Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What a wonderful world!

I am in the village of Zunglen (Drepung Gewog, Monggar). It is a typical Bhutanese village with a typical rural hospitality. The family is thrilled and excited that I have stepped into their house with few of my friends. We are ushered into their best room – the altar, and offered tea and tengma (beaten maize) with butter. The tea ceremony is followed by ara (local sake) with fried eggs. The whole family is suddenly at our disposal attending to us that we are comfortable and well-fed.

So much of warmth, so much of hospitality and so much of good will. This is something I have noticed in all my travels within our beautiful country. I am sure many of us (urban dwellers) would have experienced these 5-star treatments when we were on tour in rural Bhutan. The question is, do we in any way reciprocate this hospitality when these people come to urban areas?

The answer, shamelessly, is a resounding no!

But, of course, to be practical we may not be able to invite them to our homes unless they are familiar to us. We may not be able to offer drinks to each and every villager coming to Thimphu.

But still, there are things we could do. For example, we could help them by doing our job well. I mean many of them come to Thimphu to make their citizen’s identity card, passports, driving licences and various permits, to see government officials or to pay their loans or seek new one. We could help them by speeding public services for them.

We could help them by drafting application letters, filling up forms or giving them directions. We can drop them to the right office and refer them to the concerned official. We could seek information on their behalf and provide them guidance and help.

We could help them by making it easier for them to avail some basic services. For example, the banks could employ few unemployed youths whose sole job would be to fill up withdrawal and deposit forms. I have done this many times as I waited for my turn with the token number. Hospitals could do the same. People employed to help them see the doctors and get medicines from the pharmacy. Remember they can’t read or write. Our public offices are so customer unfriendly that even I get lost when I land in a new office. Unless you spot someone you know, there won’t be anyone giving you directions and neither would there be any information guide.

There are so many things we could do to reciprocate the warmth and hospitality we enjoy in rural areas. So the next time you see a villager who looks lost in a bank or in the hospital or in your office, ask him if he or she needs help. You will not only bring some relief, you will also feel happy to have done something worthwhile that day. If you can't do this, at least don't run over them with your car, or shout at them, as they stray aimlessly in the streets of Thimphu.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Well-done BBS!

BBS TV has finally got its own place after squeezing in with the radio for over ten years.  Well-done BBS! Especially the engineering guys who are always the unsung heroes of BBS.  And of course the new management for seeing this project through after so much of initial delays.

The event made me recollect another historic moment for BBS that occurred exactly 23 years back - on June 2, 1986.

It was on that day that BBS became “BBS” in place of Radio NYAB.  I am sure very few people in BBS would know this.  So just for the record, it was the day when BBS got its own 5KW RIZ transmitter commissioned.  Until then Radio NYAB was riding on the waves of the Wireless Department’s 400W BEL transmitter (a military piece made of pure iron that would give electric shock from all its parts when it was ON).

On June 2, 1986 we bid goodbye to Radio NYAB.  Dasho Karma Lethro, who was the deputy minister of communications & tourism inaugurated the station and was the first voice to go on-air from the new transmitter.  Late Dasho Rinzin Dorji was the director of information (that included BBS, Kuensel and DSCD), Mrs. Louise Dorji was the head of BBS and Mr. Sangay Tenzing (now DG of Roads) was the station engineer.  I was a junior engineer back then - one of the sixteen staff members.

So when you consider technician working with electric shock giving transmitters, RJs talking from that cold, stinking and haunted studio and reporters dishing out hand-written news bulletins, we must be proud of BBS with its new state-of-the-art master control room and satellite uplink facility.  I am told the production studios are air-conditioned.

Not bad, right?  We always think so low of ourselves.  It is about time we Bhutanese hold our chin high and boldly move to the future.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

From Macau with the concept of "special economic zone"

The southern province of Guangdong used to be the backwaters of China since time unknown. However, beginning 1979, the Chinese government introduced some serious economic reforms that included allocation of “special economic zone (SEZ)” status to couple of cities and regions – Shenzhen was the first city to be declared one.

The net result – these region have recorded some of the fastest economic growth in China - and in the world. Shenzhen is today the fourth richest city in China and a shining example of the SEZ concept. As a value-addition, millions of people got diverted here. Otherwise they would be heading for Beijing or Shanghai.

One of the recurrent debates in our country is the rural-urban migration, or more precisely rural-Thimphu migration - balanced development being a natural by-product of the discussion. We keep complaining that everything is happening in Thimphu. But on the other hand, how do we reverse the trend - even if we really want to?

One strategy would be to introduce the concept of “special economic zones” here in Bhutan too. To start with, we could have SEZ declared for dead-end towns like Dagana, Pema Gatshel, Tashi Yangtsi and Lhuntshi followed by other areas that do not attract any investments. People wishing to set up business in these areas could be granted tax holidays, income tax exemptions, power subsidies, credit facilities etc.

One of the prime considerations should be the creation of employment, which is beginning to be a major problem in our country. Driving the local economy and employment thereby releasing some pressure from Thimphu, in every sense, is something what we could possibly achieve with this concept. Not to even mention the balanced development and equity that will follow suit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Aren't we (Bhutanese) special?

My kids and I have watched the animation movie - Kungfu Panda over and over again.  Between my daughters and I, no one really knows who enjoy the film more.  We just love the movie.  

For me it is because of just one line from the film.  In fact the key message of the film. 

It's when Po, our hero (the giant panda), comes back to his father after failing to reveal the secret dragon scroll.  When his father, unwittingly, tells Po that there were no secrets to his “secret ingredient soup.”  One only has to believe that “it is special” to be special.

For many years now, I felt we Bhutanese are special.  We are different (not with any superiority complex attitude) but just the fact that we are a small, independent and beautiful country.  This really makes me feel very special.  And of course one very eminent lama, whom I met as a student many years back in Italy, told me that Bhutanese are a special breed of people.  

The question is, do we all feel we are special?  And do instill this feeling in our children?

