Saturday, April 25th, 2015 - 2:45 PM
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Information officers key to RTI success

Yesterday National Assembly members discussed issues pertaining to request for official information and in what format the request should be made while deliberating the Right to Information bill.

In the preceding discussions, the members had discussed about information and media officers, one of the key elements of the legislation.

At the assembly discussions and those of other forums showed, information officers under this bill were equated with media spokespersons that various ministries appointed in their efforts to ensure transparency.

Spokespersons were more ceremonial figures who functioned at the whims of their superiors and played a better role of keeping information away from the public as much as from the media, than facilitate dissemination.

They were, after all, functionaries within a bureaucracy and it is only natural for them to align more towards thoughts and mindset of their colleagues.

Therefore, no amount of trainings from regional experts on how to respond to information requests from the media helped transform this culture.

Not that information officers under the Right to Information bill are immune from it, but most media spokespersons, especially those that Bhutanese reporters encountered were seen to be deliberately obstructive.

But there have also been encounters with spokespersons that were genuinely committed to the ideal of open government, trying to help applicants garner as much information as they could.

Information officers under the Right to Information bill are the secret to the success or failure of the legislation.

What is expected of the bill is to make information easily available at the shortest time possible to its seekers, who can be any random citizen than the media that has often been labelled the biggest beneficiary of all.

But much before that, they are expected to be abreast with policies of the agencies they work for and be involved in decision-making processes to be able to file and register them.

Ensuring these attributes in an information officer is crucial because they would be expected to first preside over an application for information and then to deal with the outcome of the request, be it positive or negative.

Such officers would be required to juggle the interests and needs of the agency they work under, with those of the applicants and the third parties specified in the bill.

They have to then play the role of a lion-tamer, in that, to respond to decisions they make, which it so turns out are not in favour of the agency they work for, or the applicant, or the third party.

All these indicate the need for better resources, trainings, respect and status for information officers, who are denied such perquisites today.

It is the attitude and the role of information officers that will produce the largest positive compliance shift towards access to information.

BICMA nixes police request

Bypassing a court warrant to seek mobile service gen on clients is just not on

Privacy: Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority (BICMA) has turned down a Royal Bhutan Police request to empower them to seek information on customers from mobile service providers without having to seek a court order.

This, Bhutan infocomm and media authority (BICMA) states, is in accordance with the BICMA Act, 2006 and civil and criminal procedure of Bhutan (CCPC) that mandates police to seek court warrant to obtain customer details.

Police, in December last year, had asked BICMA to empower a superintendent of police identified by chief of police to seek information from service providers directly without having to obtain court warrant.

BICMA officials were then drafting a code of practice on registration of subscriber identity module (SIM) card by the mobile cellular service providers, as directed by Sarpang court.

BICMA, in the draft code of practice, specified the need for service providers to maintain confidentiality of subscriber’s information unless when the information is sought by a law enforcement agency with an order issued by court.

The service providers could also provide information to law enforcement agency without an order issued by court under extraordinary circumstances when life is threatened.

BICMA officials explained that they could not incorporate the request police made in their code of practice, as it contradicts the provisions of the BICMA Act and CCPC.

“We must understand that rules can’t supersede provisions of any act,” a BICMA official said. He also explained that, if police were empowered with the authority to seek customer details without court warrant, there would be no check and balance on the conduct of police.

Law practitioners say that empowering police with the authority would be against the basic rights of an individual.

A law practitioner said that, while there has to be an exception against information sought for the security of the country, service providers must protect an individual’s confidentiality.

Meanwhile, BICMA’s code of practice also stated that service providers could charge fee to cover the cost of service provided when information are sought.

By Tashi Dema

Need to strengthen dzongkhag scouts association

DSC_4400Education secretary Sangay Zam talks to a scout at the YDF centre yesterday

In an endeavour to revitalise the scouting movement in the country

Conference: Strengthening the dzongkhag scouts association (DSA) was one of the main issues discussed at the first annual scouts conference yesterday at the YDF centre in Thimphu.

The conference, organised by the department of youth and sports (DoYS), education ministry, aims to explore new horizons in scouting through sharing and reviewing of scouting programs.

It will also revitalise the programs to promote and strengthen scouting movement in the country.

