Dorji Khandu

Journal of a Young Parliamentarian

The covid-19 vaccine gives us hope for the future

Until an effective vaccine for Covid-19 is ready, effective and well-designed lockdowns with reliable and easily accessible testing methods are the only way forward.

Bhutan experienced nationwide lockdown twice since 11th August last year after a returnee from abroad tested positive outside the quarantine facility. Of late the government enforced the second nationwide lockdown from December 23, 2020, following reports of sporadic cases from flu clinics in Thimphu and Paro. Few cases were also detected in Lhamoizingkha; evidence of local transmission.

However, the recent news of vaccines coming into play gives us hope for the future, only vaccine can end the Covid-19 pandemic. A vaccine for COVID-19 will be a critical tool to bring the pandemic under control, combined with effective testing and preventive measures.

With several promising vaccine candidates in the pipeline, some under review for approval, and the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines approved for use, the race for a safe and effective vaccine has entered a new phase.

There are currently more than 200 vaccine candidates: 56 in clinical and 166 in pre-clinical development. A number of these vaccine candidates are in Phase III clinical trials – the final step before a vaccine is approved.

The two leading vaccine candidates were developed by Moderna Therapeutics, which reported 94.5 percent of efficacy, and Pfizer partnering with the German company BioNTech, showing 95 percent success rate, including 94 percent among those 65 and older.

UNICEF aims to make 2 billion doses of the vaccine available under the COVAX plan by the end of 2021. Under the COVAX plan, the initial doses of vaccines are intended for health workers, social care workers, and people at high risk, such as the elderly or those with underlying conditions.

They are unlikely to be given to children. These populations have been prioritized to help reduce morbidity from COVID-19 and help protect health systems that serve everyone.

Distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is underway in most countries, including the US and UK. India expects to begin vaccinating people against Covid-19 in January this year.

As per the federal health officials of India, around 300 million Indians will be vaccinated between January and early August. It will begin with an estimated 10 million health workers, followed by policemen, soldiers, municipal, and other frontline workers.

India’s drugs regulator today approved Serum Institute’s Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for restricted emergency use, paving the way for their roll-out soon.

China’s health authorities have approved a Covid-19 vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm for general use on the population and rollout to begin ‘soon’ but about a million have already received injection under emergency approvals.

Bhutan is safe so long as the world is free from Covid-19 and our neighboring giants; India and China are 100% vaccinated and gained herd immunity.

Nevertheless, the Government of Bhutan shared detailed plans to distribute Covid-19 vaccines since September last year. Kuensel reported that the high-risk workers in the healthcare facilities, active front-liners such as police, army personnel, De-Suups, and elderlies above the age of 60 years, and people with comorbidities were considered for the first phase of the distribution.

The second phase is expected to cover passive frontliners – individuals who are in constant contact with the large groups (like media personnel), students, and staff of functional schools and institutions.

Children below 12 years and pregnant women would be included in the third phase while the rest of the population (age 13 to 60 years) residing in the country and who do not fall under any of the above categories would be included in the fourth phase.

As a member of the COVAX facility, Bhutan would receive free vaccines for 20 percent of its population. Meaning, about 150,000 people of the total 756,129 population would be the first recipients of the vaccine.

However, COVAX would deploy the 20 percent in tranches as the first tranche would cover around three percent of the population. The remaining 17 percent would be deployed in the next tranche.

Recently, the Ministry of Health submitted an application to the COVAX facility for vaccine supply, and the first batch of vaccine is expected to dispatch in the first quarter of 2021.

How faster everyone’s lives will return to normal, including society opening and recovery of the economy will depend on the uptake of the vaccine and reach to the herd immunity.

The bottom line is that an effective vaccine will certainly diminish greatly the relative risk of transmission but we still should not completely abandon basic public health measures, including the wearing of masks.


Questions to MoEA Minister 

The Bhutan 2020 vision document targeted to provide electricity for all by 2020, in the 10th Plan.

About 99.97 percent of the households in the country have been provided with electricity as of today but not all. Around 164 Households, 39 villages in 21 Gewogs under 17 Dzongkhags are still off-grid.

The remaining 0.03 percent constitutes 300 households in Lunana, which is about seven days journey on foot across the high mountain passes in Gasa.

The government had allocated Nu 7 million in the financial year 2019-2020 to conduct the Detail Project Report (DPR) of the mini-hydropower project in Lunana.

The Department of Renewable Energy (DRE), Ministry of Economic Affairs provisioned to undertake feasibility study and development of power supply to Lunana gewog in 12 FYP.

In this respect, DRE assigned Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) to prepare a Detailed Project Report of the mini-hydro power project in Lunana, as a deposit work within the financial year 2019-20.

A multidisciplinary team from DGPC and DRE was deputed to Lunana for the site survey and for the investigation from September 9 to October 13 last year.

The survey reported that a River at Toenche had the potential to produce over 415 KW of energy, which would be sufficient to supply power to more than 200 households in the gewog.

Moreover, providing a reliable power supply in Lunana was one of the major pledges of the current government and it should be the top priority in the 12th FYP.

The detailed project report (DPR) was submitted to the government in January 2020. The total cost of the project is estimated at Nu. 662.93 million as per the estimate done in December 2019.

The electrification project was slated to begin on May 1, 2020, as per the DPR work plan.

Considering all the above points, the National Council hereby ask the MoEA Minister to clarify the following to the general public:

  1. Will the government be able to fulfill the Bhutan 2020 vision of 100% electricity coverage?
  2. What is the funding status of the proposed mini-hydro project in Lunana Gewog? Is there any alternative funding, if there are no foreign donors?
  3. When will the government be able to Commission the project?

