On the 50th Anniversary of the Foundation of Sherubtse, I wish the Royal University of Bhutan, teachers who taught, and are still teaching, there – and students and alumni a warm Tashi Delek on this impressive milestone.
It was on this day, 26th May 1968, that the Father of Modern Bhutan, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, planted the seed of a place that will be forever etched in many hearts, including mine – besides making a difference in even more lives.
Opening the school (then) His Majesty said,
“While religion alone had been adequate in the past to ensure happiness and well-being of the people, education has become essential in the modern world if independence was to be safeguarded and if it was to achieve prosperity”
Hopefully our people will never forget these words that sum up the essence of Sherubtse, and hopes of our King, which are forgotten or conveniently neglected that it pains me to the core as a citizen. I am not an alumni but I spent a wonderful year and half teaching there. It is a special place. Really.
Anyway, enjoy reading the full account of what happened on 26th May 1968 on this Kuensel report of 30th May 1968.
The Kuensel report also pertains to the opening of the Bank of Bhutan on 28th May in Phuntsholing where His Majesty stated that we should develop the habit of saving. Sadly we don’t do that even now.
The newspaper concludes with the Teacher Training Institute (now College of Education) inauguration in Samtse on 29th May 1968.
This headline might bring excitements in some people – and solace in others. A pay raise? Yes, of course, why not? It is about time. When was the last raise, anyway? With living standards increasing month by month – and not even by year-by-year, it is absolutely necessary. Right?
Well, think again.
Did the last pay revision leave us in a better position? I don’t think so. In fact, some of us might be in a worse situation than before. What guarantee is there then, that this time around, we would be able to solve our financial woes – once and for all? Are we not stuck in this vicious cycle of salary-increase-everything-increase zero sum game? Won’t it cause another spike in cost-push inflation of basic commodities in the market? I say we, although I am no more a civil servant but for much my working life, spanning close to 25 years, I have been in the government or in a government-owned corporation. I won’t be surprised if yesterday’s headline news has already prompted some house owners to increase the rent from next month. Jaigaon merchants would have acted on it for sure.
I started my career in 1986 with Nu. 875 as my take-home salary. And with that, not only did I have a comfortable life, I used to also send money to help my parents educate my two younger siblings and my cousins. My last salary when I left the government was Nu. 45,000. As a single-earner in the family, let me tell you that I was relatively ‘poorer’ than I used to be in 1986. Meaning, I had very little spare cash. Extrapolating my experience to the whole nation, it means that we have become poorer because the Ngultrum has lost in purchasing power. I don’t deny that 2018 is more convenient than 1986. But the cost of living in Bhutan is ridiculously high for the size of our economy that, at times, it can be very stressful for everyone.
Rich gets richer – and poor poorer
For some decades now, irrespective of pay revisions and so-called hydropower wealth, most of us are, in fact, stuck in the hand-to-mouth doldrums with no savings – and living under the illusion that we are better off than before, while in effect we continue to fill the pockets of merchants and manufacturers across the border. Offsetting the higher living cost through pay raise has as a matter of fact proven, time and again, to be a complete failure.
The gap between rich and poor is further widened with each raise. For example, 30% hike for a 5,000 basic salary is just 1,500. But 30% of Nu. 50,000 comes to a whopping 15,000. The same-percentage model is seriously flawed, as the new basic pay goes from 5,000 to 6,500 for a driver, and from 50,000 to 65,000 for a dasho, thereby increasing the already-huge gap even further. The grocery store, however, doesn’t discriminate between a driver and a dasho.
Furthermore, while the salary increase for many doesn’t even cover a week’s vegetable supply, for the high-income group it leaves a sizable disposable income. This liquidity triggers spending on imported goods and on foreign currency. Ever heard of the Rupee crunch? Now you know one reason why it happened. Meanwhile land price in core city area of Thimphu has shot up by 10,000 times between 1986 and 2018. A plot of land that I eyed in 1986 for Nu. 4,000 (which I didn’t have and so I did’t buy) is now valued at 40 million or 4 crore (US$ 600,000). It is cheaper to buy an island in Fiji than a plot in Norzin Lam. It is impossible for our middle-class to own a house in Thimphu, or in any major urban areas, with earnings from salary. Hence, the mass exodus of educated Bhutanese people to Australia and the others to New York.
One more point.
If the same-percentage model creates disparity, a flat-rate-for-all is not the solution either. It narrows the gap, no doubt, between the highest and the lowest earners, but the cost-pull inflation will still be there, as traders and house owners will raise the market price of goods and services.
The answer to the rising cost of living is not another pay raise for civil servants.
The way to go about is to control the inflation and house rents and also to subsidize some 10-12 essential items that people need to survive – cooking gas, fuel, electricity, rice, flour, milk, egg, oil, chilli, tea, etc. This way the basic needs and a decent life are secured for everyone – including the civil servants, and the benefits of State resources are spread evenly across the whole nation – irrespective of whether you are a farmer, civil servant or a private sector employee. More importantly a better, regular and reliable public transport system needs to be introduced so that people don’t have to own, or use, cars. Whether it is done in form of a heavy subsidy or through public-private partnerships, this ought to be done – lest the much-touted revenues from hydropower export are returned to the sender in entirety for the petroleum products that flow in from there.
