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Friday, March 27th, 2015 - 9:37 PM
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Fire guts half of Sarpang bazaar

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Breaking news: About half of some 100 shops that make up the Sarpang bazaar were completely gutted in a fire that started around 8pm today.

Police suspect the fire started from a shoe shop that’s located at the end of the market. Residents said they experienced power fluctuation during the day and that the shopkeepers were burning candles to light their shops. Since it was windy, they suspect the fire to have started from one of the candles.

Three fire brigades and hundreds of policemen, army personnel, firefighters, locals and Desupps managed to contain the blaze by 10pm. Arrangements are underway to evacuate the shop residents to the dzongkhag’s multi purpose hall. No casualty has been reported.

Focus point

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No budget for revised TA/DA

With agencies entering budget control mode, belts are liable to be tightened

TA/DA: Civil servants returning from tours could see their travel and daily allowance (TA/DA) claims slashed by half.  Some are already living with this, with agencies entering a budget control or adjustment mode.

There are four months left for the next fiscal year, but some government agencies have run out of the TA/DA budget, while some are adjusting with the little they have.  Others are adjusting with budgets meant for other purposes.

While the TA/DA rates were increased, daily allowance by more than 100 percent and mileage by Nu 2 a kilometre, the actual budget has not increased.  The TA/DA budget was finalised based on the previous rates.

Agencies that have to have their men out in the fields, like the forestry department, are the hardest hit.  To ensure that the budget is not exhausted,  sometimes, the department pays half the amount.  District forest officer of Thimphu, Phento Tshering, said some of his staff spend 15 to 18 days a month in the field, for work such as marking and patrolling. “We were able to pay only for seven to eight days, so that the budget doesn’t finish in the middle of the year,” he said.

In-country DA for civil servants from S1 to S4 level increased from Nu 300 to Nu 750.  Those from P5 to P1 level saw their allowances increase from Nu 500 to Nu 1,000 a day.

The regional office of revenue and customs in Thimphu in September last year asked its department heads to strictly monitor travel and approve them within the limited budget.  This was because the department saw almost half the total  of Nu 2.367M allocated utilised in the first quarter of the year, which, a notification the department issued stated, was a major concern and alarming.

“We have three quarters to go. As past experience shows, a major portion of budget is used at the last quarter, tax collection and PIT collection season,” stated the notification.

The election commission of Bhutan has finished  a major portion of the current year’s budget. “Travel budget is completely finished,” said an official, adding that they would face problems in the coming months.  However, he said, important events were not compromised because of the shortage. “But now we might have to. We’ll have to refrain from travelling  in the coming months,” he said.

Dzongkhag administrations, where staff are involved in a lot of travel, are also adjusting.  Trongsa dzongkhag has sacrificed porter and pony charges.  Dzongrab Kinley Gyeltshen said the dzongkhag called a meeting of sector heads to discuss what they could sacrifice. “We also decided that we’ll tie up two to three works in one travel, so that expenses on the TA/DA are minimised.”

However, officials said this problem could remain only for the current financial year.  Wangduephodrang DFO Kencho Wangdi said the new rates would be considered while proposing the budget for the next fiscal year. “I think there’ll be no problem from next year.”

A dzongkhag official described the increment in TA/DA as giving “a half full plate”. “We have to provide adequate allowances to motivate people. But the budget isn’t enough due to the revised rates,” he said. “This is a common problem for all agencies and dzongkhags.”

He said some dzongkhags are adjusting TA/DA from “work charge”.  This means that, if an engineer visits a farm road construction site, the TA/DA for the engineer will be adjusted from the cost of the project.

However, some feel that a lot will be solved if agencies prioritise their travel plans. “We have to prioritise work plans if the budget is to be sufficient. If you make unnecessary travels, then the budget won’t be sufficient,” trade director, Dophu Tshering said.

Finance minister Namgay Dorji said he was not able to comment without a proper study on the issue.