 

It was fulfilling to have followed this development since the beginning. Lunana would be connected with electricity by 2023.

Economic affairs minister during question hour session at National Council on December 9 informed the house that estimated budget for the mini-hydro project in Lunana is around Nu 662.93 million. The mini-hydro is expected to produce 500KW. The Government of the Republic of Korea would fund the project through its official development assistance programme (ODA).

It was more hopeful when the minister ensured that the project would be carried out as planned with the internal funding if there are no foreign donors. Considering the location and the short summer seasons, it would be difficult to work on the project like in other parts of the country.

The news from the minister about the project expected to complete by 2023 is much more fulfilling being a representative of the highland communities that wished to have electricity for decades.

I take in confidence and trust we the people of Lunana have on the government of the day. The day to brighten the sacred highlands of us is not very far. I hope the project would receive continued attention till the end. Thank you, everyone, on behalf of the people of Lunana.

Similar story by Kuensel: https://kuenselonline.com/lunana-to-get-electricity-by-2023/


Inauguration of the Road to Lunana

Coinciding with an auspicious day, we have inaugurated the construction of a 15.5km farm road from Sephu gewog under Wangduephodrang to Gyentsa for the benefit of the people of Lunana gewog in Gasa. The Member of Parliament, dzongkhag officials, and local government leaders from two dzongkhags- Gasa and Wangdue- were present during the inauguration on 6th November 2020.

At the inaugural ceremony, people were delighted about the road reaching closer to their gewog. The arduous journey to Lunana from Wangdue will be reduced by one day. It takes six days for the people of Lunana to reach the most remote gewog from Sephu on foot.

Lunana is one of the most remote gewogs in the country, and it remains cut off from the rest of the country for more than six months because of heavy snowfalls. The gewog is hidden behind the rugged terrains and the climatic conditions very harsh, these are the factors that hamper service delivery and development works in the gewog, among many other things.

There are three different routes to reach Lunana:

  1. From Laya via Gangala Karchung La
  2. From Punakha via Gangzhu La (Jaziphu is halfway through)
  3. From Wangdue via Gang Rinchenzoe (Gyentsa is halfway through).

The farm road measuring 15.5km from Sephu under Wangduephodrang to Gyentsa will be constructed with a total budget of Nu. 7 million. Gasa dzongkhag will be providing the machinery support and is expected to be constructed by June 2021.

The Department of Forests and Park Services, Wangchuk Centennial National Park, Bumthang accorded the Forest Clearance for construction of the farm road measuring 15.5km from Bisha Goenpa to Gyentsa on March 2, 2020.

On July 15, 2020, the National Environment Commission issued Environmental Clearance (EC) for the construction of the 15.5 km farm road from Sephu to Gyentsa under Wangdue Phodrang dzongkhag, including the construction of 3 bailey bridges over Barzha Chhu, Repa Chhu, and Gyentsa Chhu with the length of 10m, 10m and 15m respectively. The EC was issued in accordance with Section 34.1 of the Environmental Assessment Act 2000 and Section 34 of the Water Act 2011.

The road from Sephu to Gyentsa will benefit the people of the upper Lunana (Phoed-toed) and also the people of Sephu gewog.

Similarly, the road from Ramina to Jaziphu will begin next year, and the road will benefit the people of lower Lunana (Phoed-maed).

Jigme Dorji National Park, Gasa accorded the Forest Clearance for construction of farm road measuring 8km from Ramina to Jaziphu under Lunana gewog on March 13, 2020. National Environment Commission issued Environmental Clearance (EC) on October 9, 2020.

The people of the highland had been waiting for quite a long time for the basic infrastructure; it’s a dream come true and a foundation to many changes and possibilities among the highland communities.

This could stop the people from moving down to the suburbs of Punakha plains in search of better opportunities and encourage them to remain in their community. We should all aspire to keep them at the northern frontiers but also reach them with the required facilities. Roads, the transport means, make a crucial contribution to economic development on top of the social benefits for the people.

I would like to pay my humblest gratitude to His Majesty the King for the blessings and acknowledge the government officials and everyone involved in making this project possible. I assure everyone that I will closely monitor the work progress and make sure the construction goes as planned.


The NA endorsed Supplementary Budget of 5M; it’s purely conflicting and a wrong precedence

I raised my concerns during the 5th sitting of the 25th session of National Council regarding the supplementary budget appropriation of Nu. 5M, proposed and approved by the National Assembly on 11th February 2020 with 44 Yes votes.

The same budget was presented again in the first week of June, that the National Assembly is returning the amount to the finance ministry. That is just a drama and for publicity to make up with their wrongdoings. The fact is that the Supplementary Budget Appropriation Bill for the Financial year 2019-20 that has been passed before the first case of COVID-19 has never been endorsed for implementation.

Moreover, there is no need for the government to return, this is a norm for all sectors when it’s the financial closing time. If the fund is not used, the return is mandated and the responsibility of all the sectors.

Appropriating the supplementary budget for the parliamentary committee and secretariat services came without prior scrutiny from the finance ministry and violated the budget process and the Public Finance Act 2007. Any kind of supplementary budget should root through relevant ministry which is then forwarded to the Finance Ministry for approval.

The other supplementary budget for Royal Bhutan Police (for revised pay and allowances), Khesar Gyelpo University of Medical Sciences (for revised pay and allowances, students stipend),  similarly for the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law and State-Owned Enterprise subsidy all came through a proper proceeding.

It was surprising to learn how the most important institution of the nation turned deaf to the National Council’s recommendations.

The precedent was unhealthy for a democracy like ours that undergoes constant evolution with days. The views expressed from NC were a waste of time because they went ahead with the budget and approved it.

