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Sunday, March 29th, 2015 - 10:02 PM
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This town’s not big enough for two of us

Is how Drukair feels about Tashi Air vis-à-vis its plan to fly to Singapore 

Aviation: In an indication that the international sector is not big enough for two airlines, the national airline Drukair has recommended that private airline Bhutan Airlines (Tashi Air) reconsider its intention to fly to Singapore, on grounds that existing passenger demand is too low.

The private airline had requested the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) to obtain rights for a route that would connect Paro and Singapore via Myanmar, as it was considering flying to the island state.

Drukair CEO Tandin Jamso said that he “strongly recommends” Tashi Air to reconsider its intention to connect to Singapore, as demand is not high enough for two airlines.

He pointed out that Drukair usually flies around 60-65 passengers, which is a 40-45 percent cabin load, during the tourist season.  However, during the off-season, as few as 15-20 passengers are carried, he said.

“Now, if Tashi Air starts to operate, we’ll be sharing these 15-20 passengers,” he said. “They’re going to lose, we’re going to lose.”

The CEO said that the national airline is already struggling financially on the Singapore route.

Drukair began flying to Singapore in August 2012.  It currently flies twice to the island state via Kolkata, India.

Tandin Jamso said that Drukair is already meeting whatever demand there is currently, and Tashi Air should wait until additional capacity is required.

He explained that both airlines are already losing on the Paro-Bangkok sector.  Both airlines operate daily services to Bangkok.  According to statistics maintained by Drukair, while seat capacity has increased one hundred percent with Tashi Air’s entrance, passenger traffic had increased only by 27 percent, as of October last year.

He added that the growth in traffic from Bangkok could also be attributed mainly to promotion discounts that had been introduced for both the local and Thai markets.  He said that, while passengers are benefitting, both airlines are “bleeding”.

Tandin Jamso also said that, if the aviation policy in Bhutan is to enhance tourism, then more gateways needed to be established.  He said that Tashi Air should take a lead role and establish different gateways like, for instance, Kuala Lumpur, so that the two airlines complement rather than kill each other.

However, Tashi Air CEO Phala Dorji, while agreeing that two small airlines should complement each other, disagreed that the private airline should not operate to Singapore.  He pointed out that, as a licensed Bhutanese operator, the private airline needed to sustain, and that initial market studies had shown encouraging results for a Myanmar-Singapore flight.  But Phala Dorji said the airline was still studying the viability of the route.

He also questioned whether Drukair would allow Tashi Air to enjoy a monopoly, if it risked opening a new gateway like Kuala Lampur, and the route turned lucrative. “If we’ve to look for new routes, does that mean Drukair isn’t going to operate on that route?” he said, adding that the national airline should assure Tashi Air that it would not.

Phala Dorji also explained that, for new gateways to be opened, the government first needed to establish an air service agreement with the respective country.

Bhutan currently does not have the permission to operate a flight between Myanmar and Singapore.  Discussions have been initiated to obtain permission from the Myanmar government, but it has been reluctant to grant it, reasoning that an existing right of two flights a week connecting Bhutan to Thailand via Myanmar is not being used.  The Myanmar government has said that it was, however, willing to consider a Singapore route, if the existing one was given up.

Tandin Jamso said that it would be a mistake to give up the existing rights, and that instead diplomatic means of obtaining the additional Myanmar-Singapore route be pursued. “We’d strongly disagree. We think that the government and authorities shouldn’t exchange whatever we’ve been granted,” he said, adding that it would be hard to re-obtain the rights.

He said that, while Drukair once operated to Myanmar, it had to suspend the service, as there was not enough demand between Paro and Myanmar, but that there was sufficient traffic between Myanmar and Bangkok.  He added that there is now potential for traffic between Paro and Myanmar, with the country opening up economically and to tourists.  He said that Buddhist tourists might look to combine Nepal, Bhutan and India in a single trip, and that there was an economic opportunity for both airlines.

But for that to happen, he said, the flight needed to end in Bangkok, as it was a main gateway to Bhutan.

