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Monday, May 25th, 2015 - 9:13 AM
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Somewhat the worse for wear

IMG_7424A damaged stretch of the Wangdigang-Tingtibi road

Heavy trucks and lots of traffic have taken their toll of the Wangdigang-Tingtibi bypass 

Road: There is not much joy travelling the 16km Wangdigang-Tingtibi bypass, like in the past.

Just over two years old, the road, which cuts the distance between Trongsa and Gelephu by 38km or one hour of driving time, is showing sign of having to bear the brunt of increased travel and nature’s wrath.

Although it is winter, falling rocks and sliding soil from cliffs, located at several points along the road, have damaged the road at many stretches.  At some places, the damage is so severe that there are no traces of blacktop left on the road.

The bypass was constructed to cut distance and facilitate the construction of the Mangdechhu hydropower project.

Motorists say the cliffs look unstable and small rocks keep falling on the road, sometimes even hitting vehicles.  Some are even questioning the quality of the construction, as the road is just over two years old.  Heavy trucks and the increased traffic are blamed for the fast deteriorating condition of the road.

However, there haven’t been any records of mishaps or roadblocks along the bypass.

Department of road’s (DoR) chief engineer, Pravat Rai, in Tingtibi, said the road has been damaged at several areas, because of constantly falling boulders from the cliffs. “Majority of the road falls in the rocky area and the natural slope has been cut to construct the road,” he said. “The cut slope is not stabilised as yet, which is why the boulders are falling.”

On an average, about 70 light, medium and heavy vehicles ply the bypass everyday, according to DoR.

The engineer said the road would be repaired and blacktopped once the bitumen arrives.

“For routine maintenance, one kilometre of road has a budget of Nu 86,000 in a year and we’ll be using that to repair the 16km bypass,” he said. “We’ll start as soon as possible and complete it before the onset of monsoon.”

The bypass was constructed in 2010 and 2011 and was opened to traffic in 2012.

By Sonam Choden, Zhemgang

Cashing in on the tengma craze

DSC02141Early birds: Driven by the lucrative tengma (flattened corn) business, farmers of Thridangbi, Mongar take advantage of the warm weather to cultivate maize

Mongar farmers are cultivating maize as a winter cash crop in view of its lucrativeness

Agriculture: The cold mornings are not yet over, but farmers of Thridangbi village in Saling, Mongar have already taken to their fields, armed with a pair of oxen, to plough the hardened earth every day.

For 48-year old farmer, Tshering Dorji, popularly known as Chagpala, he said, every year, by this time, he, along with Yongla and Chungla (his oxen) are busy readying the field to cultivate maize on his seven langdos of paddy field in lower Thridangbi village.

According to Chagpala, there has been a marked difference in temperature in lower Thridangbi village, and for a few years now, farmers have been encouraged to cultivate maize, after they learnt commercial farming could do well in their village.

He said villagers were lagging behind in winter farming, but they have caught up now, and cultivate maize early to sell fresh tengma (beaten maize) after four months, even before the product’s season begins. “I earn between Nu 60,000 to 80,000 a year from the sale of fresh tengma,” Chagpala said.

At least three to four tengma outlets have come up between Thridangbi and Gangola to cater to farmers, who cultivate maize on a large scale for cash income.  Today, the villagers’ prime markets are in Mongar and Gyalpoizhing and outlets along the Mongar-Bumthang highway.

Getting into commercial maize cultivation, he said, has made a huge difference for his family. “It was difficult for the family even to survive before I ventured into this business, but now I can send my four children to school and even save a little,” he said.

He plans to sell tengma to other districts. “I want to convince people that farming has huge prospects, if we know how to work in winter,” he said.

Farmer Samten, 47, said they don’t want to miss the opportunity. “Since maize is becoming a lucrative business, more stalls are coming up by the roadside,” he said.

Every year farmer Samten cultivates maize on his five langdos of paddy field and earns a minimum of Nu 50,000 a year. “I’m hoping for a good income from the yield this year too,” he said.

