Friday, July 14, 2017

Bury The Burial Grounds - I

I was on my way to Nimshong village in Zhemgang where Rotary Club of Thimphu is implementing a 7-KMs long solar fencing project. Upon reaching Gelephu I was told that road to Zhemgang was blocked at 2-3 places, due to which vehicular traffic was suspended for the coming few days. So I turned back for Thimphu.

Upon reaching the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Project-II (PHEP-II) project area in Wangduephodrang (on 10th July, 2017), I saw a most appalling sight: the project’s cofferdam was overflowing with water. Apparently the cofferdam could not contain the massive amount of water that was flowing into it, caused by the recent incessant rains. It was clear that the size of the only diversion tunnel was not designed to handle the discharge of so much water, causing excess water to spill over the cofferdam’s barriers, into the dam foundation construction site.

A similar incidence had occurred at the PHEP-I last year, causing many months of delay in dam construction work, including hundreds of millions in additional costs, for excavation of debris and cleanup work at the dam site. And, unless additional diversion tunnels are built, or something else is done, this problem is likely to reoccur next year as well, and year after next.

How did it happen that these mammoth projects were so poorly conceived, designed and located? Who takes onus for this incredibly shoddy work? Are there any technically and commercially qualified people overseeing the construction of these two projects, whose costs, individually, will be in excess of the country’s entire annual GDP? How can projects this size have financial and Geo-technical miscalculations at the scale that is now becoming evident?

These are perplexing questions that will have to be answered one day, although for now, they must remain mute. That said, we are clearly past that stage when we scratch our heads in consternation and wonder where, what went wrong. For the Bhutanese, it is clear that these projects are nothing more than graveyards into which we must now put to rest our failed hydropower dreams. For India too, they have to accept that as rich as they are, over the long haul, it would be too expensive and an unnecessary act of bravado - with no meaningful returns to gloat over - neither financial nor political, or diplomatic. On the other hand the financial burden would be too great and, simply, meaningless and unjustified.

But for Bhutan, it would be simply, and irreversibly, crippling!

In my view, there is no other way out for the two governments – but to come together and take the painful, but necessary decision. It would be hugely stupid to postpone it any further. For both partners - India and Bhutan - sooner would be less dear.

The Governments of Bhutan and India must get together and take the only sensible decision they can:


If we don't, market forces will do it for us. Failing that, nature will do it for us. And, if that day should come, I can guarantee you that there will be no hole big enough to fit all of our close to one and a half billion heads to hide in, in shame and regret.

There is no complex science involved here - merely the issue of money and nature. India has control over one of them - money. But they are powerless over the other more powerful factor - nature. Bhutan, unfortunately, neither has power, nor control over either of them.

.................. to be continued

Monday, July 3, 2017

How Viable is COST+?

Tenzin Lamsang, writing in his TheBhutanese newspaper of 1st July, 2017 brings to light some bizarre arguments being put forward by the Indian negotiating team, why Bhutan cannot be entitled to a 12.5% upwards revision of the Chukha electricity tariff, after four years of the tariff remaining static.

The Indian negotiating team is apparently already quoting factors such as low tariff in India, as the basis for attempting to deny us a revision in tariff. As I had mentioned in my earlier posts, cost of generation in India is also falling dramatically. So next time round, this is bound to be one more point for contention.

So tell me, how realistic is it to believe that the famous COST+ will still be the basis for the fixation of tariff for electricity exported from PHEP I & II? Particularly when the cost of generation of these two disasters would have crossed Nu.10.00 – 11.00 per unit, by the time they come on stream, if ever? As stated in my earlier post, judging from the recent trend in India, the cost of generation is likely to drop below Nu.2.00 per unit. In a situation such as this, where would our PHEP I & II stand?

What is the likelihood that India may decide, quite sanely if you ask me, that it would be cheaper for them to scrap the whole deal, rather than pay, if it is really true, COST+ for electricity generated by PHEP I & II? Come to think of it, that may be the cheapest way out for India, as well as for Bhutan. In fact that is something I would welcome very much. But indications so far have been that we are hopelessly inadequate in the craft of analytical thinking.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

State of Bhutan’s Hydropower Egg Basket

Obviously, Bhutan’s hydropower story is all about the egg and the basket. According to our Economic Affairs Minister, Bhutan has no other eggs, other than the hydropower egg. So, let us take time off to examine how sound our egg is and how capacious is the basket that we hope to put our eggs in. But before I start to crunch the numbers, let me remind you of what Mr. John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF, one of the consultants who worked on Bhutan’s First Hydro-power Master Plan, had recommended.

In my work with RGOB, I strongly encouraged the early determination of those rivers and river basins to be designated for hydro-power development, and those to be preserved for environmental, social, cultural, tourism, recreational and other objectives.

Similarly, it was recommended that hydro-power development be concentrated in a small number of river basins, to limit the extent of the impacts and the expense of new infrastructure development required for projects far away from each other. It was expected that such a concentration of hydropower development along some rivers would enable other rivers to be conserved and protected.

These recommendations were made in the reports of the first Bhutan Hydropower System Master Plan so that the consideration could be done at an early stage, before significant investments and commitments would make such decisions more difficult.

NOTE: Contrary to what was recommended, we now have hydropower projects in 4 of our 5 major river basins.

We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to engage consultants to prepare master plans and project reports – and then go and throw it under the bus, or completely ignore them.

Coming back to the matter under discussion, the general perception is that India is an all-encompassing infinite basket for our hydropower eggs. Few are aware that for the last three years, that basket has been overflowing with all sorts of eggs - thermal, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc.

Some facts about our hydropower egg basket:
India has, for the past three years, been electricity surplus, so much so that early this year, West Bengal Power Minister has threatened to carry coal to Newcastle – he wants to export 1,000 MW of electricity to Bhutan, among other regional countries! India has declared itself net electricity exporter, exporting more than what it imported from Bhutan. Now let us look at some other numbers.

India has a projected peak demand of 173,000 MW. As opposed to that, as of May, 2017, India boasts of an installed capacity of 330,000 MW.

Additional 90,000 MW is in the pipeline.