Of course, such bold moves will not necessarily translate into votes at the polling stations because it won’t be visible. Voters and politicians seek instant gratifications nowadays. Visibility is what we all care for – in this era of selfies and social media. Nonetheless, I have faith in my compatriots and hopeful that there would be leaders who will dare to embrace this inclusive concept without caring much about polls or promotions.
In proposing this, I am neither a genius nor crazy. It is tried-and-tested formula in many countries. In UK or France milk is cheaper than bottled water. Farm produces are highly subsidized there. In Italy bus and train rides are almost free. In Macau every citizen receives an annual check from the government when there is surplus budget or high inflation. Kuwait gives 75 liters of free petrol per month to every citizen. Even in India, from where we get all our inspirations, the Food Corporation of India takes the role of providing essential food items at subsidized rates, while house rents there are strictly regulated.
Market controls won’t be a novelty in Bhutan either. Some of these were in place in the 1980s. Those days the Department of National Properties would fix the rents of private houses after measuring the livable area. For instance, my rent for a two-room was fixed at Nu. 150, which was one eighth of my gross salary. Now more than 50% of your pay goes into rent. What a sin! Why was the DNP system discontinued?
Our own FCB – Food Corporation of Bhutan, had below-the-MRP food and home items sold and advertised back then (see picture below). But again, I guess, somewhere along, someone must have come up with a brilliant idea that FCB should sustain on its own because it is a “corporation”. In Bhutan, there is no such thing as institutional memory. It is shame that Dantak Canteen is cheaper than our own FCB. I ran into the current CEO of FCB some time back and he did mention about re-initiating those food schemes. Perhaps again, he must have lost out to the many cannot-do people that flood our government and bureaucracy.
Inequalities and consequences
The salary raise for 27,000 civil servants is funded mainly from the revenues from the hydro-power export. Firstly, isn’t the country’s wealth supposed to be distributed more equitably as per the Constitution? Or does it say anywhere else that it can go to a select few? Do we continue to spend 60% of our annual budget on 4% of our population? And we have the audacity to criticize our youth, and Bhutanese people, for jumping into ‘white-collar’ jobs in the civil service only. It is not enough for the government fall back on free health and education while dishing favours and gifts to a small section of the population, which is so apparent.
Secondly, our market is largely state-driven and hence the civil service, and whatever happens around it or in it, has huge bearing on the economy. This aspect is often underestimated, sidelined or not understood at all.
The thing to note is that history has not tolerated existence of large social gaps, and glaring haves-and-have-nots. This can be really dangerous for a nation. More so now when information and fake news travel from finger to finger without passing through the brain. That’s why in Japan, the ratio between the highest and the lowest salary is maintained at less than four. And that’s the reason you don’t hear about “poor Japanese person”. They don’t exist in a country of 130 million. In Bhutan it used to be around 8 times in 1986 but has drastically gone up to 30 times with the last salary hike. As a consolation we are, of course, much better than the Americans whose top CEOs earn as high as 400 times compared to their lowest-earning employees. This is one single big reason why Trumpism has stormed over the US. The glaring social gap that I saw there was the reason why I predicted that Donald Trump would win when he announced his nomination.
In conclusion, if we still decide to go ahead with the pay raise for civil servants, please do not forget to re-read this post after a decade (with few more raises by then) and ask yourself, if you are better off. I can bet anything that you won’t be – and lesser still will be those who are not in this rarefied and privileged world of civil service.
Conversely, how about that we all benefit equally? Maybe some of us will get lesser than anticipated but we can all be better. And above all, above all, the most important thing is that, we don’t have to take anybody’s drin (favour) as a nation.
1. I have not mentioned the negative impact on the growth of the private sector by civil service pay rise each time. It might sound more as a sour grape but the fact is, the salary increase in the civil service has clipped the wings of the private sector. Ask anyone from BCCI.
2. Not to boast but when I handled the pay raise for BBS in the early 2000s (we had to do our own because we were SOE), we went for a flat rate and not on flat percentage. Low ranking staff in BBS, especially, still remember me for that even to this day. TA/DA for drivers were raised to the level of junior officers on the argument that drivers have the same human body and physiological needs.
3. Look for the genesis of Arab Spring – as your homework. It was not for political change, as Western media put it. It was social inequality
4. In Japan, once you reach retirement age, if you have contributed to Pension System, you get retirement pensions. If you have not, you still get a small Social Pension.
The massive investments in connectivity – of roads and air links, that the government has undertaken in recent years is perhaps the best thing that has happened in Bhutan in recent memory. I hope this continues to the next decade. Coming from an era when it took me once 13 days to reach Tashigang from Thimphu in 1982*, it gives me a chucklesome and nostalgic smile that now you could do it in a day. Not only.
With good and reliable air and land transport systems, trade, commerce, manufacturing, and movement of goods and services will ensue. If we can get these basic infrastructures right, people and businesses will organise themselves and progress on their own without the need for much hand-holding or dole-outs by the government. Malaysia boomed after they emptied their state coffer and put all their bet on the north-south highway in the late 1980s.