Just thinking.....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bhutan's Net Generation

After a long time, last Sunday I happened to witness an inter-school quiz competition at the Thimphu YDF Hall.  The contest was organised by the Ministry of Information to mark the World Telecom & Information Society Day 2009.

The children were magnificent.  They knew things I didn't even hear about.  Except that much of the information they knew came from TV and the Internet.  Good? Bad? I don't know.  Depends on how you look at it! 

What was definitely not okay was our children lacking knowledge on our own culture, people, history and places.  For example, no one could get the picture of the last day of Paro Tshechu, while they instantly recognised the komodo dragon.  Likewise they could easily identify the official anthem of Arsenal FC, hit the tune of a certain singer called Lady Gaga and even spread out the career of the first American Idol.  

Of course, I was also pleasantly surprised that they got most of the questions on ICT and computers right.  Which makes me conclude that our children watch a lot of TV and are IT-savvy. 

Then if that's the case, why don't we capitalise on these attributes?  Use the TV to educate or re-educate our children and guide them and channel their viewing time to something meaningful.  Highlight youth issues, dignity of labour, values, self-esteem and other soft skills that will prepare them to face the future and take the country firmly into their hands.  

Why don't we work seriously on creating an "information society" or the "knowledge-based industry" on the strength of our children's flair for new technologies?  If the performance at the quiz competition is any indication, then what I am proposing is definitely not a wishful thinking.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On The Other Side of Paro Valley

I don't remember how many times I have been to Paro.  But I just realised that my visits, until now, were always confined to the left bank.  I mean along the Kyichu Lhakhang - Drugyel Dzong side.  So it was a very pleasant experience to be "on the other side of the Paro Valley" over the weekend.  Courtesy of a wild picnic outing by the Bhutan Times people.

Unlike the left bank, much of the other side of the Paro Valley is still pristine and beautiful with traditional mud houses and structures.  Thanks to the un-tarred road that runs parallel to the river and to the highway of the left bank, much of the original charm and romance of Paro are therefore retained.

The left bank, on the other hand, has become clusters of ugly high-rise and cemented jungle that have, sort of, destroyed the beauty and sacredness of Paro.  They come with all sorts of names - schools, hospitals, hotels, resorts, general shop cum bar, etc.  The other side has instead small stone and wooden structures adorned with beautiful gardens that greet you as you drive along the 5-km graveled stretch.  At the end of this road, where the BT people had camped for their annual picnic, is a place I would recommend for anyone looking for a spot to pitch a tent for a weekend outing.

There is also a feeder road that takes off from Tshendona village for Sangachokor - 7Km reads the milestone.  In fact it is a nice 7-km drive up to the peak taking you to Sangachokor monastery from where, apart from the sacred temples, you have the most amazing and breath-taking view of the Paro Valley.  Don't miss this experience and do it while you are still strong, alive and kicking.  You don't need a 4WD to get there.  The road is not tarred but good.  I was in a Maruti.

It is also a good spot to survey (and possibly ponder over) the two sides of the Paro Valley - and over the so-called urbanisation of our country. 

(Below is a photograph of the alpine town in Italy.  As a student I often went there because it attracted me.  Will our towns have the same appeal in future?  Maybe our town planners should take a cue from these places.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Looking Beyond the Awards

So we have successfully organised the first annual media awards. 

Awards and recognitions such as these will hopefully provide the much-needed professionalism and dignity in the Bhutanese media.  Never mind the minor controversy this time.  In any contest anywhere that’s there.  In Bhutan, I have learnt, it is always there!  Because somehow we Bhutanese never learn to lose.  I guess it is the direct result of lack of sports and other competitive activities in our schools.  The Media Award was relatively less controversial. 

I hate controversies.  For fear of being dragged into one, I withdrew my film “Nazhoen Chharo” from the last film festival.  I was not scared of losing.  I was scared of engaging in petty quarrels and bad mouth.  So, to the disappointments of many of my fellow filmmakers I enjoyed the evening as a guest.  I was even asked to give away a prize (to the best newcomer female!).  That was lot more fun!

The wisdom behind awards in artistic fields, such as films and journalism, is of course a much-debated subject everywhere.  One theory, which I partially subscribe to, is that you can’t judge one film from the other.  Both are masterpieces in their own rights. And so are literary and journalistic works.  The subjects are different, the contexts are different and the intentions and intensities are different.  In short, there are too many subjective variables to enable objective judgements.  

However what I truly believe is that events such as the Bhutanese films and the media awards are more "a collective recognition of the profession rather than just the individuals".  In a society that looks down on every other profession other than government jobs, the fact that we have begun to recognise these industries is a step forward.  The institution of the Annual Media Award was therefore the biggest winner!  

There is no doubt that awards and recognitions can boost your motivations and drive - especially among young journalists.  So, while I celebrated the Bhutanese journalism and our film industry at the YDF Hall, together with all others, I also applauded and personally congratulated all the winners.  I had five entries to this first media awards and managed to secure one nomination,  which was not announced - for technical glitches, I was explained much later.  I believe them because many a times I have been on the receiving end as the organiser of such events.  Technical problems are routine in events of such magnitude. One only has to learn not to make the same mistake twice and never to make such mistakes intentionally.  

I have attended many films festivals and media awards around the globe.  Many a times I was a participant, at times I was a judge and few other times I was also the winner.  But the biggest win was just to be out there, representing my country, rubbing shoulders with the best in the profession and to befriend other contestants with whom you exchanged ideas, skills and techniques.  

One of my favourite memories was the one in Seoul where, after the award ceremony and the party, we were all cramped in the room of the grand prix winner.  We bullied him into giving us an insight into how, why and what went behind making such a masterpiece.  The workshop started at midnight and ended at five in the morning.  After learning a lot from the winner, we all went back to our rooms, packed our bags and shot straight for the airport.  Life moves on!

That’s what we should all be doing here.  Learning to lose and learning from the winners and above all, learning from each other.  