The Indian story has been that hydro-power’s contribution to the overall electricity generation has been declining steadily. From a high of 45.69% in 1966, the hydroelectricity now contributes merely 13.5% of India’s total electricity generation, as of May, 2017.

A total of 34 planned hydropower projects totaling 23,000 MW remain stalled, because of uncertainties caused by changing market forces and shift in technology, including dangers posed by global warming and climate change.

India no longer recognizes electricity production as critical to its economic advancement. This is because firstly, electricity production is not a big employer and, secondly, it has seen surplus production in excess of its demand, for the past three years.

India is pushing to achieve 100 GW of solar electricity by the year 2022.

Production cost of solar energy in India is set to fall below those of coal (thermal) levels - Nu.2.90 per unit as opposed to current cost of Nu.3.20 for coal.

Power plants in many of the Indian States have resorted to curtailing generation, because of excess supply beyond their needs.

In a single year, the bid for solar power fell from Nu.4.34 to Nu. 2.62 – a drop of 40%. Power companies in India are now offering to charge only Nu.2.62 per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from solar panels.

Indian States of Odisha and Utter Pradesh have cancelled their bids for 7 Gw and 3.8 Gw power plants, as a result of installed capacity far exceeding demand.

Gujarat has already shelved their ultra-mega plan for 4,000 MW coal power project, on grounds of excess generation.

Caused by falling solar power prices, and excess generation, close to 13 Gw of coal power projects have been cancelled across various Indian States. 34,000 MW of planned production has been scrapped.

Do you see it now? While India is cancelling most of its planned generation, Bhutan is aggressively pushing for more hydropower projects. Is it stupidity? Is it lunacy? Or is it personal greed? To what can you attribute this madness?

Soon our glacial-fed rivers may cease to be qualified as renewable resources, because global warming and climate change grossly hinder their rate of renewal. India is seeing two times the generation they need.

PHEP I & II are monumental disasters, as enterprises of profit. And yet, we say hydro-power is our only egg. As I have said before, it is not the hydropower projects that I am against – it is the manner in which they are done. If we cannot do a good job of it, let us shelve them!

In conclusion, let me leave you with what the World Bank has to say about our only egg:

Bhutan’s hydro-power projects have largely been perceived risk-free, and thus rapid hydro-power investment through heavy borrowing has not caused much concern until recently. Yet available information suggests that the sector’s financial performance has been deteriorating since 2007. The net profit (before tax) per unit of electricity sold has fallen sharply since 2007, driven by rising costs and declining revenue. The sector’s regular contribution to the budget has also declined for the past 10 years, from 6-8 percent of GDP during the early 2000s to 2.7 percent in 2011/12, notwithstanding the significantly increased electricity generation capacity. All this indicates that the sector’s “high commercial profitability” cannot be taken for granted. Should the hydropower sector’s financial performance continue to deteriorate, Bhutan’s solvency could be threatened. Although debt service costs are being borne by DGPC at present, after all, the hydropower debt is the government’s liabilities. The source of the performance deterioration has to be identified, and, remedial actions taken soon to avoid debt service difficulties.

Economic Policy and Debt Department
The World Bank

The World Bank is already worried about our capacity to remain solvent – meaning they think we are likely to go bankrupt!

Credits: Some figures quoted in this post have been derived from the Magazine "ENERGY Towards Sustainability, Justice and Equity" edited by Soumya Dutta.

Monday, June 26, 2017

State of Bhutan’s Hydropower Projects

According to the recent public declaration made by our Economic Affairs Minister Lyonpo Leki Dorji, Bhutan has no other eggs, other than the hydro-power egg. Thus, it would seem like Bhutan’s hydro-power story is all about the egg and the basket. If so, it is important to take time off to examine how really bankable our hydro-power projects are. And, while bringing perspective to our hydro-power projects, by necessity, we must dwell on our two largest ongoing projects – the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Projects I & II. Another of Bhutan’s large hydro-power projects – the 720 MW Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project Authority deserves mention – but for now I will limit myself to PHEP I & II.

Our hydro-power potential
We believe we have 30,000 MW hydro-power potential of which 23,760 MW is said to be economically feasible.

How many of you believe that this is still true and valid, in today’s context? The assessments were made about 3-4 decades back. And, in all likelihood, the assessments would have been made by WAPCOS, the principal Consultants to Bhutan’s disastrous hydro-power projects.

Since the assessments were made, the world has seen severe climate change brought on by global warming. Our region is said to be experiencing warming rates that is 1.5 times the global average, causing huge glacial melt and altering rainfall patterns, which alter water-flows into our rivers. Because of this altered scenario, there is a need for a fresh study to determine our real potential, based on the latest climate data. May be our stated potential could be whole lot of air and not water.

Our claim as a net exporter of electricity
Bhutan is supposed to be a net exporter of electricity, exporting over 1,500 MW of electricity to India last year. But we are energy reliant; infact, we are electricity reliant. We have to import electricity from India during the winter months, at a much higher price than at which we exported to them. The government will tell you that this is in the nature of nature. It may be so, but we know that this is something that can be easily corrected. But we can’t be bothered.

Bhutanese CANNOT afford our own electricity
Even stranger, for a country that lists electricity as an exportable surplus, its citizens find electricity too expensive for use as an energy source for cooking and heating homes. Not out of choice but driven by compulsion, Bhutanese people waste many hours of their productive lives - queuing up at the fuel stations, trying to buy LPG and kerosene, for cooking and heating their homes. And what does the government do? Instead of solving the problem, they attempt to manage and bring some semblance of order to the throng that form at the fuel pumps. Tragic.

Bhutan is unprepared for GLOFs and earthquakes
The storage dams of the PHEP I & II, if they ever get built, will create huge water bodies that could alter weather patterns and trigger major earthquakes. And yet, our Disaster Management Department tells us that we are unprepared, in the event of a large earthquake. Bhutan is located in a seismically hazardous zone and the Great Himalayan Earthquake in our part of the world is said to be imminent. In addition, GLOFs are a clear and present danger, given the rate of ice melt that is recorded in our part of the Himalayan region. Bhutan has close to 2,800 lakes of which 25 are potential GLOFs.