According to the pay commission report, the government expenditure towards travel has averaged Nu 1.38B a year during the last four years.  It constituted over 18 percent of the total budget outlay for salary and allowances.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, travel expenditure of agriculture and forest ministry was the highest at Nu 252M, which constituted 38 percent of their pay and allowances.  They were followed by the home and cultural affairs ministry.

This excluded travel expenditures of the same sectors at the dzongkhag and regional levels.  At the dzongkhag level, travel budget on an average constituted about 20 percent of pay and allowances.

Meanwhile, the pay commission report stated most of the gewogs and villages were today connected by motorable roads.  However, while there was very limited need to use the porter and pony system for transportation, civil servants continued to claim porter and pony charges, the report added.

It recommended that expenditures on travel must be controlled, and overall travel budget for the government be kept within a maximum ceiling of 15 percent of the budget for pay and allowances.

By MB Subba

Frisking to become routine late at night

A measure necessitated by the increasing number of violent incidents involving youth

Law and order: The police will begin frisking youth for weapons, if found in groups of two or more after 10pm, it was pointed out by the police chief at a press conference on Thursday.

However, individual youth found after 10pm will also be frisked and questioned, if acting suspiciously.

Police chief, brigadier Kipchu Namgyel, said that a proposal to ban the sale of knives to youth, and to impose a restriction on youth loitering late at night, will also be submitted to the home ministry, shortly.

The police chief said that such measures are being pursued, given the increasing number of battery or violent incidents involving youth and the kinds of weapons being found on them.

At the press conference, weapons seized from youth were displayed and included a wide variety of knives, swords, an axe and even a broken bottle.  Other weapons included knuckle dusters, a nunchaku and a motorbike chain.

“We’re really concerned with the different types of youth crime that is coming up,” the police chief said.

There were 75 battery cases including youth in 2014 and 18 of these included stabbings.  There were also 12 cases of malicious mischief involving youth recorded by the police, last year.

The police chief pointed out that there have already been six battery cases involving a stabbing and five malicious cases recorded this year.  He said that, while there were other offenses, the police was more concerned about violence.

The police chief also pointed out that the forming of groups or gangs is reemerging.

The police began tackling the gang issue when it first disbanded two large prominent gangs, each with around 400 members, in Thimphu in 2010.  There were a total of 53 gangs in Thimphu alone at the time.

If a weapon is found on a youth, the youth will be handed over to the parents or guardians with a warning.  A second offense would lead to arrest, detention, and being charged to court.

The police chief said that, irrespective of age or gender of the youth, a second time offender would be arrested and charged to court. “Let the case be acquitted, we don’t care, we’ll fight against it,” the police chief said, adding that a strong message had to be conveyed.

The police chief pointed out that police personnel would distinguish between those carrying knives as part of tradition and culture, such as a villager having a knife tucked into his kera, or a woman carrying a knife to cut doma.

He said that the general trend being observed is that parents or guardians were not looking after their children. “Our children are loitering as if they don’t have any parents or guardians,” he said. “Everybody is out in the streets with daggers and knives … middle of the night you’ll find children shouting in the streets and fighting with bottles.”

On whether the police had taken any measures to increase the personal security of personnel. who come in contact with armed youth or adults, the police chief said that the police force would prefer an approach of increasing public cooperation. “We don’t want to get armed with sophisticated side arms,” he said.

However, it is now compulsory for all personnel on patrol to carry a baton.  But the police chief said that not everyone did follow the requirement, as a gentler approach was preferred. For policewomen, pepper spray has been provided.

The chief said that the next step would be to arm personnel on patrol with stun guns, but that this would indicate that they were afraid. “We’re not here to fight a battle, but here to request the cooperation of the general public.”

By Gyalsten K Dorji

 

Central schools to open from Monday

Regardless of infrastructure shortcomings 

Education: Despite many central schools not having additional infrastructure ready, with the construction of some infrastructure not yet even started, classes in the newly established central schools will commence from February 16.

The beginning of the 2015 academic session will see the commencement of 24 pilot central schools.

