Friday, March 6th, 2015 - 8:43 AM
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Illegal BTN-INR exchange rate jacked up in Jaigaon

A black market thrives from this illicit business fuelled recently by the pilgrimage season

Currency: The country’s currency, the ngultrum (BTN) is depreciating against the Indian rupee (INR) in the informal and illegal currency exchange market in Jaigaon, across the border from Phuentsholing.

The ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee.  But in the informal business, Bhutanese have been buying INR by paying more ngultrums.  The rate has increased by Nu 2 since November.

Today Bhutanese are charged Nu 6 extra for every INR 100.  However, it depends on the amount exchanged.  Small bargains can be availed if the amount is higher.  Kuensel found the rates are brought down by 5.8 percent to six percent, if the amount is more than Nu 50,000.

NS Road in Jaigaon is notorious for selling and buying INR.  There are three small shops that openly deal in currency exchanges.  Groups of four to five people crowding one of these shops, just big enough to accommodate two men, is a common sight.  People stand in small queues and take turns to make the deal.  The business is booming, going by the cartons filled with cash.

The sudden increase of charge rates, which eventually diminished the BTN value, businessmen in Phuentsholing attribute to the rush in the number of people heading to Bodhgaya for pilgrimage.  It led to a huge demand of INR among the desperate pilgrims.

Although the pilgrimage season has come to an end, the exchange rate has not come down.  On the other hand, the orange season, entrepreneurs say, is another contributor to the illegal selling and buying of INR.

Although the cash transaction on the export of the mandarin is carried through letter of credits in dollars, it is the local sales of rejected oranges that indirectly contribute to the illegal business.

A businessman in the town said the contractors engaged in export of reject oranges that are sold in Jaigaon, Siliguri, and Alipurduar mint INR.

“They create the other side of the illegal business,” he said, explaining that they sell in INR, targeting higher returns in BTN.

However, the commission from selling INR is less than the rate charged in buying.  It is five percent, which means a person selling INR 100 will receive Nu 105 in return.

The difference of Nu 1 in buying and selling is the profit a broker makes.  Sources say a broker easily earns about Nu 10,000 to Nu 15,000 in a day.

While this business cannot be controlled in Jaigaon, many people in Phuentsholing are now raising questions about those buying BTN inside the country, which the brokers bring.

“Bhutanese buy INR with BTN, but who is buying this same BTN?” a businessman questioned, explaining that BTN used in buying INR in Jaigaon cannot remain there forever as it cannot be used in other parts of India. “There’s definitely a big loophole and the concerned authorities must investigate.”

A Phuentsholing resident said Bhutanese are at the losing end. “If a needy Bhutanese buys INR 100 from Jaigaon paying a fee of Nu 6, the broker will have Nu 106,” he said, adding the same BTN would come to Bhutan and get exchanged with INR at par. “This is a big loss to the Bhutanese.”

Illegal exchange offers of INR and BTN have been there for almost four years now.  It started with the rupee crunch in 2011.

In the initial days of the crunch, the commission brokers charge ranged from seven to nine percent. In August 2014, the charges fluctuated from four to six percent.

It had decreased to four percent in November 2014.  It is now six percent.

By Rajesh Rai, Phuentsholing

Minister visits health facilities in eastern and central Bhutan


With a view to know ground realities and get feedback from workers in the field  

Visit: Health facilities in the country is facing a major issue of human resource shortage, health minister, Tandin Wangchuk, said during his visit to Trashigang dzongkhag.

“Human resource is a major problem. It’s never going to be enough. Even countries like the US have shortage of human resources in the medical sector,” lyonpo said.

To understand ground realities of the health facilities in the central and eastern parts of the country, the health minister is on a visit to the dzongkhags. He discussed issues and challenges confronted by health workers in the dzongkhags.

“To address anything, if you’d have been there physically, it really helps during decision-making,” lyonpo said. “When we’re on the move, we have stakeholders from the ministry so that they can also participate; we can solve a lot of issues together.”