Complemented by the recently-launched RMA’s priority lending schemes, I can even foresee some decline in the rate of rural-Thimphu migration within the next few years – but only if we can keep this pace and wisdoms in action. The immediate aim of the national road network project should be make all dzongkhag centres within one-day driving time from the capital or from the country’s only international airport. This would not only enable access to the biggest market for local produces but also secure the country – and bring the nation closer.
The new highway
The construction of the newly-opened Gyeposhing-Nganglam highway itself was an impossible dream to begin with. The road will, firstly, benefit lower Mongar and Pema Gatsel of places such Kengkhar, Jurmey and especially Gongdue, Yangbari, Mikuri, which happens to be the poorest region of Bhutan. My immediate thought was, at least, the farmer I stayed in Gongdue Pam would now be able to sell his oranges which were rotting on the tree for lack of market. They can now dream a better life.
News reports, social media comments and vox populi have lauded the highway for the faster access through, and to India, for the three dzongkhags of Pema Gatsel, Mongar and Lhuentse. I would rather think that the bigger catch is that we are connecting the two districts of Pema Gatsel and Samdrup Jongkhar directly to Thimphu – inland.
Isn’t it high time that our mindset is inward-looking and not outward-seeking?
More than the region
The Gyalposhing-Nganglam highway will not just benefit the people in the region but the whole kingdom if our people get little more innovative and dare to dream. For example, a closer look from the Google Earth suggests that the Kuri-Gongri is probably navigable between Yangbari and Panbang. It flows gently from East to West (see map above) in that stretch instead of rushing down from north to south. Yangbari is flat and has enough space for a domestic airport. That region can truly develop as the winter getaway of Bhutan. Hopefully we can delve deeper and explore into the range of opportunities offered by the new dynamism that has just been created beyond the hydropower project planned there. This highway and the beautiful airport that was reopened at Yonphula few months back should excite people more than just as another front page news.
Gyelposhing – Nganglam highway, therefore, is not just another road.
It is a celebration of the impossible achieved and a consecration of the possibiles that are poised to emerge. I guess, the significance of the good things to come is best symbolised by His Majesty the King gracing the inauguration in person – and blessed by the universe with the magical and auspicious halo that appeared around the Sun on the day.
My homage to all those who worked, and are still working, to make these dreams a reality.
* My fateful 13-day ordeal. Day 1 – Thimphu to Chukha (landslide near the bridge). Day 2 – Chukha to Sorchen then walk to Phuntsholing with the luggage. Day 3 – Phuntsholing (no bus ticket). Day 4-6 – Phuntsholing (Ticket yes but Assam strike. Highway closed). Day 7 – Phuntsholing to Barobisa and turned back (Wrong information. Strike still on). Day 8 (Phuntsholing. Driver didn’t want to go). Day 9 – Phuntsholing – Samdrup Jongkhar. Day 10 — Samdrup Jongkhar (no seat on the bus again). Day 11 – Samdrup Jongkhar to Narphung (traffic closed. Flooding near Moshi or Tshelingkhor). Day 12 – Narphung to Khaling (bus broke down). Day 13 – Khaling to Tashigang. Finally home
My earlier two posts on food garnered a huge response. I am bit surprised because I thought that I was giving out obvious facts and information. In this article, I will delve into the red rice not only for its nutritional value but also for its broader sociological and national importance.
The red rice
In terms of nutrients and minerals, red rice is way ahead of white rice. Among others, it is rich in antioxidant called anthocyanins, which gives it the red colour. Now antioxidants are important because our body produces toxic materials such as free radicals. Free radicals causes, among many serious health conditions, the most dreaded cancer, while also altering our DNA. So eating red rice could help in reducing such risks. Red rice is also a source of magnesium, which our body loses and we need to replenish. Magnesium helps in preventing migraine, blood pressure, muscle spasm and cardiac arrests. Magnesium also regulates the calcium in maintaining healthy bones and teeth, and prevents risks of arthritis and osteoporosis. Red rice has more fibre and so it goes easy with our digestive system. Eating red rice, therefore, is much healthier as compared to eating white rice or puri-roti.
However, our rice production, and red rice in particular, is under threat from rapid urbanisation. Farmlands are going away at an exponential rate. In the best case scenario, we will still be producing, but a decreased quantity of red rice that will make this important resources inaccessible to the mass. Isn’t this bit crazy? Now against this background, it is imperative that our paddy fields in Paro, Punakha and Wangdue, the heartlands of red rice, are protected against so-called urban development.
Protecting our farmlands
Now one might think of private owners as the defaulters when we talk of uncontrolled development. Well, that’s not always the case. In fact the biggest defaulter has been the government. Just look at Changjiji in Thimphu where thousands of acres of farmland were turned into public housing. Was it not possible to build those on the slopes above Samizingkha? Similar destructions were happened in Khuruthang (Punakha) and Bajothang (Wangdue). That may be in the past. Gone. But there is now an attempt to repeat the same blunder in Paro where a large area in Hungrel Gewog (the area in the picture) is declared as Thromde. Was there a real need or a political greeds here?
My own village, Pam, in Tashigang and my land in Rangjung went down to this urbanisation madness. My poor aunt was enticed by promising higher price for the land, unrestricted loan from the banks and water, drainage, bright street lights if our village became part of the township. “Merbu nangka rang cholay mo?” (do you want to stay in darkness?) was the argument given by the proponents from Dzongkhag administration.