Only then we progress as professionals.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spirited Away

Here is a piece I sent to Kuensel that will hopefully make us rethink some of our superstitions and beliefs.  By the way, thanks Kuensel for publishing the article! (Saturday April 18, 2009 issue)

Royal Gesture Dispels Stigma

The valley of Kurtoe is infamous for poisoners.  There are horrendous stories of people dying or falling seriously sick after eating or drinking from the hands of these people.  One such woman is Tashi Wangmo, 49, of Yogpaling Gonpa under Metsho Geog.  Locals believe she caused many deaths.  Tashi therefore is feared and ostracised by the whole community.  But Tashi has a different story to tell.

She was in her late teens when a childless man Gyetshela and his wife adopted her and asked her to look after their cattle.  Gyetshela was rich but his wife was another woman who was believed to possess that fatal magical power.  Twenty years back when the couple died, people started spreading rumours that Tashi has inherited that supernatural power to kill.  She was ostracised ever since and avoided like a devil.

“My father is a tshampa and my grandfather was a lam.  We come from a very good family.  So I guess it has got to do with what I did in my past lives,” says Tashi, almost resigning to her fate.  “Actually I was told that these things don’t pass through cattle but only through some home items,” she adds.

National Council member Rinzin who comes from the same region tried to demystify this belief system in his book Talisman of Good Fortune.  “These so-called poison-givers actually do not pass poisons physically,” says Rinzin.  “It is believed they have magical powers to do so.  This makes me conclude that things are exaggerated to extremes.”

To try “cleansing” herself from that stigma, Tashi and her father sold off all the cattle, but the locals continued ostracising her.  “If I had inherited that from the cattle, then the nine families who bought the cows and bulls should have taken away that power.  But no, it was just me,” says Tashi, who has ever since devoted much of her life to prayers to undo the bad karma.

And prayers for Tashi seems to have been answered in the recent visit of His Majesty the King to the area.  Like other people, Tashi Wangmo also presented herself with some ara to greet the royal entourage along the trail His Majesty was passing through.  And contrary to the advice of the local guide that His Majesty should not to take anything from her, His Majesty boldly took two cups of ara from her hands, embraced her and authorised her to tell the world that she has served the King in person and that the whole thing about poison-givers is baseless.  Other entourage members followed His Majesty by drinking from her hands.

The next day Tashi made a shy appearance in the public meeting His Majesty conducted for Metsho geog.  She was beginning to feel like a “normal” person.  But she was still confused and her face very gloomy.  

However, after flushing out her story she felt relieved and put on a faint smile – perhaps the first one after so many years.  And when asked about what she thought about His Majesty’s words, she broke down and cried bitterly.  She then wiped her tears and composed herself.  “I thought I was going to die with this stigma.  Zhab Rimpoche (His Majesty) has given me a new life.  I still cannot believe this has happened.  I hope I am not dreaming.” Tashi puts back another faint smile and after a long silence she enquires, “But why is only women ostracised with such a power?”

(NB.  A beautiful movie The Golden Cup was made based on this myth)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Re-discovering Bhutan

I am back.  I mean back to Thimphu and back to my blog. I have been away on a long walking tour to Lhuentse that took us to all the eight gewogs (sub-districts) and to almost every village and households. Well, to describe everything in one sentence – the trip was just enlightening!  In every sense I must say. 

Let me share some of my experiences.

First of all, we live in a beautiful country.  I may sound obvious but at times between all our mundane problems and challenges posed by our sophisticated modern life in Thimphu, we forget the obvious. And a trip like this is a pleasant reminder that we are blessed to be born, and to be living, in such a beautiful place.  I have travelled to many countries around the world.  So you can trust me when I say this.  I place a picture of a hamlet in
Kurtoe to further support my statement.

So, if an opportunity comes to you to get out of Thimphu and go to these places, just do it!

Second, the true spirit, or the character, of Bhutan is out there – in the villages, among those farmers and in the eyes and faces of thousands of people we met along the trail. But these places are getting empty as more and more people are attracted by the urban limelight and modern
paraphernalia.  So it makes me wonder what would become of our villages (and our country) when this group, living there now, leaves this world.

So, if there is anything you could do to retain our villages, just do it!

And lastly, this fall I plan to take my children to see what I have seen so that they grow up appreciating what is truly Bhutanese.  Raising them in Thimphu, I am afraid, is no different from raising them anywhere else.  We have TV, we have
iPods, we have cars, we have everything that are quite un-Bhutanese.  A journey to discover our own country is perhaps what my daughters need – especially the elder one who is moving to her teens few years from now.

Well here, I must say, create an opportunity to travel back to your roots.  Forget Bangkok or Hong Kong for once.  You will not only re-discover your own country but you will also find 'yourself'.  Your essence of being a Bhutanese, and may be, a better human being.  I am sure it would be something you and your children would cherish forever.  Just do it, man!

(Here is a haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) sent by She Yo En inspired by the above photograph.  Thanks She Yo En!)

Behind the distant mountains
The white fluffy clouds appearing hopeful
While the hamlet at rest 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hail to the Chief

The appointment of Kuensel’s Dasho Kinley Dorji as the secretary of ministry of information comes at a very crucial time for the Bhutanese media.  When we are all trying to understand what 'free media' is all about.  When the media itself is trying to understand itself.  And when petty quarrels between the media and the regulators, and also between the media themselves, are becoming a norm.  Everyone agrees that Bhutanese media is at an infant stage.  But the new era of democratic self–governance will require the media to quickly grow into adulthood.  The challenge for everyone therefore is to see that media gets a fair chance to make mistakes, experiment, grow and move on.  Hence at the helm of the development of media in Bhutan, we need people who understand media in the first place.

Chief Kinley (as he is popularly known in the media circle) comes with a long experience of seeing the modern Bhutanese media take root, grow and transform itself several times.  In fact he has been very much a part of it and his contribution to the development of mass media in Bhutan has earned him the red scarf from His Majesty the Fourth King.  Kuensel will lose some leadership, no doubt, but hopefully his appointment as the secretary of the ministry of information will drive the Bhutanese media forward - boldly into the future and take its rightful place as the Forth Estate of democratic governance.

