Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
Elderly Layaps (people of Laya) had never thought that a motorable road would connect their village, located at an altitude of 3,800mts, at least in their lifetime.
For many, a road till the Gasa dzong or the dzongkhag headquarter was the best bet.
Passing Tshering, 53, who as a young Layap had traversed the five-day road between Punakha and Laya several times with his horses and yaks. He recalls getting stuck in the snow for a few days with his yaks. He was 25 years old then.
“I never thought that the government would decide to bring road to Laya. So much has changed since.”
Today, with 27km paved road from Gasa towards Laya, the realities are changing. About 3km of the 27km road has been blacktopped today.
Going to Gasa for about five times a year to fetch goods every year was normal for almost all Layaps, according to Kinley Dorji, who owns a shop in Laya. Because of the long winter, highlanders have to stock up food and essential items.
“With the road connectivity, it is much easier for us. We do not have to struggle so much,” Kinley Dorji said. “To carry essential items, nearly 150 to 200 horses are used,” said Kinley Dorji. About 20 horses die every year along the journey. Weather and terrain are unforgiving.
With the 27km road connectivity, fetching luxury items has become easier for the people of Laya. Kinley Dorji said that nearly 40 percent of people in Laya owned a washing machine.
While it was impossible to carry a washing machine to Laya in the past, today with the walking distance shortened, people carry the machine on their backs to bring the item home.
The road has reached Tongshida, which is about a half-day’s walking distance for many visiting Laya. For Layaps, both men and women can cover that distance in four hours even with loads.
The construction of Gasa to Laya road began in the 2012-2013 financial year. Gasa dzongkhag’s engineer, Choki, said that there remained 14km stretch to complete the project. The project has arrived and stopped at Tongshida.
Choki said that the construction of a bailey bridge at Koina, 23km from Gasa, was also delayed. He added that fabrication works has to be done in India as Bhutan lacked factories to manufacture materials and lacked expertise, which has delayed the work.
“People can travel in winter because the river is small, but there will be problems in summer,” he said.
The project worth Nu 72 million will continue for around five years. But the project’s main challenges are short working months and the risky landscape.
“We work for around four months during winter and we cannot work in summer. As we move to Laya, the terrain is also rocky in nature,” Choki said.
An initiative to inspire reading called 10 Pages a Day Reading Journey has gathered 3,021 participants as of last week.
The online initiative of VTOB: Teachers of Bhutan Volunteers encourages participants to read at least 10 pages a day.
The coordinator Sonam Norbu, a teacher in Lobesa LSS, Punakha, said, “Inspired by His Majesty The King’s wisdom to read 10 pages a day, we started the initiative themed “wellreadbhutan” on June 7 through social media.”
Participants consist of students, teachers, homemakers, non-government and government employees, writers and journalists.
Most of the participants consist of students with 48 percent and teachers with 28 percent.
Sonam Norbu said that the initiative was a long term project to inspire, motivate and consistently develop a strong reading habit culture.
“I feel reading should be more than a good habit- it can be a lifestyle!” he said.
A teacher in Thimphu, Benita said that she received positive feedback from her students on the initiative. “Some students usually would only read for classroom lessons, but this initiative will enable them to go beyond classroom learning,” she said.
Sonam Norbu said that prizes and different motivations are in place to encourage successful, consistent and more participants.
A teacher in Samtse, Pema Yangzom, said, “This initiative would help build a reading culture and encourage students and adults to start reading instead of stress-scrolling to Covid-19 updates.”
Parents are interested in their children’s reading habit because of this initiative. This parent-children partnership exhibits the positive impact of this initiative she said.
Participants are required to send monthly data of their reading logs. VTOB will also conduct book review competitions and book talks.
A final-year student Yeshey Tobgyel said that reading 10 pages a day would be an achievement. Despite his study duties, he is committed to reading at least 10 pages a day.
Tshering Dolkar from Punakha said that the initiative has encouraged her daughter in the fifth standard to read more and stay engaged. The initiative has helped her daughter to improve reading skills and influenced to write her own stories, she said.
The VTOB team also plans on developing a reading app and collaborate with various stakeholders to sustain the initiative.
The initiative is supported by Drukyul’s Literature Festival, The Reading Retreat, Bhutan Street Library, iBEST Entertainment, READ Bhutan and Miza Books.
It is inching closer, the road to Laya. About three kilometres of the road is even blacktopped. If all goes well, Laya will be the next remote highland to be connected by a road in the next few years.
The road until Tongshida, around an hour’s walk from Koina, has already cut distance by a day much to the relief of the Layaps. The road will, like Layaps say, reduce the hardship and drudgery of transporting goods including essentials from Gasa. Layaps carry everything from salt to cooking oil to washing machines on their back or on horses and yaks.
A road has been the priority and the best bait for votes during elections. All the candidates from the constituency had pledged a road. Even with the road reaching only halfway, Layaps are reaping the benefits. They feel that it will now bring developments to the remote gewog.
But what difference would the road to Laya make besides shortening travel time and reducing hardship? What developments are the people thinking?
Laya is a beautiful place with rich and unique highland traditions and customs. It is a must-visit place for even Bhutanese, given its beauty and serenity. Besides agriculture, they depend on yaks and horse which is a good source of income. Laya is a tourist hotspot and without a road, porter and pony services provide good business to the locals. Laya has already developed a lot. They have all the basic amenities like electricity, mobile connectivity, and health and educations services. Since Cordyceps collection was legalised, hard cash is also not a problem.
A road reaching Laya could be the beginning of the end of a lot of things the remote hamlet is known for. The unique tradition is already under threat. Young Layaps feel embarrassed to wear their traditional attire. Products made from yak hair like tents and cloak have become a rarity, as cheap imported goods are readily available.
Recognising the importance of the highlanders and their tradition and culture, His Majesty The King initiated the Highland Festival. The festival celebrates and preserve the rich cultural traditions of the highland communities in the country. With so-called development, things could change. Eastern Bhutan’s Laya, the picturesque Sakteng village has lost its remoteness with the road connecting the Dungkhag.
Highlanders are already feeling the impact. Without the need for horses to transport goods, a good number of men are jobless in Sakteng. Laya is a stopover on the several popular trekking routes. Some are already benefiting from farmhouse business, locally made products, porter and pony business. With a road at the doorsteps, they will see these opportunities gone. Tourists could drive away to Punakha or Thimphu from Laya after a tiring day of trekking. Layaps will realise the impact soon.