Even if we disregard all of the above, something that we cannot ignore is the fact that the PHEP I & II sits bang in the middle of a seismically high hazard zone. Take a look at the following Seismic Hazard Zone Map of Bhutan released by IIT, Rourkee, India. I am posting a high resolution image of the map so that readers can download and save it; please go ahead and do so – I have gone to considerable trouble and expense to redraw the map.

How plausible is it that the Chairmen of the Board and the Board Members of the past and present PHEP I & II Board did not know of the precariousness of these projects’ location? There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind why these projects keep encountering all manners of “geological surprises”.

Unbridled project cost escalation
From the original cost estimate of Nu.35.00 and Nu.37.00 billion, the final cost of construction of the PHEP I & II is likely to escalate by 400-500% of their original estimate. 70% of the final cost will have to be borne by the Bhutanese people in the form of loans – at a ludicrous interest rate of 10% per annum. And yet the government and the project authorities will tell you that the loans are self-liquidating – as if we are in the business of liquidating loans.

Astronomical per unit cost of generation
If and when the construction of these disasters end and generation starts, we will find that their cost of generation would have shot through the roof and into the stratosphere. As of last year, it is said that the cost of generation at the PHEP I & II has already crossed Nu.4.00 per unit. The project completion date of these projects have yet again been pushed back to 2019 and 2022. You and I know that these dates will yet again be pushed back. This means the cost of generation will be somewhere in the region of Nu.9.00 – Nu.10.00 per unit, if not more. As against that, consider that our Dagachhu Project is said to be having a hard time selling their electricity at Nu.2.90 in the Indian market. But the government and the Project authorities will tell you that the arrangement is “COST+” – implying that cost is not an issue because we will get paid at the rate of COST+. We will have to watch and see if that will be true.

Plunging cost of generation in our only market - India
In a single year, the bid for solar power in India fell from Nu.4.34 to Nu. 2.62 – a drop of 40%. Given that there is a strong push for renewable energy in India, the photovoltaic and wind turbine technologies are bound to make huge strides. As a result, it is most likely that the cost of generation in India will fall far below Nu.2.00 – by the time our disastrous PHEP I & II come on stream. This is the reason why India is now slowly shifting their focus from thermal and hydro plants to renewable energy - because this sector is all set to take on the leadership role.

There are a few hundred things I can talk about on the sad state of affairs surrounding our hydro-power projects. But I won't go into them since most of them have been touched upon in my various earlier posts. For now let us shift focus to what is happening in India, our extended home market for everything, but most importantly, our sole market for our hydro-power egg.

Our Hon’ble  Economic Affairs Minister says that we have no other eggs – other than our hydro-power egg. He sees no other option, than to strive to put our most preferred “egg” into the Indian egg basket. So let us do a realty check on how bankable our hydro-power egg is, and how spacious our Indian egg basket really is.

Next ….. The State of Bhutan’s Egg Basket

Saturday, June 24, 2017

We Don't Have Other Eggs

A statement made by our Hon’ble Economic Affairs Minister during a recent BBS Panel Discussion on national debt, left me completely startled! His Excellency was quite categorical that “we don't have other eggs.” Listen to the following:

Clearly, Lyonpo thinks, as a number of other Bhutanese do, that all our other eggs are inconsequential. It is truly worrisome to hear a member of our Cabinet say that we have no other eggs. What he is saying is that nothing else matters, other than hydro electricity. From Lyonpo’s statement, it is obvious that we are so blinkered on hydro electricity that we are unwilling to accept that there are other eggs that do matter, certainly even more than hydro electricity.

Could it be possible that Lyonpo may have, even if unwittingly, given us an insight into the Bhutanese psyche? Could this perhaps explain why so many problems beset modern Bhutan? Could this be the reason why our other eggs have seen neglect and, therefore, made poor or no progress at all?

Could this mentality be responsible for the apathy that we see being shown towards every other problem we have, other than hydro electricity?

The wild animals plunder and pillage our farmers’ crops, while they watch in fear and helplessness. But all that the government can do is come up with a strangely inaccurate coinage. They call it “human-wildlife conflict”. Where the dang hell is the conflict, I want to know? A Swiss woman had recently observed that the wildlife predation into the human habitat has been a problem that remains unsolved for the past 4 decades, since she first visited Bhutan.

They capitulate and they surrender - poor rural folks abandon their ancestral homes and fertile lands and migrate by the droves, to seek and find refuge and respite in the urban centers, a wilderness of a different kind. In the process more than 20% of our villages have now been abandoned, and thousands of acres of fertile farmlands remain fallow. And what do we do? We put all our brains together and coin a brand new word for it - we call it Goontong and go about BAU.

We grind it, we dry it, we boil it, we chop it, and we chomp on it. We eat it for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner and for snacks in between. We may puff and we may huff and we may sweat and shed tears while eating it – but it is a food that the Bhutanese eat the most, all life long. Ema Datsi identifies with the Bhutanese more than the upstart GNH. And yet, we have to import 200 truckloads of chilies every year, if need be, by air!

Visitors to the country have been complaining about the dogs barking all night long, for the past many decades (I am in possession of a written record that shows that one American complained about it during Paro Tsechu in April of 1965). This means that this problem has remained unsolved for over half a century. And what do we do? We pool together our collective imagination: we send out a travel advisory – all visitors to Bhutan please bring along earplugs!

The whole of Gaselo hill including the village is at the verge of sliding into the Punatsangchhu because of the destabilization caused by the construction activity of the PHEP I. From its initial estimate of Nu.35.00 billion, the cost has escalated to Nu.97.00 billion as of end last year. By the time the project is done, if at all, the cost is likely to cross Nu.200.00 billion. And yet, our Economics Affairs Minister will tell you that the hydro electricity is the only bankable egg we have. By implication, what he means is that nothing else is important, not our human capital potential, not our agriculture, tourism, cottage industry, mining etc.

In reality, His Excellency the Economic Affairs Minister sorely misses the truth – that his precious egg basket has been brimming with all sorts of eggs for the past three year.