How many valleys and villages do we want to destroy in the name of development? Is this development by any definition? What do we eat if we replace the rice fields with concrete jungles? Cement? Japan has 130 million people but since 1952, not an inch of paddy field has gone into so-called development. Rice fields are protected by law. Ours is protected too but it seems in Bhutan the government is above the law, which is weird. If the intent is to protect rice production, whether the defaulter is government or private, the damage is the same. In China, some farmlands in Yunan and Sichuam are protected as national heritage sites. Shouldn’t we too? Protect Paro and Punakha as natural-national heritage sites?
The sociology of rice farming
Loss of paddy fields will not only affect the production and the price. There is far greater consequences to these unscrupulous actions.
Asian societies are celebrated for cohesiveness, community and collectivism where we are all live, work and grow old together. There is a growing acceptance among sociologists that one factor that influenced our collective mindset is our culture of rice growing. Rice farming requires many hands to come together during plantation as well as in harvesting. This forces people to be in social harmony and avoid conflicts and confrontations – as far as possible. By and large, communities stick with one another – because of this interdependence nature of life.
Now imagine if all farmlands are gone. Not only we would suffer from food shortage, the essence of being Bhutanese, where life revolves around the concepts of mutual trust and dependence is gone. In any case how much can we depend on the cheap unhealthy imports?
If we lose our sense of community, we will become like any other western nation – individualistic, capitalistic and profit-oriented where human relations will be purely transactional – and where every man is for himself.
I am not sure this is what we want. Or what GNH stands for.
Kharang (grained maize) was the traditional staple food in much of Eastern Bhutan until the recent decades. However, rice took over as we got “modernised” – so to stay. And the shift has been total. Because rice was eaten by the rich and affluent, everyone who moved to a better living condition hit the rice.
For some time now, though, I have turned back to including some kharang in my diet. The initial decision was mainly to stay connected with my aunt back in my village. My aunt felt a great sense of joy when I asked her for some kharang supply on an annual basis. I also bought kharang from farmers along the highway in Mongar to support them.
Recently I stumbled across interesting facts and benefits of eating kharang on the Internet. First of all, kharang digests slowly as compared to rice and so you don’t feel hungry or the urge to eat again. So for someone past 40 this is good because you easily gain weight as your metabolism declines.
Kharang also releases sugar slowly into your bloodstream, thereby saving you from becoming diabetic. Of course this works only if you don’t eat in heavy amount. Then, kharang, has less calorie, which is a good news for weight watchers. It has all the minerals and vitamins and higher Vit C content. This will boost your immune system. Lastly, it has less carbohydrates (this is important because all excess carbs are turned into fats and sugar in your body).
Furthermore, I have some serious doubts on the imported rice in terms of heavy metal content and pesticides. Excessive and uncontrolled use of pesticides and insecticides by Indian farmers* is in the news and all over the Internet. You can google for them. So instead of getting slowly poisoned, I suggest that we slowly include our own safer kharang from Eastern Bhutan.
Besides the health benefits, our dependence on imported rice would decline as rice growing in the country is becoming increasingly difficult for farm labour shortage. Maybe then we will be bit closer to our national goal of food security.
The rumour of khekpa* (head hunters and kidnappers), a myth I used to hear as a child, has again surfaced and caused panic in Eastern Bhutan. This is simply ridiculous, upsetting and unacceptable. In fact, whoever spread this rumour is criminal. The Royal Bhutan Police and the Department of Law and Order should investigate this thoroughly and put them to task – whatever might have been their reasons – and reassure the public once and for all. As western-educated adults we may laugh it off as a trivial but among the illiterate rural folks and children in boarding schools, the fear is real. Authorities must step in to restore the calm and peace.
With the country heading for another round of parliamentary elections later this year, the air should be cleaned of such nonsensical mood. We will have enough to worry or be fearful about in the second half of the year – where among many things I expect fear will again be a tactic used to sway votes.
Our perception of fear
Besides the unfounded rumours, our response to fear is something worth looking into. Why do we panic? Why do we go frenzy and irrational when we hear something that might threaten us? The answer is not simply that we are gullible. It is biological and evolutionary.
Fear is the time-tested tool that has been used by corporations, interest groups, political parties and those in power as modes of persuasion and to control the population. This is because our over-reaction to fear is biological. Our brain is composed of three main parts – the inner core, and the oldest part, is called the reptilian core, which provides us our survival instinct. Then there is the limbic layer that controls our emotion, motivation, memory and learning. The outer core is the neocortex layer, which was the last to appear as humans evolved from reptiles to apes to homo sapiens. Neocortex guides our cognitive abilities. To put it simple, the basic functions of the three parts of our brain are to regulate our fear, desire and logic.
When we see or hear any danger, our reptilian brain kicks off and takes control of the whole brain, shutting off the limbic and the neocortex cores. What happens is that we can neither feel or reason out at that instant. It is mother nature’s way to protect us from any threats to our survival. Say you are walking in the jungle and you hear a noice, your reaction is to fearbe the worst and protect yourself. If you are doing the same forest at night, every tree becomes a ghost and every twig looks like a snake.