Highlanders are also important in many other ways. The yak herding tradition plays an important role in balancing the eco-system. As more people stop yak rearing for other business or move out, under-grazing could disturb the eco-systems. Besides, it is also a strategic national importance for highlanders to live in the mountains.
It would be unfair to treat highlanders like a museum, but there are several ways to compensate for the sacrifices. Interventions, for instance, in yak rearing tradition through innovation and technology could help highlanders stay back and continue the tradition.
With technology, the harsh climatic conditions can be made bearable. There are organisations looking into technologies like heating and lighting. Subsidies like in the helicopter service during emergencies will make highlanders not dependent on a road at their doorstep.
Today, the only bump in reaching the road to Laya is the clearance from the home ministry. This provides an opportunity to rethink if Laya should be like any other town in the country.
National Organic Flagship programme expected to build feed mill
Phub Dem | Haa
The trout-breeding centre under the National Research Centre for Riverine and Lake Fisheries (NRCRLF) is still facing challenges in availing quality trout feeds.
The establishment of feed mill, as a part of National Organic Flagship programme (NOFP), is expected to solve the problem.
A research conducted by the Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives states that trout is one of the selected organic commodities for export market.
NOFP has estimated organic trout export of about 7MT.
According to livestock production supervisor, Jambay Tshewang, the centre would set up a feed mill to produce feed from organic ingredients available in the country.
“Although the center has initiated organic trout farming, production is expected by 2023,” said Jambay Tshewang.
NOFP has allocated Nu 15M to setup feed mill.
Besides, Nu 1M was allotted for the development of infrastructure for the organic trout farming for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Programme Director of NRCRLF, Singye Tshering, said that it was difficult scale up trout business, as availing feed for cold-water species from neighbouring countries was a challenge.
But then, the communities’ religious belief and objection to trout farming is also an issue.
Jambay Tshewang said that there was a huge demand for rainbow trout in the neighbouring countries. “The country should take advantage of its rich cold water resources to enhance country’s revenue.”
For instance, West Bengal demands 100MT of trout in a week. But Singye Tshering said that the country lacked production and consistent supply. And there is huge demand from high-end hotels inside the country. “We don’t have to directly target export market. We can earn revenues from tourist hotels as well.”
The feeding centre is currently importing feed from Denmark.
Introduced in 2008, rainbow trout is reared in Damthang and Tshaphel in Haa today. Another farm in Paro is expected to come up soon.
To promote private trout farm, the department of livestock has set cost-sharing mechanism where the farmers are provided with free seed and feed for first season. The trout-breeding centre provides technical backstopping, pond designing, conduct feasibility studies, and train staff to build capacity in aquaculture.
Singye Tshering said that the trout-breeding centre was established to ensure sufficient fish production, as fishes in Bhutan mainly comprised of warm water aquaculture.
The centre was established with the introduction of Rainbow trout in 2008 with the aim to promote and develop fish culture based on coldwater fish species.
Nima | Zhemgang
If everything goes as planned, Zhemgang Dzong renovation would have detailed project report and a work plan by the end of this year.
The plan to renovate the dzong started in the 11th Plan.
Zhemgang Dzongda Lobzang Dorji said: “There is a need to strengthen functional point and utility needs. There was no comprehensive restoration plans in the past.”
He added that the dzongkhag administration in the past built residence, kitchen, and guesthouse adjacent to dzong when there was a budget.
With the project plan coming up, the dzongkhag expects the renovation project to be comprehensive.
Lobzang Dorji said the ministry agreed to complete the DPR at the earliest. “Then, depending on the availability of the resources, we will start the renovation within the 12th Plan or in the 13th plan. The ministry has limited people and there are many things to look after.”
The dzong experienced damage from a windstorm that blew away almost half the roof of a monastic residence located near the central block of the dzong last month. It took three days for the Desuup and the administration to restore the structure.
Dzongkhag Tshogdu’s chairperson, Kinzang Jurmey, said the dzong renovation had been in the planning and discussion for a long time. “We are not sure if this has become a subject to politics. Don’t know if local leaders and the dzongkhag is failing to do the required job to materialize the plan.”
The chairperson added that the home minister assured the dzongkhag administration would provide all the necessary support. “We have high hopes this time. The dzong is one of the most significant symbols for the nation. No major renovation was done for a long time.”
He said that the fund support received from the centre was given as a part of the annual dzongkhag budget. “There was no separate budget for the renovation project.”
Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
Work on the new Gasa town at Kolikha would begin in the 2020-2021 financial year.
Construction of stormwater drainage, an internal urban road, and electricity connection are the three projects that would start in the later half of this year.
Gasa dzongkhag Municipal Engineer, Kinley Dorji, said that for the stormwater drainage system, the dzongkhag had proposed Nu 21.14 million (M). The system will include service ducts, and ensure that the drains are underground with pedestrian paths on top.
While Nu 12M was proposed for the internal urban route connection, another Nu 2.3M was proposed to bring electricity connectivity.
The projects are funded through the Small Development Project grant and will be executed within two years.
Apart from the three projects, a preliminary study has also been conducted to bring water from the new source Zamjina located around 4km from the new town area.
Today, water is brought from Shingtachu, located around 6km away from the old Gasa town.
Kinley Dorji said that the old water source was not enough. “The new source would be enough for the whole Gasa settlement,” he said.
Gasa dzongkhag has today spent Nu 2M to clear the site for construction at the new town area, formation cutting, and soiling of the road leading to the area.
Talks to shift the town to Kolikha began in 2015. The Gasa dzongkhag administration is today in process of clearing the 74 acres land. Kolikha is located around 1km from Gasa dzong.
The Gasa town shifting process will be executed in two phases.
In the first phase, the 48 identified plots, as the commercial central zone will be allotted to the shopkeepers. Today, 29 shopkeepers based at the old town have been allocated 5-decimal land each.
“The remaining plot will be assigned as people apply,” Kinley Dorji said.
In the second phase, 18 plots identified as residential and resort area will be allotted after the first phase of the project is complete.
The new town will also have a bus terminal and taxi parking.
Today, the old town located near the Gasa hospital accommodates around 29 shopkeepers and institutional buildings.
Gasa Dzongdag Rinzin Penjore said that the current location didn’t have any place for expansion and moreover, most of the shops in the old town are on state land.
“There is no space to expand in the current area. At the new town, the infrastructure and facilities could be improved.”
After the town is shifted, the old area is expected to accommodate institutional structures including the offices of Bhutan Power Corporation Ltd and the National Housing Development Corporation Limited, among others.
A shop owner at the old town said that because she didn’t own the land her shop stood on, she was glad to move to the new town where His Majesty The King had granted them land.