By  Dechen Tshering, Mongar

Some headway in RTI debate

DSC_2560Bardo-Trong representative Leki Dorji

NA: The issue of who should be made information and media officers in ministries, its various agencies and public offices garnered some attention among National Assembly members yesterday.

Discussing recommendations the legislative committee members made on the Right to Information legislation to assembly members, information officers were required to be of certain rank and grade.

Economic affairs minister Norbu Wangchuk said there was no need for stipulating ranks and grades for information officers in the law.

All that was required of the particular provision was to specify responsibilities information officers ought to shoulder.

In response, committee chairperson, Bardo-Trong  representative Leki Dorji said they included grade and rank for information officers following suggestions of some international experts.

To appoint an inexperienced, or a new candidate as an information officer, he said would dilute the effectiveness of the law.

Lamgong-Wangchang representative Khandu Wangchuk said the practice of appointing information officers was not new, but that it was initiated during the previous government’s tenure.

“An information officer has to be someone senior because they have to have the authority to speak to the media and with maturity,” he said. “Otherwise, most information won’t be divulged on time, or information would be half-baked, both of which doesn’t serve the law’s purpose.”

Assembly Speaker Jigme Zangpo said what he understood from the discussions among the members was of the need to create a new office and appoint new officials in various ministries if the legislation came through.

“We should instead consider multi-tasking because, to have new offices and officials each time a new law was passed would be unfeasible,” he said.  “We have to look at making people capable of shouldering many responsibilities.”

Leki Dorji explained the provision of the legislation required agencies to “designate” information and media officers, meaning they could be those from within the office.

Members agreed three months was long enough for ministries, agencies under it and other public offices to appoint an information officer after coming into effect of the legislation.

The other issue members deliberated at length was with respect to the scope of the law’s applicability.

To spark off the discussion, Khar-Yurung representative Zangley Dukpa said he never supported the legislation in the first place, but now that it was tabled for discussion, he shared his confusion on some provision, of the bill.

That the legislation would help curb corruption in governance, Zangley Dukpa said gave the sense that only the government would be chased and scrutinised for corruption.

“How about corruption in some media houses and the private sector?” he said.

Zangley Dukpa said the scope of the law should spread to all aspects of management and administration not just in the government, but public offices including private sector that provide public services.

By Samten Wangchuk

Ban on foreign liquor and furniture lifted

Ostensibly since neither did it serve its intended purpose nor adhere to trade agreements

Cabinet: The Cabinet on January 28 lifted the almost two years of ban imposed on the import of furniture and alcohol.

The restrictions did not serve the intended purpose and wasn’t in line with bilateral and regional trading arrangements, a Cabinet secretariat press release  stated.

It stated, the decision was reached following recommendations of the multisectoral task force. “The Lhengye Zhungtshog agreed to lift the ban on furniture and alcohol in the spirit of renewing the bilateral trade agreement with India,” it states.

The Cabinet’s decision comes a week after the Indo-Bhutan bilateral talks on trade and transit ended in Thimphu.

The Indian delegation had asked Bhutan to review the import ban on vehicle, alcohol and furniture.  Economic affairs joint secretary, Sonam P Wangdi, had then said the issue would be referred to the government. “However, we said, until the balance of payment issue eases, we might not be able to review it,” he had said.

Ban on import of vehicles would be deliberated later, upon consideration of the pay commission’s report, the press release states.  The task force recommended the government to frame fiscal measures to supplement monetary measures in order to ensure smooth functioning of the economy.

“The multisectoral task force report identified vehicle import as a major contributor to trade imbalances and rupee shortfall,” it states, and recommends appropriate fiscal measures prior to lifting the existing restriction on vehicle import.

Following the shortage in INR, the last government in March 2012 implemented several measures, such as banning the import of selected goods, like furniture and alcohol, to curtail INR outflows.

Trade officials, who were also members of the task force, however, refused to share any details on their recommendations, saying the trade department was yet to receive the “executive order in writing.”