From his visit to the BHUs and hospitals so far, lyonpo said there was need for service improvement and introduction of new services in a lot of the health facilities.

Maintenance of equipment was found to be another major issue.  Although a qualified engineer should carry out repair and maintenance of diagnostic machines, lyonpo said manufacturers don’t attend to these machines because of the lesser number.

“When you have to avail the services of the manufacturers, they don’t attend, as there are only a few machines, which is why a lot of machines are left broken down,” he said.

The minister said health facilities in the rural areas are better in the east and central region compared with other dzongkhags. “We found out there are more BHUs per gewog in these regions.”

For instance, Zhemgang has 14 BHUs for 12 gewogs in the dzongkhag, whereas in the west, there are cases of two gewogs having to share a single BHU.

During the visit, lyonpo repeatedly reminded health officials on the need for human touch when treating patients.

Lyonpo also informed that the ministry is working together with Youth Development Fund (YDF) on coming up with a rehabilitation centre in Trashigang.

Lyonpo and his team have visited Zhemgang, Pemagatshel, Samdrupjongkhar, Trashigang and Trashiyangtse.  They would be leaving for Mongar today and then to Bumthang tomorrow.

By Tshering Wangdi, Trashigang

Give DDM its right of place

More than three years after the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, we hear that we do not even have an emergency operation centre. Why we do not have an instant command centre yet, we would like to know.

The centre is a critical component of disaster management system in the country. What has taken us too long to establish one for the benefit of our nation and the people is indeed wonderful.

Lack of fund is an excuse by far inadequate.

We spend close to a million on each entitled position in the country, on the members of parliament in particular, and even more in some cases.

Yet, building a strong and effective disaster management system in the country is a costly affair. People need reasons stronger than shortage of fund.

Devolution of power and capacity-building should go down to the grassroots. Only then will Department of Disaster Management (DDM) have any purpose to stand as an institution with a vital mandate to protect the citizens from calamities natural and man-made.

Spending “fair amount of resources” in bolstering community-based disaster risk management throughout the country, as home minister said recently, could be a pride for any political government, but not for the people in the backwaters of this country who haven’t practical experience and equipment required for real time disaster situations.

The nation hasn’t forgotten how in 2009 seven boys in Chukha lost their lives thirteen hours after rescue mission was launched. Our disaster management system has not improved by any measure since then, it seems.

In the age of climate change and global weather instability, natural disasters are bound to occur more frequently than we would like to see them overwhelm us, to say nothing about accidental mishaps every now and then. How prepared are we?

Some major earthquakes have occurred in the recent memory of this nation. Lives and properties worth billions have been lost. Still we do not even have an emergency operation centre.

Bhutan sits on a major seismic zone in the Himalayas and changing climate is posing increasing threat to the lives of people. In the mountains, ice is melting fast, and lakes are growing ominously. Another glacial lake outburst flood could ruin the lives of the communities living along the major river systems.

Perhaps we are getting our priorities wrong. Developing guidelines and training a few selected people in the dzongkhags to deal with disaster events will not help. What we need is a strong department with effective emergency operation centre to address immediate national requirements.

Standard guideline needed in treating spinal TB

Conference: Lack of standard guidelines to treat bone or spinal tuberculosis (TB) has left doctors at the orthopedic department of the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck national referral hospital (JDWNRH) unclear.

Spinal TB, medically known as Pott’s spine, occurs at the lumbar (lower part of the spine) in children and adults, and for the elderly it is seen in the knee and pelvic area.

The orthopedic department has been treating minor and severe cases of spinal TB, including other bone TB. But treatments vary from conservative to surgical management.

At the second day of the fourth annual medical conference, yesterday, spinal surgeon Dr Kuenzang Wangdi, during a paper presentation said hospitals in Bhutan are in immediate need of proper guidelines for treating spinal TB. He said the number of spinal TB is on the rise.

“Some health workers treat for six months and some for 12 months but its treated for 12-18 months in India and Thailand. There is no standards in the duration of spinal TB treatment in Bhutan,” he said.

He added that the literature review recommends more than six months treatment.