For instance, Dorokha central school in Samtse will go ahead with its present number of classrooms and accommodate all students in its existing hostels.

On Monday, measurements for student uniforms will be conducted and submitted to the dzongkhag for tendering.

Mendrelgang central school in Tsirang, which was formed after merging Mendrelgang MSS and primary school, requires about 18 additional classrooms to function as a central school.

Tsirang district education officer, Sangay Chophel said since the two schools have been merged due to proximity, it would not be possible to accommodate all students in the classes.

The Primary school’s U-shaped structure will be dismantled to make way for new structures.

“For the time being we might have to conduct regular classes in temporary sheds,” he said. “It would take a month or two before we’ve all the stationaries and uniforms ready.”

Mendrelgang will have the highest number of students at 1,115, according to the education ministry’s enrolment projection.

Of the 24 central schools, only three – Pakshikha in Chhukha, Wangbama in Thimphu and Zhemgang central school – will have classes XI and XII.

The Wangbama and Thrimshing central schools are the only two new schools, while eight of the schools have been merged or upgraded.

For Wangbama central school, three sections each of class IX and XI students will be brought from Genekha LSS, Chaamgang Yangtsegatsel LSS, Khasadrapchu MSS and Kuzukchen MSS.

Students for class XII will be brought from Thimphu thromde schools that have excess students. It will have just an arts stream this year.

Wangbama principal, Sonam Drukpa said pre-primary to VII classes would continue in the existing Genekha LSS, which is about three kilometres away from Wangbama.

“We’ll function from two locations,” he said. “It’s not a big challenge but without the new structures ready, it will take time to set up culturally.”

The education ministry has recently announced vacancies for 80 supporting staff to be placed in these central schools. Of the 80, 23 each would be recruited as cooks, caregivers and sports instructors. Another 14 would be hired as washers, nine as sweepers and two caretakers.

On February 4, the government also approved a budget of Nu 208M for supply of uniform, stationary, bedding, shoes, socks, and sports items, among others.

The ministry’s policy and planning officials said all the items that would be provided free of cost in a central school were supposed to be ready when students join school on Monday. But due to the tendering procedures, there will be a one-two month delay.

Initially, the plan was to provide uniforms, shoes and socks to day scholars, officials said, but because of huge cost implications it was decided to provide only day meals and stationaries.

The officials also said there will be an increase in the number of boarding students.

“We may not take 80 percent of the enrolment as hoteliers, until the new infrastructures are ready,” he said. “Capital works will take time, in terms of acquiring land, surveying, master planning and tendering.”

By Nirmala Pokhrel

 

Picture story

Amusement: A singer and an entertainer from Wales, UK, Lindsay Young entertains passersby in Thimphu by twisting balloons into animal shapes. He is in the country for the 10-day Bhutan International Festival which starts today. Photo: www.bhimf.org

     

Acute teacher shortage in Samtse

Schools: Just as schools are about to reopen, Samtse dzongkhag presented to the cabinet that it was short of 116 teachers.
The status was presented and discussed at the mid-year review of performance agreement for the southern districts, which was held in Phuentsholing on February 12.
Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Sarpang, and Tsirang dzongkhags presented their progress for 2014-2015 financial year.
Samtse’s dzongkhag education officer (DEO), Karma Sonam Chophel, said the teacher shortage figure was as per the findings of the Teacher Deployment Tool (TDT) 2014.  TDT is the study instrument that finds out the number of teachers required for a particular school.  He said the shortage was in comparison to other dzongkhags.
Citing the teacher-student ratio of 1:20 in Mongar, he said, Samtse’s was 1:27. “The shortage is because of the high number of extended classrooms (ECRs) in Samtse,” he said, explaining that teachers had to be deployed from parent schools to these ECRs. “The high number of ECRs affects the teacher-student ratio.”
There are 23 ECRs in Samtse and 32 schools.  Two teachers manage an ECR, he said
Inadequate infrastructure, the DEO also said, was another problem that contributed to the shortage of teachers. “There are classes in some schools that have about 60 students, affecting the teacher student ratio,” he said.
There are about 569 teachers across schools and ECRs in Samtse.
Lyonchhoen Tshering Tobgay said the dzongkhag had to look for new and better means of solving this problem, and propose them to the education ministry.
“There could be other dzongkhags with shortage of teachers as well,” lyonchhoen said.
If dzongkhags cannot find ways and means of solving the problem, lyonchhoen said, they must seek help and support of expertise from the education ministry.
Meanwhile, Samtse has already submitted the findings of TDT to the ministry.  The dzongkhag is also short of Dzongkha teachers, primary school teachers, and mathematics teachers.
By Rajesh Rai, Phuentsholing