My colleagues in the house shared the same concerns; the legitimacy and the conflict of interest of the bill proposed to meet the shortages at the parliamentary committee and secretariat services. Consequently, the House decided to repeal the section with recommendations.

The national council also experienced the same shortage of resources. Do we follow the same trend? Should the future government do the same and keep increasing the supplementary budget appropriation ceiling.

NC members shared appropriating such a supplementary budget to overcome shortage each time would violate existing norms and set the wrong precedent.

We also questioned if the procedure followed to approve the budget was right and whether it was in line with the existing norm. However, the appropriation was approved and later returned as claimed. The way the national assembly approved the budget was unexpected and disrespectful. This also reflects the integrity of the people’s representatives in the august hall.

Our recommendation should have been heard well, especially in times like today where the government’s coffer is taking an unexpected pinch. We should all aspire to listen to one another and work firmly together with integrity.

I wish that the wisdom of the highest legislative body should prevail to abide by the laws and avoid the conflict of interests henceforth.


On issues concerning the road to the Finance Minister

In today’s session, I raised the following issues to the Hon’ble Finance Minister during the Introduction of the Annual Budget at the National Council (2nd Sitting of the 25th Session).

The Government continues to accord high priority for the construction and maintenance of roads. For the fiscal year 2020-21, the budget allocation to the road sector is Nu. 4,225.957 million:  about 6 percent of the total budget appropriation.

Under the Economic Contingency Plan (ECP), the Government plans to initiate the improvement of about 1,447 km of farm roads with existing road connectivity (one farm road from each Gewog).

To stimulate economic growth, the Government has announced fiscal and monetary measures and started implementing economic contingency plan in the areas of tourism, agriculture and construction, and this includes improvement of one farm road each in all Gewogs.

In this regard, I urge the government to give importance to build new roads to gewogs that has no road such as Laya and Lunana in Gasa dzongkhag.

This is in line with the government’s expectation to improve access to the market, reduce transportation costs, and to enhance rural income. Moreover, this would improve the living standard of the highlanders and help the government realize the vision of Reducing Gap, besides many significant advantages.

I also recommended the Government to ensure issuing of the road-related clearances at the earliest possible with a new policy similar to that of the Government’s Procurement Rules and Regulations during emergencies.

The Department of Forests and Park Services, Wangchuk Centennial National Park, Bumthang accorded the Forest Clearance for construction of farm road measuring 15.5km from Bisha Goenpa to Gyentsa on March 2, 2020, and Jigme Dorji National Park, Gasa accorded the Forest Clearance for construction of farm road measuring 8km from Ramina to Jaziphu under Lunana Gewog on March 13, 2020. However, the Gewog is yet to receive the Environment Clearances for these road constructions.

The road to Laya was one of the significant pledges of the current Government and should consider it as the top priority. Although the preliminary survey was carried out recently, more needs to be done to complete the remaining 30% of the road to Laya from TongshuDra (Approximately 13 km). It has been more than 2 years now; the gewog is yet to receive the road clearances.

Moreover, as always I reminded the Government of the need to improve road conditions between Punakha and Gasa border, especially from Kabesa Sirigang to Shatem Draphu.

The road, despite being crucial for ensuring administrative ease, economic development through tourism, and livelihood enhancement through connectivity; the quality of the road, as mentioned earlier, remained a major stumbling block for more than two decades.  Thus disappointing the people.

However, it was encouraging to hear from the Hon’ble Finance Minister that the works to get clearances at the shortest time possible is taking good progress. The government including Gasa-Laya gewog centre road to be blacktopped along with 23 other GC roads was welcome news.

While sharing the concerns and views of the people, I revere and share the same thoughts of the need to secure our economy in times like today. There is a need to create employment and realize the consumption capacity of the people as mentioned by the minister.

The budget for FY 2020-21 is presented in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic which has caused a global health crisis and economic downturn.


Reflections of two years in the Parliament of Bhutan

Two years representing the people of Gasa Dzongkhag was a journey that kept me moving close to the heart of this nation, more than ever. I have come to know more about the community and myself.

The first two years have been overwhelming and adventurous after signing Oath of Office and pledging to work tirelessly in fulfilling the sacred mandate of the great institution, the great visions of monarchs, and the dreams of the people.

 

With Elderly Constituents of Gasa

The job of a Member of Parliament is unlike any other professions one would have previously experienced. You are expected to be an advocate, social worker, orator, negotiator, mediator, sociable, social convener, and a lawyer. This versatile need of the profession has questioned and pushed me hard to become a better one always.

 

Crossing Ganglakarchung (5472 m)

I got an opportunity to visit the places located at the highest elevation in the country, enduring the harshest weather because it mattered the most to the people and the country. The experience among glaciers and clouds were awakening. This is the latest moment I cherish as the representative of the people.

One day I was amongst the high ranking delegate and officials, the other days I was with the people and youth of my constituency. In attending both functions, I always kept my true colours close to my heart. This kept me talking about my people and the country with almost all the people and in the places I have been to in the past two years. I will continue to let the world hear about my people and the country.

 

Interacting with farmers

I come from a constituency where people are least aware of our works as their representative. I made sure people understand, the basics of what we were doing in the Parliament. This would go a long way and I am more prepared to shoulder them with the best ability of mine.

Among the communities that are least developed in Bhutan, I started a welfare scheme, a personal initiative that caters to the need of my constituents today.

 

While travelling to the Constituency

The initiative came from my own experience and situation. The struggles and the unfortunate circumstances are uncertain in times like today. I wanted to shoulder my people in a time of bereavement. Today I am happy that this has become a reality.