The 15-year project will complete in 2030.
Ministry has containment strategy in case of a community transmission
Community or local transmission of the Covid-19 pandemic is inevitable. According to Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, it is only a matter of when and how.
More than three months after Bhutan detected its first Covid-19 positive case, the country has not had a single incident of community transmission.
But then, during her recent visit to the south, the minister said the risk was ‘very high’, especially in the border town and communities. Positive cases across the border have been growing at an alarming rate of over 300 percent daily.
However, Lyonpo said that should there be a community transmission, the country had a ‘fairly good’ system in place to handle the situation. “We already have a containment strategy in place. We’ve carried out a simulation and know how to deal with the cases in the event of a community transmission.”
With an efficient tracing system in place and scaled-up preventive measures, she said she was optimistic. However, she said that to effectively contain community transmission was not the sole responsibility of the health ministry.
She said that if people sincerely practised preventive measures, such as hand washing and maintaining good hygiene, avoiding unnecessary travels and wearing masks in the public areas, even if there was a community transmission it could be contained effectively.
“What is very important is that every individual must be responsible. All that the ministry and government can do is request people to follow the advisories. If we have to break the chain of transmission, we must all take the responsibility seriously.”
Differentiated risk modelling
In light of the relaxation in the region and across the border and with the increasing cases in the region, the minister said that it was a good time for the country to reflect on the critically important health protocols, ratchet up and improve on the existing systems.
She said that it was critical to epidemiologically identify high, medium and low risk areas with a differentiated risk model because not all the 20 dzongkhags had the same risk from the pandemic.
With the differentiated model, certain relaxation would come based on the risk the respective dzongkhags could face.
Lyonpo said that traditionally the risk assessments were based on the number of cases in a particular area. However, the numbers of cases are determined by the rate of testing.
She said that for Bhutan, because there was no local transmission, the risk was from importation, the possibility of the disease coming in from importation through the border.
“Based on this, it is the border towns that have the highest risks. That is why we would be putting in more restrictions there but, more than the restrictions, it is important to provide more services along the borders,” she said.
Based on the ministry’s 3T strategy, Lyonpo said that aggressive testing would be done with change in the testing protocols along the border areas. “We will now randomly test communities in close contact and test everyone in the community.”
Mobile populations like the drivers and those who visit flu clinics with flu-like symptoms and health and frontline workers will all be tested.
In the event of community transmission, Lyonpo said that the strategy would change from prevention to containment.
The second T—tracing—will be more pronounced in the containment phase. Besides using the Druk Trace app, focal persons in the communities will be identified so that people can report, which would further enhance the tracing capacity.
Lyonpo said that health workers were trained and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) was deployed to the high-risk areas.
The second testing facility in the south is expected to come up in Gelephu this week.
With an average of about 300 tests per day, Bhutan has one of the highest Covid-19 testing rates (test per million) in the world today.
As of yesterday, the health ministry had conducted 15,217 rapid diagnostic tests and 7,737 PCR tests.
In the first phase of the transition to a new normal, all businesses including informal businesses, street vendors, snooker rooms and video game parlours will be allowed to operate till 9pm starting next month.
However, entertainment centres such as karaoke, drayangs, night clubs, pubs and movie theaters will be considered in the subsequent phases as the risk of spread of the disease in these establishments are higher.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday said that the government was confident and people are well informed about the safety measures with a strong health surveillance team in place. But to refrain from going out, people are advised to avail online and delivery services. Businesses should also follow Covid-19 prevention and safety guidelines and protocols and ensure adequate distance among customers and disallow crowding.
Starting today, sports centres – stadiums, gyms, yoga, dance studios, rubber tracks and facilities for traditional games – will reopen but tournaments and spectators are not allowed to avoid crowding.
“Sports and fitness facilities should ensure minimum attendance at a time. For archery, it will be 15 people. No dancers or onlookers will be allowed,” Lyonchhen said.
Public transport and taxis can carry passengers to full seating capacity from next month, but passengers must use face masks. The Road Safety Transport Authority will issue advisories.
Religious functions and social events like tendrels, birthdays and inaugurals will be limited to family members and close circle of associates while the religious sites and in-charge should monitor and discourage crowds.
Public parks and public places will also open.
From June 22, all government, corporate and allied agencies can formally discontinue “work from home” but the Royal Civil Service Commission can make exceptions. Agencies are also encouraged to minimise interactions and continue using technology for meetings and other official correspondences.
Lyonchhen said that the relaxation of strict measures will increase the pressure on frontline workers, but it would benefit the country. “Although the relaxation of the restrictions doesn’t mean extra risk of local transmission, in case of the risk of local transmission, the government would impose measures like regional localised lockdown,” he said.
Phase II of the transition will be announced in about a month’s time. In subsequent phases, the government will review and inform its considerations on other restrictions in the coming months.
“By lifting existing restrictions, which will be done in phases, we are convinced there is enough room and opportunity to wade forward, without risking the spread of coronavirus,” a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office stated.
The measures are, however, bound to change should there be evidence of local transmission. Meanwhile, the government will step up health surveillance to ensure prevention of the virus.
The United Nations agencies in Bhutan have committed USD 1.17 million (M) to support the government in addressing issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
UN Resident Coordinator, Gerald Daly, extended the support during his meeting with Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji on June 15.
According to a press release from the ministry, the commitment comes from the Secretary General’s UN Covid-19 response and recovery fund, that aims to support responses to the pandemic and the joint Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) fund, which will fund activities to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs.
The Resident Coordinator said the funds would not only protect people from the spread of the virus but would also help to prevent harm to the most vulnerable over the long-term and ensure the country can “Build Back Better”.
The programme financed by the Secretary General’s UN Covid-19 response and recovery fund supports the continuity of education and those whose livelihoods in the tourism and agriculture sectors are at risk.
The joint SDG fund would support the government to create strategies to increase and make effective use of investments to manage the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, respond to climate change threats, and advance Bhutan’s ambitious sustainable development agenda.
According to the press release, the donor countries for the response and recovery fund are Switzerland, The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark who has also contributed to the joint SDG fund.
Thanking the UN in Bhutan, Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that during times like these the role of the UN becomes more apparent and much needed. “Only through the spirit of global partnership and cooperation, which defines the United Nations, will the world be able to overcome the challenges of Covid-19,” he said.
Gerald Daly said it is more critical today than ever that all UN agencies work together to strengthen the support to those that are most vulnerable.
“We are fortunate to have strong partnerships in Bhutan – the government, various constitutional institutions, Royal University of Bhutan, the private sector, CSOs, the media and our regular development partners,” he said.