Trimming the TA/DA sails

Call it a poor decision, or putting the cart before the horse, the decision to increase the daily sustenance allowance by 100 percent, without increasing the budget, has not gone well for civil servants.
If the idea of increasing the allowance was to meet the cost of being away from home on official duty, it has served the purpose.  Cost of living has increased.  With Nu 500, one cannot even rent a decent hotel in almost all the towns in the country.  It would be difficult for an official on tour to meet his daily expenses, get a decent place to sleep and three meals even with the increased amount.
But if the idea is to motivate people to travel and enhance service delivery, it has not helped.  Government agencies have started cutting down on travel as they run out of budget.  Some, who feel travel is important for their job, are dipping into other budgets.  With or without budget, if a duty involves travelling, like the forester who has to patrol the forest to contain illegal logging, their presence in the jungle is important.
But the decision to improve the raise before the increase in budget, even if not intended, has shaken officials, especially those who have control over travel and allowance.  They are forced to manage with whatever they have.
From a positive perspective, tightening the kera for the lack of budget has come as a good test for government agencies.  Can we manage?  The bigger test is can we control unnecessary travel and therefore unnecessary cost to government coffers?
What’s sure is that there won’t be many table tours this financial year.  Travel will be scrutinised and prioritised.  The little budget they have will have to be spent on travel that cannot be compromised.  Some are already doing it.
It is an open secret that a lot of money is wasted on tours and travels that can be avoided without hampering services.  When an agency has budget in excess, tours are created so that the budget is not reflected as unspent and returned to the government.
There is also a misconception that the so-called TA/DA is an opportunity to save money.  It is to cover basic cost while on official duty from the place of work.  The amount should be able to cover this, because the implication is not so much the travel but the necessity.  The wrong people should not make the wrong trips for the wrong reasons.
What we can take from the current paradox is that we can actually cut cost.  We need not sacrifice porter and pony claims totally, like one dzongkhag did, but can scrutinise the claims.  Travel distance has become shorter, with almost every gewog now connected with roads.  Why should we pay separate mileage for four officials travelling in one car?  Why has the official days of travelling from Thimphu to Gasa not changed, when the latter is connected by road and takes only one day to reach.
As agencies adjust the limited budget, it could lead to something good for the cash-strapped government, if looked at from a positive angle.

Will incentives continue after EDP deadline?

Beneficiaries of existing privileges, like tour operators and hoteliers, are keeping their fingers crossed
Tourism: With the existing privileges and fiscal incentives for the tourism industry as per the economic development policy (EDP) 2010 ending this year, concerns have been raised on whether these incentives would continue after the sunset limit of 2015.
Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) officials said the issue would be put up at the upcoming council board meeting, a date for which is however not yet known.  After it is discussed in the board, which is chaired by the prime minister, TCB officials said the cabinet would review the policy and make a decision.
“There could be some revisions to the existing privileges and tax incentives and priorities could change,” the TCB spokesperson said.


Tour operators are exempt from customs duty and sales tax on tourist vehicles with a seating capacity of 10 and above.

A tour operator is allowed to import a Hiace bus and a Coaster bus without paying taxes. While unincorporated tourism business enterprises cannot import more than two buses in a period of five years, incorporated companies can import up to five buses.