This discovery of how our brain reacts was however used by politicians and public relations experts to further their own benefits. Nazism was built around the fear of jews, gypsies and the foreigners. The whole American gun industry is built on the “need to protect” yourself and your family from the enemy, which paradoxically includes the State and the government too. Edward Barney, the father of public relations industry, used female emancipation to be free to sell cigarette to women, which then simply doubled the number of smokers in the US. The whole capitalistic marketing campaigns are now either based on fear or desire.
Two examples are:
“Do you know that tuberculosis kills more than HIV/AIDS? Vaccine your child today”,
“Research shows that men are more attracted to fair-skinned women. YYYYY guarantees you a super white skin in 14 days”.
These types of advertisements still rule our world. No TV commercial is based on logic or rationality.
Danger of living in fear
Prolonged exposure to fear, anxiety and distress over an extended period of time, however, will have severe negative effects and consequences. They stress our brain and leaves an indelible scar. The persistent doses of negative stimuli, in the long run, then could manifest in violence, cynicism or distrust of each other. The deaths from guns in the US can be explained by this theory. People easily get ticked off for nothing. What is happening in the brain, is that over such a period the reptilian brain is getting larger than the neocortex. By the way, our brain expands and contract from our birth till our death. It doesn’t stop growing like our other parts of our body but the growth of one layer often occur at the cost of the other layers.
With modern technology and lifestyle age-old myths are supposed to die. But it seems the possibilities of sharing rumours on WeChat has proved otherwise. Hopefully we can put to rest such fear-inducing rumours.
* NB – to parents and educators
1. Khekpa, apparently is a mispronunciation of Khetpa, which means people from the village of Khet – a settlement in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. In ancient time the village, it is believed, was one of the most backward that practiced sorcery and robbed and killed Bhutanese traders. In other words, they we were barbaric. However, Bhutanese people exaggerated and also stereotyped them as child kidnappers and head hunters. Today the village is affluent with road, electricity, hospital, schools etc and welcomes Bhutanese. However, old myths are hard to die – especially those instilling fears.
2. Do not use fear tactics to discipline children. It does moreharm than good – often leaving a childhood trauma. Besides, they will never respond well to, or respect, your demands and requirements. Aim for the neocortex brain by trying to reason out and explain the logic and consequences instead of emotional black mails and fear tactics. No child is to small to understand the consequences of their actions.
May 3 is the World Press Freedom Day, whatever that means. As a former journalist-broadcaster I assume it is a day of celebration of the modern mass media. So, let me share some quick passing thoughts on this industry that has hosted me for over three decades.
The Bhutanese mass media in the pre-2008 era served a different purpose and thus, any comparison with today’s media is not even remotely possible. Although there was the move towards an autonomous media, which gained momentum after 1998, the development communication model still prevailed. The other comparison often made used to be between Kuensel and BBS that served different audiences with different levels of education and exposure.
What I can share, nevertheless, is what was it like to be a media person. Let me say that it was anything but glamorous. No one knew what the purpose of BBS was – other than to play songs and weather report of the day that was already gone. We also worked under a different kind of pressure from every corner of the officialdom – being a part of the government machinery. It was as if everyone had the license to scold us. To our credits, though, we did our jobs well and since people had to find faults anyway, even trivial mistakes like not getting titles or designations right were objects of ridicules and rebukes. I was even criticized officially for not wearing woven gho on TV (My passion for navy gho goes so far back in time).
While development journalism was the model we adopted in BBS, it was still journalism nevertheless and slowly we crawled into the area of truth-seeking and highlighting developmental issues. We worked hard, had fun, stood our ground when we were right and apologised when we made mistakes. And gradually we won the confidence of the government as people around the country started talking about same topics or singing the same song. Still, getting people to come on shows was more difficult than making your child take antibiotics. So the talk-show format, which is common these days, failed twice before it finally succeeded when we made a third attempt with Q&A with Dorji Wangchuk. The series ran for 112 episodes from 2003 to 2005.
Sometimes we went hungry when we miscalculated our food stock on long production trips in rural areas. No mobile phones, no ATMs. Sometimes we walked out of office under the scorching Sun or a pouring rain to get a 30-second recorded statement and rushed back to the studio to meet the deadline. No enough cars, no complaints – only some childish sense of delights to hear yourself on the radio or bully your friends and family to watch you on TV.
In the greater scheme of things, though, we played our part. The TV talk shows planted the seeds for political debates while Kuensel’s editorials and reportages set the culture of public discourse and scrutiny of public policies. The efforts of both the BBS and Kuensel – joined by new voices such as Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer in 2006 laid the important democratic fundaments as we headed to the polls for the first time in 2008. Furthermore, radio, continued to bring the country together every evening for a round of news, public service announcements and programs ranging from new farming techniques to music request shows. In fact the slogan, which my friends and I coined for BBS back then, was Bringing the Nation Together. They changed it later to a less meaningful, The Bhutanese Expression. In the pre-cellphone era, radio requests went something like, “This request goes from Dorji in Thimphu to his parents in Minjay Kurtoe that he is coming by bus on 3 April and to send horses to pick him from the road head.” We did bring the country together.