“Working together to ensure no one is left behind is at the heart of our work in Bhutan and we are grateful for these partnerships.”
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Considering the safety and prevention of community spread of Covid-19, all the loaders, 143 of them working at the two customs ports in Phuentsholing, have now shifted their base to a school.
The initiative began from June 11 as per the directives of the Covid-19 Task Force in Phuentsholing.
The loaders, mostly youth, jobless, and those who lost jobs owing to the pandemic, aren’t allowed to mix among the general public. They stay in the school, cook on their own, and their movement is monitored between the school and the customs ports.
Every morning at eight, a bus takes and drops them at the ports. In the evening, the bus picks them up from the ports and drop at school.
One of the loaders, Nim Gyel, 23, said that the strict protocols were timely and necessary.
“We are okay with such rules,” he said.
Such strong measures came after Jaigaon reported five Covid-19 positive cases. However, in about just four days, all these patients tested negative and were sent home.
For now, although there is not a single Covid-19 case across the border, many in the bordering town are concerned that there are still high chances of the loaders contracting the virus while coming in direct contact with the loads.
The number of Covid-19 positive cases increasing every day in places from where Bhutanese mostly import goods and commodities and agricultural products only add up to the worry.
As of yesterday, West Bengal reported 12,735 positive cases. Jalpaiguri reported 88 cases and Alipurduar 39.
A driver, Ugyen Penjor, said that although necessary steps were taken while importing from India, there were loopholes.
“Although the vehicles are disinfected while entering, the risk was at the port when loaders opened the loads,” he said.
Bhutanese drivers, who previously entered the transhipment area to help the loaders, are not allowed there anymore. They are now given a secluded area where they wait until the loads are transshipped.
Labour ministry’s regional office in Phuentsholing currently has registered more than 240 people for various jobs in Phuentsholing, out of which 143 are loaders.
A labour officer, Kelzang Tshechi, said that they could not yet tell how many manual workers were required at the two ports. “Loading of construction materials takes time and requires more people.”
Vendors and cooperatives question abundant supply of eggs in the past
Nima | Gelephu
Egg supply in Gelephu town, the commercial hub of the largest egg-producing dzongkhag, has dropped in the past two months and the prices almost doubled.
One of the main egg-distributing agents, B-COOP, did not get eggs from the farms for more than five weeks. The shop is filled with dairy and local farm products.
Today, a carton of an egg ( 210 eggs) in the town costs Nu 2,400. Last year, the most it cost was Nu 1,700 and the price mostly hovered around Nu 1,200 a carton. This, shopkeepers said, was owing to the abundance of eggs in the market.
The owner of B-COOP, Pema Namgyal said that he couldn’t get eggs despite having an agreement signed with Sarpang layer cooperatives, which is one of the biggest poultry cooperatives in the dzongkhag.
“It is difficult to get the supply from other farms because they have their vendors,” he said. “It’s confusing why the production has fallen this summer. The production usually decreases during winter.”
He said that the abundance of eggs in the past could have been due to illegally imported eggs.
“Now the gate is sealed and the border is heavily guarded. This could be the reason why we are seeing egg shortage at this time of the year which is unlikely,” said Pema Namgyal.
Producing over 28.9 million eggs in 2019-2020 fiscal year, Sarpang is one of the largest egg producers in the country. The dzongkhag also produced over 28.6 million eggs in 2018-19.
Sarpang layer cooperative was formed in 2012 and had over 85 poultry farms in 2018 and 2019. Today, there are only 13 active farms.
The cooperative’s chairperson, Nima Lama said that the cooperative stopped supplying to the town because the brokers were selling at higher rates, not following the terms of the agreement.
“The farmers have started to sell eggs to vendors directly because they pay better prices than the cooperative. This caused inflation of the egg price. They stopped selling eggs to the cooperatives,” he said.
He added that there was an abundant supply of egg supply in the past and it was tough for the farmers to get a good price.
“The prices were low and production cost higher. Farmers were discouraged,” said Nima Lama.
The cooperative supplies about 70 cartons per week to Desuung on duties today.
Dzongkhag livestock officer Dorji Wangchuk said there were no reports of illegal egg import. The sector in collaboration with relevant stakeholders came up with a strategy to stop illegal imports.
“A vendor should have an authentication letter to sell eggs in the market,” he said.
The sector has come up with the authentication process that enables the sourcing of the egg supply in the market.
The official said that the vendors from other dzongkhag have reached directly to the farms, taking away produces from the dzongkhag paying higher prices.
“The supply is cut short because the prices are lower here. All eggs are taken to other dzongkhags,” he said.
The fall in supply was attributed to the closure of backyard farms because of expensive feed, and religious stigma, according to the dzongkhag livestock sector.
Officials said that the Sarpang layer cooperative lost members because there was no cooperation and trust between members and office-bearers.
Bhutan’s natural resources belong to the people of Bhutan. Those representing the people in the highest decision making body, the Parliament, thought otherwise.
In a surprising decision, the National Assembly rejected the recommendation of the Council to allocate mines to the State Mining Corporation Ltd. Members, mostly elected on the promise of economic prosperity and reducing inequality, even criticised the recommendation on the grounds of private sector development.
Private sector has to develop. There is no doubt about it. In fact, every government commits to private sector development. However, mining alone will not develop the sector. Since the 1980s, the private sector has been operating 67 mines and quarries. How much has the private sector developed? Where is the private sector? The private sector we know today is limited to a few business houses owned by prominent elite citizens.
Besides, given the richness, mining has become a sensitive issue. It has created a stark inequality that is against the provisions of the Constitution and the vision of the country. Failure to vest the rights with the state, could also be tantamount to the State violating its constitutional duties of “minimising inequalities of income, concentration of wealth, not promoting equitable distribution…” In other words, the government must not favour particular groups or promote patronages of the few.
Mining is lucrative. We are not surprised if a lot of lobbying went into convincing the people’s representatives to oppose an opportunity for the State to relook at redistributing the richness dug from natural resources. The sector, the elected representatives are trying to protect are a handful of people. For instance, three promoters own 70 percent of a mining company with one owning more shares than the 30 percent owned by the general public. In another, the promoter owns more than double the 30 percent owned by the public.
It has been long recognised that even after paying taxes, royalties or dividends, the bigger pie is always gone. Making most of the loopholes in the regulations, there are arrangements made to pass on a large proportion of income to promoters or relatives through the creation of sister companies. The Royal Audit Authority once pointed out a financial implication of over Nu 1.1 billion in four years as a result of such arrangements. This translates to revenue loss to the government. The sister companies, audit noted, had minimal commercial or marketing benefits to the principal company. To put it bluntly, it borders tax evasion by fine-tuning vague legislation.