Meanwhile, the task force had also recommended the government to review duty and tax structure to promote local industry and, “if deemed necessary,” reduce alcohol consumption through fiscal, education and other measures, it states.

While public health officials said they weren’t aware about being a part of the multisectoral task force to give the health aspect on lifting the ban on alcohol, they said the health ministry role was more towards reducing the “harmful” use of alcohol.  Also, alcohol is not listed as a “drug” in the drug list for the ministry to campaign against it.

Although no study has been done to see the impact of banning import on alcohol on alcohol consumption in the country, health officials said it was not likely that it could have led to decreased drinking, given the local alcohol industry.

“We’re for now happy that no new bar licenses are being issued,” a public health official said. “Also, if a bar licensee defaults in paying fees on time, the bar licensee isn’t renewed.”

However, the opposition leader, (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said the opposition party stands by the decision the previous government made because, besides encouraging domestic production of furniture, it retained rupee outflow.

“It’s counter productive to the austerity measures the government has implemented,” the opposition leader said. “We also need to look at the larger interest of the country and see if we’re in a position to honour  everything in the agreement.”

By Sonam Pelden 

 

Time to straighten anomalies

NC Act: By the time the second National Council elections inched closer in April last year, besides the five eminent members, only four elected councillors were what was left of the house.

Except for one that joined a political party, the remaining council members had resigned to contest yet another term.

They had to bow out, despite the house having argued that law warranted them to contest elections while in office.  They said the Constitution mandated them to complete their five-year term and maintain the “continuity”.

However, Election Commission of Bhutan argued otherwise and, in the process, made an announcement which council members had to adhere to.  Some 15 councillors submitted their resignation to contest the election, of whom six were re-elected.

More than eight months later, the house is zooming on the subject yet again, this time to straighten the anomalies that surfaced.

In taking up the National Council Act amendment starting today, the members will look into whether the members should really resign to contest elections, on how it could fulfill “continuity” and more.

Introducing the bill, Council’s legislative committee chairperson, eminent member Kuenlay Tshering, said, in 2012, with differences in the understanding of law between the house and election commission, council sought His Majesty’s guidance, who in turn sought the Supreme Court’s view on the matter.

He said Supreme Court also deduced that council was a continuous house and members could contest elections while ensuring that they completed their five-year term, which meant they need not resign.

However, being an election period and election commission as the management body had already decided then that members have to resign.

“As such, respecting their decision, those interested resigned to contest the election,” he said.

Kuenlay Tshering said, with Constitution clearly stating that Supreme Court should be the final authority on its interpretation, it was important to go with what they said.

While the deliberations would be carried out today, the committee has proposed new sections in the Act that would endorse council as continuous house, and clearly state how council members shall not resign and could contest while in office.

The committee chairperson presented several arguments to support the sections.

Constitution’s article 10, section 24 stated that National Council should complete its five-year term, while for National Assembly, it could be dissolved upon recommendation of the prime minister to the King, or in the event of a no confidence motion against the government.

The law also required council election to be carried out in a manner that a new one was re-constituted on the “date of expiry of the term”.

As such, accomplishment of council’s full term was seen possible, with at least two-third or all of its members serving until the end.  Since neither Constitution nor electoral laws explicitly required Parliament members to resign in order to re-contest, it was understood that those members could contest while in office.

Some arguments thrown in the past was that, if resignation was allowed, the house would be deprived of two-third quorum, at least 19 members, to vote on resolutions.

Re-election was out of question, since election commission could conduct by-election only if the member resigning has more than 180 days of their term.

With the house designed to be continuous, arguments were also made that coming in of totally new members every five years would lead to difficulty in retaining any semblance of continuity.

More over, as per the calculations specified in the law, while council’s would always end at fixed term, the government’s would keep differing.  That way, as a continuous house, council, also being the house of review, would mandate them to ensure check and balance.

Committee chairperson Kuenlay Tshering said, especially during the period when there was interim government, it was only council that would be left to carry out check and balance, ensuring country’s security and sovereignty.

Meanwhile, besides the issue, council will also look at other inconsistencies that surfaced over the years, since its being in 2008.