…………….. to be continued: The State of Bhutan’s Hydro-power Projects

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Environmental Governance and Science of Hydropower Development in Bhutan and India

For the past two days, I have been participating in an interesting Seminar co-hosted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation & Environment (UWICE), Bumthang at the Terma Linca Resort & Spa, Thimphu, in collaboration with the New Delhi based International Rivers, USA. The theme of the Seminar was “Environmental Governance and Science of Hydropower Development in Bhutan and India”.

The Seminar saw the participation by some seriously interesting and passionate environmentalists and regulators from India, led by Dr. S. Kerketta, Director, Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Government of India. Every one of the other speakers, comprised of a number of Indian environmental NGO’s, including a consulting firm, were enthrallingly articulate and insightful on the subjects they spoke on. It was enough to give me an inferiority complex – I felt so inadequate, on a subject that I have been, and am, so shamelessly passionate about!

Unfortunately our national environmental watchdog – the National Environment Commission (NEC), was not represented in the Seminar – they would have been so much more enriched by the discourse that had me gawking through out, as if someone had stolen my thunder. The discussions were so, so relevant to them!

The bewildering complexity that surrounds the design and construction of hydro-power projects and the devastating impacts they could have as a result of poorly assessed and monitored projects, finally gave me an idea – why the workings of the Punatsangchhu I & II are treated as our national secrets, and are zealously concealed from public scrutiny.

The incidences of disasters in the Indian context as reported during the various presentations of the Seminar - both to human and wildlife, as well as to the environment and the ecology, have to be herd to be believed. It is mind-boggling. It was reported that because of design flaws, inadequate EIA, faulty DPR and host of other problems that could result in possible impacts to the ecology and the environment, tens of dozens of hydro-power projects totaling thousands of megawatts have been stalled or altogether scrapped. India is lucky that there are responsible NGOs that monitor and oppose any incidences of mischief or wrongdoing in mega hydro projects. In Bhutan, hardly a squeak can be heard about the financial and environmental disaster that are being perpetuated at the Punatsangchhu I & II hydro-power projects.

It was reported that the underground powerhouse of the Punatsangchhu II had caved in a few months back. The right bank of the dam site of Punatsangchhu I is reported to be so unstable that whole mountainside has been sliding. Some have expressed the view that the only way to dam the Punatsangchhu river at that location is when the whole Gaselo mountain and village collapse in a heap, at the bottom of the ravine.

The Seminar was enlightening, although I am even more worried as a result. The eventuality of a dam burst as a consequence of a poorly planed, assessed and executed hydro-power construction are frightening. Even without the dam burst, the ecological, environmental and human disasters that can be caused by a shoddy work on the hydro-power projects are simply unfathomable. And the evidence of shoddiness at the Punatsangchhu projects are boundless.

One of the speakers at the Seminar pointed out that he had seen a number of work done by the principal Consultants to the PHPA I & II – WAPCOS. They were so bad and shoddy that he had recommended that the WAPCOS be banned from undertaking any work in the hydro-power sector.

I was happy about that because I too had put forward a similar view – in one of my articles on this Blog, that WAPCOS should be barred from doing any work in Bhutan - based on their shoddy and unacceptable work at the Punatsangchhu projects.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Third Rotary Service Project During the Month

The Rotary Club of Thimphu has been very busy this month. This is the third Service Project we are implementing during the first half of this month. This has got to be a record of sorts, in the life of a Rotary Club, anywhere in the world. Rarely a Club does one project in a month. Some Clubs do not do even one project during the entire Rotary year.

The six GLSS SEN teachers pose with the Vice President of National Federation of the Disabled, Nepal and Ms. Sabita Upreti, Head of Special School for the Disabled & Rehabilitation Center, Kathmandu

GLSS's full set of SEN teachers and Members pose with the TV & Computer system donated to the school as part of the project

This third in a series of projects implemented by the Rotary Club of Thimphu is, yet again, in a school: Gelephu Lower Secondary School, Gelephu. Under this Rotary Project, we sent 6 SEN (Special Education Needs) school teachers of the school for a 6 days, fully paid, training course to a specialized institute in Kathmandu, Nepal. The teachers learnt how to teach and handle school children with a variety of disabilities. The project also included the purchase and delivery of a set of desktop computer and a 40” Color TV.

Rotray Club of Thimphu appreciated by the Gelephu Lower Secondary School - Letter of Appreciation

The Rotary Club of Thimphu has also part-funded the creation of play facilities, including the turfing of the playground at the Changangkha SEN School, Thimphu.

It is our hope that we can continue to support in capacity building in the SEN Schools. But as I said in my earlier post, good intentions are not always reciprocated with equal zeal and enthusiasm.

The Gelephu SEN School project was made possible with funding from Huskvarna Rotary Klubb, Sweden.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Second Rotary Service Project During the Month

Even as I was busy handing over two Rotary service projects in distant Gelephu, our Club President and Director of Community Services were soaking in the limelight at the Babesa Lower Secondary School, on the same day, where they were simultaneously handing over another of our service projects – supply and installation of two filtered and UV treated safe drinking water systems.

The Babesa LSS Principal flanked by our Club President and Community Services Director during the hand-over of the 1st of the two filtered and UV treated safe drinking water to the school.

The school Principal takes over the 2nd drinking water station from the Club official

School children drinking from the safter drinking water station
The supply and installation of safe drinking water stations also included a plastic water storage tank

This project funded by the Rotary Club of Kushiro, Japan will be the last of the water supply projects that we will do in urban schools. During our last weekly Meeting held on Friday the 9th June, 2017, the Club decided that we will no longer support water supply projects in the urban schools. The rationale behind this decision is that the parents in urban schools are financially competent enough to contribute small sums towards the well-being and health of their children. This we believe is not true of parents in the rural schools.

This year, the Rotary Club hopes to be doing 5-6 safe drinking water supply projects in the schools. They will all be for schools in the rural areas.

In addition to safe drinking water supplies, the Rotary Club of Thimphu was hoping to contribute significantly in strengthening the SEN (Special Education Needs) schools in the country. In fact we already have one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject willing to undertake a study and produce a road map on how to go about doing this – in Bhutan’s current 14 SEN schools spread across the country. All free of professional fees! Once the study is done and a road map is charted out, the Rotary Club of Thimphu would then promote the proposal to its 35,000 Clubs and 1.3 million Members around the world, to take up the implementation of the proposals.