(Chief wrote a nice piece about his moving. Kuensel. 5 Feb. 2009)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Here we go round the mulberry bush

History, they say, repeats itself. So does life too. ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ was a game I played as a child with other children holding hands and going round and round and jumping in a circle. As I move into my mid-life with no trace of childhood habits whatsoever, I find myself playing the game all over again. But this time there is no hand to hold or circlings to be done. You are on the steering of your car and going round and round of Thimphu.

Well, you guessed it right. I am referring at the way we are shepherded around Thimphu by our traffic system. The way the traffic flow has been designed (or ill-designed) we are pushed into unnecessary traffic jams and into burning the pricy petrol. A friend of mine told me that the country that doesn’t produce any oil has the largest number of one-way traffic roads and a terrible traffic management system. I couldn’t agree with him more.

From my office in Hongkong market, as you drive down from Swiss Bakery I have noticed someone has put boulders to push us towards Chorten. I don’t know if this iss even a work of a government agency.  Definitely I can say it is a bad joke and behind every bad joke there is someone playing God. (The boulders have now been removed.  I wonder if it was because of this article).  

Then there is that horrible wall that extends the entire stretch of the new boulevard.  If you come down the Chang Gangkha School, you have to drive all the way to Chubachu even if you are headed for the Swimming Pool.  If people have not felt stupid building it, I feel stupid driving it!  This wall even reminds me of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin. Physical wall, some say, develops into mental wall over a period of time.  There is a theory that East Berliners have still not recovered from the mental wall they built during the Cold War period.  So, soon we will have East and West Thimphu. I fall on West Thimphu and you? May be people who planned it never heard a saying – build bridges not walls. The walling mania of course is quite contagious. The Changlam has just been walled making us go and take a round near BNB to get into the Changlam Plaza. Then the other one is the BOD channels. Coming into Thimphu and after crossing the infamous saddle bridge, you are pushed into the heart of city, and into a sure jam, even if your destination is the Memorial Chorten or you are carrying an injured man to the hospital - for which you want to shoot straight up towards the Memorial Chorten.

But there is one road I could never figure out how to use it or who uses it. The middle road that runs along Norzin Lam and the Taj Hotel (in the picture). Or was it built to be a symbolic reminder of the famous middle-path we Bhutanese never follow anyway?

I used to love playing ‘mulberry bush’. But when you are way past your times, it is an outright waste of time, energy and fuel. Anyone who does something on this issue will get a standing ovation from me on this blog, I promise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Time for a paradigm shift in education?

Quality of education has been debated ad nauseum for years now but the recent article by the education minister and the debate in the parliament have made me interested on the issue again. Simply because it is a subject that concerns us all. I must admit that I am not an educationist but I feel obliged to join and contribute to the discussion. Quality of education stirs such a lively debate that even my uneducated father has strong views on the issue.

But what does 'quality of education' really mean? I think the debate starts from trying to give a definition. Is it the ability to read, write and speak English correctly? Or can it be equated to quality of teachers, school infrastructure or pass-percentages of board exams? Or is it simply the employability factor? Unless we know what we are debating, unless we define the problem, I am afraid we may never find the solution.

The first task, therefore, is to define what quality of education is. We should also be mindful that quality of education does not just depend on teachers, schools, students or the ministry. It is the result of active partnership between all those plus parents, the community and the whole government. We should also be careful to distinguish quality of 'teachers' and quality of 'teaching'. One does not necessarily imply the other. Awaiting the definition of quality of education, one could say that through good education, the citizenry will be able to lead a healthy and productive life and contribute to nation-building. And hence the second question – how can our education system enable students to lead an active, dignified and contented life in this fast-changing and ever more competitive world?

While the general perception is that the quality of education has declined in Bhutan, my own view is that it is the level of competition that has gone up drastically. The net effect is of course the same. Our youngsters today are unprepared to face new realities. And where we might have certainly failed is perhaps in recognising years ago that there was the need to balance the traditional system of learning, the new requirements of the labour market and the much wider range of pupils entering the system. This would have meant restructuring and redirecting our secondary and tertiary education, introducing flexible and varied curricula, enhancing teacher’s knowledge and skills, updating learning materials and introducing modern information and communication technology. But we continued, and continue, to be generic while at the same time talking about mismatch between demand and supply.

There is no doubt that our education system worked perfectly for my generation and for the ones before because we were fast-forwarded to quickly fill-up the Civil Service. However, the curriculum that was relevant then may not be relevant today. Our examination system continue to decimate students and create more “dropouts” than successful ones (refer to an earlier article I wrote on this). Hence, to say that we were better than today’s students is totally misplaced because no one actually checked our overall competence when we were drafted into our jobs. There was such a shortage of qualified Bhutanese that heads of departments would be present in the RCSC office to grab us like how we grab gas cylinders during monsoon months. But as the civil service got saturated and the private and corporate sectors demanded specialised skills, high motivational level, good working attitude, communication skills and hard work, our education system was then caught off-guard.

Education goes way beyond simple “reading, writing and speaking”. These constitute what we call “qualification” and not “education” as such. Education comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to lead out or to bring out” the inner potential of pupils. An educated person is not simply a person with class XII or a university degree. It is a person with knowledge, and with the ability to apply that knowledge thoughtfully and wisely. Does our present education system prepare our youth with these skills? I don't think so. Because let’s face it. Our education system is largely drawn from the British Raj which was designed to produce clerks and administrators for the British Empire. But while even the Indian education system has evolved, ours has remained virtually static. Our children continue to learn everything by 'rote' without understanding its application in the real World; questions remain the prerogative of teachers, and curiosity, critical thinking and inquisitiveness are slammed as being a nuisance. Of course then our children will not have the zeal to learn nor do our youngsters the zeal to succeed. “I don’t want anyone working for me for more than ten years.” I keep telling my young colleagues, “You will have to run your own company by then.” I am afraid they don’t understand what I am talking about.

