to its international flight operations.

Starting today, Drukair will start operating chartered flights to Dili in East Timor from Singapore. The flight operates upon the arrival of the scheduled flights to Singapore.

This is the first time the national airline would be crossing the equator for commercial operations.

The charter operation between Singapore and Dili is initially for a period of one year, with two chartered flights every week.

Officials from the airline said that the new long-term charter operation was started to increase the aircraft utilisation.

Airline officials said that given the difficult geographical terrain at the Paro international airport, Drukair has been exploring opportunities to increase its aircraft utilisation.

Drukair’s chief executive officer, Tandi Wangchuk, said that the airline has also been exploring charter opportunities during the night halts for a long time.

“I hope this venture ushers more such opportunities in the future,” he said, adding that the more efficiently an aircraft is utilised, the operational cost reduces for the airline. “Further it gives immense pride that a small airline in the Himalayas is crossing the equator for the first time.”

Other new routes to Vietnam, Indonesia, Taipei and Penang in Malaysia are also being explored.

Drukair is also waiting for the signing of the Air Service Agreement (ASA) between Bhutan and Japan to open the Tokyo operations and the signing with the Indian government to start operating flights to Dubai via Delhi.

Officials said that all the agreements would be placed by the first half of 2020 and operations to Japan and Dubai could begin by the third quarter of next year.

However, even as the airline expands its international destinations, dark clouds surround the aviation sector today.

Kuensel learnt that the Korean government had refused any airline originating from Bhutan to land in Korea for safety reasons. The Korean authorities had refused chartered flights from Bhutan or leave Korea for Bhutan.

Asked if this should be a cause for concern for the growth of airline, Drukair asked Kuensel to contact Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA). BCAA was not available for comment.

It was learnt that last year the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) issued a Significant Safety Concern (SSC) memo to the BCAA for not meeting safety standards in line with the international standard.

The memo was issued because the Air Traffic Office (ATO) in Paro was not managed by ICAO certified/trained people as required.

Meanwhile, Drukair would be receiving a new Airbus A320 Neo in the first quarter of 2020.

Currently the national airline has four aircrafts – three Airbuses and a recently added ATR 42-600 that replaced the aging ATR 42-500.

TCB removes flagship focus group

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:09

Dechen Tshomo and Phub Dem  

When Zhemgang was excluded from the focus group of tourism flagship programme, it became controversial. Some saw the move as being politically motivated.

But all is not lost for Zhemgang.

At the Zhemgang-Bhutan Cultural Atlas (BCA) project workshop in Thimphu yesterday, a Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) official said that there was no more a focus group in the tourism flagship programme.

“After taking into account the suggestions from the committee and stakeholders, the government decided to do away with the focus group,” Deputy Chief Marketing Officer of TCB, Damcho Rinzin, said.

TCB director-general, Dorji Dhradhul said it will now focus on a circuit based programme instead of focused dzongkhag approach in its flagship programme. The dzongkhags are divided into four circuits –eastern, western, central and southern circuits.

Dorji Dhradhul said, “For instance, if we are planning to develop highland festival in Merak and Sakteng, when we develop the tourism product, it will be made sure that the tourism product in Merak and Sakteng in Trashigang will also contribute towards taking tourism to the other six dzongkhags in the eastern circuit.”

He said that the earlier approach has become a kind of labelling while the concept is the same. “It was just an approach.”

“Now it is going to be a circuit-based meaning all the dzongkhags will get equal opportunities or priorities depending upon their capacity and feasibility,” Dorji Dhradhul said.

This means every dzongkhag will have one or two projects in consultation with the local government and the private sector.

TCB plans to brand four dzongkhags—Zhemgang, Gasa, Lhuentse, and Sarpang—in the current fiscal year. The promotion and branding of other dzongkhags will follow.

BCA will present Zhemgang as a cultural hub; the dzongkhag is a paradise for botanists and bird watchers.

So far, Zhemgang has received only 1,263 international tourists(332 arrival and 931 bed nights), which is 0.14 percent of tourist arrival in the country. Considering the dzongkhag’s rich biodiversity and the unique attraction, the number of tourist arrival was a concern.

The dzongkhag does not have star-rated hotels and has only four village homestays. This, according to the TCB official, was the reason why the dzongkhags received fewer numbers of tourists.

A total of Nu 57million was allocated for four flagship activities in Zhemgang. Bird watching and river rafting were found most suitable in Zhemgang. The government allocated Nu 27 million to support bird festivals and the develop birding infrastructure.

Furthermore, to develop infrastructure and to promote rafting, Nu 16.75 million was allocated. Manas White River rafting and River Guides of Panbang have been promoting ecotourism in the dzongkhag.

The development of Trong village is one of the flagship activities of Zhemgang and Nu 7.5 million was allocated to preserve Trong as a traditional Bhutanese village.