Drukair is considering recommencing flights to Myanmar from next year.

Phala Dorji said that a joint sitting between DCA and both airlines be held to further discuss the issue.

DCA is yet to make a decision on whether to surrender the rights in exchange for Singapore rights.

By Gyalsten K Dorji

Piggery on the decline in Trongsa

IMG_0319Many have turned to piggery to supplement their low incomes

Villagers are dissuading those in the occupation on religious grounds 

Farming: Sukmati Rai in Marshing, Langthel gewog in Trongsa has taken up piggery to supplement her cash income of Nu 5,000 that he earns as a National Work Force (NWF) member.

With four children, all attending school, Rai’s family is facing tough financial times.

“One of them studies in a private school in Gelephu,” Sukmati Rai said, adding that the rest of her  children attends a government school.

To Sukmati Rai, becoming a pig farmer was a way to support her family.

“When it became too difficult to afford children’s school expenses we started piggery to counter the rising costs of children’s education,” she said.

Similarly, another NWF worker from Yuendrucholing, Phul Maya, also turned to piggery to meet the costs of her children’s education.

“I started piggery to earn some cash income, which could be sent to my children while in school,” Phul Maya said.

Phul Maya and Sukmati Rai are among 20-25 low income earners who contributed to the dzongkhag exceeding its pork production target stipulated in its annual performance agreement. The dzongkhag reported production of 16.2 metric tonnes (MT) of pork in just six months. Its target was just 1.5MT.

But pig farming is proving increasingly challenging in the villages where it has diminished over the years.

Dhan Kumar Gurung from Marshing who recently started rearing pigs has been getting increasing pressure from his wife’s relatives from Kela, Tangsibi to quit.

“The villagers including my wife’s relatives most of whom are either lay monks are persuading us to stop piggery saying it will accumulate negative karma,” Dhan Kumar Gurung said, adding it is also worrisome to rear pigs in a dzongkhag where piggery is banned.

Dzongkhag livestock officer, Sherab Tenzin said that no one raises pigs in upper Trongsa.

Piggery has been given up by even the Monpas of Phumzur, Jangbi and Wamling, who once lived off hunting animals.

“Only certain parts of lower Trongsa like Dranteng and Langthel raise some pigs now,” Sherab Tenzin said.

According to the Langthel extension livestock officer, Sonam Tshering, even in lower Trongsa only a few villages like Koshala and Pangzur maintain pig farms. Villages like Bayzam and Ngormay completely gave up piggery before 2011.

“And the dzongkhag’s effort to revive piggery in 2011 failed miserably amidst religious sentiments,” Sonam Tshering said.

Trying to initiate and convince people to take up is a losing battle. Of late even some of the existing piggery farm owners like the NWF workers are planning to quit because of societal pressure.

“They would have quit piggery years ago but I have held them back,” Sonam Tshering said, adding these farms would also be gone in few years time.

“And sometimes the community objects to the the pig farm’s location because of its proximity to a lhakhang,” Sonam Tshering said.

“Rearing pigs is banned in dzongkhag as well as Tangsibi gewog now,” Dhan Kumar Gurung said.

In Keila none of the villagers are taking up piggery. Its tshogpa, Tashi Gyalpo said that the village stopped rearing pigs after a renowned Rinpoche banned it a few years back.

“And I might encourage people to rather take up agriculture and livestock but piggery never,” Tashi Gyalpo said.

The villagers are also becoming more aggressive towards the pig farm owners with some reporting incidents of villagers causing nuisance.

“Though no physical attacks were made few villagers often are mischievous and discriminating towards us,” Sukmati Rai said, adding she worries sometimes the villagers would turn against her to stop the pig farms.

Some families like Dhan Kumar Gurung’s is also getting increasing pressure from relatives.

“It scares me that if my wife’s relatives’ demur could actually cause some friction in our relation,” Dhan Kumar Gurung said.

Availability of piglets, feed and lack of proper space to open semi-commercial farms are some constraints for pig farms.