Unfortunately, getting the bureaucracy to do their job is like trying to nudge the Mt. Everest – solidly immobile and stoically clueless. No amount of pushing and goading has worked – it is as if we have some self-interest in it. Come to think of it – may be it is the lack of self-interest that is hindering the project’s progress.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Rotary Club Of Thimphu Serves The Living, As Well As The Dead

It sounds almost morbid – but it is true. The Rotary Club of Thimphu has gone beyond serving the living and the corporeal. In what could be the first among hundreds of thousands of Rotary initiatives around the world, our latest service project embraces the cause of the dead and the lifeless.

During early April, 2017, the Central Regional Referral Hospital, Gelephu had written to us for the donation of deep freezers, in order that they could preserve the dead bodies that cannot be moved out of the hospital, on religious grounds. Having obtained the permission of the Ministry of Health to do so, we swiftly organized the purchase and delivery of three large 308 liters capacity box freezers.

In my capacity as the Club Secretary, I drove down to Gelephu day-before-yesterday (Sunday) to officially hand over the freezers to the hospital authorities.

Dr. Tapas Gurung, Medical Superintendent of Gelephu Central Regional Referral Hospital along with some hospital staff pose for photo shoot during handover of the donation

As I drove back to Thimphu yesterday afternoon, I could not stop wondering if there was any merit in what we did – spend time and effort and precious money behind an endeavor that is solely intended to preserve something that is destined for the funeral pyre, to be turned to ashes. Of the millions of ways in which we could demonstrate our sense of charity and spirit of giving, why choose the preservation of lifeless bodies, as a cause deserving of our compassion?

At the end of my ponderous return journey of over 8 hours, I was in no doubt that the cause was indeed a worthy one. This conviction stems from the Buddhist belief that the dead, however poor or rich, literate or illiterate, highly spiritual or totally unaccomplished, deserves a worthy send-off, on his/her journey into the netherworld. In my experience, for the Bhutanese, the mourning of the cessation of a life is ten times more evocative, than the celebration of the birth of a new life. It is for this reason that some Bhutanese families go bankrupt, preparing for, and conducting the last rites for the dead and the departed. Thus, preserving the physical remains of the departed, in order that the bereaved family is able to conduct a fitting and dignified ritual and last rites, can qualify as a meritorious act, deserving of praise and commendation.

To give to those who you know will not say “THANK YOU” for your act of compassion, I believe, is truly selfless. To act for the cause of the mute, the defenseless and the incapacitated is, in my opinion, the highest form of Buddhist charity.

THANK YOU: I would like to offer my thanks to all the Members of the Rotary Club of Thimphu, for readily consenting to my request for this act of kindness. The money used for the purchase of these three freezers was originally destined for our “Education & Lifeskills Fund” that is being created – to provide scholarships to the living and the needy. Our Fund is so much poorer as a result – but we hope to be able to build the Fund to a total of Nu.2.0 million by the end of this financial year, from the current total collection of little over Nu.1.4 million. Our final target is Nu.30.00 million.

To my none-Buddhist readers: In our Buddhist belief, some deaths occur on days/nights that are considered inauspicious – depending on the astrological sign of one’s birth. During such occasions, the body of the departed cannot be cremated and, in some cases, it cannot even be moved out of the premises where the death had occurred. The body has to remain in the same place and cannot be cremated for a period of time until the astrological calculations permit for it to be moved to the cremation grounds for cremation. Until that time the body needs preserving, most often by putting them into freezers, to prevent decay and deterioration. This is where the freezers become useful.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

In The Service Of The Tsa Wa Sum, Customer Service Is Expendable 2

This morning I went to the Druk Air’s Changlam Plaza office, to change the date of travel, for a ticket that I had bought from them. I waited with a sense of apprehension, to be handed the dreaded Reservation Slip, smeared in black streaks of lines.

Surprise!.... the slip I got this morning was a crisply printed, sparkling piece of print-out that resembled a freshly printed currency note. Look at the following original print-out I got:

The original print-out of Druk Air's Reservation Slip - as it is churned out this morning

I am hugely impressed. The Druk Air's management has shown that they are sensitive to customer concerns. Within days of my pointing out, the management has acted swiftly to correct a shortcoming that should not be a shortcoming in the first place. As the major player in a service industry of vital importance, Druk Air needs to be responsive to what their customers are saying, about the level and quality of their service. As the national flag carrier, it is even more important that they put their best foot forward.

In a world filled with egoists, I am glad that the Druk Air's management has taken my criticism of their shoddiness, positively. This is a mark of an organization that is on the ball all the time. Here is praise where it is due.

As a Bhutanese, I have the first right to complain and be critical about my country, government and institutions that represent the nation and the people. I do so because I care. It is borne not of malice, but of love and concern.

Mistakes are an essential part of our growth and learning – they are not a problem. The problem is when one does not learn from them – it is then that a price is exacted.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

In The Service Of The Tsa Wa Sum, Customer Service Is Expendable

Hey Yeshey,

“What junk have you sent me?"

The “junk” my friend referred to in his email to me was the piece of paper I prefer to call Druk Air’s Reservation Slip, which I had scanned and mailed to him, as proof that he is confirmed to fly on the date, time and airport indicated on the slip. Unfortunately, it would appear that the man is unable to read what is printed on the slip. Quite understandable.

When you go to the national flag carrier’s reservation counter at the Changlam Plaza to make a reservation, and if you are able to secure a seat on their flight of your choice, they hand you a paper printout that is slightly smaller than A5. The print out is churned out by a laser printer, the size of a home bread toaster.

In all fairness, the process is pretty efficient – atleast for their walk-in customers (they have a separate row of counters for the tour operators and ticketing agents). What is NOT efficient is the piece of paper – the Reservation Slip – that is handed to you as proof of confirmation of your reservation.

This is how the Druk Air's original Reservation Slip print out looks like

The print out is hazy, smeared with close to a thousand strands of vertical lines in differing shades of black that run across the length and breadth of the paper. It takes humongous amount of effort to make sense of what is printed on the paper. I have given up trying. Instead, I have come up with an ingenious way of making things easier for myself and my friends and clients who have to read the blasted thing.