According to BCA, each house in Trong was uniquely crafted out of stones, wood, and mud. The houses have retained their original architecture and the village was identified for preservation as a heritage village to retain its traditional beauty.

Meanwhile, the TCB continues to work on its flagship programme. With the recruitment of more people in the TCB secretariat, works are expected to move faster.

Sustaining the free health care system

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:08

The journey of the impressive health care system is evident in the eyes of elderly patients at the national referral hospital. Some of them vividly recollect their visits to the small hospital at Desphaka, present-day Lanjophaka, in the 1950s.

The health sector has developed and besides criticism of services it provides, the free health care service is one area that has not differentiated Bhutanese since modern health system was introduced.

The Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck National Eye Centre is the latest addition to the growing health facility in the country.

Before the centre, the health sector saw the Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Mother and Child Hospital to improve maternal care and reduce the infant mortality rate and the maternal mortality ratio. A separate dialysis unit is under construction and there are plans to upgrade Basic Health Units, build a speciality hospital and initiate breast-feeding allowances.

Health is the cornerstone of the government’s plan. With a government headed by many health professionals, including the Prime Minister, we will witness new developments in the health sector in the next four years.

However, the pressure on the free health care system has changed. Although we have come a long way in controlling communicable diseases, the new challenge is from increasing non-communicable diseases and the extra cost incurred.  Health experts estimate that it is three times expensive to treat a NCD than a communicable disease. The free referral system is adding to the burden.

The health sector has received about Nu 3.5 B in the current Plan. There is a budget deficit of about Nu 12 B if all the pledges are to be fulfilled. A lot of reforms are initiated to both improve health services and to cut cost.

Sustainability of free health, including free referrals outside the country, is often questioned.  The government is also not seeing good investment in the health sector. The health sector has never seen a good share of the planned budget.

This discussion brings us face to face with an important reality. It forces us to look at our health system, especially on sustainability. This is not helped by the increasing lifestyle diseases that cost more and need better technologies.

Many of us who visited the hospital, some quite frequently, never think where the funds were coming from. We are quick to waste the pills we are prescribed, but do not think how those millions of pills that we receive, come at a great cost. In most countries, people die because they cannot afford basic medicines.

Some of us make a minimum health contribution. It is a drop compared with the cost incurred on the government. A large section of the population would still need free services, but it is high time we think of sharing the cost of health services.

How we do that, we leave it to experts, but when a lot of people can afford to fly to Bangkok to deliver a baby, complaining about the free paracetamol tablet is unreasonable.

The government was elected on the promise of narrowing the gap. The large rural majority would still need free health services, but a larger group could afford a minimal fee, say, for the pills they are prescribed.

Most Bhutanese students to be educated and skilled for employment in 2030

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:06

Staff Reporter

About 54 per cent of South Asian youth leave school without the necessary skills to get a decent job in the next decade, an international study states. 

According to data produced by the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education), the Education Commission, and UNICEF, South Asia lags behind several other regions in preparing the next generation of young people with the skills needed for 21st century work. Projections place South Asia well below the global average.  

However, the projection is not so bleak for Bhutan. The highest learning levels in the region are expected in Bhutan, which is projected to have 81 percent of young people learning basic secondary skills and completing school, up from 47 percent today.

As on June 2019, over 57 percent of youth are currently pursuing education while only one percent are with training institutes. Youth unemployment, especially for educated Bhutanese, has remained high with 67 percent of bachelor’s degree holders reported jobless in 2016. 

The 2030 Skills Scorecard: South Asia Edition calculates and projects the percentage of students in each South Asian country currently on track to attain a basic level of secondary education as a measurement for workplace readiness. 

“Every day, nearly 100,000 young South Asians – a large sports stadium of young people – enter the labour market, almost half of them not on track to find 21st century jobs,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “South Asia is at a critical juncture, with a limited window during which it can reap significant demographic dividends from its talented and capable youth. Get it right, and millions could be lifted out of poverty. Fail to do so, and economic growth will falter, youth despair will rise, and further talent will be lost to other regions.”

 However, a recent UNICEF ‘Voices of Youth’ survey conducted among 32,000 young people in South Asia reveals concerns among these under 24-year-olds about how well they are being prepared for the modern economy. According to the poll, many young people in South Asia feel their education systems are outdated and do not prepare them for employment. They cite lack of work experience (26%), inadequate support services to improve employability (23% received no support and most received limited and not comprehensive support), and bribery demands/discriminatory and unfair hiring practices (44%) as key barriers to finding employment even after they have graduated. 

 “This is a crisis,” said Justin Van Fleet, Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education. “Addressing the youth skills gap in South Asia requires government investments, commitments from the business community, contributions from civil society, and the perspective of young people to best equip the next generation to successfully enter the rapidly changing job market.” 