Although DSA existed, the chief program officer with DoYS, Karma Tenzin said it needed strengthening.

“It’s mainly on the roles and responsibilities of the education officers,” he said, adding there must be someone who will actively report, monitor, and evaluate the timeline and frequencies of scouting activities in dzongkhags and schools.

A communication strategy was also discussed, to look at what dzongkhags and schools could do as a team to promote scouting through new initiatives. “These initiatives should attract youth into scouting,” Karma Tenzin said.

Meanwhile, the recommendations and conclusions of the discussion will be documented and an “action plan” be drawn with new scouting framework.

A concrete resolution that strictly needs to get implemented in dzongkhags and schools will be endorsed at the end of the conference on February 5.

Education secretary Sangay Zam said the whole purpose of the conference was to reflect on the scout movement. “Sometimes we just see things without understanding, so it might be good to reflect on the scouting movement and scout anthem also,” the secretary said.

Most important, the secretary told participants, was to look at whether the scouting movement was relevant or not to today’s youth, for scouting basically was a youth program.

The secretary also said she was happy to see participants from diverse groups. “We have the policy makers, the decision makers and, especially, the youth,” Sangay Zam said. “Scouting played an important role in nurturing and shaping our youth, but it’s time to see things differently now.”

The secretary mentioned that the challenges today’s youth face was different. “We have to build up on our past achievements and see how we can take it forward,” she said.

A class XII student of Motithang high school, Sonam Deki, said she has been a scout for seven years. “A lot of mottos and values already existed in scouts,” the 17-year-old said. “This conference would make the movement look for better ideas and innovations to implement these values.”

A total of 150 participants are attending the conference, which is being held for the first time since scouting came into the country in the ‘80s.

Participants include scouts, community-based scouts, scout leaders, education officers, scout volunteers, and recipients of long-service scouting awards from across the country.

As of today, there are around 18,699 youth enrolled under scouting movement, out of which 10,528 are girls.  There are 10,392 scouts, 726 rovers, and 7,581 cubs.

By Rajesh Rai

ADB president in Bhutan for a day

Visit: The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is committed to working closely with Bhutan, while Bhutan should strengthen its ongoing efforts to broaden the economy base, ADB’s president, Takehiko Nakao, said yesterday.

The president, who is in the country on a daylong visit, said Bhutan should improve its balance of payment situation. “To do so, it’s important to create industries of its own and focus on a stronger agriculture food produce, instead of importing from India,” he said.

“The other way could be by using fuel in more efficient way to reduce the import of oil and strengthening tourism.”

On the progress of ADB-funded projects in the country, President Takehiko Nakao said Bhutan has successfully implemented its projects better than many other ADB member countries.

In 2013, ADB supported Bhutan in strengthening its economic development and granted a USD 14M loan, USD 21M grant and USD 39M for green power development for Dagachu.

In the coming years, the president said, ADB would support with loans and grants for power development project and south Asia sub-regional economic cooperation (SASEC) road connectivity project.

“We’re now thinking of providing loan of USD 120M for green power project and USD 50M for SASEC road connectivity project,” he said.

The president also said that, despite Bhutan’s good progress in poverty reduction, there were many things, like maternal mortality and child mortality, which are issues ADB should focus on.

“Despite good growth, the country is still rated poor, in terms of per capita GDP. Therefore, how to continue a robust growth in this country and how to reduce poverty are some of the challenges,” he said.  He also pointed out the need for more work to help Bhutan diversify its economy, develop its private sector, and tackle youth unemployment.

One of Bhutan’s oldest development partners, ADB has supported the development of the country with USD 340M loan (low interest loan), grant of USD 140M since ADB stated its operations in Bhutan in 1982.

Key projects include rural electrification, power sector reforms, roads, and urban infrastructure.

President Takehiko Nakao also visited urban roads and water storage tanks that are part of ADB’s urban infrastructure development project.  The USD 30M project is to expand water supply, drainage and sanitation, improve urban roads, and strengthen urban management of Phuentsholing, Thimphu and Dagana.

The President also met Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and the finance minister Namgay Dorji to discuss economic and development prospects and ADB’s support for the country.

