Health supplements and food

I see many of my friends on the social media sharing newsfeeds from questionable sources on benefits of this or that plant, miracle foods, health supplements, weight-reducing stuff, fat-burning creams, etc. I would them to be very careful with these things. Some may be genuine but most are either fake or commercial stunts.  

Every human body is different

One basic thing to remember when it comes to healthy living is that our human body is extremely complex and what worked in some countries or people, may or may not work in your body. In some case, it could be dangerous too. For example, quinoa gave me diarrhea when I once ate it. I guess my body didn’t recognize this magic food. Or I suppose, I don’t have the enzymes to break the quinoa into energy. Then there are scientific claims that they have been experimented on rats or guinea pigs. We are neither rats nor guinea pigs. 

My simple approach to food is, whatever we (me and my ancestors) ate in the last 5,000 years is good. Something from a distant land could be tricky.

The detox myth

Human body is also very strong and resilient and can absorb quite a large dose of toxins, which we consume without knowing – like from pesticides, food colorant, packaging, etc. So, go slow on all these ads and websites about detox-week, detox foods, etc. I am not a medical doctor but I suppose that if there are toxins in your bloodstream, you die. If there isn’t, there is no such thing as detox either – unless of course you are a drug addict or an alcoholic. There is a nice article in the Guardian on this.

Like wise there is no such thing as lose weight. You burn fats and that has been achieved in our country through active lifestyles in the farms and not by drinking a magic portion. Now with urbanisation only way is to leave your car and walk up the mountain every morning and eat healthy. 

Get professional advices

By the way, for those living in Thimphu and the major towns, you can visit the nutrition specialists for advice. You need not be ill to go there. Get professionals to suggest what is good and what is bad. Not the Google and not the TV. Make use of our free medical services. The nutritionist will get your medical history, check your BMI, and prescribe you what is good and what is not good for you. I did that few years back.

And don’t forget, we also have the Traditional Medicines in our free public health system. Visit them if you really want to know which plant to eat to lower your blood pressure, or to keep your diabetes and heart diseases on check.

Above all, have more confidence in your own body. It is gift.

Three approaches of my life

(Transcript of my talk in Zhemgang Central School)

Well, let me start by saying how humbled I am to be asked to speak to you. I am neither a VIP nor a celebrity and so I must apologize to you for ruining your Sunday. I suppose, now, I must also do some justice after getting this honour.

I had a topic in mind, which I always share with school students wherever I go. It is about finding your passion and purpose in life. But after getting here and looking around, I see myself in you – a poverty-stricken boy that I was – of some 30-40 years ago. So, let me share my own childhood story that somewhat resonates with yours. Hopefully, it will inspire you to make a better world for yourself and for those around you.

Unlike what I am today, I grew up in a very poor family. We lived in a hut and our only priced property was a goat. As a child, I remember complaining about being hungry all the time. And so, when I turned 7, I was packed off to a boarding school in Phuntsholing Kharbandi, where the government provided everything from food to clothing to basic needs. There our life was hard. We slept on bug-ridden beds and ate worm-infested food. We woke up at 5 in the morning to study, pray, clean our campus, have breakfast and go to class. The academic part ended by mid-day and after lunch, we had to go to our respective workshops where we learnt tailoring, carpentry, sheet metalling, welding and so on.

For much of my school life, I also went barefoot – with Bata slippers at the most – or a pair of converse shoes that the school provided, which lasted for few months. We were all poor and so we didn’t mind being that way. Now, when I look back I cherish growing up poor. I thank my parents for the poverty. It hardened me like a steel. It taught me valuable life-lessons – to be empathetic and to identify with the down-trodden. It taught me to be a good human being.

I completed my school in 1982 and I was sent to work in a factory in Gedu. Two or three months into my first job, I realised that, although I was paid well, it was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and so I ran away to Thimphu to try for further studies. After waiting patiently at the door of the Department of Manpower (which had just been renamed as RCSC), for a week in freezing winter, I got admission to Dewathang Polytechnic to study electrical engineering. From there I went on to do advanced studies in electronics engineering in Italy in 1988. The generous scholarship to Italy also improved my economic situation. I could not only take care of myself but I also helped my parents bring up my two other siblings and three younger cousins – and build a house in Thimphu.