 The survey also found that across South Asia, it was observed that males are more likely to choose between education and work, and at an earlier age than their female counterparts. Females had a higher likelihood of studying full-time, with Bhutan, the Maldives and Bangladesh being the most favourable countries for female education.

The report, Developing Skills in Youth to Succeed in the Evolving South Asian Economy, 2019, found that the employment shares of industry and services have increased at different rates for the eight South Asian nations. Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives have seen a relatively large increase in the share of employment in the services sector.

The Bhutan country report states that out of the 45,000 who are in labour force (seeking employment), only around 5,000 are employed resulting in an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent. Excluding unemployment, about 10,601 youth are not in employment, education or training.

UNICEF, the Global Business Coalition for Education, and Generation Unlimited are convening a major forum from October 29-31 in Mumbai, India to bring together leaders from government, youth and the business community to address the education and skills crisis and showcase solutions. 

Labour minister Ugyen Dorji is leading the Bhutanese delegation at the forum.

 The South Asia Youth Skills and Solutions Forum will build upon the Generation Unlimited initiative and GBC–Education’s Youth Skills and Innovation initiative, and aims to advance the development of partnerships between the private sector, governments and international agencies to scale-up sustainable solutions to the youth skills crisis in the region. 

The forum aims to engage young people from across South Asia in meaningful interaction, action-focused meetings and sessions linking education, employability, and skills. 

Picture story

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:04

Thousands of devotees received blessings from the kusungthukten (relics of body, speech and mind) including the robes, rosary, and hat of the third Zhabdrung Thuktruel (mind incarnation) Jigme Drakpa at his birth place, the 200-year-old Wengkhar Lhakhang in Mongar on October 28. The relics were displayed on the 30th day of the eighth month to mark his death anniversary which was observed for the first time in the lhakhang and would now become an annual event. 

Empowering women through waste

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:03

Choki Wangmo

Art and craft products that housewives, physically-challenged individuals and women in difficult conditions from Bumthang and Thimphu made from recycled paper, plastic and textile waste were displayed for sale at Namgay Heritage in Thimphu yesterday.

Masks, penholders, boxes, files, bags and decoration pieces were among the many products.

RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women) and SAFE (South Asian Forum for Environment) implemented the cottage enterprise to encourage climate -smart livelihood for women empowerment three years ago.

In a month, about 2,000 kilograms of paper, plastic and textile waste is used to produce crafts

While addressing solid waste management and habitat conservation, the project that has trained about 50 women is expected to develop sustainable livelihood strategies by instituting cottage enterprise for paper and textile recycling.

The 10-day basic and advanced training, spaced within months, reinforced skills using different technologies. Except for raw materials like organic dyes used to decorate the crafts, it is considered a low-investment venture.

SAFE director Amrita Chatterjee said that the project was not only beneficial to the environment but created livelihood opportunities for Bhutanese women too. “We partnered with local waste management organisations and have plans to involve other stakeholders such as banks, hotels, airlines to donate portion of their waste.”

In a month, about 2,000 kilograms of paper, plastic and textile waste is used.

To include the habit of waste segregation at source in various institutes, organisations, citizen forums, community gatherings, and schools, the programme manager with RENEW, Tashi Wangmo, said that there were plans to take these training to gewogs.

“It is a win-win situation,” she added.

Recently, the women were trained on accounting, bookkeeping and dyeing methods to empower them through financial inclusion and entrepreneurial training.

To make the process more organised, structured and to have more outreach, Amrita Chatterjee said that the team would work with National Environment Commission (NEC) and the municipalities.

“The concept and technology is new. We are looking for new investments to scale up,” she said.

However, lack of resources, particularly the machines for grinding paper in larger amount has been the major problem. Amrita Chatterjee said that more partners were necessary for the project to progress and added that in Bhutan, it was difficult to reach out to women because of the difficult terrain.

The studies estimated that in 2015, the global textiles and clothing industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water, emission of 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 and production of 92 million tonnes of waste. It also estimated that by 2030, if the scenarios do not change, these numbers could increase by at least 50 percent.

The three-day exhibition is held at the ongoing 5th biennial Bhutan counselling conference.

India-Bhutan foundation funded the project.

Emerging socials issues call for improved counselling services

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 16:00

Tshewang Choden

Youth unemployment, substance abuse, suicide, rape, mental health and domestic violence are among the growing issues facing the country today.

At the 5th biennial Bhutan counselling conference that began in Thimphu yesterday, Her Majesty the Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck said the need for psychological and social comfort was evident.

“Depression counselling has now become paramount, not only in the institutions of learning but in our urban and global community as well,” Her Majesty said.

The conference touched on themes such as social work, cross-disciplinary partnership, gender-based violence and mental well-being, among others.