Some members cautioned that since amending their own Act invited criticism from people, it should be worked on in a manner that it addressed all the long term issues so that they do not have to look at it again.

By Kesang Dema

Tobacco Control Act due for second amendment

After the National Assembly’s first bash at it, it’s now the turn of the National Council

Council: Within four years of its enactment, Tobacco Control Act will undergo its second amendment, this time in the house of review.

In introducing the act for amendment, National Council legislative committee chairman, Kuenlay Tshering, said it was important to consider whether the act has prevented sale of tobacco in the market, curbed black market or initiated more problems, among others.

In the past three years, enforcement agencies of the act arrested 191 individuals dealing with tobacco and its products, of which 138 were charged in court, while 89 of them were still serving prison terms.

In 2011, 72 of 92 persons arrested were charged in court, while 45 more were charged in the following year, out of the 57 arrested.  Last year, 42 were arrested, of which 20 were charged.

Of the total, in three years, 33 individuals paid in lieu of imprisonment, 18 were pardoned, 16 granted kidu, and seven paid fines before going to court and were released.

Kuenlay Tshering said, in a small country with a small population, the crime rate related to tobacco was very high.

“While amending the law, being mindful of harmony in the community was important,” he said.

Members said the amended act, above all, should be easy to implement.  They said, while on constituency visits, they consulted people with regards to the matter.

Samtse council member, Sangay Khandu, said stakeholders and enforcement agencies have been consulted through lengthy meetings.

He said the punishment for buying a cigarette stick was equal to that meted out to involuntary manslaughter.

“One of the enforcement agencies said half the population could land up in prison, should the provisions of the act be implemented strictly,” he said.

Members said the country has been praised for enactment of a law to curb tobacco consumption.

“But more important thing for us is to ensure that the law is corrected, and no problems surface during implementation,” a member said.

By Tshering Palden

How to get the monkey off our backs

The finance minister listed steps to be taken to deal with mounting public debt

Q-Hour: Despite concerns of mounting public debt, the finance minister Namgay Dorji said there was no need to worry on that score.

The minister was put in the council dock, during the question hour session yesterday, when the Gasa council member Sangay Khandu questioned the government’s plans and strategies in managing a country’s ‘severe debt situation.’

Sangay Khandu, quoting the central bank’s statistical bulletin for December last year, said the economy’s total borrowing was at a staggering Nu 105B, which is in excess of the country’s gross domestic product by Nu 6B.

Debt to GDP ratio, which measures the economy’s ability to pay back its debt, was at 104 percent, crossing the 100 percent threshold for the first time.

A higher debt to GDP ratio meant it became more difficult for a country to pay its external loans.

In response, the minister said, while there was no reason to panic, the government was not complacent at the same time.

He said the government’s priority was to first mobilise grants to finance its development activities. “If grants are hard to come, then the government will look for concessional borrowings from international agencies,” he said.

The idea, lyonpo Namgay Dorji said, was to arrest a rapidly mounting public debt.

“The government will also only borrow for viable projects.”

Almost 49 percent of the total external debt, lyonpo said, was concentrated on the hydropower sector, which not only had the potential to pay off once commissioned, but also earn revenue.

Initially, several economists and experts, including the World Bank, cautioned that, although hydropower debt was self-liquidating, there were timing mismatches between earnings and repayment, making it difficult to make timely repayments.

When it came to convertible currency debt, lyonpo Namgay Dorji said most loans were concessional, having zero or very less interest rates, and the period of repayment was stretched over many years.

However, the convertible currency loans, lyonpo said, were also procured only for viable projects, which have the potential to make future earnings.  For example, he said, loans were taken to buy Drukair aircraft, and the repayment is being made from its own earnings.

Convertible currency debt stood at USD 604.7M, which is Nu 37.4B using the exchange rate of Nu 62 a dollar.

Lyonpo Namgay Dorji clarified that the central bank debt figure also included private debt, which are loans taken by private businesses from outside.  The government, he said was not liable to pay for private loans.