The education minister has rightly stated that the quality of education cannot be any better or worse than quality of teachers. But in my opinion it can be both better and worse, depending on the structure in which the teacher works. Where exactly is the problem then? In two areas. First, in the bureaucratization of the education system. Education is a specialised field and our current bureaucratic structure no longer works today because, many a times, critical decisions are being made somewhere and by someone totally extraneous to ground realities. Not to talk about good educationists leaving for other attractive positions in the Civil Service. A paradigm shift with the education system that is independent and less hierarchical, organised into multi-disciplinary groups may perhaps launch Bhutan into a better future. The role of the government should then be to set the standards, monitor the quality and provide continuous dialogue between the society and the education system so that there is no more that infamous “mismatch”.

Second, the motivation level of the teachers is at an all-time low. In my extensive travels around our beautiful country, I have met many who are committed but are demoralised, overworked and forgotten. My documentary “School Among Glaciers” was in fact dedicated to them. What happens then is that we may have "good" teachers but "poor" quality of teaching. Teachers are no longer even respected by the society – a stark contradiction for a Mahayana Buddhist country which has thrived on the lama-loma (master-disciple) tradition. The paradigm shift could address this problem because issues like incentives, professional enhancements and support materials can be tackled within the system and not by an external body or individual that is oblivious to the needs and problems facing the teaching cadre. A teacher will then be a teacher who can say with pride “I am a teacher” and not an ordinary grade 8 or 9 officer in the Civil Service.

Generally in Bhutan, I realise that it is not that we don’t know what to do. It is more often that we don’t do what needs to be done. I am sure many solutions would have been thrown and paradigms shifts proposed in plenty. To raise the quality of our education system requires action, not complacency. I may be forgiven for saying this - but if our education system fails; we will fail as a nation. The good news is that we have recognised as a problem. The bad news is - we have along way to go. But this a country where everything is possible, if we want to.

(also published in Bhutan Times, 27 Jan issue, under the Opinion page)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Suffering in silence

A Complain–Response Mechanism to assist (and protect) children and women will be established in Thimphu with the Royal Bhutan Police – a joint RBP/NCWC project. With domestic violence and violence against women and children coming to the fore, the project is timely and laudable. Centennial Radio has a daily show “Family Matters” where most of the callers so far (except for one) were women in need of help but wanted to be anonymous and wouldn’t want to show up at the police station - nor at the RENEW. The complain mechanism therefore is a good news. But that’s where the good news ends.

A nation boasting to be Buddhist (and thus champion of non-violence) and where tolerance and compassion are core teachings of Buddhism, a project such as this was perhaps the last thing we would have wanted. This is not to discount the works done by the NCWC or the Police. What I am saying is, I wish we never had the requirement for it.

Child protection and protection of women have become common phrases that we don't even think what they really mean. "Protection" against what? "Protection" from whom? Who else but the men folks like you and me. Isn't it that sad that in a country like ours our women have to be protected - our children have to be protected. If there is something I cannot stand, something that really makes me angry, it is when I hear about someone battering his wife or hitting his children.

Some data for you to think over – the RBP’s Woman & Child Protection Unit received some 300 cases of domestic violence against women last year. This, I bet my life, will just be a tip of an iceberg of a much bigger problem. For every case that is reported, thousands are suffering in silence.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Beyond the salary raise

The modest salary raise for the civil service is a landmark decision by the government - for many reasons. First, it was a very difficult choice, especially for an elected government. Second, it has stood by its campaign slogan of “equity and justice” and third and the most important, the government has incorporated views from other sections of the society.

As a former civil servant, there is no arguing that the salary raise was necessary. I know how tough life can be at times. But it was the percentage that was discussed, and disputed, by every quarter. The raise in itself was never questioned. The global financial crisis, the funding gap of the Tenth Plan, the long-term sustainability of the raise and above all, the ramification into other sectors – everything had to be taken into account.

Bhutan meets much of its capital expenditures from donor funding. As ripples of the American economic melt-down hits our traditional development partners, it is clear that these countries would commit less into the ODA (overseas development assistance). Japan, for example, is not in a good shape and has been in recession for many years now. In any case, our development partners have already indicated in the last Round Table Meeting in Thimphu that they would be withdrawing - starting 2013. Hence, it’s time we save up to start meeting our capital expenses too. 2013 is not far away.

The long-term sustainability of the raise was perhaps the most important factor that made the government arrive at this decision. Despite our tremendous growth and prosperity, our economic base remains very weak. Grant aid cannot be used to meet recurrent expenditures like salaries. Our own Constitution is explicit on this issue. Of course we have hydropower and the ambitious accelerated-hydropower development is a wonderful plan that will address this national dilemma. But that will materialise only after 2020 plus at least a decade to service the debts.

The total financial implication, on the national exchequer, from the salary raise is estimated at Nu. 1.33 billion (USD 27 million) annually. I am sure this will be met through increased taxes and internal revenues. But how about closing this gap and the funding gap for the Tenth plan through domestic financing? Treasury bills and bonds could be introduced. After all we have been talking about shared responsibilities in the nation-building. Some treasury bonds can have maturity period of over 30 years. Given our very bright economic future, even foreign individuals might invest in our treasury bonds.

One aspect that I was really concerned with the Pay Commission’s recommended percentage was the implication on the fragile private sector and the labour market. It is obvious that our SMEs, which form the majority of this sector, would not be able to match the raise. Things would be tough for everyone contrary to the Report that indicated a minimum impact. And when the going gets tough, the tough will not get going but would rather rationalise its manpower. People will be laid off and this will further aggravate the growing unemployment problem in the country. True, better salary for the civil service will increase the disposable income and consumer spending. But that might not have any major impact on the overall growth of the private sector here. The spending will be more on imported vehicles and commodities and foreign destinations (pilgrimage to other countries).