These manifestations of a society undergoing rapid socioeconomic transition call for professionalism among mental health and psychosocial service providers such as counsellors, psychologists, and social workers.

“The need to establish holistic and systematic prevention and intervention strategies is vital to address this emerging concern. This will make a significant difference to our people’s lives which in turn will help realise our national vision of gross national happiness,” Her Majesty said.

Her Majesty also emphasised the need for the counsellors to cultivate compassion and patience for those who require assistance.

The three-day conference will give the participants the opportunity to participate in various sessions, including counsellor supervision, enhancing creativity in counselling using models, prevention of substance use and related problem behaviours.

Counselling programme began in Bhutanese schools in 1996. In September 2015, the government approved the establishment of Bhutan Board for Certified Counsellors (BBCC), a professional body for registration, certification and training of counsellors, psychologists and social workers under the auspices of Her Majesty the Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuk, the founder and president of RENEW.

In 2017, 147 counsellors were awarded the certification of the National Certified Counsellor (NCC).

At the opening day of the conference, 110 counsellors were declared certified counsellors in different levels of peer, associate, master and supervisory.

The conference is organised by BBCC and RENEW in collaboration with NBCC, the US, National Commission for Women and Children Bhutan Foundation, Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), and UNICEF.

The workshop is being facilitated by trainers from the US, Israel, Japan, and Bhutan, who are leaders in the fields of social work, mental health counselling, and psychotherapy.

Picture story

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 15:59

His Holiness the Je Khenpo yesterday conferred Dhar to five lams of the central monastic body at the Tashichhodzong. Lopen Sha Thinley from Ruebisa, Wangdue was conferred Dhar for Toedsey Jim, Lopen Sherub Tharchen from Haa was appointed the new Chief Administrative Officer of Punthim Dratshang, Lopen Pelbar from Khelakha, Wangdue was conferred Dhar for Toedsey Jim. Lopen Nidup from Tsento, Paro was appointed Tshengye Umze, Lopen Tashi Tshering from Monggar was appointed as the Principal of Pemaling Astrology School in Serzhong, Sarpang. 

Bhutan gets its first eye hospital

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:50

Dechen Tshomo

Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck inaugurated the Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck National Eye Centre in Thimphu yesterday.

Members of the Royal Family, Cabinet and council members, chief justice, and other dignitaries attended the inauguration ceremony.

The eye centre, named in honour of Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother, is technically and financially supported by the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP) in Nepal and Wen Giving Foundation , an organisation based in Malaysia.

The Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck National Eye Centre

The hospital, built at USD 1.6 million, is funded by Wen Giving Foundation, which is founded by Mr and Mrs Wen. The funding came through the HCP.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said the HCP and Wen Giving Foundation were involved in charitable programmes for eye globally and in the region. “The HCP has been our partner for many years and they have been working with our eye programme. This is a project that came through them with the blessing of Her Majesty the Gyalyum.”

Since the inception of the eye programme in 1987, Lyonpo said the prime objective of the programme had been to prevent, control, and cure major causes of avoidable blindness, and to make essential eye care services available to all, as envisioned in the ‘Vision 2020: Right to Sight’.

“In achieving this overarching goal, Your Majesty’s patronage and gracious support has been instrumental in spearheading the development of this state-of-the-art eye hospital, which we are confident will provide the much needed eye services in the country,” Lyonpo said.

The centre is expected to provide more specialised eye care services and develop sub-specialisation in Ophthalmology in the country. Besides the OPD (out-patient department) services, the centre will also provide inpatient services for ophthalmology cases, and surgical services within the facility.

“This will also be a place where we will build the capacity and competency of our health workers,” Lyonpo added.

The centre will house 16 beds in four Aseptic wards, specialised OPD and in-patient eye services, three operation theatres, and other amenities necessary to provide people-centred eye services.

Today, eye care services are well integrated at all levels of the health facilities in the country.

Further, Lyonpo said targeted outreach programmes through mobile camps helped take eye services to the majority of the Bhutanese people.

The health ministry is also collaborating with Essilor to eradicate poor vision in the country.

Despite these great strides in providing primary eye care, the burden of eye diseases requiring specialised care is increasing.

“Therefore, it has become imperative that we also provide specialised services to back up our primary eye care services. To this end, the establishment of the Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck National Eye Centre as the first standalone hospital for eye is, indeed, very timely and auspicious,” Lyonpo said.

There are plans to bring expertise from the region, especially through the HCP to perform surgery. “After they go back, our health worker will manage the cases. We are already in discussion with our partners to work out this modality.”

On human resources, Lyonpo said it was a big concern for the health ministry. “We are limited in terms of human resources.”

However, for the hospital, the ministry is working with the partners to build the capacity and competency of local health workers.

