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.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Confidential Information

The following are my five highest grossing blog posts. Please note that these are page views and not number of visits:

    Shame on UNICEF & Aamir Khan                              Oct 22, 2016        32,636
    Shame on UNICEF & Aamir Khan II                          Oct 26, 2016          9,704
    Devastation of Bhutan's Most Famous Trek Route      Jun 17, 2016          6,947
    Hydro-Power Madness                                                 Dec 6, 2016           4,797
    Wangdue Phodrang Dzong On Fire                              Jun 24, 2012          4,109

    An Uncommon Civil Servant                                       Apr 21, 2017          2,190
    India is Now a Net Exporter of Electricity                   Mar 30, 2017         1,790
    Perfect Bowls for Particulates!                                     Mar 28, 2017            373
    New Zealand Steals Bhutan’s Thunder                        Mar 17, 2017             264
    Shingkhar-Gorgan Road, Yet Again                             Apr 14, 2017             229


    An Uncommon Civil Servant                                       Apr 21, 2017           2,190
    Perfect Bowls for Particulates!                                     Mar 28, 2017               98
    Some Intriguing News                                                  Apr 18, 2017               90
    India is Now a Net Exporter of Electricity                   Mar 30, 2017               44
    New Zealand Steals Bhutan’s Thunder                         Mar 17, 2017               41 

    Bhutan                190,135
    United States      107,382
    India                     24,278
    Russia                   15,389
    Australia               11,594
    China                    10,934
    France                     9,358
    Ukraine                   6,270
    Thailand                  4,942
    Germany                 4,383


My first blog post was on 5th November, 2009.

Friday, April 21, 2017

An Uncommon Civil Servant

Few months back, I was invited to speak to a group of youngsters who were training to be tourist guides. I began my talk by telling them how smart they were - in deciding to train as guides. I told them that Bhutan’s and, therefore, their future is intrinsically linked to tourism, which is good because the tourism industry is the only bankable industry in Bhutan that has the potential to grow unabated. I offered the view that they should not mistake guiding tourists as a routine job - but as the initial steps to acquiring a useful profession. That guiding is merely a stepping-stone to bigger things in life. After all, there are a few billion tourists out there rearing to come and see what all this hoopla about the land of GNH was about.

Along the way, I also fervently pleaded with them to resist the absurd temptation to mimic the American twang and drawl, including sporting the punk’s hairdo and painting their hair pink and blue. After all the Americans come here to see and feel Bhutan and the Bhutanese - not to meet up with a poor example of themselves.

But the most important point I made to them was this:

“Of one thing I am very glad - that you did not opt for the civil service because in my view the best way to irretrievably ruin yourself for life, is to join the civil service."

For seventeen long years I too belonged to that breed of people who are neither civil, nor servants. But fortunately for me, all of those years were spent in the corporate world where the work culture is totally different from that of the civil servants. Thus, I emerged out of the system unscathed and still smelling like roses. My long held view, both inside as well as out of it, has been that the civil servants are everywhere else but! When you most need them they are either taking part in the departmental archery match, or at the crematorium keeping vigil over a dead body, or at the hospital visiting a distant uncles’ sick daughter, or rushing off to pick up or drop off their children. And the rare times you can get them to grudgingly do their job, they behave as if they are doing you a favor.

But today I had an experience that is nothing short of a bolt from the blue - I am totally flummoxed!

I am publishing this small handbook on the wild birds of Bhutan. As per rule I need an official Certificate of Registration from the BICMA, as well as an ISBN # from the CBS & GNH. So I wrote out my application, attached all the necessary supporting documents and drove over to the BICMA office in Olakha to submit my request. I was ushered into the office of the Licensing and Compliance Division where I was introduced to Ms. Younten Dolma, Assistant Communications Officer.  She went through the papers and told me that everything was in order and that my submission would be put up to the contents committee. She said that it would be a few days but that she would get back to me ASAP.

Next day (today) - at about 11.45AM, she called me to say that my Individual Publishing License as well as the Certificate of Registration were ready for collection. I was hugely impressed! Is it possible that a government department and its committee actually cleared my papers within a day of submission? Preposterous! Anyway, I went down to the lady’s office to find that she had the papers all signed and ready to be handed to me. She said the total fee amounted to Nu.1,500.00. She said I could give her the money and that she would deposit the money with the Accounts and bring back the money Receipt for me. Another shocker! - the officer did not ask me to go to the Accounts and pay the money and show her the Receipt - she actually volunteered to do the leg work on my behalf!

She came back to tell me that the Accountant was not at her desk. I said; “fine, you can give me the change and I will take the licenses and go.”