“My husband wants to quit from the lack of space and shortage of feed,” Phul Maya said.

Sukmati Rai cannot increase the number of pigs in her piggery despite her plans.

“The dzongkhag officials gives us only one even if we wanted more saying it is difficult to get piglets in large numbers since villages have no applicants,” Sukmati Rai said, adding she would take up semi-commercial farming if the dzongkhag helps her out with supply of piglets.

By Tempa Wangdi, Trongsa

Need to tackle the symptoms first, not the malaise

Night is a time of behaviours dark and wild and bright.  Night is a time of privacy.  This day in the country, however, what is time of peace for one is also a time of violence for a growing number of young people.  We live in a time of change that compels us to look deeper into our own souls.

Our small and happy society is no longer at peace with itself.  This is no exaggeration.  We should be able to accept this much, at least.  For why are the police beginning to frisk people after 10pm?  Crime rates may have gone down by numbers appreciable, but intensity has grown by much more.

Where have we failed as parents and elders?  And why?  We need to ask these questions.

The initiative the police have taken is welcome.  We need to protect innocent citizens from wanton acts of violence, fuelled by disillusionment, drugs and others intoxicants that our young people are increasingly resorting to.  A thing about promises is that they often fly beyond reality.

What our young people need today is a place where they can comfortably be and prosper as their skills allow them to be.  These are the times when jobs are scarce.  It is, therefore, the responsibility of the government of the day to create employment opportunities for our young people in the light of the fact that we are a country with a predominantly young population.

Our demographic change stands at an interesting stage.  Our window of opportunity is small.  We are running short of time.  Statistics from National Statistics Bureau tells us so.  The burden of economy and welfare will fall on our young people, who are running riot in the streets, trying to make sense of their own purpose.

The police have issued a communiqué with pictures of weapons our young people carry to protect themselves and to eliminate the hurdles standing in the way of their personal dreams.  These are loud and harsh cries from parts of our society that we have ignored for far too long in the process of development.

Frisking is a good initiative.  But how police deal with it will matter much more than the initiative itself.  There is only a thin line between privacy and authority.  Any little shift in balance will cause differences and divisions that will have us in a trouble and require us to look at our own well-thought out actions.

Initiatives to make our society safe and peaceful are welcome.  What the people are worried about is that law enforcers could cross the leeway with powers they are bestowed with.

Getting at the leg first will not solve the problem until we delve deep into the heart of the problem itself.  There must be reasons why our young people roam the street with weapons all day and night long.

The bamboo alternative

bamboo-houseCompleted bamboo community center at Pakpay, Samtse (photo courtesy: SFED)

To take pressure off the forest, a study suggests the viable use of this tree in constructions  

INBAR: Bamboo could be an alternative to timber and save it from the pressure it’s under from increasing building and temple constructions within a few years, say forest officials.

A 2014 study by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) stated that the bamboo construction sector is viable economically, socially, and technically in the country.

Using bamboos for constructions of houses or its parts could provide community forest management groups with new livelihood and income earning opportunities, and reduce the burden on timber for construction, the report said.

This could help bring long-term financial sustainability, as well as pave the way for expansion and replication of bamboo sector development across the country.

In Zhemgang, community groups earn annual incomes of about Nu 180,000 from selling bamboo shoots, culms and finished products.

The Social Forestry and Extension Division (SFED)’s bamboo and cane focal person, Tshewang Dorji, said, “Employing modern techniques, bamboo could make construction cheaper, more durable with stronger resistance to earthquakes.”

He said the idea of bamboo for housing emerged after the 2009 earthquake hit eastern Bhutan.

“Over the years, people have also realised that bamboo could become a potential source of income,” Tshewang Dorji said, citing the success of Radhi villagers in Trashigang.

Until 2006, Radhi villagers in Trashigang cultivated rice and wove raw silk textile for income, which has since then shifted to selling bamboos.

A pole now earns them Nu 100, a rhizome Nu 75.  Some even earned as high as Nu 10,000 a year from the sale.