Lyonpo said the ministry was in discussion with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) to re-open the certificate course for Ophthalmic Technician at the faculty of nursing and public health. “This is a much-needed course in the country.”

Royal Institute of Health Sciences, now the faculty of nursing and public health, stopped providing the course a few years ago.

“We are working closely with the RCSC to reopen this course so that our people can be trained to become opticians and ophthalmic technicians so that they can provide these services in the country,” Lyonpo said.

The new eye centre requires about 22 ophthalmic technicians.

The 19 health workers, including the ophthalmologist and ophthalmic technicians at the ophthalmology department with the national referral hospital in Thimphu, saw 39,635 OPD cases last year.

Today, the country has a total of 54 ophthalmic technicians, nine ophthalmologists and optometrist each.

“I assure our unwavering commitment to make the Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck National Eye Centre a seat of excellence that will provide the best eye care services to our Bhutanese people,” Lyonpo said.

Illegal sand business continues

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:48

Younten Tshedup

In 2012, the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS) recorded the first case of illegal sand transportation.

The number soared to 29 in 2013.

In 2015 the department detected only two such cases. However, number of cases started to grow in the following years, from 11 cases in 2016 to 24 last year. Latest records show that 14 cases were detected so far this year.

This however, is only those apprehended and registered by forest officials.

Several such cases go uncaught.

Recently officials from the Natural Resources Development Corporation Ltd (NRDCL) in Thimphu caught three trucks illegally ferrying sand from Punakha.

Forest officials in Thimphu also apprehended a trucker transporting the construction material without any documents two days ago.

Officials said that the illegal sand business continues to grow despite several measures put in place by both the department and NRDCL.

The limited natural resources such as sand and timber are confronted with large demand from the ever-growing construction sector in the country today.


Efforts to curb the illegal market 

NRDCL’s general manager with the mineral resources division, Deo Kumar Biswa, said that the corporation has strengthened their monitoring system and have also started to deploy teams to visit construction sites.

“We have started to send our people to check on the volume of sand people are receiving and also to inspect the source,” he said.

Deo Kumar Biswa said that they have also started to educate their clients to refrain from buying sand illegally. “We don’t mind supplying an additional truckload or two if the requirement is genuine.”

An online system that keeps record of all the customers and sand supplied has also been developed.

A client can avail only a truckload of sand a week as per the corporation’s regulation. However, it was learnt that many people claimed that they did not receive their quota of sand for months and try to hoard the mineral.

“The online system helps us keep tract of our supply system and also help in equal distribution of sand,” said Deo Kumar Biswa.

He added that illegal transaction of sand from areas that are under NRDCL has been reduced by almost 99 percent. “However, we cannot completely stop this practice, as there are several other areas from where sand is being sold illegally and these areas do not fall under NRDCL’s jurisdiction.”

NRDCL’s chief executive officer, Sonam Wangchuk, said that the Sha region has to supply sand to some 16 dzongkhags and the biggest market is in Thimphu.

He said that there are only limited sites with the corporation in Wangdue from where sand is being extracted.

With demands exceeding the production capacity in the Sha region, many resort to extracting sand from other places thereby promoting the black market.

Sonam Wangchuk said that there are potential sites in places like Gelephu and Lhamoidzingkha to address the growing sand demands in Thimphu. “However, people are reluctant to buy from these places as they do not want to pay for the additional transportation cost that would be incurred.”


Uncoordinated approach 

On an average, the Sha region dredges about 70 truckloads of fresh sand daily from the Punatsangchhu basin.

Construction of a three-storey building (20mx10m) with 3BHK of two units on each floor requires around 30 truckloads (8m3) of sand.

Currently, there are more than 2,500 new constructions ongoing in Thimphu.

While it is the thromde that approves construction plans, NRDCL is responsible to provide raw materials such as sand and timber.

It appears that there is a lack of coordination between the two agencies, which has led to an illegal business of the natural resources.

Sonam Wangchuk said that a tentative projection of how many new constructions would be annually approved by the Thimphu Thromde could help NRDCL plan its production accordingly.

It was learnt that the corporation had proposed for a system for coordinated approach in construction a few years ago. However, the plan didn’t come through.

All courts to have mediation unit

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:47

Rinzin Wangchuk

The president of the Bhutan National Legal Institute (BNLI), Her Royal Highness Sonam Dechan Wangchuck and Chief Justice Lyonpo Tshering Wangchuk inaugurated the opening of the Court-Annexed Mediation Unit (CAMU) at the Punakha dzongkhag court on October 28.

The event symbolised the official opening of the CAMUs and institutionalisation of the Court-Annexed Mediation (CAM) System in all courts, according to the director general of BNLI, Lobzang Rinzin Yargay.

In addition to the age-old customary mediation practices in the chiwogs and gewogs, the CAM system provides alternative or additional mediation services to people within the courts, to prevent having win-lose decisions in courts after protracted and often expensive and adversarial litigations.