For the welfare scheme, I surrendered my annual discretionary allowance entitled to the Member of Parliament in the country, the first to do so from among the parliamentarians in the country. Positive precedence I feel optimistic about as a young parliamentarian.

In the parliament so far, I have opposed the views shared by the government and supported where it is due. The decision that would impact my people was least welcome and critiqued on behalf of people.

 

During Committee Discussions

Despite being a regular and active participant in the committee meetings, and during debates in the Parliament, I made sure that the issue concerning my people in the ground is heard and discussed at all levels.

The journey took me to different parts of the country and also to the parts of the world that helped me realize and learn about the fast-changing world.

 

Attending the 19th APPCED

My work in parliament also involved representing Bhutan in the important international and regional forums like the 19th General Assembly of the APPCED in South Korea in December 2019 and 140th IPU Assembly meeting in Qatar in April 2019.

I was in India, speaking to the professors and faculty at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai about my country. Many of them had the experience of working in media for more than a decade. I was also given an opportunity to share my views on the Role of Young Parliamentarians in the Regional Cooperation during the 4th Memorial Lecture of the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh at Pondicherry University in India in April 2019.

 

With Indian Professors & Scholars

Many a time, the experiences and works in the Parliament were unceasing and limitless. However, the need and expectations from the people kept me moving and made me stronger day by day; turning me into a representative they always saw in me.

As important as it was, working with the parliamentary group was challenging and learning. It was difficult to balance individual views and the concerns of the constituents with the discipline and platform of the parliamentary group that may share contradictory views.

While working with the dedication and determination, my two years journey in Parliament tested both my strength and weaknesses. Sometimes it kept me awake beyond midnight, learning and hearing the voices of the people. But I have always had my constituents and nation in my heart that kept me pushing until today.

With Constituents of Gasa

Getting into parliament was the best option to be part of the solution. However, more needs to be done to solve issues concerning the daily lives of my people and the country at large.

Last, but not the least, I remain forever grateful to His Majesty for what we have today and for steering the Nation towards the 21st Century with assured peace, security and prosperity. Moreover, our heartfelt gratitude to our His Majesty the King for tirelessly leading our country’s effort to combat COVID-19 pandemic and granting unprecedented Kidu to all the affected citizens.

Thank you.


Climate Change-induced Risks from GLOF in Bhutan

Climate change is a global concern today. It is hitting us hard, and that is due to an insatiable desire for so-called ‘unsustainable development; a concept propagated by some western thoughts.

Bhutan has already felt the impact of climate change and more than 17 events had occurred in the 19th century. The glaciers in the Himalayas; the world’s greatest repositories of snow and ice are retreating at a rapid pace. This has led to swelling of the glacier lakes and increasing risks to the fragile mountain ecosystem.

In Bhutan, 677 glaciers and 2,674 glacial lakes were identified. Of the total lakes, 24 were considered potentially dangerous (Mool et al. 2001). Over the past two centuries, we have experienced more than 20 glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF).

Four outburst cases were reported in the last forty years (UNDP 2013; Seth 2015). Significant GLOFs occurred in 1957, 1960, 1968, and 1994, devastating lives and property downstream (Komori 2008; SNC 2011; UNDP 2013; Sangam et al. 2015).

The threat of GLOF still looms large in the Himalaya. Bhutan has been acutely aware of its vulnerabilities due to climate change and frequent seismic activities. One of the recent GLOF events in the region was the outburst of Lemthang Tsho (lake) on July 28, 2015, and the breaching of subsidiary lake II of Thorthormi Lake on June 20, 2019.

Asian Development Bank highlighted that the glaciers of Bhutan, which covered about 10 percent of the total surface area in the 1980s, are an important renewable source of rivers in the country.

There are four major lakes located in Lunana namely-Thorthomi, Raphstreng, Luggye, and Baytsho. Thorthomi and Raphstreng are two of the 25 glacial lakes in Bhutan that pose serious GLOF risks. Pho Chhu sub-basin is the most vulnerable valley in terms of GLOFs (NCHM 2019).

The past records heavy damages on properties, livestock, and settlement because of GLOF incidents. The 2008 UN reported that Himalayan glaciers would melt within 25 years. In 2009, the rate of glacial melt in Bhutan was three times the world average.

Over the previous three decades, regional temperatures had risen by 2.7 °C (4.86 °F). According to the US geological survey report, 66 glaciers have decreased by 8.1 percent in the last 30 years in the country.

The Thorthormi glacial lake is considered the country’s likeliest climate-induced disaster. The lake, perched at the height of more than 4,400 metres, is swelling because of melting ice and is in danger of bursting its wall (www.downtoearth.org.in).

There are other external factors like earthquakes, avalanches, and falling of rocks, which have a triggering effect besides glacier retreat alone.

It was observed that Thorthormi is not a fully formed lake. It’s under the forming stage. Small ponds of melted glaciers are converging into larger lakes gradually. Just below Thorthormi, divided by a large moraine wall, lies the Raphstreng Lake.

It is evident from the NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, 2009, that the moraine wall, which divides Thorthormi and Raphstreng, has a vast ice body at 80 meters depth. Scientists have raised concerns over the structural strength and stability of the moraine dam.

Studies confirm that Thorthormi Lake and other ponds in the Thorthormi glacier are expanding. The landmass is said to be shrinking by the year. Recent satellite images show the unsteady moraine dam is receding at an alarming 30 to 35 meters every year (www.downtoearth.org.in).

The moraine ridge will not hold forever, and that Thorthormi will spill over into Raphstreng Lake one day. The convergence of the two lakes could trigger a major GLOF (www.bbs.bt). If this happens, the water from Thorthormi would spill over to Rapstreng and both lakes might burst.