Upon handing the reservation slip, I place it on the tabletop and take a photo of it with my mobile phone’s camera. I then email the image to myself. I go to my office and download the image and enlarge it on the computer screen which makes is easier to read the texts and the numbers.

Enlarged image of the Reservation Slip which makes it easier to read and type out

I then type the whole thing as a word document and save it as a .PDF file that I can send to friends and clients. This way I have been able to avoid people sending me mails asking what junk I was sending them.

Typed version of the Druk Air's Reservation Slip - simpler to read and understand - that which I mail out

One time I did ask one of the Druk Air’s reservation staff why they couldn't change the print cartridge or the printer’s drum that is obviously scarred. He informed me that the company’s ADM was of the view that as long the printer was printing out something, there was nothing wrong with it.

Obviously, the Druk Air thinks that their “valuable” customers having to suffer some bit of inconvenience is an acceptable fallout of their drive towards cost savings. In the service of the Tsa Wa Sum, customer service is expendable.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hydro Revenue Can’t Assure Self-reliance

The Kuensel’s headline “Hydro Revenue Can’t Assure Self-reliance” of 24th May, 2017 has got to be the understatement of the century, but a STATEMENT nonetheless. For once, truthful, even if not the whole truth, about the perils of Bhutan’s hydro-power misadventures are now beginning to appear in print, and expert views that matter are beginning to be heard.

Saying that hydro revenue cannot assure self-reliance is euphemism at its extreme. What we are headed for is total economic bondage.

Every Bhutanese who care for the country and the Tsa Wa Sum must read and re-read the Kuensel article quoted above. It does not unravel whole lot of muck that surrounds the hydro-power projects in Bhutan. But the article certainly provides an unvignetted view into the looming disaster that awaits us.

The recent public talk given by Mr. Martin Rama, World Bank’s Chief Economist of South Asia Region, as reported by the Kuensel, is carefully worded and goes to great lengths to ensure that they do not cause any tremors. But the truth, in whatever garb it is presented, remains a truth. And the good economist has delivered some home truths that we need to take note of.

The World Bank's economist Mr. Martin Rama (Phd) has apparently said:  “…… because when more than a quarter of revenue generated from hydro-power is spent on debt servicing, the country may not meet its expenditure.”

What he is saying is this: that the hydro-power projects may be self-liquidating - but they do not contribute to self-reliance and, therefore, we will be even more broke in the future!

He also said: “…… the decline in tax revenue in relation to GDP is not due to a change in tax instruments or in tax rates, but because of policy decisions of tax holidays and exemptions. Sales Tax exemptions result in 50 percent of foregone revenue. Further around 63 percent of all imported commodities are exempted from Custom Duties.”

“Instead of losing the tax revenue to exemptions that are not rational, he said efficient management of taxation could also play a vital role in attaining fiscal self-sufficiency.”

I am immensely tickled at his reference to Exemptions that are not rational. How beautifully he phrases it! But artistry of language aside, spoken in plain language, what he means is that the “QUOTA” system must go. I am in no doubt that he is referring to the irrationality of the “quota” system - a system that allows duty-free import of luxury vehicles, booze, chocolates and perfumes, by a select group of privileged people. It certainly is irrational when the rich, the powerful and the well placed and those who are economically able, are exempted from paying taxes and duties ---- and those who cannot afford them are denied the relief they deserve.

The World Bank economist's underlying message is this: that the hydro-power is good only for liquidating its loans. Even that may not be true.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Changing Dietary Habits of the Golden Langurs

Yesterday I was alarmed by the BBS report that the Golden Langurs have been invading farms in Langthel Gewog. This is totally out of character.

I come from an area that is the primates' prime habitat. Until yesterday, I have never before seen or heard of Golden Langurs destroying crops or even coming anywhere close to farmlands. If what the BBS reports is true, there is a need for worry. Obviously, oblivious to their human cousins, the primate’s natural habitat must be undergoing some change - or there must be something that is causing some kind of disruption that the poor fellows are forced to venture out of their comfort zone.

We claim that 72% of our land mass is under forest cover. If this is true, then the human population is not encroaching into those of the wildlife. Therefore they have no need to encroach into ours. Why are they doing it?

In fact, in the last close to three decades, the wildlife has been causing serious problems for Bhutan’s human population. In parts of the East, they have caused alarming rates of rural-urban migration. Whole villages have been emptied of human population and large swaths of farmlands have been left fallow.

Has the wildlife population increased so much that 72% of forestland is no longer enough for them that they find it necessary to encroach into 28% that comprise the human habitat? Why have the Langurs taken to eating chilies? They want Emma Datsi too? Is the wildlife going through a change in their food habits? Are they finding their traditional food no longer palatable?

Are we doing something to their habitat that they are forced to invade our farmlands and feed on our crops? Is there a larger problem that we are ignoring? Have we unwittingly caused some disruption in the pollination process in a way that the forests in which they live no longer produce the food that they traditionally use to feed on? Why are the herbivores - deer, wild boars, porcupines, monkeys - risking their lives and rummaging through farms and gardens, to feed on human food?

In nature nothing is accidental. There has to be a reason why the herbivores are undergoing such behavioral change, after all, their domain remains even more protected than ever before.

Are they warning us of some impending disaster? Is our natural environment as healthy as we say they are? Is it possible that our overprotective environmental concerns may have negatively impacted some evolutionary process thereby causing some plant and animal life to behave outside of their usual pattern of behavior?

May be it is time that we look at the problem as something more than human-wildlife conflict - may be something lot more serious is afoot.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Curious Case of Bhutan’s Cardamom Export

The emergence of the cardamom as the most successful “cash crop” has, in the past, caused a whole lot of problems for a whole lot of people – the growers (mostly the illegal ones), Dzongkhag Administrators, Forestry Officials, the marketing apparatus of the government (the FCB and the Export Division), and the environment.

The cardamom is once again making news. This time I fear that the problem is not as simple as it was then – this time round, the issue is lot more complicated and may not even be seen as a problem. However, I do not want to go into that - instead I want to treat you to a piece of history surrounding the bizarre business that was cardamom – a spice variety that has no consumption base in the country, even while we rank among the largest growers and exporters.