I returned from Italy in 1995 and I had a comfortable job as an engineer in BBS. For many a government job is the dream and destination. For me it was a platform to do more – do new things – to leave a legacy. I proposed introducing FM radio – which has better signal quality. You guys are too young to remember how badly BBS Radio sounded in those days. But FM was a hard sell because some foreign consultants had concluded that FM radio was unsuitable for Bhutan. I knew that it was not true and I challenged that finding. After successfully testing the FM technology, we introduced in the whole country starting from 1998. After FM, came the TV project, which faced another big challenge, as His Majesty the Fourth King had earlier shown some reservations on introducing television in the country. We all know that the King’s words are sacred, but I always believed that circumstances change and the prevailing context was that we required to bring in TV and Internet, which we ultimately did in 1999. In those years, I worked 16-18 hours a day on average. I worked with the laborers at site. I led the technicians to do installations on high towers. I pitched tents and lived at the construction sites.   

I resigned from the government in 2006 after my career hit a wall. Just two weeks after I won a big international award for one of my documentaries, I was barred from making them. Instead of sinking into despair and lament, or fight a losing battle, I decided it was time to move on – and away. So, I pursued an independent life of filmmaking and journalism. However, in 2009 I was called back into the government again, in the service of His Majesty the King. I was there for four years – until 2013. That was the zenith of my career – an honour and a dream of every Bhutanese. My whole family, friends and I are still very proud that I have been through that.

After I was relieved from the palace, I offered myself to teach in Sherubtse College as a temporary teacher – gloriously known as adjunct professor in university parlance. There I discovered yet another world, in teaching and research.

I know you all dream of being successful in your life. If you define success in terms of being able to do things that you want and thrive too, then I must say I had a successful life. Today as I reflect on my life, there are three things I can draw from there – which I define as my style and approach. For, success and happiness start with one’s approach and attitude. People talk about nepotism and corruption. I had neither a powerful uncle nor did I indulge in corruptive practices. If I have been successful regardless, so can you.

Here are few things that may come handy.

First, learn the fundamentals.

In my career I have recruited, groomed, mentored and taught hundreds of Bhutanese. One shortcoming that we all seem to have, irrespective of our profession, is that we don’t learn the fundamentals – the basics. We let shortcuts and ego take over our learning. When I watch BBS today, I find that some shots are not even framed well. If you look into our private sector, we see lots of businesses failing because owners can’t keep proper accounts or read balance sheets – and salespersons lack basic courtesies. Whether you are, or you want to be, an engineer, a teacher, an architect, a footballer or a medical doctor, you must learn and master the fundamentals. If you don’t, you will find no success or meaning in any profession you choose.

I have done many things in life. I was trained to be an engineer all my life. But when I moved to documentary filmmaking I picked up the fundamentals of camera works, scripting, editing and directing. Since I am now in teaching and research, I decided to go back to classroom to learn the basics of research and methodologies. In all the things I did, I can say that I have achieved some level of “success” – whatever this word means.

As for you, at this stage, if you want to be an engineer in future, you need to be good in maths and physics. If you want to be a doctor or a vet, you need good foundations in biology. If you want to be a writer, you must perfect Dzongkha or English. In short, learning the fundamentals means learning the basics. If you don’t get your basics right, you will be an average – or below average.

Being average… is the second thing I want to talk to you today. If you look around and observe what most people do, they do what is just expected of them. Many people don’t even do that. They are below the average. You are more than 300 here today and if your Principal has to pick some of you for some rewards, he wouldn’t know whom to choose. But let’s say, among you there are students, who do a little more. These students will be noticed. As life gets more competitive, you need to be noticed from a sea of average candidates. The same advice goes to teachers who have joined us here today.