With effect from 2010, until 2019 December, selected equipment for nature-based tourism activities, like trekking, rafting, kayaking and boating, are also exempt from sales and customs duty.

The service industry gets a 10-year tax holiday for newly established high-end resorts and hotels established between 2010 and 2015, as classified by TCB, from the date of commercial operation.

To ensure quality service, import of several items for hotels and resorts, like furniture, fixtures, kitchen and laundry equipment, mattresses and linens, cutlery, sanitary ware and electrical fittings, are also exempt from customs duty and sales tax.

For hotels with computerised billing systems, sales tax is charged on published or actual charged discounted room rents rather than rack rates of the hotels. A reinvestment allowance of 25 percent of total capital expenditure incurred is provided for upgradation of the existing hotels.

TCB registered farmhouses are also exempt from all licensing requirements and income tax. A 10-year tax holiday is also applicable for guesthouses and lodges established between 2010 and 2015.

In line with the EDP, as a sectoral privilege, the tourism industry is entitled to various fiscal incentives like tax holiday and vehicle quota, among others. (see box)
TCB spokesperson said that unless there were certain incentives and privilege, the tourism sector wouldn’t work.
“Tourism sector plays an important role in generating income and employment and the contribution needs to be ploughed back in terms of incentives,” the spokesperson said.
Tour operators and hoteliers said the industry should continue to receive certain fiscal incentives to attract investment and boost the industry.  However, they said, the EDP merits a thorough review.
Pointing out some anomalies in the existing regulation, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan’s (HRAB) president Thinley Palden Dorji said there were issues like lack of clarity that needed to be addressed.
For instance, he said, different hotels had different requirement based on which they bought furnishings.
“As per the existing regulation, hotels are entitled the same quantity of mattresses and linens, irrespective of the hotel rooms and classification,” he said. “On one hand, the overall objective of the incentives is to improve quality, and on the other hand, there are several quantitative restrictions.”
A hotelier, who has received proposals from foreign investors to construct hotels, said certain privileges were necessary to attract investment in hotel industry.  At present, she said guests mostly complained about the infrastructure.
“Better infrastructure can be developed only with incentives in place and we’re in dire need of it,” she said. “In hotel business, returns from investment are very slow.”
Without support from the government, hoteliers said, improvement in service delivery would remain farsighted.
Records with TCB show about 16 new hotels are under construction since 2013, of which five are foreign direct investments.  Most hotels are located in Thimphu and Paro.
Another hotelier in Paro said tax incentives helped hotels import quality products.
“Hotels are the most affected during lean season, which we’re able to make up through earnings from peak season, because of tax holiday and exemptions,” he said.
For tour operators, tax exemption on transportation plays a vital role, as they claim that a major chunk of their income is spent on hiring charges.
“The regulation needs rationalisation if the same privileges continue,” a tour operator said. “Rather than the number of tourists a tour operator brings in, contribution in terms of bed nights should be considered to get the vehicle quota.”
To avail the vehicle import quota, new tour operators are required to sign an agreement with TCB, agreeing to bring in at least 50 tourists for a certain period of time.  If they fail, they will have to pay full taxes and penalties.
“Our regulations are mostly based on assumptions that people would misuse which shouldn’t be the case,” a tour operator said.
Highlighting the importance of the industry, another tour operator said it was a trend in most countries that those contributing the most to the economy were entitled certain privileges by default.
“If the privileges are discontinued, there would be serious implications in terms of employment generation and others, in a bid to cut costs,” he said.
Many tour operators also feel that the existing incentives should be revisited, as the criteria should be on the volume of business.
By Kinga Dema

Picture story

Department of Hydro-Met services’ director Karma Tsering and JICA team leader Dr Hithoshi Baba sign the minutes of the meeting of the mid-term review report of JICA assisted projects yesterday morning.  The team reviewed the Japanese technical cooperation in capacity development of GLOF and rainstorm flood forecasting and early warning. The project ends in September 2016.