The central bank also used the previous years GDP against the present year’s debt figure to account of the debt to GDP ratio.  This meant the ratio would be higher, because GDP would have also grown within one year.

“The actual public debt, the government was liable to pay was therefore less by almost Nu 10B,” he said.

By Nidup Gyeltshen 

Plugging the mobile loopholes

New code of practice on registration of SIM cards to be introduced soon in the interest of national security

BICMA: Mobile users, who availed a subscriber identity module (SIM) card using the old citizenship identity card (CID), must provide new CID numbers and update information to service providers.

The replacement, Bhutan infocomm and media authority (BICMA) stated, must be done after their draft code of practice on registration of SIM card by mobile service providers and related stipulations is endorsed.

BICMA’s authority board will endorse the draft by the first week of February.

BICMA submitted the draft code of practice to the office of attorney general in December 31 last year, following a Sarpang court order.  The court issued a directive to Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell, in October, to come up with security measures within three months.

Sarpang court, when conducting court proceedings for kidnapping cases in 2012, found that both the mobile service providers had given unlimited access of SIM cards to non-Bhutanese, who availed the service to plan and kidnap people and demand ransom.

The dzongkhag court also stated that the SIM cards had gone to the wrong hands, and the mobile service providers failed to trace the people availing the services, when the SIM cards were in active use.

The verdict then stated that the security of the state would be at stake, if mobile service providers failed to take remedial measures against easy accessibility of SIM card facilities.

BICMA’s code states that, if the subscriber fails to respond within the stipulated period, the service providers should disconnect the services without further notice, which may be reactivated if subscriber provides the required information.

The code of practice also has provisions on responsibilities of the service providers, agreement between the service provider and subscriber and sale of SIM card.

Meanwhile, Bhutan Telecom’s marketing general manager, Sangay Wangdi, said the code of practice is already being implemented.  Bhutan Telecom is, however, replacing the CIDs, which, he said, would take some time.

He said that there are challenges, as people are not cooperating and providing correct information, and Bhutanese people also lack awareness on the importance of notifying the provider with correct information.

Sangay Wangdi also said that it was difficult tracking the SIM card users, as the card is shared among family members. “People don’t even inform the service provider when they lose their mobile and SIM cards,” he said.

Tashi Cell’s general manager, Jigme Thinley, said they already gave feedback that the limitation set on SIM card, where a person could only avail two SIM cards is not applicable.

He reasoned out that one person needs more than three SIM cards for mobile, ipad and data card. “We asked BICMA to relook into the provision,” he said.

Jigme Thinley also said that they are already documenting the required data and documents.

Bhutan Telcom has more than 400,000 service users and Tashi Cell has more than 145,000 subscribers, of which 100,000 use the service actively.

By Tashi Dema

 

Two steps back?

Two commodities the country today can do without are foreign alcohol and furniture.

This is because, even with the ban on import of alcohol, there is no dearth of alcohol, both local and imported.  The ban, although short, on furniture has, for the first time, led to a small but fast growing local furniture industry.

So, when the Cabinet announced that they have lifted the ban on import of alcohol and furniture, there were more questions than appreciation to the decision.

Should we lift the ban?

Apart from fulfilling trade policies, there is every reason to say no to the Cabinet’s decision.  A multi-sectoral task force found that restrictions did not serve their intended purpose in the economy, and were not in line with bilateral and regional trading arrangements.

There is no clarification or details on the task force’s “intended purpose”.  But if the intended purpose was to curb the outflow of the Indian rupee, which the economy lacks, or to restrict the easy availability of cheap booze, the ban should have served the purpose.

Thus, it seems our decision makers are confused about what they ought to do about alcohol, a problem that has a multidimensional effect and been long recognised.

Our policy makers are aware that alcohol liver diseases remain the top killer in the country.  In 2012, it claimed 140 lives and 169 in the previous year.  Experts and statisticians warn that alcohol-related diseases will become one of the main sources of disease burden in the country.