In the worst-case scenario, the convergence of Thorthormi and Raphstreng would cause severe floods that would affect regions in Punakha. The GLOF is expected to be three times more than the 1994 GLOF, according to a report from the third pole.

It would threaten communities of Lunana, Punakha-Wangdue district, and others in the downstream. The majority of Bhutan’s population and infrastructure are concentrated in the broad river valley and the climate-induced GLOFs would cause significant human and economic devastation.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says half of the fertile land in Punakha and Wangdue valley will be submerged underwater. Punakha Dzong and much of Khuruthang could be submerged too.

The melting of ice at Thorthormi Lake caused an increase in the water level by almost two meters (www.drukgreen.bt). This incidence has prompted the government to issue a nationwide flood advisory last year.

The research further indicated that any significant disturbance on Thorthormi Lake could result in a GLOF, potentially with massive cost to life, property, and infrastructure.

Currently, the moraine dam has sufficient mass to withstand the hydrostatic (water) pressure from Thorthormi Lake. However, the local hydrologist raised concern that if the melting continues due to a rise in temperature, the moraine will not be able to hold.

If the two lakes combine and cause a GLOF, it will travel much faster this time because the river channels have already been cleared of debris and other hindrances by the 1994 flood.

One of the worst situations for Bhutan is a combination of a heavy rainstorm and GLOF happening at the same time. This could also have serious implications across the border downstream in India.

The countries in the region will have to rethink both disaster preparedness as well as infrastructure development (www.thethirdpole.net).

Climate change as a global concern is already impacting millions of people all over the world, making lives more vulnerable. The hardest hit in the world is the people living in developing countries like Bhutan.

A significant portion of the country’s revenue is derived from hydropower that involves considerable investments and requires sustainable water resources. The GLOF poses a direct threat to the economy since Bhutan’s core revenue rests on hydropower. The revenue from hydropower export to India constitutes 40% of the country’s revenue and it is expected to increase to 60%.

Two of the most significant hydropower projects in the country, the 1,200 MW Punatsangchu-I and 1,020 MW Punatsangchu-II, built downstream the Thorthormi Lake, will be in grave danger, and the biodiversity in the region would be affected.

What is more worrying is that the government has prioritized the construction of the 2,560 MW Sankosh hydropower project along with the same river system (www.thethirdpole.net).

GLOFs also possess risk on crucial development sectors like agriculture and forests in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, according to The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Agriculture in Bhutan provides livelihoods and employment to more than 75% of the population. The majority of the people practice subsistence farming on small marginal lands holdings. These are extremely vulnerable to flood impacts.

According to National Geographic, the Himalayan Mountains is home to the third-largest deposit of ice and snow in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic. It was warned that the Himalayan region could be facing an epic disaster between extreme heat waves and reduced water flows from the Himalayas.

Today there is a need for a societal awakening and to spend a significant part of the economy to avoid the catastrophic risks we are facing.

The 1994 GLOF was the catalyst for the need to establish an early warning system (EWS) giving downstream inhabitants time to evacuate (www.hydromet.gov.bt).

The Flood Warning System in Lunana is a crucial part of GLOF risk mitigation efforts. Early warning sirens have been set up and safety evacuation zones identified along the Punatshangchu and Pho Chhu basin.

The first automatic GLOF Early Warning System was operational since September 2011. The early warning systems are only to help us minimize the damage to lives and property.

Artificially draining the lake is one method of reducing risk. Preparing hazard zone maps of the downstream region to study the impact of the flood and several efforts have been undertaken to mitigate GLOF risks.

A three-year project to lower the Raphstreng lake water level by four meters was completed in 1998. A similar project was carried from 2008 and 2011 at the Thorthormi that saw 17 million cubic meters of water drained out from the lake.

With the risk becoming severe daily, the government is now looking to step up monitoring of temperature in the Thorthormi area by installing more sensors.

Without required measures in place, the lake outburst would have far-reaching impacts on the settlements, historical monuments, and hydropower, the most. Therefore, we need to be more sensitive to GLOF risks.

Having said that, in my capacity as a water resources engineer and decision-maker in the Parliament, I have made a site inspection to Raphstreng and Thorthomi Lake during the Constituency visit in October 2019 to observe the ground reality.

Despite my limited knowledge of climate change and its related impacts, it is evident that the GLOF is real, it is going to happen eventually and we should always be vigilant, as per my observations at the site.

Therefore, reducing climate change-induced risks and vulnerabilities from glacial lake outburst floods should be our priority and address the adverse impacts of climate change.

Studies revealed that there is a need for proper risk management practices, which starts from the identification of critical glacial lakes and to prioritize in-depth investigation.

As a long-term adaptation, Bhutan should prioritize water resource management, diversification of energy, climate proofing of hydropower and infrastructure, agriculture diversification, and awareness, among other things. Advocacy to cope with health risks, enhancing preparedness, and understanding of GLOFs triggered by climate change should be focused.

The Impact of Bhutan’s impending climate disaster in the future will be far more significant unless the government prioritizes the above-mentioned disaster mitigation efforts.

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are those of the author’s own unless cited and concerns shared as the responsible people’s representative.


Revamping the TVET system in Bhutan

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and skill development pose a serious challenge, particularly in countries with rapidly evolving labor markets (ADB 2009).

Recognizing the importance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in the overall socio-economic development process, the Royal Government of Bhutan had introduced the TVET system, right from the mid-1960s in the country.

Despite considerable investments made in the TVET sector over the past decades, it still faces significant challenges in terms of access, relevance and quality of skills in the wake of a rapid socio-economic transformation of the country.