The findings are not new and elected governments are aware of it. The lease term has expired and it has provided a window of opportunity. The decision we hesitate to make today will be nothing compared with the implications.
The process of development has produced some big companies. Due to their influence, governments would be forced to listen to them. It is said that questions on natural resources or financial strategies are often strongly influenced by big companies, while the national democratic participation is overruled.
In Bhutan, our governments are elected on popular pledges and not on ideologies. In the developed world like in the Scandinavian countries that follow a social democratic ideology, benefit of the majority is at the centre. In the absence of an ideology, it is safer to let state resources be used for the benefit of the people.
From the past year’s experience, returns to the government coffer are bigger when the State mines natural resources. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, what the government needs is revenue to ensure the wellbeing of the people and nudge back the economy. And we know that the impact of the pandemic is going to last for at least a few years. The risk of Covid-20 or Covid-21 is not ruled out.
The government will be criticized for holding on to the mines, especially at a time when it is also promoting the private sector. But the question is not about who digs more. It is about who benefits more. We hope that this will be decided with wisdom and clarity.
Institute out of options to resolve the problem
Yangchen C Rinzin
Many deaf students are agitated that they cannot watch their lessons and news on television. They say the interpreter on the screen is hardly visible.
Wangsel Institute of the Deaf and Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) made a special arrangement and introduced a sign language programme last year which has become popular.
As the newsreader reads the news, a teacher from the institute interprets it in sign language simultaneously. It appears on the bottom right side of the TV screen.
Following the closure of their schools, their learning like in other schools has shifted to TV especially to update on news. But students can’t decipher what is shown on TV because of a problem.
Most of the local cable operators, especially in Thimphu and a few other dzongkhags, have placed their logos exactly where the interpreter appears on the screen.
For instance, the logo of Etho Metho cable in Thimphu on the screen covers the interpreter on the screen. This has blocked the entire interpreter and the students can’t make out a thing.
A deaf student, as explained through his teachers, said that because the logo blocks the interpreter they land up watching other TV channels even if they don’t understand.
“I’ve missed out many news these days, as it’s of no use watching BBS,” another student said. “We’re not sure where are we supposed to request and get help, as we like watching the news every weekend.”
Many of the deaf students have also expressed similar problems to teachers but they haven’t found a solution. “We’re not sure whom to complain about this,” a teacher said.
Students said that this has defeated the purpose of the initiative. The students are facing this problem at a time when it has become important for them to stay informed about the pandemic.
The students also keep up to date on the Covid-19 issues and also watches a press conference every Friday.
With the difficulty in understanding because of the logo the students try to update themselves from the social media where other media broadcast the conference live. But this has proven expensive for them with high data charge.
A student said either the cable could remove the logo or BBS could place the interpreter on the left side.
However, this issue is not with all the cables in the country.
The institute’s principal Dechen Tshering said that there was a similar issue in Paro but it was resolved after requesting the cable operator to remove the logo.
“However, we’re not sure whom to write to help the students, as we cannot call entire 20 dzongkhags,” he said. “We had once requested BBS to lift the video little up or increase the size but looks like the issue is still there.”
On the other hand, BBS cannot move the interpreter because during the news broadcast, the interviewee’s details are shown in a strap and this would also block the interpreter. The decision to place on the right was made following the international norm and after consulting the institute earlier.
The principal said that it was scientifically proven that eyeballs move from left to right meaning a deaf student looks at the image and then automatically looks at the right for the interpreter to understand the image.
“We’re not sure if we’ve to write to any authority to request the cable to remove the logo,” he said.
The institute is still trying to figure out a solution.
Meanwhile, an official from the Etho Metho Cable said that it would be not possible to remove the logo or change its position, as it is digitalised.
“To change or remove, we must have an engineer from India to do that. But we cannot call the technician because of the Covid-19 so, we cannot do anything.”
More than 80 people take their life in Bhutan every year. Many, due to reasons myriad, go unreported.
Because suicide and mental illness are sensitive subjects, reporting and writing about these issues require extreme care beginning with as simple as choice of words to avoid imitation and other damaging psychological impacts in the society.
Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB), together with Bhutan Media Foundation, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, has come up with “Media Guideline for the Responsible Reporting of Mental Illness and Suicide” to help journalists write about these issues responsibly.
The guideline includes principle of sensitivity and realistic portrayals of mental illness and suicide.
According to JAB officials, the role of the guideline was not to limit press freedom but that it should serve as a template for standardised reporting and messaging about mental illness and suicide.
According to a World Health Organisation guideline for media professionals sensationalised front-page news story on suicides increased suicide cases in many societies. Systematic reviews of these studies showed that media reports on suicide could lead to imitative behaviour.
Dr Chencho Dorji, psychiatrist, said that the exposure to contagion—suicide or suicidal behaviour through media report—triggers similar past incidences in readers and this could increase suicidal behaviour in that person.
He also said that people psychologically were drawn to read such stories because it addressed human’s core issue: survival instinct.
“The media can take this opportunity to educate the people and create awareness rather than focusing on the death of the person,” he said.
How to report mental illness and suicide cases?
Emphasise that suicide is preventable and mental illness is treatable.
Privacy should be given to the subject and the family.
The methodology on how person took his/her own life should not be presented.
The report should create awareness with information, warning signs, and helpline numbers.
Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about cases.
Convey suicide as a complex issue.
Convey suicide as public health concern rather than portraying it as a crime.
Use correct terminology: “died by suicide” or “took his/her own life” not “committed suicide”.
Avoid using “crazy”, “choe-lo” or “psycho” to describe mentally ill person.
Avoid usage of language that sensationalise or normalises suicide. Instead, present a solution to the problem and educate the people.
Sensationalised heading or glorify suicide or mental illness.
Publish the news on front page.
Depict suicide as being more common than it is.
Judge the deceased or imply that he/she was effective in achieving the goal.
Over simplify the causes of death by the last cause of death.
Disclose the identity of the deceased.
In early February, while returning home from an overseas trip, I was in Bangkok for few days. With confirmed Covid-19 cases in Thailand, there was much panic in the air in the otherwise vibrant city. It was indeed a huge relief arriving home in serene environment from all that vulnerability in Bangkok. Little did I expect the virus would follow soon. A month after my return, on March 6 the first case was reported in Bhutan when a 76-year-old tourist tested positive. As a landlocked, secluded country, we did not expect to be affected too soon and we were least prepared to deal with the global pandemic.