By Dawa Gyelmo

10 percent increase in tourist arrivals

The number of dollar-paying visitors though saw but a marginal rise

Tourism: With a total of 116,224 international and regional tourists visiting the country last year, Bhutan saw an increase in arrivals by about 10 percent or 10,810 tourists from the previous year, records show.

Of the total arrivals, 44,267 were international or dollar-paying tourists, 8,531 visited the country under international business, while the remaining 63,426 were regional tourists.

The highest international visitors were from the US with about 6,927 visitors, followed by China with about 4,764, Japan with about 4,015 and Thailand with about 3,494.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and Maldives are referred to as regional tourists and exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff and do not require visas.  A majority of the regional tourists were from India.

Regional tourists, who come in by air, are considered high-end, owing to their significant contribution to tourism through airline earnings.

In 2012, the country recorded 105,414 arrivals, of which 53,504 were international tourists and 51,910 were regional tourists.

Most tour operators saw a drop in arrivals last year, but it didn’t affect their revenue, because of the increase in exchange rate and tariff.

The minimum daily tariff a tourist a day is USD 250 during peak seasons and USD 200 during lean seasons, from which the government retains a royalty of USD 65 a tourist a day.

Of the total dollar paying tourists last year, 44,267 visited Bhutan solely for holidays, which is an increase of 329 tourists from the previous year’s 43,938.

Tour operators said some potential visitors to Bhutan diverted to countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which are emerging as new destinations in the region.  Even major festivals, like the Paro tshechu and Thimphu tshechu last year, failed to draw crowds unlike the past years.

A tour operator, requesting anonymity, said his company saw a drop in arrivals by about 20 percent last year. “We’re hoping for things to be better this year,” he said, adding they are trying out different products this year, for which they received a lot of inquires from overseas agents. “We’ll be just concentrating on cultural tours this year, instead of both cultural and trek like we did in the past,” he said.

With the country seeing an increase of just 329 dollar-paying tourists, some tour operators expressed concerns and called for all stakeholders to put in more effort.

“The road infrastructure needs to improve, which is one of the most frequent complaints we get from visitors,” a tour operator said.

For instance, tour operators said the Thimphu-Punakha/Wangdue highway, which usually takes about two hours, is now more than three hours drive due to the deteriorated road conditions.

“Tourists complain about the journey not being comfortable enough,” the tour operator added. “It’s also time we have better roadside amenities.”

Apart from roads and roadside amenities, it’s either cuisine, capacity of guides or standards of hotels that tourists also complain about.  Hotels in the east and central Bhutan need to improve, said tour operators and guides.

“To live up to the image of having the country as a high-end destination, we must start doing more than what’s being done currently,” another tour operator said.

Meanwhile, the tourism sector is second after hydropower when it comes to revenue earnings.  The total tourism earnings including official and business segments amounted to USD 211.5M in 2012, according to the tourism monitor.

By the end of the 11th plan, the Tourism Council of Bhutan intends to meet the goal of bringing in 200,000 tourists.

By Kinga Dema

First tshogpa of Ura-Dozhi chiwog elected

LGPolling officials count the voter turnout

LG: More than two years after the first local government (LG) elections, Ura Dozhi chiwog yesterday elected Gempo Tshering, 27, as their tshogpa to represent the chiwog.

Gempo Tshering won the election with 49 votes, while his opponent Sherab Zangmo, 29, received 33.  Ura Dozhi has a total of 373 registered voters, but only 21.9 percent of the registered voters cast their votes.  Of the 82 voters, 23 were men and 59 were women.

Ura gup Dorji Wangchuk said, during winter, most people go on pilgrimage and vacation. “Some villagers have fields in Mongar, where they go to work during winters,” he said.

Ura Dozhi chiwog has four villages – Toeba, Chagri, Tarshong and Tabi.  The chiwog has 67 households.

Gembo Tshering from Toeba village said he had not wanted to contest but, because the chiwog had remained without a tshogpa since the first LG election in 2011, the people of Ura Dozhi requested him to contest. “Now that people have elected me, I’ll do my best and won’t let the villagers down,” he said. “I didn’t do any campaigning or make promises to people, but I know my responsibilities and village plans.”

A tshogpa is responsible to serve the interest of the community under their respective local governments, bearing in mind the national interests, goals and policies and take active part in issues raised at the local government.