The TVET is still a less preferred option for most youth in general while at the same time, TVET graduates continue to face difficulty in upgrading their educational qualification and career advancement. These factors have further aggravated the problem of the weak TVET system.

The National Council during the deliberation on employment policies, programs and strategies in its 16th Session had highlighted the need to conduct a comprehensive diagnostic study on the current TVET system. However, since the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources was in the process of developing a TVET Blueprint, the review work was shelved temporarily.

The issue on the need to review the TVET system in the country surfaced once again during the 3rd National Council’s retreat held at Paro in July 2018. A 5-member Special Committee for TVET was constituted to conduct the review.

The Special Committee conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with stakeholders and referred numerous documents such as TVET policy, reports, plan documents, TVET sector assessment reports, TVET Blueprint, etc.

The Committee submitted the Interim Report to the House during the 22nd Session of the National Council. The Final Report was submitted during the 23rd Session of the National Council where the House had an extensive deliberation on the report. 

Following are the key highlights of the report:

Currently, there are 797 trainees undergoing training in eight institutes including two Institutes for Zorig Chusum (IZC). The minimum entry qualification for the courses offered in Technical Training Institutes and Institute for Zorig Chusum is class X certificate holders. Of the total 153 trainees, 111 have diploma qualifications, 32 have a degree qualification and 10 trainers with a national certificate. 

Although the Bhutan Vocational Qualification Framework (BVQF) has been established to enhance the quality of vocational skills and to provide definitive career pathways for the vocational trade practitioners, a considerable gap remains in the effective implementation of the system. 

The Institutional linkages between the Vocational Training Institutes and the Industries are weak. 

The officials providing TVET support services in the Ministry are often bogged down with bureaucratic works that could partially be blamed for not being able to provide focused and timely professional TVET services, particularly in the fields of research & development, curriculum review & development, and professional development for instructors/trainers. Moreover, the civil service system’s strong emphasis on educational qualifications has created limited opportunity for most of the TVET instructors in terms of their career progression in the civil service. This has inadvertently affected their morale negatively.

Despite the increased intake capacity in TVET, the youth opting for TVET courses are under-subscribed. There is also a weak linkage between the TVET Institutes and Industries as well as limited collaboration/affiliation with the institutes overseas. The lack of adequate financial resources is one of the main factors confronting this area.

After extensive deliberations on the findings of the Committee’s review report, the National Council recommended the following to the Government:

  • To establish a TVET Council with members representing relevant sectors & TVET experts, and a TVET Sector Skills Council. 
  • To develop TVET HR Policy with a dedicated HRD budget for the professional development of instructors, including the provisions for recruiting experts with specialized expertise in the TVET sector.
  • To diversify areas of training programs and enrich the current curriculum that will impart soft skills. 
  • To strengthen industrial linkages so that it provides better employment opportunities for the TVET graduates as well as to ensure the relevancy of skills training to the labour market.
  • To provide adequate budgetary support to the TVET sector.

The Government of the day supported the yearlong TVET policy review carried out by the National Council and gave light to the Council’s recommendations.

Transformation of the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) should be the primary focus of the labour ministry, and the rest should follow, Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said at the review of the agency’s annual performance agreement on August 5, 2019.

To develop and revamp the image of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in the country, a TVET Interim Office was established in Thimphu on March 17, 2020. 

The team comprising of five members will officially work towards the formation of an autonomous agency related to TVET. Leading the team as the Chief Executive Officer is Kinga Tshering, former Parliament member, who graduated from Harvard Kennedy School in recent years for the TVET Reform Initiative.

The team will have to report to the Prime Minister’s Office during the transition period until it takes off as an independent organization.

The Government pursued TVET reforms, since last year, following the Council’s recommendations. It had two expert groups working on the new curriculum for skills and competency relevant to the 21st century, and ensuring the governance structure of the revised system.

The team led by the new CEO presented follow up on the Councils Review Report on the TVET and held a brainstorming session on TVET Reforms on April 16, 2020.

Under the dynamic leadership of the newly appointed CEO, we are hopeful that the TVET system will grow to a greater height and we are proud to be part of the reform and to be working towards a common goal of the nation.

If Education is the key to Economic Development then TVET is the master Key to Sustainable Development. ~Dr. Prof. Shyamal Majumdar. 


We cannot breathe in peace unless we electrify Lunana

It gives me immense pleasure to share that the plan to set up a mini-hydropower plant in Lunana looks positive. I learned from my visit (October 10, 2019) to the site that pre-feasibility study of the project is completed.

The Government has allocated 7 million in the financial year 2019-2020 to conduct DPR of the project. 

Since people of Lunana had raised this issue consistently during my constituency visit, I asked Honorable Prime Minister about the need to provide power supply for the people of Lunana in the 23rd session of the National Council. The response was positive and hopeful. 

With such a level of commitment from the highest authority, I am optimistic that project execution will begin soon. 

Lunana Gewog under Gasa Dzongkhag has five chiwogs with 13 villages. Over 1000 people are residing above 3,500 metres above sea level. Only one community, Ramina is connected with the road in the gewog, and it takes over one week to reach Lunana on foot. 

There is no electricity power supply, as it was not feasible to extend grid electricity to Lunana. The solar home lighting system is used to lighten Lunana today. Firewood plays a vital role in warming up cold high altitude homes and for cooking. 

The absence of electricity has led to depleting the limited forest coverage in the place, according to Druk Green Power Cooperation’s inception report on Lunana mini-hydropower project. 

An independent feasibility study conducted by Bhutan Power Corporation Limited (BPC) in 2018 established that a mini hydropower project of 300 kW is feasible on Chuzachhu – a tributary of Phochhu near Toenchoe village. 