I hear that the Department of Agriculture Marketing & Cooperatives (DAMC), Ministry of Agriculture is on the look out for new/alternate markets for the Bhutanese cardamom. In a replay of history, they are said to be, yet again, looking at the Middle Eastern countries, as I did more than three decades ago, only to find, as did the DAMC, that the Middle East is not the market for our variety of cardamom.

The nose-in-the-air Arabs like the more expensive green jacket cardamom - originally native to South India and Sri Lanka; they scorn at the very mention of our cardamom - the lowly brown jacket variety. The curiously oriented Kuwaitees and the Saudees and other Arabs like to demonstrate their affluence by the amount of cardamom they use in their “Gahwa” (cardamom coffee). It is said that an Arab host’s level of hospitality is judged by the amount of green cardamom they grind into the Gahwa they serve to their guests.

But this post is not about Arabs or their peculiar Gahwa drinking and serving habits. It is about Bhutan’s cardamom and of those of us who were subjected to inexplicable trials and the tribulations associated with its purchase, storage, packaging and final export. There was nothing straightforward in the manner in which we went about exporting a large volume of Bhutan’s cardamom during the late 70’s and the 80’s.

> While the importers in Pakistan and the intermediaries in Singapore insisted that our cardamom’s final destination was the Middle East, my market survey trip to the Middle Eastern countries revealed that the Arabs use green jacket cardamom in their coffee/tea – not our brown jacket one. This meant that there was/is virtually no market for our cardamom in the Middle East. Thus the claim that our cardamom was finally exported to the Middle East was a whole lot of bull;

> Our cardamom was supposedly destined for the West (Middle East) but the cargo was loaded on board the ship bound for the South (Singapore);

We were the exporters of the cardamom but the importers in Pakistan established the Letter of Credit in favor of the intermediary in Singapore, who in turn established a back-to-back LC in our favor.

Under normal circumstance, we should have shipped the export cargo directly to a Pakistani port with transshipment in Singapore, if necessary – but the cargo was required to be consigned to the intermediary in Singapore and discharged at Singapore port. It was then re-exported to Pakistan as an export from Singapore. This was costly and cumbersome and an unnecessary process, and yet the importers in Pakistan insisted on this process.

This was totally bizarre to us, until much later, we found out the real reason behind this whacky way of conducting the trade.

It turns out that the Pakistanis were, willy-nilly, using Bhutan’s cardamom to export illegal capital out of the country and park it offshore. This came to light when one of the importers in Pakistan wanted to deal with us directly. We were finally happy to be doing some straightforward business, for a change – until we hit a snag half way through the negotiations and had to terminate the dealings entirely.

The Pakistani importer wanted us to over-invoice the shipment - they wanted us to issue Commercial Invoices valued at two times the agreed price. Once the LC was established and negotiated by us post shipment, they wanted us to plough back the difference between the agreed price and the value of the LC, into their offshore bank account.

As a government enterprise we could not be a party to such a deal that verged on the money laundering. The negotiations fell through and we went back to dealing with the intermediary in Singapore. But we finally understood the cause for the labyrinthine journey our cardamom consignment had to take.

While that mystery was finally solves, to this day I am still unsure as to where Bhutan’s cardamoms finally ended up.

Around the same time, strangely Bhutan emerged as the world’s largest grower and exporter of brown jacket cardamom – something that is totally IMPOSSIBLE – given that Nepal, Sikkim and India were much bigger growers of the brown jacket cardamom! How it came about is rather ticklish – something that I am still unwilling to write about :)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Once Again, Brown Jacket Cardamom

Exactly 2 years and 2 days back, my Blog post of 8th May, 2015 ended as follows:

"In the middle of all the ruckus, something totally incredible came to light: to mine and every one else’s consternation, Bhutan was, that year, declared as the biggest grower and exporter of brown cardamom – IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!

How that came about is truly ticklish!"

But I am still not going to tell you what happened :)-

Brown cardamom has not been good for the country in the past - I can guess that its recent proliferation is going to be even worst.

 Brown Trouble

Exactly 38 years back, in July of 1979, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo was so infuriated by the illegal plantation of cardamom and the devastation of forests it caused, that he was forced to implement Bhutan’s first ever nationalization of private property. That year, His Majesty ordered the seizure of all illegal cardamom plantations and nationalized the timber trade in the country. I was in the thick and thin of it, in my capacity as the Head of Export Section of the Export Division, Ministry of Trade & Industries.

Today the large-scale cardamom plantation represents a problem that is much bigger and more complex. For one, unlike in the past, lands that were traditionally used for producing food are now being converted to cardamom plantation - en masse. Over time, it will cost the country dearly. The other thing of concern is the fuel wood required to dry the cardamom after harvest. According to Pirthiman ( you need 2.6 MT of firewood to dry cardamom harvested from one hectare of plantation. The country’s cardamom production (dried) last year (2016) was 1,289.01 MT as reported by the Department of Agriculture Marketing & Cooperatives, Ministry of Agriculture. This quantity will be much higher if you take into account the informal market that goes unreported. A safe estimate would be that Bhutan produces a total of about 2,000 MT of dry cardamom, annually.

While production will vary from variety to variety and soil type and altitude, some estimate that 500 Sq. Mtr. of plantation will produce 25 - 26 kgs. of dried cardamom. This means that as of now, 3,846 hectares of land is under cardamom cultivation that went on to produce 2,000 MT of dry cardamom last year. Pirthiman estimates that each hectare of that 3,846 hectares will consume 2.6 MT of firewood. This gives us a whooping 10,000 MT of firewood, to fire the Bhattis that dry the cardamom.

For a country of our size, and with a Constitutional commitment to keep 60% land under forest cover for eternity, that is a whole lot of wood in the Bhatti!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Happiness is a Place … of rickety roads and bumpy rides!

One evening a few days back, a retired senior officer walked in on me while I was sipping beer in a restaurant. I wished him Kuzuangpo and offered him a chair to sit on, and a beer to drink. He declined the offer of beer explaining that it exasperated his gout and gastrointestinal problems. But he accepted the offer of a chair.