Shortly after the nation was informed, Thimphu ran out of facemasks and hand sanitizers and many were seen rushing with panic shopping and fuelling up their vehicles. Anyone with flu-like symptoms was feared and became a suspect. The capital became a dreaded place to visit for people from other parts of the country. Sharing an open border with India and many Bhutanese returning home from highly infected countries made us even more vulnerable.
Travel bans hit the hospitality and tourism industry the hardest, hundreds were likely to go bankrupt, thousands were likely to lose their jobs and income of many related sectors got affected. As borders got sealed, locals started worrying about daily basic necessities. The uncertainty and darkness was looming large in an otherwise peaceful, happy country with helplessness and fear aggravated by numerous bad news stories all over social and international media.
Facing the reality of impermanence and vulnerability reminded me of my own past experience while battling cancer. In such circumstances, the uncertainty and vulnerability of our lives, which while taking us through a dark phase can also, leave a positive impact. It encourages us to be more human, more kind to others, slow down, review our lives and perspective and reflect on our priorities in life. I concluded this was going to be the biggest transformational period for the nation. It was going to be a period of reflection besides hoping for the best and being prepared for the worst.
Amidst the dark clouds appeared His Majesty The King like the sun brightening the dark skies and bringing smile and hope on the face of every Bhutanese. Selflessly leading and guiding from the front, His Majesty made the safety of Bhutanese citizens a top priority and in no time measures were put in place to safeguard the people of Bhutan. His Majesty The King further urged the people to remain united and support one another and to take care of the elderly population. With immeasurable burden, concern and worry, His Majesty The King travelled the length and breadth of the country comforting people, checking on our preparedness and strategizing our way forward.
With the formulation of a National Preparedness and Response Plan and emergency committee, the strategies started rolling out with daily updates, bulletins, press briefings to keep citizens well informed, barring tourists, closure of schools and institutions, closure of all entertainment places, gyms, closure of all businesses by 7pm, advocacy on hand hygiene and physical distancing, discouraging gatherings and groups, introduction of flexible working hours and working from home for government and corporate offices.
Thousands of Bhutanese were evacuated from Australia, the Middle East, India, Singapore, and Thailand in chartered flights and was put under mandatory quarantine for 21 days in tourist hotels and resorts with all expenses borne by the government. Under Royal Command, Royal Bhutan Army built temporary homes for the thousands of Bhutanese evacuees who live across the border. The border with India has also been temporarily closed.
Despite being an aid-dependent country, in line with our free universal health care, all confirmed positive cases including foreign nationals have been provided free testing and medical services. Besides bearing expenses for all meals by the State at the designated quarantine and isolation facilities, free rapid test is conducted for thousands of Bhutanese after completion of their 21-day quarantine or anyone who is symptomatic, or has come into contact with confirmed cases. Psychological First Aid and counselling services are also provided free of cost to those in quarantine and isolation.
Given the vulnerability of senior citizens, our King has even gone to extent of providing vitamins and hand sanitizers to senior citizens across the country. Chik-Thuen, a live entertainment TV programme engaging various Bhutanese artists was launched in addition to yoga and spirituality sessions to provide entertainment, for those in quarantine as well as those staying home. Hand sanitizers were distributed for free across the country and hand-washing stations installed at various locations. The school children are also kept engaged through e-learning initiatives and innovative ideas using technology.
Deeply inspired and motivated by His Majesty The King’s selfless leadership, Bhutanese citizens from all walks of life have come forward to support the government’s response towards the pandemic and in sharing the burden. Short-term monetary relief is provided to all sectors with deferment of loans and waiver of loan-interest for three months for which 50 percent of the interest is paid by government and the remaining 50 percent is waived by the financial Institutions.
Furthermore, besides providing working capital to tourism related sectors at concessional interest rates, support continues to be granted in assisting businesses and local production, including RNR activities. Employees laid off by affected sectors are provided adequate monetary support under His Majesty’s Kidu Relief programme. His Majesty’s wisdom and guidance has largely reduced the impact of social and economic consequences associated with the pandemic in the country.
The prime minister and health minister, both with public health background, have played an effective role in our response and preparedness. Members of Parliament have donated one month’s salary to the response effort while businesses and citizens in the country and abroad have made cash contributions to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund and the government’s COVID-19 Respond Fund. Private hoteliers have offered their properties to be used as quarantine facilities for free, farmers and farming cooperatives have offered agricultural and farm products, retailers and shops have offered mineral water, juices to those in quarantine while Desuups have come out in large numbers to work in the frontline right from receiving in-bound travellers at the airport to manning quarantine facilities, stacking of essential goods, carrying out advocacy programmes to patrolling day and night to ensure the safety of the people and to prevent community transmission. Institutions and volunteers have been providing meals, personal protective equipment and free life insurance to those working at the frontline, which includes the health workers, army, police, civil servants, airline/airport staff and Desuups. All political parties, including the opposition party, provide their appreciation and support while in other counties the situation is getting politicized.
Led by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the Central Monastic Body and religious institutions have been performing daily prayers for Bhutan, including the nine-day Medicine Buddha prayer along with 300 monks, to keep us safe from the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of Bhutanese also received the blessings and oral transmission of Medicine Buddha from His Holiness through TV channels and social media platforms and every day thousands of monks, nuns and citizens across the country conduct daily prayers for the nation’s safety and well-being. With many hoping return to normalcy soon, citizens are also helping deter and prevent the spread of the disease with responsible behaviour by staying at home, avoiding crowds, isolating if unwell and practicing hand hygiene and physical distancing.
Over the last few months, just as life has drastically changed around the world, life has also changed in Bhutan. Despite all the challenges and a wave of negative consequences associated with Covid-19, there has also been some positive outcome at both individual and national level. People have been reminded about the inescapable truth of impermanence and prompted to follow hygienic practices, work-life balance, human connection, spirituality, diet, exercise, enabling us to re-evaluate our lives and perspective and, above all, trading one’s comfort for greater good.
There are also many lessons to be drawn as a nation. As His Majesty The King rightly stated nothing can destroy us if we are united internally and that we can overcome any challenge if we work in the spirit of cooperation and unity. The shared adversity has fostered a strong sense of community and affinity which can be masked in normal times. Thus, given the strong sense of national solidarity exhibited by all sections of the society, Bhutan has done extremely well in our collective response and efforts in dealing with the pandemic.
The division along party lines, income, gender and background has blurred and we are inspired to focus on a common element for our greater good.