However, the feasibility study recommended further investigations on the topographical survey for waterways and transmission line, geological and geotechnical investigations for major structure, and socio-environmental assessment, among others. 

Therefore, the Department of Renewable Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs (DRE) in its 12th FYP has provisioned to undertake feasibility and development of power supply to Lunana community. In this respect, DRE has assigned Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) to conduct the preparation of Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the mini-hydropower project in Lunana as deposit work within the current financial year 2019-20. 

A multidisciplinary team from DGPC and DRE has been deputed to Lunana to carry out site survey and investigation from September 9, 2019, till October 13, 2019. 

As per the inception report, the rapid river runoff at Toenche has the potential to produce over 415 KW of energy, which would be able to provide power supply to more than 200 households. 

The inspection report and survey also anticipated power demand of the Gewog at about 500 KW. Essential establishment of assessment was made and planned to carry out lean season flow measurement of Chuzanchhu, useful data to understand the power potential of the project is also in the plan. 

As per the report, the proposed project is expected to reduce the dependency of Lunaps on firewood, thereby helping to conserve the catchment area of Phochhu River, one of the ultimate sources of Punatsangchhu Hydro projects. It will improve people’s health and sanitation with the supply of clean and reliable energy for cooking and heating.

The report stated that appropriate environmental management plan would be formulated as part of the environment and social impact assessment of the project. The local people have shown strong support and anticipation of the project during the consultation. 

The proposed mini-hydropower project is expected to electrify 10 villages except for Wachey village (14 HHs) located on the other side of Kayja La pass (El. 4,650 masl). It has not been considered mainly due to longer transmission length and the requirement to cross the high pass. 

Based on the request of the Department of Renewable Energy (DRE), DPR study of Lunana Mini-Hydropower Project has been conducted by Druk Green Consultancy (DGC) in close coordination with DRE, for providing an off-grid electricity supply to Lunana community and institutions.

The total cost of the project is estimated at Nu. 605.24 million and Nu. 662.93 million without and with Wachey village electrification respectively at December 2019 prices.

Since the cost difference is approximately about Nu. 57.69 million, I would highly recommend the Government to consider including Wachey village in the proposed project instead of providing an alternative, independent power source in the form of micro-hydro (at least 33 kV). The comprehensive cost-benefit analysis needs to be carried out to choose the best option considering the reliability, long-term maintenance cost, human resources requirements and other related costs in the future.

Bhutan achieved 99.97 per cent of households connected with electricity as part of Bhutan 2020 vision document. The remaining 0.03 per cent constitutes 200 households in Lunana. To this, Bhutan Power Corporation’s chief executive officer said, while 99.97 per cent is as good as 100 per cent but we cannot breathe in peace unless we electrify Lunana (June 25, 2018, Kuensel).

Moreover, providing reliable power supply in Lunana was one of the major pledges of the current Government and should consider as the top priority in the 12th FYP. The feasibility study has been carried out recently and the detailed project report (DPR) was submitted to the government in January 2020, but more needs to be done to make a dream come true for the people of Lunana.

As per the report, providing basic amenities like reliable electricity in the region which are located closer to the national border, would encourage local communities to stay in their ancestral home which is strategically essential for maintaining border security and also discourage rural-urban migration. In view of the above all, the report highly recommended the government to consider the development of the project to enable socio-economic development of the remote communities located close to the northern border.

Having worked as an engineer and after visiting the precarious sites of Raphstreng and Thorthomi lakes in Lunana, the protection of the catchment and the need to reduce pressure on the environment has become crucially important. 

As the representative of the place and having experienced the hardships of the highland myself, I hope the last place remaining in the country without power supply would soon be connected with reliable power supply for the benefit of one and all. 

Thank you!

References:

  • Druk Green Consultancy, Project Department, Druk Green Power Corporation Limited. (2019). Lunana
    Mini-Hydropower Project Inception Report (p. 24) [Inception Report].
  • Druk Green Consultancy, Project Department, Druk Green Power Corporation Limited. (2020). 500 kW
    Lunana Mini-Hydropower Project Detailed Project Report (p. 21) [Detailed Project Report].

Looming economy uncertainty with COVID-19 outbreak but are we prepared?

Looming economy uncertainty with COVID-19 outbreak, but are we prepared for the Worst Case Scenario?

 

According to a Bloomberg report by Cecile Daurat, the global economy has started to feel the strain of China’s viral outbreak- and the potential $160 billion hit in lost growth may be on the way.

The COVID-19 outbreak presents the global economy with its greatest danger since the 2008 financial crisis that was considered the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression, according to the latest Interim Economic Outlook report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The outbreak did not spare the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and it reported the first Coronavirus case after a US tourist tested positive on March 6, 2020.

Although, Bhutan’s GDP is expected to grow by 5.7% in 2019 and 6.0% in 2020 (ADB, 2019) the economic growth this fiscal year may record at the weakest pace due to the global outbreak of pandemic COVID-19.

According to the Royal Monetary Authority’s Annual Report 2019, domestic economic growth slumped to four year low of 3% in 2018 from 4.63% in 2017, mainly due to successive decline in hydroelectricity power production and a significant fall in prices of both domestic and imported goods.

Economic growth has not improved despite the Government going slow with the investment in hydropower projects. The dependency on hydropower has weakened the private sector and made the overall economy vulnerable.

Since 2018, the Government has started to invest heavily in education. Despite the laudable reform, jobs available remain vacant while educated youth remain unemployed.

It is evident from the RMA’s Annual Report 2019 that despite the increasing working-age population, the labour force participation rate remains more or less constant. In 2018, a total of 185,694 potential workers stayed out of the labour force, mainly students (43%), attending family duties (28%) and old age (15%). The total labour force as of 2018 is 310,856.