Not quiet the shy and retiring type, my unexpected companion got straight to the point; “Yeshey, I read your Blog quite regularly and I like most of what you write. However, I do not like your articles on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road."

“What is wrong with my Shingkhar-Gorgan road articles?"

“In your last post on the subject, you allege that some private interest is behind the push for the road. This is totally wrong. I know that there is no private interest involved. Anyway, why does it have to be private interest? Aren’t the people of Lhuentse important enough to deserve the Shingkhar-Gorgan road?"

“You also say that the road is illegal. You surely know how many roads run through national parks. Why is this made an issue of, while you keep quite about other roads that run through a number of parks and reserve forests?"

He went on; “Lhuentsips spend hundreds of Ngultrums more, to make a detour to come to Thimphu or to go to Trashiyangtse. With this road, people of Lhuentse can get to Thimphu much faster and with greater ease, and at lesser cost."

If few thousand lines that I have already written on the subject (which he has read) have not been able to dissuade him from the folly of his logic, it is unlikely that another round of lecture will help alter his views. But I did try. Unfortunately, we had to cut short our discussions since he was called way.

It is a pity. This retired officer worked in the civil service for close to four decades. He had risen to one of the highest positions in the bureaucracy; he held some seriously important posts with great responsibilities. During his tenure in the government, he would have been indoctrinated in, and parroted about, the virtues and merits of serving the Tsa Wa Sum (King, Country and People), a few thousand times. And yet, all that he has to show for it at the dusk of his life is that it is still about serving theTsa Wa Nga (Self).

I do not think that the question is about whether Lhuentsips are important - more likely, the pertinent question to ask would be whether they are more important than rest of the Bhutanese. For context, please read my following post:

What is the logic behind the government wanting to spend more than 2 billion Ngultrums (I am aware that the present estimate is Nu.890 million) to build that illegal and senseless road? What meaningful benefit would this road bring to the country and the rest of the people of Bhutan, other then helping some Lhuentsips, in the words of this retired civil servant, to get to Thimphu in a jiffy?

He also made the point that there are roads existing within the park areas and reserved forests and that if I cared so much for the law and the environment, I should be making noise about those and not merely about the Shingkhar-Gorgan road.

I am amazed at this unfortunate and regressive point of view. What he is saying is that we should continue to break laws and imperil the environment, on the grounds that there is precedence of roads being built through the park systems and reserve forests. He is unwilling to consider that those were built during a time when laws prohibiting their construction were not in place - that in some cases, the imperatives were different and more compelling. I tried to explain to him that there is no such thing as an illegal law - that as long as a law remains valid and in force, it has to be respected and abided with, as stupid as they may appear to be. That is what all law abiding citizens do.

It is a matter of great concern that not many seem to have any sense of the far-reaching implications of doing this road. Even fewer seem to understand that doing this road will test every single one of our resolves – those related to environmental conservation, the promise of “Bhutan for Life”, the claim that we are a GNH country, that we are a comity of people who respect laws and the right of the animals, our resolve and promise to ensure forest coverage of 60% for all times to come, our guarantee for the equitable distribution of nation’s wealth and opportunities.

Doing this road will be the very antithesis to all the promises we make and the hope we hold out to all those who look up to us, to provide leadership and direction in healing a world that is going sicker by the day. To say Bhutan can single handedly save this planet from ruin would be preposterous - but to say that our efforts would be, as one of our honorable Parliamentarians put it, inconsequential when bigger spoilers aren’t doing their share, would be the height of irresponsibility. We cannot give up hope just because others aren’t as caring.

I hope that the present government is mature enough to realize that if they go ahead and do this Shingkhar-Gorgan road, they will be seen as a government that connives with interest groups to break laws - that which they have been elected to protect and uphold, and be the custodians of.

Come to think of it - road construction in Bhutan follows a certain set pattern that defies logic. Roads that we do not need get done, and those that are critical remain undone.

Shingkhar-Gorgan road is illegal, meaningless, environmentally destructive, a complete slur to our reputation as a champion of environmental conservation, and yet we want to do it, so desperately that the government would submit false reports to the NEC in an effort to obtain environmental clearance.

What we need is the widening of roads: North-South and South-North given the increase in traffic and economic activities in those areas. And yet, it is the West-East road that we are widening at great cost to the tourism industry and the environment.

Kawajangtsa has seen the largest concentration of some seriously large buildings: National Land Commission, Ministry of Health, Royal Audit Authority, WWF, RSPN, UNDP, NITM, ACC and, more recently the Democracy House. In addition, the area attracts a large number of tourists since the area has some interesting destinations of tourist interest, such as the Institute of Zorign Chusum, National Library, Folk Heritage Museum, including most frequented handicraft shops and a very popular eatery called the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant. And yet, a patch of road in that area has seen years of neglect and apathy. The patch of road - no more that 500 Mtrs. - between the National Library and the Democracy House is in total shambles. The Democracy House would have cost few hundred millions to build and yet, they did not provide less than a million to do up the road leading to it. The bumpy pot-hole ridden road is not a sight we can be proud of.

Similarly, Bhutan earns hundreds of millions of dollars - from tourist arrivals every year. And yet, we are unable to pave that short stretch of road in Paro - that run along side the BOD towards Drugyel Dzong. This stretch of road is not more than 500 Mtrs. And yet, year after year it remains broken down and unrepaired. It is quiet possible that every tourist that land in Bhutan bumps along this road - on their sightseeing trips to Taktsang, Drugyel Dzong, Kichu Lhakhang, and those who are headed for treks to Jumolhari and beyond.

We talk of spending Nu.890 million on the Shingkhar-Gorgan road and Nu.8 billion on the West-East highway widening --- and yet we are unable to find the money to do less than a thousand Mtrs. of road resurfacing in Kawajangtsa and Paro. If we hope to keep the cash cows mooing contentedly, we have to learn to give them an enjoyable experience. This is not the way to do it.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, we have to begin to place our hearts where our minds are. Or soon there will be a chorus of: Happiness is a Place! …. of bumpy rides and rickety roads.