Nation-building is a process whereby a society with diverse cultures, traditions, languages, ethnicities and religions come together towards a shared common goal and aspiration. Mass media, I always believed, is a great tool to help achieve it. In creating a shared experience of watching and listening to the same news, same songs and speaking the same language, we kept the nation glued together from Tendruk to Tashigang. Until then, I assume, everyone returned home when the Sun set – to their own lives, issues or ara bottles. And those who had a radio, listened to foreign broadcasts. In fact, as late as 1985, my last schooling year, we were listening to All India Radio and Radio Nepal and singing Bollywood songs – and had absolutely no idea of what was happening in Thimphu or elsewhere in the country. Looking back I feel proud to have been part of the team that turned that huge tide around – and thus helping to create a sense of nationhood and national identity. While BBS and Kuensel targeted different audiences, the key message was the same: we are a Bhutanese nation.
In my opinion, no other agency has done more than BBS to propagate Dzongkha, the national language.
Media today plays the dual role of nation-building and creating a public space for meaningful debates and discussions within the overall process of democracy. The traditional Bhutanese media – radio, TV and newspapers, however, face a new set of challenges brought about by the changing time, contexts and circumstances. New emerging power centers may be exerting new kinds of pressure, while the existing powerful bureaucracy and its closed mind-set has primarily remained as it is. Then there is the discerning and more demanding public that has set an unrealistic benchmark by watching CNN or NDTV.
The increased demand is further aggravated by the fragmentation of the audience by the social media and mobile phones – making the traditional media look slow, irrelevant and outdated.
However, what the public and the government need to understand is that there is a huge difference between noise and information, and between information and message.
The social media is too much noice with very little information out there – let alone the message. For example, what is the message from all the Facebook updates and outpour of love and gratitude to teachers? What remains of the big celebration that we had yesterday in Changlingmithang, which through the marvel of technology, I could watch the livecast – some thousands of miles away, here in Macau. This is where the good old traditional media comes in. They provide the message and that is, that the voices of, and for, the teachers are finally being heard. Left to the social media, we would got only selfies without any substance.
Journalism is a profession and behind every profession there is either art or science. Journalism has both. It is a serious field.
Hence, one should not live under the illusion that Tweeter feeds, Facebook updates and Snapchat flashes suffice as information – lesser still as the message. If one does that, one is headed for a serious existence ridden with with superficiality and shallowness.
Finally, the audience should be careful with the basic difference between activism and journalism and between hate speech and free speech. These untoward behaviours have found a fertile ground in the social media. And under no circumstances the traditional media should dance to these tunes.
The way forward
Good journalism remains an absolute necessity to create a vibrant mass media, which in turn, as a cliché goes, is an important element of a strong democracy. This is vital in this era of a pervasive and noisy social media and fake news. Local populations can be swayed by hostile foreign powers or corporations. Of all the countries, the US has learnt it the hard way in recent times. After a spell of euphoria of the new media and death-of-newspaper narrative, agencies like New York Times and Washington Post have registered a million plus new subscribers in the first year of the current administration.
So much is being done in our country to build the necessary democratic institutions so that our experiment with this new system of governance succeeds. However, I don’t see a vibrant democracy happening with a weak media or an inexistent civil society or academia. Imagine a hypothetical situation where the government and the people are on polar opposites? It is not improbable. After all, as I pointed out on a FB update, ‘If you put two Bhutanese together these days, you will get three opinions.” There is the need to build a strong third voice to bring the two to the middle ground. Most importantly, in the era of post-truth and fake news, traditional mass media as a credible source of information should be further developed, sustained and celebrated as a national institution – and not scoffed at or scorned upon as business entities
There is a real threat to the harmony, security and sovereignty if the whole population gets its news, and form their opinions, from the social media. Not to mention the potential of mass manipulation campaign that can be conducted by foreign powers through Facebook and other SNSs – as it has happened in the US and UK.
Now, it is not nation-building anymore. It is national security.
Another issue that will never go away will be press freedom and censorship. Here, media persons in Bhutan should not assume that just because the Constitution guarantees freedom of press, that people will let them do their job. What is written on paper remains on, well, paper. One has to claim the space or keep asserting. It is like land records. Having the thram is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient one to own a land. If you don’t occupy your land, you will lose it – because someone will encroach in it.
Finally, media and democracy are a process. It is continuous journey and dynamic undertaking of contestation, negotiation and compromise. It will be in the hands of the new generation of media persons to forge the new purpose as per new societal demands and changing circumstances. It will be a difficult choice, though – between credibility and visibility, between depth and trivial and between social and substance. Old hands, like me, can only advice.
The Bhutanese mass media has, all said and done, come a very long way and has fulfilled its fair share in the overall process of nation-building, democracy and development communication. In the age of DTH channels, BBS TV continues to galvanise the country with programs such as Ngagay Drendur and Druk Superstar. Meanwhile Kuensel keeps playing the role of the nation’s conscience.
There is every reason to celebrate this day.
(Disclaimer: Having grown professionally in the broadcasting world, my article could be more biased towards BBS. However, I am pleased to say that I am working on the roles and contributions of Kuensel and the film industry on the discursive construction and creation of national identity. More on the contribution of these agencies in future articles and academic papers)
May 2, 2018 – Today is the birth anniversary of the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, – the Architect of modern Bhutan. I never saw His Majesty – but heard countless and beautiful stories from my father – who briefly served as his chauffeur.