Moreover, Bhutan Statistical Bureau records the unemployment rate in 2018 at 3.4% and youth (15-24 years) unemployment rate at 15.7%.

The external imbalance continues to reflect weak underlying economic fundamentals of high dependency on imports (including a large expatriate labour force), grant and aid-driven investment, and high stock of external debt.

The current account deficit deteriorated to 23.7% of GDP in FY 2018/19 from the previous year (19.5%). The widening deficit was contributed by an increase in trade imbalance, net service payments, followed by a decline in net primary and secondary income receipts (RMA, 2019).

Research shows that external borrowing continues to be the key financing source of development activities. The country’s debt has increased over the years. The share of external debt to aggregate output slightly increased to 112.4% in FY 2018/19 from 110% in the FY 2017/18.

In absolute terms, the total outstanding external debt recorded as of June 2019 stood at USD 2.73 billion (~Nu. 191.10 billion), an increase of 3.3% from the previous year. It was mainly contributed by the rise in hydropower loan and convertible currency loans from multilateral institutions. The 1200 Megawatt Punatshangchu Hydroelectric Project I commission was pushed to 2024 due to geographical surprises. It escalated the initial project cost of Nu 35 billion to Nu 93.7 billion (as of 2019) which is almost three folds.

As per the Pay Commission’s recommendations 2019, the annual implication of the pay commission’s pay hike is Nu 4.238 billion a year and 17.913 billion in the next four years. But, with the commencement of the Pay Revision Act of Bhutan 2019, the financial implication far supersedes the estimated value. It was included in the outlay of the 12th FYP, and it is to be financed by the domestic revenue. The significant sources of financing would consist of revenue from the commission of the 720 MW Mangdechu Hydropower Project.

As per the Public Accounts Committee’s Report, the Government still has a total unresolved irregularities balance of Nu. 1.037 billion. At the fiscal level, it represents about 2% of the total outlay indicating opportunity cost to the economy. Balance unresolved irregularities from the Annual Audit Report 2010-2017 are Nu. 1.031 billion as of November 2019 and the unresolved balance of Nu. 198.118 million pertaining only to MHPA for non-levy of liquidated damages for non-completion of construction works for AAR 2015.

The revenue loss to the Government due to new tax exemptions is Nu. 826.03 million. The Government’s additional revenue from GST at the standard rate of 7% (annually) with limited exceptions is 3.0 billion a year, but it will be implemented only from July 1, 2021, which violates Section 46B of the Public Finance (Amendment) Act 2014.

The Government’s proposed introduction of Sustainable Development Fees on regional tourists is expected to earn Nu. 933.56 million. However, due to the recent outbreak of the Global epidemic Coronavirus (COVID-19), the revenue generation through tax enhancement is likely to be lower than the anticipated amount.

As per the Bhutan Tourism Monitor (BTM) 2018 published by the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the tourism industry in the country continued to grow in 2018 contributing significantly towards socio-economic development through revenue and foreign currency generation and employment creation, amongst others.

A total of 274,097 foreigners visited Bhutan in 2018, which is an increase of 7.61% over 2017. International leisure arrivals grew by 1.76% to 63,367 over 2017 while visitors from the regional market grew by 10.37%.

There are a total of 271 TCB certified tourist accommodation service providers in the country comprising of 136-star hotels and 1,495 Village Home Stays (VHS). There are over 2,300 tour operators and over 2,400 guides and drivers catering to the needs of the visitors in the country today.

Bhutan Development Report 2019, published by the World Bank Group indicated that the tourism sector generates more than US$280 million (Nu. 19.6 billion) annually in visitor spending and accounts for more than 20% of non-hydro exports.

Taking these points into account and as far as political sensitivity and soft diplomacy are concerned, I am convinced that the Government has made the right decision by not imposing a ban on tourists’ entry until March 6, 2020, despite massive public outcry on social media.

However, right after the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case, the Government imposed two weeks restriction on all incoming tourists, to enable rigorous monitoring, source assessment of infection, mitigate the situation and for the safety of visiting tourists and public in general.

If the outbreak continues to spread, and the situation gets worse, the nation should be prepared for a possible economic recession and slump of economic growth in the FY 2020/2021.

The recent publication on the World Economic Forum indeed emphasise that a crucial role of Government is to protect the well-being of its people—most crucially and visibly during emergencies such as the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus. Governments have a role to play in softening the economic impact of Coronavirus and from spending on healthcare to business continuity plans.

As for now, let us follow the guidance of our farsighted King, have faith in our Triple-Gem, strictly prescribe to the health advice and render full support to the Government with solidarity. Being a bona fide citizen, in the spirit of One Nation One People, we would triumph over global pandemic COVID-19; collectively and stronger together.

“We must always stand united in spirit and purpose, and we must always be one nation with one common goal.” ~His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, 2007.

Way forward:

  • Government should Prepare a massive Economic Stimulus Package to protect the economy from COVID-19 impact
  • Government should Re-prioritise the 12th Five Year Plan if necessary
  • Interim measures through Monetary and Fiscal Policy such as Tax Holiday
  • Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited should ensure food security for the nation at all times as per their mandate
  • RMA to ensure that the international reserves remain at a comfortable level, sufficient to finance 13 months of merchandise imports as per the Article 14 (7) of the Constitution. However, reserve utilisation should be the Government’s last option
  • We should support the Government’s activities towards COVID-19 preparedness and response by supporting fundraising and through other voluntary contributions.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author based on existing information and literature review and do not necessarily reflect the position of National Council of Bhutan.