Without a tshogpa for more than two years, Ura Dozhi people said, communicating between the chiwog and the gewog tshogde was difficult, as there was no one to represent the people in planning.

Gup Dorji Wangchuk said they had to always arrange someone from the chiwog to represent them in the tshogde or to discuss issues and plans. “Now, we have a permanent representative and there’ll be transparency in plans and discussions,” he said. “Ura Dozhi is the biggest chiwog and we can’t leave it out.”

During the LG election, no one wanted to contest because the four villages were combined into one chiwog, the gup said. “But the people wanted separate tshogpas for each of the villages.”

Dzongkhag electoral officer Mani Ghalley said the mandate to have a full set of local leaders is now met. “A tshogpa is a bridge between the chiwog and gewog,” he said. “Although the voter turnout was low, the chiwog now has someone to rely on.”

By Sonam Choden, Bumthang

Development towards wellbeing

The report submitted to the UN prescribes the way forward to redefining development

GNH: Bhutan has proposed happiness to be adopted as the overarching goal of the post-2015 development agenda, in the New Development Paradigm report it submitted to the United Nations in December last year.

After the high level meeting Bhutan organised in April 2012 in New York, following the UN’s resolution to observe the international happiness day in March 20, the UN had requested Bhutan to take the work forward in developing the new development paradigm to promote wellbeing and happiness as a global goal.

But save for the discussion at Parliament to observe the Happiness Day on November 11 instead of March 20, discussions on its own development philosophy, let alone the New Development Paradigm (NDP), have not picked up much pace at home.

Soon after taking office, the prime minister had said that the role of government was to implement GNH at home and not to promote GNH abroad. “I fully support the new development paradigm project, but the government shouldn’t be involved,” he had said. “It has its hands full with our development agenda.”

Meanwhile, the NDP report, which has contributions from some 70 experts, has proposed wellbeing and happiness to be considered for inclusion in the suggested sustainable development goals.

Bhutan has also proposed that relevant UN research institutes and independent researchers take up the task of elaborating the details and mechanisms of the proposed new paradigm for global application.

Members of the steering committee, who drafted the report, said that, while Bhutan had fulfilled the mandate it was given to submit the report, discourse on understanding and implementing GNH at home should continue.

For a start, one of the members said all institutions that discuss GNH should come together instead of working in isolation.

The new development  paradigm secretariat’s director, Tashi Choden, said the recommendations in the report are not rigid but open to discussions and feedback.  The report also stated that, “it envisions this new paradigm emerging through a dynamic process of global conversation, participation and constant feedback.”

According to the report, the new paradigm differs in essence from the existing one, by making sustainability of life on earth the top concern, and recalibrating development to ensure that life of humans, other species and the earth itself – is valued and prioritised.

“The transformation towards a different vision for development begins with the recognition of the complexity and inter-relatedness of human reality,” it stated. “The principles of this new paradigm are transformation in what we value, and reconsideration of the purpose of development.”

In the NDP model, Bhutan proposed the four pillars of GNH as core dimensions of this agenda, and to achieve these four goals, policies for responsible management of natural, human, social and economic resources are needed to ensure present and future sustainability.

According to the report, resources refer to the natural, human, social, and economic assets on which society must draw to meet basic needs, establish the systems, and implement the policies of the new development approach.  “The NDP framework sees societal wellbeing as the desired outcome of these structures and policies, and proposes wellbeing conditions be assessed according to the nine domains currently used in Bhutan’s GNH index,” it stated.

The new paradigm could be “applied” to policy-making in the short term to, for example, set more inclusive and wide-ranging development goals and targets that harmonise social, economic, and environmental objectives and provide more comprehensive and accurate evidence to policy-makers to enable informed decision-making.

In the medium term, it can be applied to send early warning signals that trigger preventive remedial action before crises develop, and enhance capacity to assess which existing programs are working and which aren’t.

While in the long term, it can be applied to, among others, provide a unifying societal force based on agreed and inclusive goals, purposes, objectives, and overall direction of development; and reverse existing destructive trends and crises by valuing natural, human, and social resources;

The report argued the use of gross domestic product (GDP) as the central measure of progress in the current growth-based paradigm has serious limitations. “GDP only measures and aggregates marketed economic activity and does not distinguish between those activities that create benefit and those that signify decline in wellbeing, nor does it include activities that are outside the market, such as unpaid work.”