In 2014 a total of 10 bone TB cases were admitted of which five cases were spinal TB. It was diagnosed in the out-patient department. Spinal tuberculosis is indolent and grows slowly, which can be diagnosed both clinically and radiologically in endemic regions. MRI is better at detecting the lesions compared to radiography.

Bone TB or spinal TB is reflected as extra-pulmonary TB in the tuberculosis program, so the treatment regimen is similar to pulmonary TB.

Dr Kuenzang explained that 90 percent of tuberculosis occurs in lungs (pulmonary) and the remaining 15-20 percent are presented as extra pulmonary.

“Our TB program should review the treatment regimen. The present duration of treatment is too short. It might lead to many complications like neurological deficit and deformity,” he said.

He recommended 12-18 months treatment depending upon the clinical presentations and severity of the disease.

Dr Tshewang Thinley, who recently retired from the orthopedic department, said during his tenure, he treated patients with spinal TB for 18-24 months.

“My treatment depended on treatment response and laboratory recommendation,” he said. “There are no clear cut guidelines anywhere.”

Medical specialist, Dr D B Subba said that the situation is “shocking”. He said different doctors treat for different duration.

“We need some protocols. Spinal TB should be treated for 12 months,” he said adding that there cannot be follow-ups for the illness.

The former medical specialist of JDWNRH, Dr Ballab Sharma, who is currently with Punatsangchhu hydropower project, said there is an Indian woman in Bajothang hospital who has been treated for spinal TB for last three years.

“Treatment duration of spinal TB is debatable,” he said.

By Nirmala Pokhrel

How Trongsa became egg self-sufficient

First, it stopped imports from India and now it’s doing the same for other dzongkhags 

Poultry: After stopping the import of eggs from India, Trongsa is now working on not having to depend on eggs from other dzongkhags.

The dzongkhag is planning to produce over 3 million (M) eggs by the end of the 11th Plan to achieve its target in annual performance agreement.

“While we’ve stopped importing eggs from across the border, our next plan is to phase out even the import of egg from other dzongkhags,” Trongsa dzongda, Tshewang Rinzin, said.

In the last five years, Trongsa became self sufficient in eggs when it produced 2.750M eggs.

“Despite the sudden increase in consumers with the arrival of the hydropower project in Mangdechhu, the poultry farms are still able to meet the increasing demand,” dzongkhag livestock officer, Sherab Tenzin, said.

The first step towards becoming self-sufficient in eggs began from a poultry farm at Tongtophay, Langthel in 2009.  But more than the production of eggs, it was the hatching of the day old chick (DoC) brooding farm that benefitted the dzongkhag.

The DoC farm was started to reduce losses that poultry farm owners incurred while buying birds from other dzongkhags, like Mongar.

“High mortality rate and transportation costs in buying pullets from other dzongkhags made poultry farm business unprofitable,”Langthel’s livestock extension agent, Sonam Tshering, said.

The dzongkhang decided to open a brooding farm on trial at Yangzom’s poultry farm in 2009.  Today, the farm, which started with 500 DoC, now supplies over 700 pullets annually. “I meet the demand of pullets in Trongsa,” Yangzom said.

The business has encouraged other farmers and, today, Langthel alone has over 10 backyard farms. Five semi-commercial poultry farms were also established.

“Two more villagers also started brooding and layers farms,” Sonam Tshering said, adding farmers are now interested to form a poultry group because of fast return.

Today, Langthel alone produces over 55,500 eggs a month, meeting the dzongkhag’s increasing demand.

“Even with so many farms in the market, there’s no problem selling the eggs,” Baling poultry farm group member, Wangmo, said.

With the business getting lucrative by the day, Yangzom is planning to expand her existing brooding farm of 1,500 to over 2,500 birds annually.  She has written to business opportunity information center (BOiC) for funds and the dzongkhag is also helping her expand her farm.

By Tempa Wangdi, Langthel

Learning from Malaysia

IMG_8964A broom making activity visitors can experience during their homestay in Kuala Selangor

Homestay owners see room for improvement for the same service in the country 

Homestay: More than a decade after it first started, homestays in Malaysia serve as a niche product for tourists to experience Malaysian rural lifestyle.