This one is my all-time favourite.
His Majesty the King wore mathra namza (red-patterned traditional wear) – most of the time. Apparently, he had very few of them, which he wore over and over again. He was never into pomp or personal property – preferring to live a very simple life in a cottage by the river near Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu.
On one of his State visits to India, the Indian minister-in-waiting noticed that he wore the same pattern of namza every day. So on the third day, the official remarked that the King must be really in love with the pattern. He asked the King how many of such ‘dresses’ the King had carried on that trip. The King replied that he had only one – the one he was wearing. The Indian official was shocked.
His Majesty’s humility and materialistic detachment were beyond that of a Bodhisattva. Another story that I uncovered, and have published before – pertains to the passport where His Majesty mentions his ‘profession’ as “government service” (picture above). This is a far cry from an argument that I overheard once at the Passport Office, where a young MP was gently demanding if his title, “dasho” or “honourable”, could be added to the passport. On many occasions when I was in the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, I was also thundered with angry telephone calls and visits by senior officials because the news did not mention their honorific titles.
As we celebrate the 90th Birth Anniversary of our Third King, Bhutanese people should reflect, at times, on their own demands and desires, which often are at the expense of the State treasury. There is so much craving for bigger pool vehicles, grander offices, lavish official dinners, foreign travels, etc. If His Majesty’s legacy and reputation are of any lesson to us, it is that such things don’t really matter in our performance. One’s humility and intents to genuinely serve might be able to generate legacies that are worth remembering. If the Late King’s lifestyle is history, look at our Fourth King. HM is here, in front of us, showing the way. Recently, I saw HM walking near Dechephu with no bodyguards, attendants or vehicles.
In the last photo below, the Late King is seen barefoot. According to Late Dasho Shingkar Lam, who worked as King’s Secretary, His Majesty when serving as Drongyer (Guest master) to Second King ate from the common mess with other retainers. He also took the blames and punishments on behalf of palace attendants who erred. His Majesty would tell then that it was better that He received them. He went about barefoot in the palace compound and vicinity – and, at night, slept on the hard doorsteps of the Second King’s chamber – with no blankets or carpets whatsoever to get some warmth.
On this Teacher’s Day, my prayers and wishes are that our educators impart service and humility in their daily lessons and assignments – so that our next generation would be really humble, civil and simpler. Don’t just celebrate him. Emulate!
My generation, whether we like or not, is too old to learn new tricks.
* (My father was a royal chauffeur for His Majesty – before he was commanded to drive for the Crown Prince and the Princesses. For the longest time he served HRH Ashi Sonam. He was later sent to BGTS by Ashi Sonam. My own entry into modern education happened as a result of a royal command that His Majesty passed to my father – “to put your children in school”. Otherwise I was headed and prophesied to be a monk)
(On the eve of the Teachers’ Day, I repost an article I wrote long time back to celebrate my life as a student, which brings back memories of my school, college and teachers who shaped me to who I am today.)
As a student in Dewathang Polytechnic in the early eighties, I was the eternal third in my class. One Indian lecturer who was very fond of me would keep repeating, “If only you gave up your sports and other distractions and be more regular with your attendance, you will come first! And you have to stop being naughty and stop going around with those naughty boys.”
We may have been mischievous or naughty, no doubt, but we were never vicious, violent or crooks or criminals. We had fun – so much fun. It was part of growing up. But we never hurt others or ourselves – physically or emotionally. We were only adding colors and spices to the otherwise monochromatic life of Dewathang – that consisted of long and boring lessons of endless calculus and calculations, not-so-bad practical workshops (I liked them better) and an unpredictable weather (I hated this the most). In doing so, we kept everyone happy in our vicinity. We induced wholesome education on ourselves by organizing class picnics, archery matches, sports meets, chicken hunting, eating competitions, film nights and trekking expeditions. During annual concerts, we would entertain the whole town. Namgay Retty would be at the drums, Sonam Wangchuk was good with his guitar and Dorji Namgay and Phuntsho Wangdi (Kado) would croak some Beatles numbers and I always thought I was better than Kishore Kumar and Elvis put together. As we often rumbled the hostel room, Tshering Nidup, Deepak Kulung and Dawa Penjor would be our only audience clapping and joining in occasionally for the chorus. Then one by one the whole hostel would be in our room until the warden would come and issue another “last” warning at midnight. Our captain, Rinzin Namgay, would get reprimanded for not stopping us. We would appease him by promising to talk good things to a girl he was courting and who later became his wife. They are still married.
We were all broke most of the time although we received a pocket money of Nu. 20 per month from the government. With that we would make the best use. Our night-outs would sometimes be walking 22 kilometres to Samdrup Jongkhar and then walking back after watching the night show. We felt a misplaced sense of achievement to be able the sneak out and sneak back unnoticed. You can never cage the youth. Their energy far outstrips any rules or regulations. It is biological – not about being illegal.
Being fit more than a fish
And like all boys of our time, we were martial art enthusiasts and fans of Bruce Lee. We took to Karate from an Indian master with, of course, pathetic results – except for Dorji Wangdi, whom we still call Bolo (from the character in Enter the Dragon). He was good. But our Karate lessons got us out of our bed early. It helped boost our physique and self-confidence, especially with the opposite sex, and no one dared mess around with us. And me, once, pursued by an angry villager, after a routine raid on his orange orchard, I discovered that I could even run fast. So when the annual sports day came, I went on to set few short distance records to the amazement of the college cook who became my fan and served me with bigger portion of food. I was always starving back then.