She said; “that is the thing --- I don't have the change and no one else in the office has it either."

I said; “OK no worry --- I can come back for it."

She said; “But one thing I can do - I can transfer it into your account."


“I can MBoB it”.

“From your personal account?"

“Yes. Please give me your bank account #"

So I gave her my account number. Within seconds she showed me the confirmation of the transfer of the sum of Nu.500.00 into my account.

Have you ever experienced this level of service any time in your dealings with the civil service, ever in your life? What do you call this category of extremely uncommon officer?

A public servant as well as a civil servant! And a SERVICE HERO. My Hero!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Some Intriguing News

"Soon, Bengal to export 1,000 MW power to Nepal, Bhutan". 

That is the headline appearing at the "millenniumpost":

The first few para of the article reads:

The Bengal government will soon export 1,000 Mega Watt (MW) electricity to various neighbouring countries including Nepal and Bhutan. Meanwhile, the capacity of the export of electricity to Bangladesh will also be increased.

State Power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay said that his department has set a target to export 1,000 MW electricity to neighbouring countries including Bangladesh. The minister is hopeful that the target will soon be achieved by his department as the state government has constructed various power generation units while many others are under construction.

"We have a target to export electricity to neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bhutan with the development of infrastructure across the state. In the initial level, we are planning to export around 1,000 Megawatt electricity to our neighbouring countries as per their requirements," Chattopadhyay said.

So what is happening? Is this for real?

Friday, April 14, 2017

Shingkhar-Gorgan Road, Yet Again

Something fishy has to be going on about this illegal Shingkhar-Gorgan road. I thought that we had buried the issue - but it has reared its ugly head once again. The Kuensel has reported on it yet again, in their 13th April issue. The story filed by reporter Tempa Wangdi makes it clear beyond any doubt that there is more to the construction of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road, than meets the eye.

Is it possible that the road is being pursued – not for the economic betterment of the people of Lhuentse as is claimed, but because of some private interest? Is some private interest behind this relentless push to do the road, even while being fully aware that it is illegal, meaningless and environmentally destructive?

The Kuensel has been candid in reporting the views of the National Environment Commission (NEC) on this issue:

1.  That the NEC will not consider environmental clearance for the road’s construction - until the
     government first sorts out the legality of the road. This means that the construction of the
     Shingkhar-Gorgan road is illegal.

2.  The DoR has falsely claimed that only 18 kilometers of the 37.28 km of Shingkhar-Gorgan
      would pass through the core zone area of Phrumsengla National Park. However, the NEC is clear
      that the road not only passes through the core area of Phrumsengla National Park but
      the entire 37.28 KMs falls in the core zone of the park.

3.  The NEC also pointed out: “In the EIA report, most of the baseline information submitted is

     secondary and sourced outside the project area……”. This clearly means that the DoR has
     tried to hoodwink the NEC by submitting an EIA report assessed (if at all) from an area
     that was clearly not the project area. This has got to be criminal - and a case for the ACC.

Why is a government agency trying to deliberately submit false reports in order that they can do the road?

What desperation drives the Department of Roads and the Ministry of Works & Human Settlement to lie so blatantly to a regulatory authority?

One other thing: the government says that the construction of this illegal road will shorten distance by 100 KMs. What they fail to tell is whether shortening distance will translate into savings in travel time. Also they are very quite on the fact that the road will pass through a geographical area that is unstable and perilous, and that at one point the road has to pass through an altitude that has never been attained before.

Singma-La Pass: If the Shingkhar-Gorgan road gets built, it has to pass through this high pass which is at 4,033M - nearly 253M higher than Thrumshing-La Pass. Singma-La is 153M higher than today's highest road point - Chele-La Pass.

What kind of environmental champions break laws to vandalize the environment? How far can we go with our “Bhutan for Life” when it is clear that we clandestinely scheme and plan to imperil life within the most protected areas?

We have to be careful what we do - if not the world will soon discover that our claims to being a carbon negative country, a land of happiness etc. is nothing more than the drum beats of the charlatans.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Achievers Who Came Along In My Life: II

“Congratulations, Yeshey! It was all due to your guidance and service to TWS that resulted in the great success of Mr. Kaestner’s visit. I really believe that we achieve great things for our country in small steps like these - winning one heart at a time and you made a great contribution to this one!”

This is how an official of the Royal Government of Bhutan wrote to me - to thank me for my part in the success of Mr. Kaestner’s Bhutan visit, during October of 2009. The retired US diplomat Mr. Peter G. Kaestner was then posted at the US Embassy, New Delhi.