The civil servants were expecting a fat increase and I expect mixed reactions. But what is bugging them anyway? One thing, for sure - the rising living standard. I find Bangkok is much cheaper than Thimphu – a situation of total irony. One major component of a salary goes into house rents. So why not introduce home mortgage schemes that will give civil servants the possibility to own homes. The house or flats they intend to build or buy can be taken as collateral. Having a roof gives a person the self-confidence to work and serve better. If this is absolutely not possible, I don’t see why though, let’s cut the interest rates on existing housing loans. Bringing down the interest rate is not impossible. One just has to consider the dividend the banks pay to their shareholders. Or the courageous move by the Pension Board that brought down some of the interest rates. The market price for timber, sand and stone is another area that needs some serious review. These are the only local material we have and ironically the hardest to get. These interventions should be paralleled with a strict implementation of the Tenancy Act so that there is no arbitrary increase of house rents by property owners.

Another major spending is in having to own private vehicles. My in-laws in Japan don’t own a car because the public transport is cheap, reliable and accessible. If there is such a thing in Bhutan, there won’t be this huge financial drain. Not even on the government that has to maintain a costly fleet of pool vehicles. With the fuel prices skyrocketing and, on the other hand, with electricity readily available in this country, it would also make sense to build some trams, rail tracks and ropeways. We can do some carbon trading here.

In conclusion, we all had a hard time with this pay rise debate. Speculations and rumours and unjustified price rise of essential commodities and house rents were some of the undesired results of the process. Lot of work and resources also went into producing the Pay Commission’s report. However, if we don’t tackle the rising living standards immediately, it won’t be long before we get into the debate – all over again.

(also published in Bhutan Times, 21 Jan issue, under the Opinion page)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Home alone

After facing over 300,000 people at the CICCC ground over a period of two months with all those hustle and bustle, it feels little empty to be alone at home. My family has taken their annual three-week visit to their grandma in Japan. My house is quite big and so the silence (and emptiness) often jolts you. You pause a second and remind yourself you are the only inhabitant. You pour a drink, throw yourself on the sofa, put a DVD (I don’t have cable TV at home) and often fall asleep. No wonder loneliness breeds alcoholism (I haven’t become one still!).

But living alone has advantages too. You can sleep as long as you want. You can leave empty dishes in the kitchen without having to submit explainations to anyone. You are free to go in and out of your home at anytime. You also become more responsible. You have to worry that you closed the water taps, gas nozzles, heaters and geysers. You gather new skills like operating a washing machine and new knowledge that electricity, we boast of exporting, goes for Nu. 3 per unit while we export for quarter that amount. And garbage trucks come only thrice a week. Life truly is a continuous learning process.

But there is one thing that I hate being alone – cooking. That’s when I realise how dependent I have become of my wife. Actually I really don't mind cooking and I “think” I make some edible stuffs. But no one agrees to that – not even my four yak dogs. I get a strange feeling that they miss my wife more than me.

Wishing a nice weekend to all the Bhutanese bloggers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Democracy for civil servants?

Yesterday I accepted an open invitation by BBS TV for a panel discussion on the proposed salary rise for the civil service – to be held at 5pm sharp. Now since this is the hottest topic (at national level) I thought I might not get a good seat and so I went early - at 4pm. Only to run into an empty studio. Not only. Since there was a lack of participation, the panel even got delayed by several minutes. There wasn’t a single civil servant who attended the panel discussion. Indifference, apathy, scared of future repercussions? I don’t know. Draw your own conclusion!

Unless I got it wrong, democratic governance means shared responsibility to govern the country. The MoF and the PM are expecting frank and honest views and opinions on the matter because this pay-rise thing will have a serious implication on everything in this country and lots and lots of ramification into other sectors of the country.

And then, Dawa, the presenter, tried hard to cover these possible implications but the callers, and questions from the floor, kept coming back on the percentage of rise – which in my view is just one aspect of this pay rise. I raised about the possible scenario of unemployment getting worse because the private and corporate sectors will lay off people to contain the overhead, someone asked how they are going to sustain the rise because Constitution states very clearly that "recurrent expenses should be met from internal revenue" and so on and so forth. Readers are free to draw another conclusion here.

Have fun........................... and have a nice weekend!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Missed call from a minister

There is one sub-culture that has become an integral part of our daily life – “missed calls”. Missed calls make me nervous. Because they can mean anything – good, bad, sad, happy or funny.

1. A missed call from my daughter is very clear. She has run out of voucher. And that I have to become Nu. 100 poorer and B-Mobile Nu. 100 richer. Wish they never invented the mobile phone.

2. Missed calls, and that too a continuous one, from an unknown person really make me nervous. Because it can be someone trying to flirt around.

3. A missed call from my wife means “Call back or face dire consequences later……” I hate this missed call.

But missed call is also a wonderful human invention. It can be a very effective way to communicate without spending anything. All you need to do is to establish an understanding with the other side.

1. Missed calls from your drinking partners can be translated into “Time for the daily quota!”.

2. Missed calls from the office can mean your are wanted there. There are bill collectors or clients waiting to see you - depending on how your business is faring.

3. A missed call from your golf partner could be, “Time to push off for a nine-hole!”

4. A missed call at 3.30pm from your PA would be “Time to pick your child from school”

But there was one missed call I couldn’t figure out. A missed call from a minister. It could be anything between, “I miss you” to “I will fix you” - and a range of other messages good and bad. 

Definitely they wouldn’t have run out of voucher.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Get our youth back. Use the radio

Yesterday I attended a presentation by a local consultant on the recently-concluded media impact study. While I wait for the final report to make my comments, there was one finding that made me extremely happy. The report says that "the three private radio stations are very popular among the youth."

Now having been a broadcaster for all my life that was the best thing I have ever heard. And that’s because over the years we have lost our youth to TV and other distractions. Whilst in BBS, my colleagues and I tried hard to get them back and we did everything - but we failed. Every media studies prior to this have shown that youth, especially in Thimphu, don’t listen to radio. And this trend was very worrying because it means they are into other unhealthy distractions.