Records with tourism and culture ministry show that there are 172 homestay clusters in 308 villages in Malaysia engaging 3,519 operators as of last December. These government-initiated homestays has 4,867 rooms in total.

There are also hundreds of homestays initiated by the private sector and are costlier than the government ones.

Tourism and culture ministry officials, during a meeting with the Bhutanese delegation in Malaysia recently, said homestays provided local community with additional income and serves as a tool of poverty reduction. Besides it also promotes community based sustainable tourism through preservation of rural tradition and environment.

Like in Bhutan, as part of homestay programmes, tourists indulge in various activities like agriculture, trekking, fishing, and sightseeing besides traditional dances, local cuisine, local festivals and visits to historical sites.

“Our homestay are popular among domestic tourists and neighbouring countries,” the assistant secretary of industry and development division, Chong Wai Kit said.

“We have good response from Singapore as well.  As Singapore is a modern city, people see chicken only in supermarkets,” Chong Wai Kit said. “That’s where Malaysia provides Singaporeans the experience of a traditional lifestyle.”

The Bhutanese delegation that was on a weeklong study tour to Malaysia recently, also visited homestays in Kuala Selangor to learn and experience community based tourism.

The homestay chairperson of Phobjikha, Gyeltshen who is also part of the delegation, lauded Malaysia’s homestay programme.  “It is organised and the support from the government is a continuous process which in our case is just one time,” Gyeltshen said.

There are over 50 houses that are converted into homestays in Kuala Selangor, Malaysia. They also have a community centre with banks, internet facilities and buses to ferry tourists for activities. Associations are formed to cater to the welfare of those involved in homestay programmes.

“Although a new concept in Bhutan, homestays in Bhutan are also doing well but I see more scope for improvement,” Gyeltshen said. “This would be possible with more support from all tourism stakeholders besides the government.

Another delegate, Khorphu gup Tsheltrim Dorji said he would look into exploring activities in Nabji-Khorphu to promote community based tourism like in Malaysia. “We can incorporate the various activities and also look at introducing homestays,” he said, calling it was a wonderful experience.

Homestays in Bhutan were initiated about two years ago as part of community-based sustainable tourism project aimed at improving livelihood of communities.

There are about 57 farm stays in Bhutan with the highest in Wangdue at 24.

Although farmhouse stays need not necessarily have all the standards of a hotel, house owners have to ensure basic standards and hygiene are met. Other components include training local guides, development of souvenir and handicraft, improvement of wetland boardwalk, and preparation of promotion tools about community-based sustainable tourism.

Homestay owners in Bhutan have also been trained in cooking, food handling, serving, and catering.  Local guides are also encouraged and given preference. However, the support from stakeholders is just one time while in Malaysia the training advances depending on the need. From catering to guests, the trainings advances to marketing home made products and access to markets, among others.

Homestay programmes in Malaysia bagged the UNWTO Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance 2012. Malaysian tourism officials said they also collaborated with ASEAN member states to develop ASEAN homestay standards.

The government-initiated homestays in Malaysia recorded 31,833 tourists in 2006, which increased to about 367,473 last year. Similarly, revenue also increased simultaneously to 23M last year from 2.7M in 2006.

A major aspect of homestay programmes in Malaysia, ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorji said was the kind of support provided by the government, which is why the programme is a success.

“The support at various levels is immense from trainings to infrastructures and linkages among various agencies,” he said. “Even now, the homestays keep receiving support from the government.”

The homestay experience, Sonam Dorji said was an eye opener for the Bhutanese delegation.

By Kinga Dema

The fallow fields of Phagyul

Their only hope for irrigation is blocked by denial of passage via a neighbouring gewog

Water: Acute water shortage in Phagyul gewog, Wangduephodrang has many left villagers frustrated, with more than 1,000 acres of land turned fallow without a possible solution.