If you choose to be an average, if you don’t do anything more, if you don’t take initiatives, if you are just conforming to the norms and conventions, if you don’t take some risks, you won’t get very far. You will have to struggle for a job, for a promotion, for a scholarship or for recognitions. You need to stick your neck out. Now this also comes at a cost. Our society demands conformity and does not tolerate initiatives or criticisms. So, the choice is yours. As for me, I have chosen, and choose, to stick out. I know everything wasn’t always easy or rosy for me. The ride has been bumpy at times, to put it mildly. But if I could rewind my life, there is nothing I would do differently.

Yes, always do a little more. Plant a tree, clean a classroom, water the garden, pick up a garbage without your teachers asking you. Form this habit at your age.

Last, is about moving forward

I am sure many people must have showered you with all the promises of paradise. As a country, yes, there is no reason to be pessimistic. We live in a blessed land. However, as you live your life individually – like as you grow older, get a job, start a family and move forward in your profession, you will be faced with challenges and obstacles. Since your teachers and your elders have taught you how to succeed, let me tell you how to navigate your way out of disappointments, envies and enemies that will come your way – together with achievements, accolades and guardian angels. What I want you to always remember is to look forward and say to yourself, “OK! What next? Where next?”.

We, Bhutanese, have the habit of nagging on something that has gone wrong. Move on!

You know, in my life I have made mistakes too – a lots of mistakes – some were very big. But they only served to remind me that I am a human after all. The most important thing is to learn from them, never to make the same mistake twice and to move on. So do not kill yourself, if you fail in something.

On the other hand, do not celebrate too much or put on added arrogance if success comes your way. Do not behave like you descended from heaven – like some of my own friends do. You will actually learn that success and achievements are not necessarily good. They attract envies and jealousies. You must also know that despairs and disappointments are not necessarily bad either. They reveal who your true friends are.

Therefore, whatever happens in your life, promise me one thing – that you will always move on.

Let me conclude by also reminding you not to forget to have fun. This is a golden age. As you study and prepare for your life, have as much fun, make memories and as many friends as possible. After this, you will have to get down to how best to serve our King and Country. 

Much of what I remember when I was your age was that I used to be my Principal’s worst nightmare because I was mischievous and fun-loving – always up to something. But unlike some youth of today, we never touched drugs or alcohol or attempted suicides. Please stay away from these things. You can have fun without indulging in drugs or drinks. They don’t bring any lasting joy. But they put an end to your parent’s happiness.

So, to wrap up, again, three things – learn your fundamentals, stop being an average and whatever happens with your life, just keep going forward.