Today, our nation seems more united and in solidarity than ever before since the health of each other depends on the other, and we must stand together in unity and solidarity. With thousands of Bhutanese returning home from across the globe, this is probably the only time when almost the entire population is residing in the country leading to reunion of families, spouses, relatives and friends. This is also the most opportune time for us to strategize on creating ample work opportunities to retain our local skills and talent.
Another realization for every Bhutanese is the deep sense of pride and gratitude living through extraordinary times under extraordinary leader who inspires us to play our part for our collective well-being. In 2003, Bhutan created history in the world when His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo selflessly led our army to the battlefield at a time when rulers remain in their comfort zone. His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo flushed out insurgents from the neighbouring countries taking shelter in the Bhutanese soil, who were armed with modern weapons, with minimum casualties on both sides. Today, we have witnessed another act of bravery and unparalleled service to the nation, with His Majesty The King at the forefront fighting a deadlier enemy, which has proved more dangerous than any armed enemy.
The high-pressure crisis is bringing out the best, and worst in national leaders, and many countries around the world are lacking good leadership in dealing with social and economic consequences of Covid-19 exposing their very essence. But we in Bhutan are blessed with probably the best leader in the world with His Majesty The King providing extraordinary leadership and vision to keep Bhutan and its people safe from this pandemic, exuding genuine love, concern and compassion for his citizens yet filled with so much humility and grace while leading effectively in this unprecedented moment.
Our country is standing out in the world in our fight against Covid-19 and our leader, His Majesty The King, is standing out as the best leader in the world. We are indeed living extraordinary times under an extraordinary leader.
Druk Phuensum Tshogpa
For many years now, a question of great debate has tormented many philosophers: whether it is worth living life with the weight of reality or with the lightness of oblivion? We find ourselves asking, is suffering necessary for depth? This indeed, is a philosophical question to be explored over many dusks and dawns, yet I cannot help but think of Yoga when I am faced with this dilemma.
Yoga is liberation. It is an acknowledgment of the compelling pull of reality and the undeniable suffering, yet it seeks to release one from this weight. It is not the act of merely transcending to peace effortlessly, it is obtaining inner strength and daring to search for serenity. Yoga is the unbroken spirit to overcome – it is an indescribable, infinitely gentle thing.
However, let us step back for a brief moment to the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the world community to adopt an International Day of Yoga. And within 75 days of the proposal, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a unanimous Resolution declaring June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.
Almost two years later, UNESCO declared Yoga an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, forever inscribing this ancient art into the record of the timeless. And ever since, there has been an unparalleled spirit within the world to embrace yoga with greater depth and passion. It is my delight that Bhutan is second to none in this regard and that there is an exceptional following of yoga within this pristinely beautiful and sacred country.
From a modest start of four students in 2010, the Cultural Centre of the Embassy in Bhutan now has almost 12,000 registered followers of Yoga. Previously, there used to only be one private studio with a single teacher in Thimphu. Today, Thimphu has four private yoga studios run by local Yoga teachers, three of whom have been the beneficiaries of ITEC Yoga. Other ITEC Yoga enthusiasts from Bhutan are freelance Yoga teachers. Needless to add, the Government of India offers maximum Yoga scholarships to Bhutan over any other country, given the privileged nature of our bilateral relationship.
As we adapt to a new lifestyle within these Covid-19 times, Yoga provides a unique liberation in efforts to increase immunity and sustain balance within one’s self. As often said, only when one is at peace with oneself can one build peaceful and healthy societies and a harmonious world.
Finally, and at a philosophical level, I will add that Yoga is the absolute control of the faculties of the mind and through a control of the mind, efficiency in action. This same viewpoint is expressed in the Kumarsambhava of Kalidasa where the state of meditation of Lord Shiva is compared to “an unflickering lamp kept in a windless place”.
It is truly beautiful to see so many around the world gather in solidarity for yoga. It is not living with the burden of weight or the lightness of oblivion, it is a choice made with balance. An idiosyncratic beauty, timeless throughout the progress of humanity, Yoga has endured. It is truth beyond articulation, wisdom beyond time.
I hope all of you will cherish 21 June this year, and hold it close to your hearts, today and forever.
Contributed by Ruchira Kamboj
Ambassador of India to Bhutan
As per the Annual Judicial Report 2019, the judiciary decided 9,216 cases in 2019 of which only 68 cases reached the Supreme Court. This is an impressive achievement on the part of the judiciary. With only 159 cases extending beyond one year is something to be proud in the Bhutanese legal system. Even in most advanced judicial systems, such speedy hearings are a distant dream. However, the decisions of the courts remain a secret document within the domains of respective courts.
Section 96A of the Civil and Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2011 states “the judgment of the Court shall be made accessible in the public domain which shall include libraries.” This provision recognizes the judgments of the courts as public document. Though this provision does not provide exemptions, it will not be wrong to restrict access to certain judgments such as affecting national security, trade secrets or family matters. However, it has been more than nine years since the amendment that the judiciary has not been able to implement this obligation. Reiterating the same concern, the Royal Audit Authority’s report on the “Review of Judiciary System and Practices, 2019” stated that the judgments still remain restricted from public access which is in contravention to Section 96A of the CCPC. RAA recommended that the “judiciary enhance the accessibility of judgments to the public for transparency and to facilitate legal research.”
First, the judgments are the final decision of the court proceedings of a dispute or controversy where the rights, obligations and remedies are determined. The judicial decisions are reached by following due process of law where the parties present facts, evidence and the courts apply the relevant laws.
Second, judicial decisions play a pivotal role in people’s confidence in the system. The Article 21(1) of the Constitution envisions the judiciary to “safeguard, uphold, and administer Justice fairly and independently without fear, favour, or undue delay in accordance with the Rule of Law” to build public confidence. This is manifested in the form of judgment and public access will clear suspicions in the people’s mind.
Third, Article 1(1) of the Constitution states that “Bhutan is the Sovereign Kingdom and the Sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan.” Therefore, all arms of the state are accountable to people. The parliament broadcast every parliamentary session live on television and radio. Further, there is an opposition party to ensure check and balances. Similarly, Lhengye Zhungtshog conducts meet the press frequently and is subject to much more vigorous audit scrutiny as most of their decisions are administrative or financial. These does not apply to the judicial decisions because Section 5 of the CCPC ensures non-interference in decision making authority of the courts in any dispute.
Fourth, the Annual Judiciary Report 2019 highlighted that “judiciary is always guided by its vision of inspiration of trust and confidence of the people and access to justice” and decisions of courts divide people because one party wins and other loses unlike political decisions. Public access to judgments will help people understand the rationales behind each decision and also help researchers to conduct research on Bhutanese law.