Phub Dem, 43, of Kumchi village is worried about how to sustain until the next harvest, with most of her three-acre land lying fallow.

“It’s not because of labour shortage but water, which is a pertinent issue for the gewog,” the mother of four said.

Another villager, Gyem said the acute water shortage has even led to some villagers migrating to urban areas.

“We can’t grow vegetables or even wheat, which requires less water,” said Gyem.

Phub Dem and her neighbours decided to contribute labour instead for other gewogs to earn income.

“At times, we even feel like running away from the village,” said Phub Dem.

In Phangyul village, it has become a daily routine for Wangdi to collect water from sources located about three to four kilometres from his place in his power tiller.

“Water has become too precious for us,” he said, adding that, during annual rituals, people are even busier in search of water.

The issue was also raised during a meeting with Wangdue’s national council representative, Tashi Dorji.  Despite receiving water connection materials, villagers said the gewog couldn’t get water supply.

“We’ve had two elections and the change in government didn’t help solve the water scarcity issue,” Phangyul chiwog tshogpa said.

The tshogpa said that more than 1,000 acres of land have turned fallow, which is only getting worse every year.  He said some wait for the rainwater for irrigation.

The Phangyul mangmi said, in the past, they could source groundwater from several locations, which have also dried up over the years.

“While the old water sources have dried up, looking for new sources has become a challenge,” he said.

Of the seven villages in the gewog, gup Ugyen said Goengkhar, Khomche and Phangyul villages were the most affected.  If it doesn’t rain, paddy plantation is affected.

Gup Ugyen attributed the gradual drop in paddy plantation every year to the change in weather pattern and erratic rainfall.

“The acute water shortage and erratic rainfall has made it difficult for villages to make ends meet,” gup Ugyen said.

To resolve the issue, the government has planned to source water from Baychu stream, about 25km from Phangyul for irrigation.  If this comes through, the irrigation channel is expected to connect more than 305 households of Phangyul gewog with both irrigation and drinking water.

For this, during the 10th Plan, Nu 84M was also allocated for the irrigation project, but was withdrawn owing to communal dispute.  The water had to be sourced through Kashi gewog.  However after several consultations, people of Kashi gewog refused to give access to the irrigation water.

Wangdue dzongrab Pema said villagers of Khomothang, Kashi gewog refused to provide land clearance for the irrigation channel that would pass through the village and agriculture fields.  Villagers of Kashi claimed that it would affect their fields.

Kashi gup Sigay Dorji said the water source, if approved, had to pass through agriculture fields of Kashi, because of which people refused.

“The people also demanded land substitute or compensation to which villagers of Phangyul didn’t agree,” Sigay Dorji said.

In an earlier interview, dzongrab Pema said villagers of Kashi accepted the proposal, with the condition that about 50 percent of the water from that irrigation channel should be allocated for Kashi.

Even today, the issue is yet to be resolved, while people of Phangyul continue to be plagued by acute water shortage.

Villagers of Phangyul said, in line with the Water Act, if one village has enough water, they would have to share with the neighbouring village, which is not happening in this case.

By Dawa Gyelmo, Wangdue

Mysterious disease killing cattle

Disease: An unidentified disease has killed more than eight cattle alarming villagers of  Pheluma chiwog, Orong gewog in Samdrupjongkhar.

Villagers said most of their cows are still sick with the same disease. They said the cow and calves have been dying since November.

Although villagers are not sure of the disease, they said, many died after suffering from a fever that led to the body stiffening up, and continuous drooling of saliva. “Cattle with the diseases die the next day after getting it,” said a villager.

Pheluma chiwog is about three hours walk from the gewog.

As of now, villagers said they have not yet informed the gewog office, but have informed livestock officials. No officials have turned up yet, villagers claimed.

Cheku Wangdi, 38, who lost three cows last week said the cattle first became paralysed in the legs and drooled constantly.

“We did everything but could not save the cow,” he said. He is currently trying to save another of his cows inflicted by the same disease.

He said one of his relatives had gone to inform Renewable Natural Resources staff but the medicine provided had proven useless.