Bhutan’s proposed new paradigm, it stated, rests on two fundamental premises – the universal human goal to pursue wellbeing and happiness, and the existence of planetary boundaries and the gravity of current ecological realities.

“We define happiness as a deep abiding sense of harmony with the natural world and with our fellow beings that is characterised by compassion, contentment and joy,” the report stated. “This is a societal vision at the core of true human development and is not just a private yearning.”

A new development framework, Bhutan proposed, would first identify the explicit needs that development must address towards achieving wellbeing and societal happiness. It would examine and learn from the underlying causes and conditions that have led to the current crises and the concomitant failure to meet those needs.

“From this, the new model can propose the necessary structures, policies and regulatory mechanisms to conserve nature, attain inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development, promote and preserve culture and strengthen good governance,” it stated.

The report highlighted that despite the progress made in achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals, 1.2B people still remained below the extreme poverty line, while humanity is already consuming resources and generating waste 60 percent faster than the planet can regenerate, absorb and sustain.

“If everyone were to consume at the current levels of affluence, we would need four more planets to provide the necessary resources,” it stated. “Put another way, we now need a billion people to live in extreme poverty if we are to maintain the lifestyles of the affluent without creating even more damage to our planet.”

However, realising and adopting a new development paradigm has its challenges, the report acknowledged. The first challenge was- how to define the NDP and its key dimensions and characteristics.

The second challenge was on how the NDP would be developed in the near future while the third challenge was about how to adopt and apply the NDP in practice. But, despite these challenges, the report stated that the necessity and potential of pursuing the proposed new paradigm was clear.

“While the ongoing post-2015 consultations have already yielded numerous reports and recommendations, the new development paradigm offers a unifying framework and a higher purpose for development with a transformative agenda.”

This transformative shift required a synergetic and multi-dimensional approach and beyond new policies and mechanisms, altered mind-sets and behaviour were necessary to catalyse a new paradigm. “This will be the work of a generation, at least,” it stated. “It is time to begin.

By Sonam Pelden

Think again lest we sink

Power: With the Bhutan Electricity Authority adamant on the revised tariff rates, industrialists are now seeking government intervention to at least reconsider the tariff for the next two tariff cycles, which end on July 2016.

For the first cycle, between July 2013 and July 2014, industries in Pasakha are paying Nu 1.67 per unit and a demand charge of Nu 130 from October 2013.  Demand charge is a charge levied on industries for electricity they have demanded from Bhutan Power corporation to reserve a certain amount of electricity for them.

Industrialists argue that, without consideration for the tariff in the second and third tariff cycles, almost all high voltage (HV) industries might have to shut down by the end of the third tariff cycle (July 2015-July 2016).

In the second cycle, (July 2014-July 2015), rates in the HV category would be increased to Nu 1.81 per unit, and Nu 155 for demand charge per KW per month.  In the third cycle, between July 2015 and June 2016, tariff would be revised to Nu 1.96 per unit and Nu 180 for demand charge.

Industrialists claim that, through their own analysis, they would land up paying more than the export rate.

Today, they say, they pay about Nu 1.85 per unit, including the twenty cheltrums in the form of various taxes, while the average export rate to India is Nu 1.98 per unit.

“But from the next tariff cycle, rate charged on us will surpass the export price,” said one.

For instance, according their analysis, Ugyen Ferro Alloys ltd., a 16.5MW plant, would be paying about Nu 2.21 per unit in the third tariff cycle.

Industrialists said shutting down would mean aggravating unemployment problem in the country, while they also argue that industries are bringing in INR.

A report, compiled by the Association of Bhutanese Industries (ABI), based on data from 2012, states that 12 HV industries earned about Nu 3.8B, while the sale of electricity to India earned only 2.5B.  This figure was arrived without considering earnings from Dungsam Cement and Bhutan Silicon Metals, which were not operational in 2012.

But with the existing tariff, the profit after tax for the HV industries would be reduced by 40 percent in the first tariff cycle, 86 percent in the second, and 140 percent in the third cycle, states the report.