When the final report is out, I hope decision makers and planners will take note of this. Because today we are talking about our youth going astray, into drugs and violence and lacking self-confidence, creativity and other skills required to be productive citizens. But if they are listening to radio why don’t we use the radio to re-educate and realign them? If we lose our youth, we lose everything!

Oh! There is also something I must reveal (or confess). My station, Centennial Radio, trailed last in all the categories but one! The influence (on public opinion, I guess). Now that was like coming last in the Olympic medal tally but winning the most important medal. We all, at Centennial, had a nice laugh. Honestly, I expected the results since we are the youngest among the four radio stations in the country. But we are truly honoured to be having “more influence” in the society. That is exactly one of the main mandates of a media agency. But congrats to Kuzoo and Radio Valley. Especially Kuzoo that has, in just two years, closed in to BBS Radio all over the country and is even ahead in some categories.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Survival of the richest

I take pleasure in walking in the streets of Thimphu. To feel the pulse of the capital and to experience various mini-worlds we have within. But someone would spoil my escapades. Someone would spot me and would pull over offering me a lift to wherever I was heading for. Walking, I guess, is not too decorous for someone of my “status”. It is a sad development, or undevelopment, for a society that has seen motor cars only in recent decades. As a child I walked for a day to reach the road-head and another three days of grueling truck ride to get to the boarding school. The same, I guess, was true for people of my generation. I am just wondering when and where we lost our roots. Someone once said to me that Thimphu has the highest number of Landcruisers per capita in the world. Another economist told me that one of the indicators of a nation’s progress is the number of land-cruisers. The more the land-cruisers the less developed a country is. This may be a joke, or a cliché, but it is an intelligent one that provokes some rethinking about our ways of doing things.

Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche once remarked that we never enjoy the present. Either we live regretting the past or we keep worrying about the future. Fitting to his observation, Thimphu’s middle and upper class families are today so fussy and worried about the school their children go to. No more are government schools good enough, but private school, pre-school and day-care centers are in rising demand. NP (North Point in Darjeeling) is even returning to fashion these days. A simple question like “do you have children,” is immediately followed with “which school do they go to?”. Followed by a series of ungracious remarks on the quality of education in Bhutan, or the lack of it, and that “someone” but not “we” should do something.

As I write this article sitting and seeping a hot masala tea in Khamsa Café, two women on the next table are envying few of their friends who have gone to America. “She is working for a millionaire, lo!” says one. “Oh yea?” comes the reply. I didn’t mean to snoop on them, but they are talking so loud without any courtesy to other clients in the café. Their conversation slowly jumps to a good hair saloon that has opened somewhere in the town. And how much Bhutanese hairdressers knew nothing about hair and how much they were looking forward to the upcoming trip to Bangkok to get it fixed. What a tragedy of unthinkable proportion! Poor souls! It must be hard for them to go around with their hair in such a mess.

“He has one son studying in America and a daughter in Thailand.” That’s how one gets introduced these days among Thimphu growing middle class. On another occasion I heard a man remark, “Bangkok is damn boring yaa! “You bump into Bhutanese at every turn. I think I will go to Las Vegas.” “Wow!” I thought. I am not sure if he ever made it to Las Vegas though. Describing people has also changed. If you can’t place someone, you are hinted with “that guy who drives a blue Prado.” Replacing what used to be “that dasho so-and-so’s niece’s husband”. Besides, for unconventional minds like me, I am often advised by my well-wishers to own a posh car if I wanted to win some government tenders or contracts. Or if I wanted people to open the restaurant doors for me. You just laugh it off until of course you are stopped by a traffic policeman when driving around in a small Maruti. People do notice you more and are more courteous if you step out of a shiny Toyota. And so, some people buy these expensive toys to counter this disrespectful populace. But many invest fortunes to make up for what they are not and to impress others.

It is just amusing that people don’t live for themselves anymore. They live for others. But not by practicing the Buddhist principles of compassion or altruism. Rather, dreading what others will think of them and what others will say on them for not having this or owning that. In vying to keep up with someone’s lifestyle, a social war has erupted in Thimphu where the name of the game is survival of the richest. No more is your social standing based on the Civil Service grade or the university you have graduated from. These are passé. You are noticed, and frowned, for owning an old Nokia mobile phone. And more vividly by the size of the car, or the brand, you drive. There is the growing social competition to outdo each other. Some things, of course, never change. The dress you wear is still an indication that you are somebody or nobody.

Finally the American dream is gaining momentum with even young some Bhutanese mothers supposedly minting greenbacks in the Big Apple. Most, I am told, are babysitting. Someone’s child, of course. It dreads me to imagine what will become of those hundreds of “abandoned” children here - when they grow up. One of the highest crime rates in the US was recorded in the late eighties. Analysts say they were children from the hippies’ generation of the late sixties who didn’t receive proper parenting. May be my fear is too far fetched. For now, perhaps, I should think of what to do with my old mobile phone.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Living (or surviving) in a cyber world

It's close to midnight and I am replying to my American friends on the other side of the planet who are just getting to work. I just finished many “hi and how are you and your family” to all my European friends after I got back from a series of meeting in this crazy little city called Thimphu.

Living in a globalised world, I have realized, is tough. First there is no such thing called a working hour. Then there is mobile phone that can catch you everywhere. I hate taking calls when I am in the toilet. In the morning you get to your desk and there are few urgent mails from the Land of Rising Sun who have been up and running for few hours ahead of me and who want an urgent reply to their queries. The Singaporeans, Malaysians and the Thais are up almost together with me because I can see their names turn green on my Gmail account as I fire up my computer. My Indian friends come a little later with their classic “Arey Dorji Bhai? Why no reply to my email?” After few salutations and “got to go and see you later” I sign off and rush off. Reporting a story for my radio, shooting a doco, speaking at a workshop or attending it or just meeting people chews up all my day until five in the evening. After I left my last job everyone was like, “You must be free now, could you sit on this board” or “could you do this for us?”