In this system, Lobzang Rinzin Yargay said judges could refer appropriate civil cases to the CAMUs for judicial mediation. Alternatively, the parties can request judges to adjourn the cases and refer their cases to in-house judicial mediation service after the registration of the cases before the judgments are rendered.

“If the mediations are successful, the courts will endorse the settled agreements and render judgments thereon, and enforce accordingly,” the director general said. “If mediations fail, the cases will be reverted for adjudication as per laws.”

According to National Mediation Report 2018, over 4,000 cases are mediated in the community by gups, mangmis and tshogpas nationwide. “The additional judicial mediation services instituted in the courts is expected to wean off a good number of civil disputes from the adversarial adjudication,” Lobzang Rinzin told Kuensel.

He added that the primary objective is to prevent confrontation and protracted litigations between people who reside in small interdependent community.  

“The litigations have the potential to damage the close-knit fabric of the community and weaken community vitality and harmony in the community,” he said.

Earlier this year, BNLI trained 80 senior bench clerks as professional judicial mediators. The necessary CAM concept document, CAM Strategic Plan, CAM Forms, CAM Accreditation Standards of the Mediators, CAM Rules and Procedures, and CAM Registers and CAM logo have been developed by BNLI.

Lobzang Rinzin said that the courts are expected to designate CAMUs in their respective courts and begin operationalising the system. The CAM system is aimed at enhancing access to justice and preserving relationship between the people; promoting peace and harmony in the country through the collaborative and facilitative efforts of mediators who help parties in customising ‘win-win’ or mutually satisfying outcomes.

The Court-Annexed Mediation or the judicial mediation services, according to the BNLI director general, is a significant judicial reform aimed at keeping justice as inexpensive and expeditious as possible, in addition to strengthening community vitality, preserving relationship between people and promoting the Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Justices of the Supreme Court, High Court, and the judges of the neighboring dzongkhag courts, including Punakha dzongkhag officials, local government leaders and members of the public, attended the event.

Up in the North, flush toilets are useless

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:45

Chimi Dema | Soe

Despite the country’s significant progress in achieving 100 percent improved sanitation in almost a decade’s time, sanitation and hygiene still remains a problem in the highlands.

Soe and Lingzhi gewogs in Thimphu are without proper sanitation facility even today. Lingzhi had only 12 percent improved sanitary coverage, according to dzongkhag health sector’s report.

Without improved flush toilets, many households in Lingzhi use pit latrines.

Soe gewog achieved 91 percent toilet coverage today with the material subsidy from the gewog development grant. However, it was found that many people in the community constructed it, but never used and continued using pit latrines. The pit latrines are without slab and exposed to flies.

Some toilets were without piped water supply and are used as storage space in few houses in Soe.

Passang Tshering, 60, in Soe said that while he is aware of health and hygiene, without adequate water, using flush toilet is a problem facing people in his place.

Soe gup Kencho Dorji said that temperatures dipping to almost zero degree in winter made it inconvenient for residents to use flush toilets. “The water in the pipes are frozen during winter,” he said.

As one of the remotest gewog, Soe today has a small living population around 225 in 28 households. 

In addition to sanitation, access to safe drinking water is also a challenge in Soe and Lingzhi.

Many households in Chebesa, Lingzhi were found to be drinking water from the stream running through the valley.

According to dzongkhag health officer, Kencho Wangdi, the contaminants could have been introduced into the water body by the yak herders living upstream.

A 2018 health ministry’s record found that sanitation and waterborne disease amount to more than 30 percent of the overall disease in the country.

Going by the Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (PHCB) 2017, at least two percent of households across the country do not have a toilet facility. This scenario is more prominent in rural (3 percent) than in urban areas (0.4 percent).

A total of 3,325 households across the country reported that they use bush, open field or no toilet to relieve themselves, according to the PHCB 2017.

However, as of last year, every household in 80 gewogs in 10 dzongkhags had a flush toilet.

At least 41 gewogs in nine dzongkhags were recognised to have achieved the status of ‘Open Defecation Free’.

The health sector’s report recommended the gewog administration to allocate adequate budget for provision of piped water supply. 

 Exploring  possibilities of supplying flush toilet construction materials to the people in Lingzhi was also recommended. 

Located at about 5960 metres above sea level, Lingzhi is home to 430 people living in 93 households. 

COP25 and LDCs

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:44

Last week saw the coming together of the representatives from the least developed countries (LDCs) in Thimphu to discuss and endorse the agenda for the Conference of Parties (COP25) in Parque Bicentenario Cerrillos in Santiago de Chile, Chile from 2 to 13 December.

In the face of weedy initiatives from the rich and powerful countries to fight climate change, united call for action from the LDCs is becoming increasingly urgent.

Achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) stands to become increasingly challenging for the LDCs due to the realities of climate change. Dramatic interventions so have become necessary.

The representatives emphasised the need to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Because limiting global warming is feasible, the group will push forward the urgent need for rapid reduction in global emissions to avoid increased loss and damage due to climate change.

For the LDCs, adaptation and building resilience is critically important and that means heavy pressure on resources and capacity. For greater emission reduction, in Santiago de Chile, the LDCs will demand stronger policies and actions to achieve global net zero emissions by 2050.

Because climate change is a global problem, nations that have contributed significantly to it must take moral responsibility. Developed countries should provide significantly to the Green Climate Fund adaptation allocation for vulnerable countries including LDCs and “adaptation finance should be targeted towards countries whose ability to meet SDGs will be most hampered by climate change”.

In the meanwhile, stronger LDC voice is vitally important.

Climate change threatens to worsen existing poverty, widen inequalities and all dimensions of food security—availability, access, utilisation, and stability—will be affected. And this threatens to hamper the achievement of all the other SDGs. A study has estimated that climate change could leave more than 170 million undernourished by 2080.

For a landlocked and mountainous country like Bhutan, the impact of climate change can be devastating. Low crop productivity and climate-induced hazards have already begun to affect the lives of the people.

The Chile conference will not be easy for the LDCs. It has been found that developed countries have not done enough to mobilise 100 billion USD annually by 2020, which is expected to be one of the many points that the LDCs will continue to push for.

The success of the COP25 will, therefore, be determined by the ability of the LDCs call for and initiate global action on climate change.

Cabinet goes slow on meet-the-press

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:43

Yangchen C Rinzin

The periodic interaction between the Cabinet and the members of the press, including the monthly session called meet-the-press and Friday meet, will be fewer hereafter.

The session was started by the first elected government as a means to update the nation on government activities and field questions raised by the press on any matter. This monthly meet-the-press continued during the tenure of the second government, which also started another session called the Friday meet where the Prime Minister met with the editors and senior journalists.

When the current government started its first meet-the-press and Friday meet last December, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that such interaction was a way to portray the level of transparency on the government’s part and avoid misreporting. The current government also made the Friday Meet accessible to all members of the press and used this forum to update the media on government activities on a weekly basis.

The format of meet-the-press changed to a theme based and the media division of the Prime Minister’s Office sought suggestions from media houses to decide on the theme for the particular month. “This was bit useful because we also get to learn,” said the Prime Minister.

After some 31 such interactions within a year, the frequency of interactions started to decline. Lyonchhen said that although the government is not completely doing away with the meet-the-press or Friday meet, it has decided to call media for press conference whenever required or as and when important occasions and announcements come up.

“There is no clear understanding on meet-the-press and I thought that it was not required since it’s not useful and time waste is quite huge,” Lyonchhen said. “It’s a burden on us too. But if a reporter needs any information they can walk anytime and accessibility to information will always be there.”

The prime minister indicated that reporters should take extra steps to get information instead of government calling media and blowing its own trumpet. He added that every media house carried the same stories the next day.

“If a reporter is interested in a particular issue and has done good research, we’re always ready to take questions anytime for extra information they’re seeking for. I feel it would be better to leave the reporters on their own,” he said.

This decision was also arrived at after some members from media and even the public suggested that meet-the-press and Friday meet was too frequent and unnecessary. The Prime Minister also hinted that he and his ministers appeared too often in the media, making them appear media savvy.

Press Secretary Kesang Dema said that media-related activities might have gone need-based now, but that does not mean that access to information has been reduced. “Sometimes we had instances where we call the ministers despite their busy schedule only to realize media did not have questions for them.”

Fire guts hut in Martsala

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:42

Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar

A fire at Somoshing village in Martshala gewog, Samdrupjongkhar razed a hut to the ground around 6am on October 28.

No casualties were reported. However, the victim lost all belongings in the fire.

Sources said a neighbourer saw the victim’s house catch fire and informed the chiwog tshogpa. The tshogpa then informed gewog officials.

Martshala gewog administrative officer, Thukten Tashi, said they could not save any belongings because the house was burnt to the ground when they reached the scene. The hut was insured with the Royal Bhutan Insurance Corporation Limited (RICBL).

He said there was no one at home during the incident. The father had gone to collect mushroom. His son and the pregnant daughter- in-law were at Martshala basic health unit (BHU) to avail ultra-sound service where the dzongkhag health officials were conducting a medical service at the BHU on October 27.

The couple couldn’t return home on the same day.

Another hut also partially caught fire, but neighbours contained the fire on time. The cause of fire is not known.

The gewog administration provided tarpaulin sheet and necessary emergency kits to the victim. The gewog officials also informed the dzongkhag kidu office. RICBL officials who carried out assessments provided insurance claims to the victim yesterday.