Dorji Namgay was the undisputed table-tennis and badminton champ and together with Sonam they made up the doubles team. He was also a good footballer and with Tshering, Deepak and I, we were probably the best defense the college football team had ever seen. Even teams from Assam feared us. Namgay was always in the first six of the volleyball squad and also played the spare goalie and did all the fights with the referee. Dawa was the top basket ball player – and never missed a lay-up – and a marathon champ.
We studied too
Of course we did attend classes too – to meet the attendance requirement. But we were more interested in things that would be more useful for us as practitioners in our professional life. And if there was something we really hated was what those so-called “good” students were good at – rote learning every lesson (at times without understanding the meaning). Those “good students” would never argue with teachers and would be submissive at all times. We couldn’t that take that either. But our system, however, was on their side. Because they could reproduce ad verbatim what was being taught, they scored higher marks and were commended. They were often referred to as “tip top” students. Whereas we were classified as “the naughty boys”, because we often asked too many questions or pointed out too many calculation mistakes made by the lecturers on the blackboard. Later as a university student in Italy we were mandated to ask questions. In the West a questioning mind signified urge for knowledge and intellectual growth. It was a culture shock that I had to overcome – and I did.
When lessons got boring, Namgay, who was a gifted artist, would sketch the lecturer – instead of taking notes. He would pass around the khaini supply for the day. Dorji and I would blow up test tubes and create explosions in the chemistry lab to the point that one lab assistant was specifically deputed to keep an eye on us. But weren’t we told to “experiment” or to try out new things? And Deepak would always copy my test results that after a while I starting making two sets of lab notes: one for him and one for me. Kado, Kumba, Kharka and Mukti often came to my room to revise the day’s lessons. I would have understood what the lecturers taught. And in making them understand too, I realised much later, that it was better than studying alone. Those days I was only trying to help my fellow classmates. Good begets good. And not everyone learns at the same pace. As a return favour, they would support me by bunking the class en masse, when the teacher was not on time. The good students would sometimes try staying back but we would bully them out somehow.
Breaking the norms and conventions
While the good guys followed every norm, we questioned, gave suggestions and deviated from all conventional wisdoms. In fact when we made to the senior class we made sure to mingle with our juniors and to party together. We often skipped classes to go swimming and fishing by the river. We visited all the houses and temples in the college vicinity, trekked to far off villages like Orong and even hitch-rode all the way to Shillong in India. We ventured into new territories and we made new friends (but not babies). Such experiences as students made us less cynical of other people as we grew older. Human management and public relations became our second nature. Our mental horizon was always open to accommodate more options, seek more opportunities and explore all possibilities. Finally when we got employed, we opted for jobs and careers that best suited our aptitudes and our strengths rather than yield to peer pressures. We were always ready to experiments but without causing explosions this time.
Life, I guess, is like a video game. As years roll on, you move to the next level. As students we had our time. Then we moved on to the next phase. Those “good students” remained what they were – as good students. More than two decades and half later, most of those “good” students haven’t made anything much with their careers. The “naughty” boys instead faired little better. The world changes so fast these days. Existing conventions and solutions do not address emerging problems. You need to grow out of them – not try constricted inside.
Dorji Namgay went on to become one of Bhutan’s first hydropower engineers – leading and successfully building the Basochu Project phase II in a record time. He worked as the managing director of STCB and managed to turn around a company that was given for dead. Namgay went on to do masters in architecture in Australia and after completing his obligation with the government he has now become a “tip top” filmmaker, animator and consultant architect. He has received four national film awards including two times for the best director. Tshering is the district engineer in Monggar and Phuntsho a divisional manager in the BPC. Sonam made a name for himself by building Thimphu’s only sewage line. And Dawa Penjore became a successful businessman in Trongsa after a short stint in the government. We lost Deepak but I am sure wherever he is he would humming some Cliff Richard number.
Rolling stone gather more moss
A popular saying goes that ‘a rolling stone gather no moss’. But I say that a rolling stone gather more moss. Be that stone.
The most important is that one should be happy and content. As for me, I am the one who made more experiments with my career – as compared to thers – from engineering to documentaries to journalism and to managing the media relations for His Majesty the King – and finally entering the world of teaching and research.
If I could relive my life, would I do all these again? You betcha!
University of Macau, April 2018 – The module is Qualitative Research Methods and the class is undergraduate studies in communication. One group, mainly composed of Chinese students from Macau, decided to choose the topic of Bhutanese wedding culture as their mid-term assignment, and so I put them in touch with their peers in Sherubtse College. Several emails back and forth and Facebook messengers later, the assignment is turned in – done very well, following all the steps and tools of the qualitative methods.
One of the findings reads:
“In Eastern Bhutanese, they only had a bottle of Ara with the couple and then finished the wedding, it was pretty simple.”
As an Eastern Bhutanese I couldn’t help laughing at my wedding culture, which is true. And I will laugh whenever this line comes to my mind