“But today we learned that the livestock official is out of station right now. Most of our neighbours’ cows are still sick.”

Another villager Thinley Penjor from Pheluma Phu said they are yet to inform and find out what the disease is. “We haven’t called livestock officials yet thinking they might not come since we have not seen them for more than a month,” he said. “But we hope the disease is cured as soon as possible otherwise all the animals might die.”

There are no reports of any villagers contracting the disease so far, according to the villagers.

Villagers usually sell their dairy products in Dewathang village and average an income of around Nu 7,000 a month.

Orong Gup Khawjay said no reports have been received but the office along with the livestock officials would investigate soon.

“The livestock officials have always been vigilant and helpful so people’s claim might not be true,” he said, adding they would enquire about the disease today, if possible.

Meanwhile livestock officer Cheten Chedup said there was no report of any animal deaths reported to the office and that they will have to confirm the deaths.

He said livestock officials were in the gewog and busy with the on-going auditing.

“Had we received such information we would have immediately informed veterinary in Samdrupjongkhar and they would be here by now to investigate,” Cheten Chedup said. “We will find out about the case from the villagers since we have gewog tshogdu today.”

By Yangchen C Rinzin, Samdrupjongkhar

ACC suspends four more business licenses

The action was taken because the companies had leased them to the dzongkhag engineer

Lhakhang Karpo: The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) suspended four more trade and contract licenses of two construction companies yesterday, making it nine licenses in all to be suspended in connection with the lhakhang Karpo project and Haa dzongkhag construction activities.

ACC suspended the four for leasing their licenses to the Haa dzongkhag engineer, who was also the project engineer of lhakhang Karpo conservation project.

Both trade and CDB licenses of Dorji Yanglay construction in Paro now remain suspended.  The reason for suspension, according to ACC, was that its proprietor Yanglay Dorji had permitted his trade and CDB licenses to be used by his son-in-law, Tashi Gyeltshen, the project engineer of lhakhang Karpo construction.

ACC stated that, by using these licenses, Tashi Gyeltshen had deceptively secured and executed the construction of the gabion wall at Katshochu, soling of Baytsho farm road, and fencing of the girls’ hostel at Ugyen Dorji higher secondary school in 2010 and 2011.

The commission also stated that the rules and regulation for establishment and operation of industrial and commercial ventures in Bhutan, 1995, prohibits leasing of license to any party or engage in fronting. “Section 44 (j) of Civil Service Act of Bhutan 2010 prohibits Tashi Gyeltshen to engage in such activities,” the ACC suspension order stated.

On February 5, ACC also suspended CDB and trade licenses of JT construction for permitting the use of its licenses by the project engineer.

ACC officials said these two firms were not involved in the alleged corruption case of lhakhang Karpo, but connected with the project engineer, who the Office of the Attorney General has charged with allegedly accepting bribe and embezzlement in the lhakhang construction.

On January 26, ACC suspended trade license and CDB license of TNW construction, Haa, trade licenses of Pema tshongkhang and Druk Leading enterprise, both based in Paro.  TNW construction’s licenses were suspended for allegedly bribing Tashi Gyeltshen, and supplying poor quality of sand for lhakhang Karpo’s construction.

Pema Tshongkhang’s trade license was suspended for forging bid documents for repairing the existing water supply system at lhakhang Karpo.  The trade license of Druk Leading enterprise was suspended for helping Pema tshongkhang to prepare the bid documents.  The license of LD sawmill in Haa, which was awarded the work to saw timber for lhakhang Karpo’s construction, was suspended last week.

ACC notified that the suspended licenses were not allowed to participate and enter into contract arrangements with public agencies.  It stated that the suspension would remain in force, unless otherwise rescinded by the commission, or until the completion of legal proceedings and adjudication by the court.

ACC also directs the construction development board to implement the directives and report to the Commission for their action.

Meanwhile, the Haa district court will conduct the preliminary hearings on February 9, during which all charges against the seven individuals, including the foreign minister, will be read out.

By Rinzin Wangchuk

Focus point