Among the world birding community, he is an achiever and a luminary. Mr. Peter G. Kaestner is acknowledged as one of the world’s TOP TEN BIRDERS.

Peter G Kaestner, one of world's top 10 birders at 8,666 life birds

The International Ornithologists’ Union places the total number of known bird species at 10,500. Ofcourse this number does not stay static - while some bird species regularly go extinct, new ones are constantly discovered. Of this many known species, as on last count (as per his mail to me dated 21st March, 2017) Mr. Peter G. Kaestner has recorded 8,666 life birds - a staggering more than 82% of the world’s entire bird species!

Bhutan is listed among the world’s top 10 birding destinations. And this is where Mr. Kaestner got two of his life birds: the extremely rare White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) - in Lekeythang, Punakha on 28th October, 2009, and the Fulvous Parrotbill (Suthora fulvifrons) - in Dochula, the next day.

Having guided Mr. Kaestner for two days, the following was my trip report to the government:

Hi All,

I am happy to let you know that Mr. Peter Kaestner was fortunate enough to sight his life bird – White-bellied Heron on the evening of 28th October, 2009 - the same evening we travelled to Punakha. The original plan was that we would stop over at Dochula and look for his other life bird – Fulvous Parrotbill. However, I changed the plan and decided that we will leave that for the return trip – since the White-bellied Heron was more important for Peter than the Parrotbill.

Upon reaching Punakha past 4.30PM, we decided to go straight to look for the bird and leave the check-in into the hotel for later in the late evening. That was a good decision. Twenty minutes on the road to Puna Phochhu, the bird flew in and landed by the river bank at Lekeythang.

The most beautiful part of the close to half an hour of wonderful viewing of the bird was that Peter actually saw the bird take a huge fish – a
Snow Trout (Yuel-Nya) and swallow it whole. The fish was so big that it got stuck in the slender neck of the bird and despite the bird trying to shake it down, it remained stuck there. I know that the fish will eventually die and then the bird will be able to shake it in – but we decided we had enough and left the bird in the middle of the small rush – still trying to shake the fish down.

Next day he sighted is other life bird - Fulvous Parrotbill, at Dochula.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Achievers Who Came Along In My Life

Life is a long, continuous journey, most often lived in long periods of confusion, followed by realization and finally ending in regret & repentance.

There are many who see merit in renouncing everything in life, so that they can pursue knowledge and wisdom. And yet, for all their troubles, they have not been able to rescue the world or the humanity, from the brink of disaster.

Then there are those who travel to distant pilgrimage sites - in pursuit of higher purposes and higher Gods, while the abodes of their resident Gods are in shambles and in need of urgent repair and renewal. This lot will spend millions to go to Dorjeden, Tshopema, Boudha, Varanasi etc. but will not cast a morsel for the nourishment of the poor and the hungry who line up the streets outside their fortified homes. For these passionate believers in God, charity begins at the feet of the ornately adorned Buddha and Guru statues. No wonder the Buddha is depicted with a curious smirk on his face. The man knows!

Others spend a lifetime amassing wealth and fortune. They cheat, they plunder, they lie through their teeth – they have no time for the sunset or to tickle a baby. They are so taken up making money and hoarding them in chests and bank lockers, that they fail to notice the look of contempt and abhorrence in the faces of their friends and neighbors. Too late they realize that they had become slaves of that one thing that they had all their lives tried to master - MONEY. They were too greedy to spend their wealth to give themselves pleasure - let alone for those of others. And now their time in this world is up and it is time for them to be gagged and bundled and put on the funeral pyre, to be turned to ashes. What a waste.

Then there are those of us who live life one day at a time. We do not hoard for tomorrow - because today is more certain than tomorrow. Our bank accounts may be nearing negative balance - but we have piles and piles of credit - of goodwill and appreciation, of gratefulness and gratitude - overflowing in the hearts of those to whom we gave freely and without condition.

Life is made up of moments and encounters. One remarkable encounter I had was with late Captain Charles E. Brady Jr., NASA astronaut who passed away on 23rd July, 2006.

Autographed photo of Space Shuttle Columbia Mission STS-78

 Captain Charles E. Brady Jr., NASA astronaut

He was a crew member on the Space Shuttle Columbia Mission STS-78 during June-July, 1996. That mission was the longest shuttle mission at that time. It lasted 16 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes and 30 seconds.

I hosted him during his Ham Radio trip to Bhutan. I was hugely impressed by him. Perhaps it was due to his time in the infinite space - or he was naturally so. He had a Buddha-like calm and serenity about him. It was so soothing to be around him - life suddenly became even paced and unrushed - as if it held no meaning.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Curious Numbers

Our government and public officials are putting out alarming numbers, surrounding our hydro-power projects.