I wish you all the best that our country, your life and the world, have to offer.

~~~~~~~

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On the hot seat. It is always challenging to inspire others.
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With the principal and teachers of Zhengang Central School
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Some teachers came to receive me at Wangdigang with tea, momos and biscuits. Thank you again. That was so sweet of you all.

Reflections on the three elections gone by

With the 2018 polls way behind us, and with three elections on our back now, it is time that we reflect on how an important element of our democracy project – the electoral process, could be fine-tuned as we moved forward. It is my assumption that 10 years is long enough to take stock of what works – and what doesn’t, and shed-off few things while taking off new things. If democracy were a human, it would be in its teens – a formative period where serious reflections – and directions and definitions of one’s life, occur.

I also assume that nothing – at least not the man-made laws, are cast in stone. Democracy and elections are a means towards our greater and long-term aspirations and interests as a nation. They are not ends in themselves. I must also add that what I propose here are neither new nor extraordinary. I am sure in many forums these topics were deliberated and hammered. My intent here is to spark off some fresh discussions in public domain – as debate and discourse are essential lubricants of the engine of democracy.   

While acknowledging the achievements – and the selfless works and sacrifices of many individuals and institutions, let me go straight to two issues that, in my view, warrant some thoughts, scrutiny and analysis. There maybe other issues too but in my opinion, these two need some attention.

The allocation of Parliamentary seats

Currently, all the seats in the National Assembly (NA) are allocated through the first-past-the-post system whereby each candidate, including the party president, must contest and win his or her seat. This winner-takes-all system is not the only way. In fact, it has several undesirable outcomes that could theoretically happen.

First, what if one party wins almost all the seats in the Assembly? A parliament without the Opposition Party may not give the political legitimacy of a parliament. Further, the situation could pose a grave threat to democracy as well as to all State institutions, as the Ruling Party has the votes to do anything. According to Article 35 of the Constitution, a simple majority is enough to move a motion for constitutional amendments – and three-fourth of the total seats to amend it. The Constitution is a sacred, but not an unamendable document, as some people like to believe. With the support of seven more members from the National Council, the Ruling Party could amend the Constitution or even challenge the Royal Prerogatives. While this scenario may seem remote or very unlikely, it is not a theoretical impossibility.

Second, the first-past-the-post system has the drawback that a party president or key members of a party could also fail to win their seats. This happened in 2008 – where a party president lost his seat – and in 2018 where a key member of DNT couldn’t win. While so far it has not caused any major power vacuum, it is possible that we could get to a situation where the president of the winning party loses – and, also, has no capable leader to head the government or key ministries.

Third, this system does not always reflect the popular choice – which is what democracy is all about. In 2008, the People’s Democratic Party won 33% of the popular vote but had only 4.4% of the seats in the National Assembly. On the other hand, this system could also result in a situation whereby a party wins the popular votes but not the majority in terms of seats – and thereby lose the chance to govern. In this case, we could have a government by the minority – which is another theoretical possibility.

The other method of parliamentary seat allocation is through proportional representation. Given the above, our electoral laws need to be reviewed and consider a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation system. While retaining the existing 47 seats through majoritarian method, we can reserve few more seats in the National Assembly to reflect the proportional votes. Consequently, if, for example, a total of 6 seats are reserved, the party that wins two-third of the total votes could be allotted 4 additional seats, while the remaining 2 seats would go to the other party – that has won one-third of the total votes. So, even if a party wins all the 47 constituencies – plus has received two-third of the popular votes, it will get 47+4 seats. The two remaining seats from the proportional allocation will go to the other party. This way there will always be the Opposition represented in the Parliament. Besides, the overall popular votes are reflected in the Parliament.

The mix system would also rescue the key party leaders by putting them in the House, even if they fail to win their seats. This way any potential power vacuum is averted.

This system has been in place in many democracies – especially in the Scandinavian countries – which are constitutional monarchies like Bhutan. Obviously, it is not the best system and it has some share of issues. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as ‘best’ electoral system. Hence, it is worth to think about it and carve one to suit our own needs and realities.

Do we need party workers?

If the post-2008 era has given rise to one significant challenge, it is the breakdown of communal harmony and personal relationships brought about by partisan politics. All over the country – and especially in Eastern Bhutan, villages and communities have been divided along party lines. The us-versus-them not only occurs during the election season, it spills over to the post-election period. In many places, like in my native village, the divide is never cured. In fact, they go on to taint the local elections and cast a dark cloud over the community and country – even after the election season has long past.