We know that more than 54 percent of our youth, more than half the country’s population, abuse alcohol, and that alcohol is the main reason for social ills, like domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and divorce.  The country imports huge quantities of alcohol.  Together with vehicles, it is a commodity that most drains the economy of the scarce rupee.

Despite knowing this, lifting the ban, many feel, is a bad policy.

The growing furniture business, made in Bhutan, would bear the brunt of the government’s decision.  Choices will be limited with the ban on import of furniture, but a government that promotes entrepreneurship and small-scale industries is hitting where it hurts the most, with the decision.

The task force had recommended the government to review duty and tax structure to promote local industry and, if “deemed necessary”, reduce alcohol consumption through fiscal, education and other measures.

There is some respite in this recommendation.  Alcohol is the most available commodity after salt.  Making it dear through taxation could be an alternative.  If a country is ailing from alcohol, there should be policy intervention.

There are more important decisions the government needs to consider today.  For instance, essential food items are becoming dearer by the day.  There is no control over price. The MRP rule is a thing of the past.

If government decisions can make a farmer afford sugar in his tea every day, they will be more appreciated than making booze available in every “shop cum bar”.

Overseas employment agencies getting their acts together

Jobs: The labour ministry has announced two more jobs in the US as a part of its overseas employment program, even as the three overseas employment agents that the ministry has approved are yet to obtain licenses.

These jobs of international business or humanities background staff and research staff at Shin Nippon biomedical laboratories ltd, however, are for those with four years university degrees.

Labour officials said they received nine applications to date and are expecting more applicants by the February 4 deadline.

Meanwhile, the agents, who are processing their trade licenses to operate as overseas employment agents, are required to pay Nu 100,000 as registration fee to the labour ministry.  As per the labour ministry’s regulation on employment of Bhutanese overseas, the agents would charge a minimum of a month’s salary of the worker on successful placement as commission.

With its office opened, one of the agents, TUSK overseas employment agency’s proprietor, Khandu, said he is waiting to complete a few formalities. “To start with, we expect to announce about 100 vacancies as teachers in Thailand,” Khandu said.  His agency has notarised agreement with agencies in Thailand.

The other two, Druk Metser Ter and Employ Bhutan Overseas agents also have notarised agreements with employment agencies in Belgium and Kuwait.

Employ Bhutan Overseas’s proprietor, Ugyen Tshomo, said their office would open by next week. “Only then will we be able to start working with our counterparts,” she said, adding she was targeting the UAE.

Labour ministry officials said, as mandated, the committee visited TUSK Overseas employment agency and found it met the specified requirements in terms of human resources. “The ministry is also exploring possibilities of overseas employment through our embassies and consulates,” the employment department’s program officer, Tshewang Rinchen, said.

Employment officials said the ministry has to first endorse the job opportunities, before the employment agencies announce it. “We’ll have to check the minimum working hours, salary and placement,” Tshewang Rinchen, said.

The agents are also required to produce notarised agreements they have with each agent in the region, endorsed by Bhutanese embassies and consulates, to prove that the counterpart agencies exist. “In countries, where we don’t have embassies or consulate, the agreement has to be signed by a competent authority,” Tshewang Rinchen, said.

The labour ministry and employment agencies would give pre-departure orientation to the selected employees.

Regulation on employment of Bhutanese overseas states the selected employees will receive a one time two-way free airfare, visa fees, and working permits from the employers.  They are to return after completing their five-year contract work abroad.  The government, on their return, would render policy and financial support to either get them employed or start their own businesses.

The overseas employment program is an initiative of government to achieve full employment, as pledged during the election.

The program is open to only those job seekers, whose employment situation in the country is not favourable, which would be determined through a research by the ministry.  The scheme caters to unemployed people, between 21-40 years, with a minimum of class X qualification, and basic skills in any trade.

Some of the proposed overseas destinations include English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, and Singapore.  The proposed areas of employment are tourism and hospitality, non-nursing health professionals, teaching (non-trained), information technology professionals, accounting and finance, technicians, sales representatives, care givers and those providing secretarial services.

By Kinga Dema