White-bellied Heron spotted in Thimphu

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:40

Choki Wangmo

To the pleasant surprise of birders and residents, a lone juvenile White-bellied Heron (WBH) was spotted for the first time in Thimphu yesterday.

The critically endangered species was spotted near the Babesa sewerage pond. It was found feeding on a small patch of land near the Thimchhu.

A bird enthusiast, Sherab Gyeltshen first saw the heron but could not confirm its identity. Later, few experts confirmed it as the White-bellied Heron.

Bird experts are determining why a WBH was in Thimphu, considering the elevation range within which the species forage.

Senior research officer with Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), Sonam Tshering said that habitat disturbance in lower areas could have caused the bird to move in the lesser disturbed areas. “WBH is mostly found at an elevation range of 500-1,500 metres above sea level, but Thimphu fall within 2,000 metres, which make the spotting almost near to impossible. But we cannot conclude anything,” he said.

Once they fledge, juveniles are found to feed along rivers and tributaries. Sonam Tshering said the bird might have migrated from Kalikhola, considering the stretch of the Wangchhu basin.

Habitats of WBH in the country are threatened by illegal fishing, timber collection, sand and stone extraction from rivers, among others. Birders are also said to disturb them with camera lasers.

A birder, Tshulthrim said that the bird might have mistaken its migratory route and ended up in Thimphu.

An ornithologist with Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER), Sherub (PhD), said that as the young birds disperse to find new suitable areas for survival, the lone sub-adult might have been sighted in Thimphu. However, he said GPS tagging of the juveniles will help to learn about thier dispersal in the coming years. 

“It could also mean that there are disturbances in their natal  area,” Sherub added.

Due to lesser fish population in Thimchhu, Sherub said the bird might soon move from the area. 

At the site, part time birders from the United Kingdom, Tony and Helen Cockearm (PhD), said that they were pleased with the sighting.

“It’s good and thrilling to see this rare bird. We join your enthusiasm in preserving this beautiful species,” Helen Cockeram said.

Bhutan is home to 41.6 percent of WBH global population, which is estimated at 60. They actively nest in the Punatsangchu basin, and are found along Mangdechhu. Recently, it was spotted in Manas.

According to records, the species sighting in the country increased from last year. RSPN is in the process of developing an action plan to strengthen conservation efforts in the country.

Global WBH distribution is restricted to the Eastern Himalayan foothills. As of 2014, its occurrence was reported from only three countries with Bhutan leading in the confirmed numbers, followed by Myanmar and India.

Bhutan bags 12 medals at international taekwondo competition

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 16:39

Thinley Namgay

The Bhutanese taekwondo team brought home 12 medals from the recently concluded ninth Tirak Taekwondo International Championship held at Bangkok, Thailand.

The team of 12 national players (six boys and six girls) won three gold, four silver and five bronze medals.

Ngawang Yonten, Tandin Bidha and Tshering Yangchen bagged gold medal while Sonam Wangmo, Sonam yangtsho, Dorji Tshering and Dorji Khando won silver. Lham Kem, Chimi Dolma, Tenzin Dorji, Migmar Wangchuk and Tenzin Lhendup won bronze medal.

Ngawang Yonten, 22, from Trashigang, Kangpara was declared the best fighter of the championship in the overall senior men’s category.  He was awarded a trophy and a cash prize of Thai Baht  1,000.

A third dan belt, Ngawang Yonten competed in the 68-74kg-weight category from the quarter finals. All his matches were completed on October 26.

In the quarter final, Ngawang beat Cambodian Meansoursa Yik with a huge point difference of 19-3.

In the semifinal, he beat Indonesian Muhammad Narez Ma in superiority display with 24-3 points and in the final he beat Brazilian Lucas Souza Mamede 17- 9.

Ngawang said that his 18 years of taekwondo journey paid off.

“We prepared well and the results were overwhelming.  In the South Asian Games, I am hoping to grab the gold medal,” said Ngawang.

Since he was selected as a national player in 2016, he won  medals in the international competitions.

He secured bronze in the South Asian Games in Shillong India in 2016 and gold in the first Indian Taekwondo Championship in Assam, India in 2018.

Ngawang is currently staying at Taekwondo Training Centre at the Swimming Pool complex, Thimphu and coaches other taekwondo enthusiasts, especially the students.

According to the BTF, the competition is to prepare for the upcoming South Asian Games (SAG), which is going to take place in December at Kathmandu, Nepal

BTF’s coach, Pem Choki said that all the players were selected in December last year through competitions in the dzongkhags and they were trained for the championship starting February this year.

“Our players have performed well and we expect the same results in the SAG,” added Pem Choki.

A total of 836 athletes from 22 countries took part in the championship from  October 26-28.