Industrialists also argued that Druk Green and Bhutan Power corporation enjoy monopoly, and that the two companies are already outperforming other large companies in the country.

“Therefore, there’s no need for a revision.”

“If all the industries close down, government could suffer, because revenue from tax would shrink,” an industrialist said.

According to an ABI report, increase of 32.05 percent tariff from 2013 to 2016 would mean a 20MW plant has to pay more than Nu 2M a month.

“We’d like to appeal to the government through Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry to look into the tariff consideration again,” they said. “We submitted all the detailed analysis several times but in vain.” Industrialists say the government is their last hope.

“We hope the government would definitely intervene and make some consideration,” one said. “The shutting down of industries is the only option we would be left with.”

About 2,630 people including 484 non-Bhutanese are employed in HV user industries in Pasakha.

By Yangchen C Rinzin, Phuentsholing

Picture story

Guardian of peace: The Passing Out Parade of the 10th batch of De-suups was held at the Lungtenphug ground on Saturday. Chief guest, National Assembly Speaker Jigme Zangpo awarded certificates to the 123 teachers in the 10th batch

The unemployment scenario

The labour minister listed the various plans and programs to address the situation

NC Q-hour: The People’s Democratic Party government will look beyond the country in its effort to fulfill its pledge on full employment in the next five years.

The labour and human resources minister, Ngeema Sangay Tshempo, said they could not create enough jobs locally because of the economic conditions.

He informed the Council last Thursday that the overseas employment program would send 6,000 jobseekers abroad each year.  However, it is not easy, because the jobseekers’ skills level has to meet the standards of the employers.  So, before they are sent abroad, jobseekers need to train to become eligible for those jobs.

Samdrupjongkhar NC representative, Jigme Wangchuk, had asked what the government had done to create employment within the country.

“There are graduates, who have waited more than four years to find a job,” he said.

The ministry, lyonpo Ngeema Sangay Tshempo said, is prioritising skills development and entrepreneurship development in the 11th Plan.

The ministry has communicated with 11 countries so far, and approved three of the six proposals, in principle, for employment agents.

“A Kuwaiti business firm has agreed to recruit a substantial number of jobseekers, and the government has invited him here,” the minister said.

Sending nurses and caregivers to America and Canada is an option the government would explore.

To improve the economy, under the entrepreneurship development program, 400 persons would be trained this year.  At the end of the 11th Plan, 3,000 individuals would be trained, and they would also receive monetary support to start businesses.

“Once they complete the training, they can avail a loan up to Nu 1M without interest,” the minister said. “Sixty percent of the amount is contributed by the government and 40 percent by the banks.”

“Last year, 900 people were trained, but only 149 have established businesses. We don’t know about what happened to the rest.” Thus the ministry now has a monitoring and evaluation program following the training.

Forty-nine youth completed basic entrepreneurship course and 37 completed the comprehensive version since July last year.  A hundred more are currently training.  The ministry is also developing a national strategy.

To equip jobseekers with experience, the ministry has the university internship program, apprenticeship training, and would soon reinstate national social service program.

In the last five years, 32,190 jobs were created, with 3,058 of them in the hydropower sector.

However, the minister said scarcity of jobs is not a big problem in Bhutan. “Our youth are choosy,” he said.

“When we give them work in Bumthang or somewhere else, they turn them down, because they’re looking for jobs in places of their choice and mainly desk work.”

The minister said three under-construction hydropower projects employ not many Bhutanese workers, because  only few are interested in manual works.

His Majesty the King in his National Day address last December said 20,000 jobs needed to be created each year in the 11th Plan to stem the rising unemployment challenge in the country.

“We’re offering them the best of job opportunities but it is now up to them whether they can avail them,” the minister said.

Despite the odds, the minister said his ministry is trying.

Seven industries in Samdrupjongkhar, Pemagatshel and Zhemgang signed an agreement with the ministry to recruit Bhutanese youth.

He said the technical vocational education and training policy is under revision to adapt to changing labour market conditions and to make it more appealing to youth.

In 2012, youth unemployment rate was at 7.3 percent, while there were 2,083 young unemployed female against 1,392 male.  The overall unemployment rate, however, was only 2.1 percent.

By Tshering Palden