The Kuensel says Bhutan earned Nu.13.03 billion from export of electricity, during the year 2016.

As opposed to that, Lyonpo Leki, Economic Affairs Minister says that the combined loss from the two PHEPE projects amount to a whopping Nu. 38.00 billion, for every year the projects are delayed.

The revenue loss from these two projects is almost three times the revenue we earned from export of electricity. So the question I asked in my last post is still valid:

How much more loss do we need?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

India is Now a Net Exporter of Electricity

The supposedly power hungry India is now a net exporter of electricity, according to a report released by their Ministry of Power. Even more surprising, they exported 213 million units more electricity than they imported from Bhutan.
As I said in one of my earlier posts, India’s import of electricity from Bhutan is inconsequential - we account for less than nothing. Our export of electricity to India is nothing more than a pesky cud lodged in the cavity of India’s gargantuan jaw.

Finally I hope that the Bhutanese people will come to accept what has always been the truth - that India has NEVER been dependent on Bhutan, for their electricity needs.

We are now in a precarious situation: India is already self sufficient in electricity and may no longer need our electricity at exorbitant Cost+ rates. On the other hand, our PHEP I & II, according to our Economic Affairs Minister, is losing Nu.21.00 and Nu.17.00 billion each, for every year the projects are delayed. Even worst, the PHPE I may have to be scrapped altogether, once the Norwegian experts submit their investigation report.

So, we still want to do Chamkhar Chhu?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Perfect Bowls for Particulates!

Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue, Haa and Bumthang – all of these towns and cities are natural bowls in which high levels of particulates remain trapped and suspended. Unlike in the plains where the pollution is dispersed by wind activity, high mountains that box in our valleys do not permit air circulation – preventing both vertical and horizontal mixing of polluted air with that of clean air in the upper atmosphere.

Thimphu valley:  enveloped by trapped and suspended particulates; as seen from Phajoding

During the winter months, temperature inversions trap tiny particles of smoke and exhaust from cars, trucks, bukharis, and anything else that burn fuel - whether fossil or otherwise. This keeps the pollution close to the ground - right where the precious Drukpas are breathing.

When we begin to have pollution problems in our valleys, remember the problem will be 20-30 times worst than those in the plains.

Now is the time to act - to ensure that we cause the least bit of pollution. If we do not act responsibly now, in less than 10 years, we will lose what we have.

 Thimphu's breathtaking pristine atmosphere early this year (2017)

 Scenes such as above will be a thing of the past.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

World Bank: Water will become the most sought-after natural resource

Already, 1 in 9 people worldwide do not have access to safe, clean drinking water.

A report released by the UNICEF yesterday says that approximately 1 in 4 children worldwide will live in regions with extremely scarce water resource by 2040.

Based on current trends, studies indicate that demand for water will increase 50% by the year 2030 - for industry, energy, farming and to quench the thirsts of additional one billion people.

According to the World Bank, water will become the most sought-after natural resource over which wars are bound to be fought.

The 2017 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report, entitled "Wastewater: The Untapped Resource" says;

"Noteworthy is that about 50 per cent of the people facing this level of water scarcity live in China and India".

 If all these seem bleak and foreboding, consider this:


It is clear beyond doubt that WATER is going to be the most critical natural resource of the future. We need to do everything we can to protect and safeguard it, for our own future and for those of our children.

The as yet unshackled Chamkharchhu flowing through the Jakar valley. The government has recently announced that this beautiful river too will be subjected to hydro-power bondage.

We have to stop looking at our rivers only as energy source for driving hydro-power turbines. Our rivers are obviously destined for great things in the future. Water in its natural form could one day represent the single largest revenue generator for our country.

But first, we have to stop pawning off our rivers as collaterals for hydro-power projects. It is insane to do so. It is already very clear where our hydro-power projects are leading us. We all know how it works – when we cannot repay the loan, the collateral gets seized. You lose control over it.

We need to be realistic and educated. We are working on the assumption that India is an infinite market for our electricity. We are so wrong! India is already almost self sufficient in electricity. Take a look at the following to understand how India is making progress in generation of electricity.

Mr. John H. Gerstle, C.E., MNIF, a consultant who worked on our “Development of Guidelines for Hydropower Planning and Impact Assessment”, in the 90’s wrote to me as follows:

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

Similarly, it was recommended that hydropower 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.

There is much wisdom here. We cannot subject all of our rivers to eternal bondage - let us leave one or two of them free of hydro-power dams. We are not making any money from our hydro-power projects - so the question to ask would be:

How much more debt do we need?