However, the INBAR report points out that the scale of construction would be limited without significant improvements to resource base management and development, strengthened capacity to design and build with bamboo.

Tshewang Dorji said that, while the nurseries in the country were mandated to grow bamboo saplings, the SFED distributes imported seeds to the nurseries.  Farmers can also avail bamboo saplings for free.

The division planted six hectares of three varieties, suitable for house constructions, in Samtse in 2012, and will be ready for harvest in a year or two, forest officials said.

The use of bamboo for many generations and its applications has been mostly restricted to non-structural and lower-grade buildings.  Tshewang Dorji also said that there was a social stigma attached to building bamboo houses.

“We’re promoting bamboo structures in the country now to save timber, and the environment, because bamboo takes only three to four years to be ready for harvesting, while the trees take ages,” he said.

As part of the INBAR study, bamboo houses were constructed in Zhemgang, Samdrupjongkhar, Tsirang and Samtse dzongkhags, to set up demonstration value chains for bamboo construction.  The division built a gazebo in Thimphu and similar structures in other dzongkhags.

Officials said the bamboo prospect would only grow while timber availability would become scarce over the years. Balancing the constitutional mandate for forest conservation and the expected need for timber will become increasingly challenging, say forest managers.

In 2013 alone, the Forest Resources Management Division (FRMD) issued more than 200,469 cubic feet (cft) of timber permits for repair or construction of 53 temples, monasteries, dzongs and institutions.

Dzong renovation in Wangdue and Pemagatshel took 169,141cft of timber.  Another 169,691cft was given to build classroom in monasteries, schools, and residences for mostly religious institutions.

Roughly 10 percent of forest in the country is viable for commercial timber harvesting.  Current estimates show a total of about 3.8Mcft of standing timber available for harvest annually, which is higher than the useable timber for sawn boards and finished wood products.

The annual timber demand estimated over the next five years could be as high as 10Mcft, including close to six million cft for rural needs.  This amount is much higher than the available timber for harvest.

The forest department’s forest resources potential assessment last year, which assessed potential forest areas that could be utilised for sustainable commercial harvesting, showed 11.27 percent of the area has the potential to become production forests after removing forests on steep slopes.

The INBAR report also pointed out that there was a need for guidelines or codes of practice for using bamboo in construction, which could eventually form part of the country’s existing building code.

The only guideline in place is a chapter on bamboo in the works and human settlement ministry’s “Guidelines for Planning and Development of Human Settlements in Urban and Rural Areas of Bhutan to minimise environmental impacts”.

By Tshering Palden

Two bridges due, one year overdue

DSC01387The Rongthongchhu bridge is expected to be completed next month

Plagued by flash floods, the Rongthongchhu and Bamridrangchhu spans will be completed this year

Bridge: Two bridges, one at Rongthong, and the other at Bamri, will now be completed this year after a delay of more than a year.

The two bridges were supposed to have been completed by March last year.

The Rongthongchhu bridge is now expected to be completed by March, and the Bamridrangchhu one by the end of this year.

After project DANTAK awarded the contract to an Indian government contractor, M/S Mohan Bajaj, work commenced on both bridges in 2009.

The project manager, Gopal Yadav, said the design for Rongthongchu bridge was disapproved by project DANTAK in 2009, following which they had to redesign it, which took seven months.

“While carrying out survey, we encountered a hard rock that would increase the height of an avertment on one side. The design had to be changed,” he said.

Recurrent floods during the rainy season, coupled with frequent strikes in Assam, further affected the construction of these bridges.

“The first flash flood in 2010 stopped work at Bamridrangchhu bridge for almost four months,” he said. “We were carrying out the foundation works, when the flash flood resulted in the base being filled with soil up to 6m from one side.”

In 2012, when the concreting works were underway, the bridge was again hit by another flood that washed away a major portion of the foundation.

“The steel fixing we’d carried out had all been damaged and we had to redo the foundation works. We lost about five months there,” he said. “We couldn’t work during the rainy seasons, with the water level rising and chances of flash floods remaining very high,” he said.