It is almost six when I get back to my office. Feeling little hungry, I order some food from a canteen below where on their menu it is mentioned “Snakes items” meaning “Snack items”. So much for Bhutanese being good in English. Time to get in touch with the Europeans in addition to the replies and further queries from my Japanese friends. The problem with the Japanese people (I have one permanently at home, my wife) is that one can never clarify something in one go with them. The more you clarify the more they get confused. Ha ha ha. Lost in translation, I guess.

It is close to midnight and I am writing to my American friends and some clarifications to my European friends. Below my office there is one singing joint where someone is trying to sing “pang seshu meto” for the third time. Outside there is a group of young guys shouting and howling and kicking cans and bottles.

Well got to go home now..... It is tough living in this cyber world

Friday, January 9, 2009

Walking away from the National Anthem

We are at the CICCC ground. The event is the Grand Centenary Concert on 17th December and we have reached the end of the evening show. To conclude the great occasion we have the national anthem. As the MC asks the audience to stand up and artistes to gather on the stage, almost every spectator in the gallery starts leaving the venue – including some senior officials. People keep walking away even after the anthem is being blared aloud at 15,000 Watts. On the other hand, the guest singers from Darjeeling, led by Karma Sherpa, put their hands on their hearts, close their eyes and stand motionless till the anthem ends.

Why do we Bhutanese, who are known for being fiercely nationalists and who are ready to kill or die for our Motherland, have little or no respect for the National Anthem? Where have we gone wrong? The CICCC incident is just one case but it is not an isolated one. Who hasn’t noticed people leaving from school concerts, public events or variety shows as the national anthem is being played? And worst of all, we are taking our children away, thereby indrectly teaching them not to bother about our national pride.

In Italy the rowdiest of football hooligans stop shouting or launching verbal attacks at each other when the anthem is played. This happens at the start of every official football matches. Even a stadium packed with 90,000 people falls into a dead silence when the l’inno nazionale comes alive. On many occasions the crowd give a standing ovation to their national anthem and then they resume the jeering and cheering for their favourite team. In Thailand you are required to stand up before the start of a movie in public theatres - to sing or listen and watch the national anthem being played on the big screen. I am told something like this was tried out some time back in our Lugar Theatre, but with pathetic results, which was more a disgrace to us as a nation. During the opening of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, TV cameras focused on the Bosnian flag bearer who broke down as the Bosnian anthem was played and the Bosnian Olympic team entered the stadium. Bosnia had just gained independence from Yugoslavia after the bloody Balkan war that left millions of Bosnians dead or missing.

Again, thanks to our monarchs and our forefathers we didn’t have to fight for our independence from some colonial powers. Nor did we have to endure long hardships to retain our independence and sovereignty. But there have been moments in the recent past when we did fear for our nation and our existence. As late as December 2003 didn't we sat in front of the NDTV biting our nails and praying for our Beloved King to come home victorious? Pity we have also developed short memories.

The Japanese who are the busiest living beings on earth stop walking or talking if they see their anthem being played on TV or in a nearby school. Have we Bhutanese become busier than the Japanese that we cannot even spare few minutes? What is 3 minutes of our time when we spend hours gossiping, gambling or grumbling about others? What is 3 minutes of our day when we have to wait for hours for latecomers even in a high-level official meeting?

Coming back to that CICCC incident, my six-year old daughter was there besides me. Like everybody else she wanted to leave. I told her we will sing the national anthem and then go. She agreed. But then after we started singing she saw many people leaving. She asked me why the other people are walking away. I really had no explanation to give to her.

(also published by Bhutan Times in the Jan 11 issue as an opinion column)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Centenary Year and Mahakali

This is my first post on my personal blog and obviously I will dedicate this piece to the Coronation and Centenary Celebrations that just happened in the Kingdom of Bhutan. We are in January 2009. The Centenary Year (for Bhutan) has just slided away. But for me and my two friends (Tshegyel and Rigden) and of course Kinga Sithup, Tandin Dorji, Pema Rinzin and Thukten Yeshi and all the CICCC people, we can look back to the Year with great pride and smile. For, we have left everything behind and have organised the greatest non-stop show Bhutan had ever seen. 56 days of music, laughter, trade fairs, events and entertainment honouring our great Kings - of past and of present.

People often asked me, and some of my critics even doubted, why we three came up with this massive celebration plan out of nowhere. For me it was to give back to the society (and to the kings) something in return for everything I have received as a citizen. I come from a poor family. I had neither rich aunties to push me nor powerful uncles to pull me up. If I have achieved something in life, it is thanks solely to my parents who brought me into this world and to the Monarchy who paved the way for citizens like us to achieve something in life.

Like many Bhutanese I have often cited how much I love, adore and respect my kings. But talking alone is not enough. Sometimes you got to prove in deeds. The centenary year gave us a perfect occasion to put our words into action. I really don't care what others say. I have done what I had to do as a loyal subject of this small great nation ruled by great kings. In December of 1907, my great grandfather accompanied the Tashigang Dzongpon (governor) to Punakha where the famous Oath of Allegiance was signed proclaiming Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king of Bhutan. If for nobody, at least, I know my great grandfather will be proud of what I have done hundred years later - during this centenary year. History will decide if what we have done was anything worthwhile. For now, after a marathon 56 days of celebration, I feel like a student who has just finished his exams and has come out with flying colours.

And of course I am under no illusion that I (or we three) did this alone. Had it not been for all those people who followed us into the project and others who supported us morally and financially, we wouldn't have achieve much. So to all of you who have stood by us, a big big thanks. Especially my assistants Kunzang Choden , Karma Chuki Dorji and Khandu and of course the inexhaustible Jayesh Bole. We have a huge financial loss though and we are working our way out of the mess. But in the worst of situation, we would have to service the debt for few years. But money will come and go. It is never enough anyway. But the Centenary Year is not coming back. And that's the point.

And since the going is great, I have just started building a temple in Adha Rukha in honour of Guardian Deity Palden Lhamo (Mahakali). My wife tells me I better do this to clear off all my sins. Whatever.......... guys...... But I thought life was little too boring without some excitements.