Lastly, since all judgments are drafted electronically, it is not difficult to publish those decisions on the judiciary website.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Health assistant Tashi Yoezer and his wife have served most of their career in Basic Health Units (BHU) in remote places. But their recent place of work at Thangrong, Mongar is a cause of concern.
The couple transferred from Kengkhar to Thangrong lives in a staff quarter, but the walls and floors have developed cracks with a portion of the quarter severely affected that the inside of the room has become visible from the outside. They occupy one of the units on the top floor of the four-unit BHU.
The couple has no choice, as there are not many houses around to rent. Even if there are, they cannot stay away from the BHU as they have to attend emergencies. “We decided to take the risk,” Tashi Yoezer, who was transferred from Kengkhar BHU in January this year along with his wife from Yangbari BHU said.
The couple said every time it rains heavily, they get out of the house to monitor what’s happening. “We’re worried of earthquake but there’s no alternative,” said Tashi Yoezer.
They are waiting for the renovation of the old BHU to be completed to move into it. The roof of the old BHU was leaking which is currently undergoing a minor maintenance by the gewog. “Although the floors are damaged the old BHU is safer,” Tashi Yoezer said.
The concrete staff quarter, meant for two health assistants (a male and female), caretaker and to be deputed Menpa was constructed at the cost of Nu 7.5 million in 2012.
Chief district health officer (CDHO), Tshering Dorji, said the cracks were caused by seepage of storm water that got underneath the building last monsoon when the gewog experienced two weeks of continuous rain.
As a mitigation measure, he said, the drainage system was strengthened to drain out the water that accumulated around the structure while a diversion has been made below the gewog office. He said there is also a plan to develop diversion above the gewog office.
However, the structure has been kept under observation, following directives of engineers, to see if it would collapse. The single-story BHU constructed at a cost of Nu 28 million in 2015, also has cracks on the walls outside and partition walls inside.
“There is nothing to worry as the cracks were due to filling done to level the ground,” said the CDHO.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
With imported fish often coming under the radar of regulatory bodies, Samrang gewog in Samdrupjongkhar could provide the answer to the growing market for fish.
The gewog has ventured into fishery with some farmers already depended on rearing fish as a new alternative for livelihood. However, the main resource for rearing fish, water would become a problem in the gewog hampering the newfound wealth. Without water, farmers can harvest fish only once a year although it is possible twice a year if water is not an issue.
Dhan Bahadur, the first to start a fishery in the gewog started with two ponds and planted 7,500 fingerlings in 2017. He built the ponds costing Nu 30,000 and Nu 200 per kilogram of fingerlings.
Dhan Bahadur, 37, said he started rearing fish for self-consumption, but finding the potential started expanding. In the last three year since 2017, he earned more than Nu 100,000. He wanted to expand and rear fish on a huge scale, but said without water, it was impossible. “We have reported the matter to the gewog administration.”
Laxmi Narayan Pradan, 65, said that he is taking up the fishery for the first time and the dzongkhag livestock office supported him with constructions of the ponds and provided him with about 5,000 fingerlings. “It is an opportunity to earn income for farmers like us.”
He said they wouldn’t be able to harvest more than once a year like others because of the water problem in winter. “We hope the fisheries would do well as we are planning to pump water from Dewrali soon so that we could also harvest in winter.”
In summer, water is not an issue, but there is an acute shortage of water in winter because of drying sources. Farmers have to change the water in the ponds twice a year. “We need consistent water supply for fish farming. How can fish live without water?” said another farmer, Dolu Gurung.
For now, farmers will have to put on hold their plans to expand their fishery. Gewog officials said the water sources are located far away from the gewog which requires a massive budget. “The gewog does not have a budget,” said gewog official adding that elephants also destroy the water channels.
“We are planning to propose in the next plan,” he said.
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
Owing to bountiful harvest and market prospects of cardamom in the past years, Yam Bdr Mongar planted saplings in more than an acre about two years ago.
They have started bearing capsules already, and in two months now he could reap his first harvest.
However, this could never be.
Today, his cardamom orchard surrounding the two-storey traditional house in Mendrelgang wears yellowish-brown hues mixed with a green tint. Many plants are affected, forming yellowish- brown to reddish-brown patches. Leaves have dried up.
What has affected the crop remains unknown to many farmers in the community. They claim that it has become a common cause of declining yield. Farmers say that the leaves dry after the roots rot.
According to the gewog agriculture official, the cardamom plants suffer from the attack of microbial agents like fungi due to microclimatic conditions prevailing in the cardamom ecosystem.
The agriculture extension officer said that no one has informed him about the infection so far.
“If reported, technical advisories on plant management practices and other remedies to resist the disease could be provided,” he said.
The official said that a similar infection was reported in Patshaling gewog in the past.
Other factors including direct exposure to sunlight and lack of humidity and moisture also make plants susceptible to diseases.
Yam Bdr Mongar said that he cultivated the crop with the help of a loan from a rural financing scheme.
He said that he has worked hard, expecting a good yield. “But the disease is wiping out my crop,” he said. “It’s killing me.”
Worried about income from cardamom cultivation, he said that he might need to pay back the loans from what he earns from poultry farm he started with half the amount of the loan.
Another farmer Jas Maya Tamang said that the fungal disease has started infecting the crop since last year.
Given the widespread infection, she said that they have lost hope to save the crop.
“I don’t think any pesticide or method could control the infection,” she said.
The same disease, she said, affected the crops once a long time ago. “It has come again.”
Jas Maya Tamang said that the plants normally give good fruiting from the third year after planting. She has cultivated cardamom on a 0.6-acre land.
Last year, she harvested about 80 kilogrammes from a quarter of the plants and sold for Nu 500 a kg.
“I expected to harvest at least about 300kg this year as all plants have started fruiting now. It is very unlikely,” she said.
Tsholingkhar villagers are also mourning the loss of their orchards to the infection.
Ganga Maya Saru said the income from her small-scale cardamom orchard helped her pay for labour for vegetable farming in the past. “The loss of income from cardamom will hamper my vegetable production.”
Besides declining yield, the fall in prices, farmers say, is also worrying them. The market price today fluctuates between Nu 400 and Nu 500 a kg.
Farmers said that cardamom cultivation requires more manual labour than other farming work.
Cardamom is one of the main cash crops for farmers of the dzongkhag besides mandarin.
Going by the RNR Census Report 2019, Tsirang, as one of the major cardamom growing dzongkhags, produced about 153 metric tonnes from about 1,815 acres that involved 2775 growers.