Because materials have to be procured from Meghalaya and Kolkata, the project manager added that frequent Assam strikes further delayed the constructions.

“At times, our trucks are stranded for weeks because of strikes,” he said.

Only the abutments of Bamridrangchhu have been erected so far, while Ronthongchhu bridge is undergoing staging works, where shuttering plates are being laid.

Observers claimed the construction has been suspended for over a year now and the site has remained abandoned.

“It won’t take long for Bamridrangchu bridge since we need to work on the super structure only. The materials are already here. We’ll continue the works after we complete Rongthongchhu bridge in March,” he said. “But, we’ll be able to start by August only. We have to wait for the rainy season to pass.”

Residents of Rongthong said that, even if the bridge is completed, chances of it getting washed away by flash floods is very high.

“In the early 2000s, project DANTAK had constructed a similar bridge ,only to be washed (away) by a flash flood a few months later,” a resident, Sangay Dorji said.

Currently, vehicles use the existing bailey bridges to cross the two rivers.

By Tshering Wangdi, Trashigang

Kushuthara – A Pattern of Love

review1A scene from Kushuthara

The film about a relationship that transcends death and endures in another lifetime

Review: Based on a tragic story of a young village girl, who falls in love with a stranger, who fails to keep his promise to return to her, Kushuthara – A Pattern of Love tells the story about the rebirth of this love.

Directed by Karma Deki, the feature film was premiered during the Bhutan International Festival on February 14 in Thimphu.

Shot in Minjey gewog in Lhuentse, the film brings out the culture of weaving the intricate pattern textile called Kushuthara, considered the finest fabric, and a prized wedding garment, in the country.

One of the skilled weavers in Minjey is Chokimo (Kezang Wangmo), who catches the eye of Charlie (Emrhys Cooper.)

Charlie, a photojournalist from the US, is on an assignment to document traditional textile production in Lhuentse, when he first meets Chokimo.  Charlie gets a strange feeling that he has been in this place before and feels drawn to her.

Chokimo is married to Bumpala (Bumpa), who is a farmer in the village.

Chokimo has memories of the past life, and soon she reveals these memories to Charlie, entangling them through a series of events, unfolding their journey and story of the film.

The film explores the Buddhist concept of karma and rebirth of two individuals in this lifetime, to accomplish what was left incomplete in their previous lifetime.

Shot in January 2013, the film was screened in various international film festivals across Asia and Europe.

The film is a story that reflects many of my own life experiences, Karma Deki said. “It’s a story that is from the fabric of my own culture, a story from my heart.”

Karma Deki hopes the film will give international audiences an opportunity to get a glimpse at life and love in a remote village in one of the more secluded cultures of the world.

The first version of Kushuthara was released in 2007, highlighting the aspects of traditional culture by focusing on weaving.

“On the surface, it’s a typical boy-meets-girl theme, but it’s a story about how one single thread weaves the past and present lives of two people,” Karma Deki said.

The 1 hour-32 minute film is shown in Blu-ray HD format and presented in Dzongkha with English subtitles.  Bhutan Infotainment produced the film.

By Thinley Zangmo

Fire almost guts traditional house

actionsResidents mopping up the last remnants of the fire

Mishap: A two-storied traditional house in Khapti village in Samkhar gewog, Trashigang was almost razed to the ground during the wee hours of February 14.

No casualties were reported, but the house owner is reported to have lost more then 50 percent of his belongings to the fire.  The owner was away when the fire occurred.

According to Samkhar gup, Sonam Dorji, the fire occurred at around 2am, when the family members, a middle-aged woman and her three children, were asleep.

The fire had started somewhere from the ceiling, and it was only when the heat started intensified that the woman woke up to find the house on fire.

“Police and firefighters reached around 3am and we could contain the fire by 5am,” he said. “We could only save the items that were on the ground floor.”

The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained, but villagers suspect it could have started from an electric short circuit.

By Tshering Wangdi,  Trashigang

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