While there may be other reasons, and players, in this Great Divide, one group that comes into prominence – especially during the election cycle, is the party workers. Some are affiliated with genuine motives to play a role in this sacred endeavour called democracy. But many are there to earn political favours – or to promote their own candidates by hook or by crook, which at times is scary. If party workers could stick to promoting their own party, it is one thing. However, it quite another story when they engage in mudslinging their opponents, carry out character assassinations, launch physical threats to people they don’t agree with and trade votes. And above all, even drag the sacred institution of monarchy into the murky game – which is totally unacceptable. These have happened in all the three elections.

The question, therefore, is: do we really need the system of party-workers? Why can’t a NA candidate cover the constituency alone, when a National Council candidate cover the whole Dzongkhag? A constituency is a subset of a Dzongkhag, which is much smaller in size. Can the Election Commission hold more common forums, so that there is no need for party workers? Another ugly practice that I totally detest is the door-to-door campaigning. To me, this breeds hypocrisy where people “promise” their votes to all the parties or candidates – and where secrecy of ballot is compromised.

Is it worth tearing ourselves apart?

One of the most important element of national sovereignty for Bhutan is the national unity. Owing to its geo-strategic location and size (let’s not even talk about our ethnic, cultural and religious diversities), there should be no room for systems, or for individuals, that divide people and communities. We cannot prevent people from partisan mentality but we can fix the system. It is in our hands. It is absolutely necessary that we think and remain as one – even more so in the era of Fake News and the explosive social media that can destabilise our nation and our society.

Ironically, we Bhutanese have short-memory – but only to go through the same hell – over and over again every five years. During the bitter election seasons, it is common to hear of political parties and candidates who are totally exasperated by the filth flying around. However, when it is over, the winner is happy to adorn to scarf and the sword and forget the bad times. In a way, it is good. But for long will our social fabric withstand without, one day, tearing everything apart.  

Hopefully, this set of parliamentarians will do something on the above in earnest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(This article was also published in Kuensel 19 Jan. 2019)

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Dzongkha – more than a language

Language is not only a medium of communication – in that you don’t learn a language just to be able to communicate with someone. Language is a bearer of culture and cultural values, it is a conveyor of feelings and belief systems. And language provides the key to unlock the social world around us. Simply put, if you don’t speak the language or speak well, you cannot fully appreciate the intrinsic aspects of society. Your understanding remains shallow at best – and culturally alienated at worst.

Above all, to draw from the famous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, language shapes our thoughts. And thoughts eventually dictate our actions. What this means is that the way a native English speaker thinks is different from someone who speaks Italian as mother tongue, who in turn will think differently than the ones who grow up with Dzongkha. In other words, the mind-sets of different native speakers differ – as per this theory. 

Therefore, it is quite worrisome that Bhutanese children – our children are deprived of a good grounding in Dzongkha because of the “shortage” of trained Dzongkha teachers in primary schools (Refer Kuensel article, December 25, 2018). This is perhaps the tragedy facing our national language – whereby an issue such this doesn’t raise any sense of alarm or uneasiness. I am a native Sharchopkha speaker and I learnt to speak Dzongkha in school. The role of schools in language education, therefore, cannot be overstated. 

In my current position as a communication scholar, one of the areas that I specialise in is sociolinguistics – a branch of communication that looks at how language does too, and shapes, a society. My concern, therefore, grows out of a deeper understanding of the role that a national language plays in the process of nation-building and the sense of nationhood. 

National identity compromised. Our goal of national unity and sovereignty will be severely compromised if the national language is accorded the second-language status – or if Bhutanese people do not speak well enough or take pride – to appreciate the richness of our culture, the importance of the social traditions or the taste for age-old folktales, stories and timeless wisdom. Both nation-building and sovereignty are a work in progress or a dynamic process – or both.

So, what can we do? What are the possible solutions? The following are what comes to my mind. Other social thinkers and commentators may have more or are free to add or diverge from mine.

Laws and policy. First, this is not an issue to be left to the Education Ministry or the Dzongkha Development Commission – although these agencies are at the forefront and can do more than what they are doing now. To start with, we need to move beyond the problems, mediocrities or blame-game and get down to some serious business. The issue warrants nothing less than a Parliamentary deliberation and perhaps an Act to protect and promote the national language – if there isn’t one already. The Act should, above all, require the Government to pour resources to this area – and not limit to mere tokenism such as requiring Dzongkha on vehicle number-plates or shop signboards. Rather, workable plans, programs and strategies to strengthen it should be formulated whereby we get to a point where Dzongkha is used widely with pride and pleasure. Only then we will be moving beyond the current state of affairs.

Certification system. Second, the promotion of the national language could expand to a certification system whereby anyone with the required skills and knowledge could become a certified Dzongkha language teacher. Everyone knows about the TESOL and IELTS certifications. The Dzongkha Development Commission could develop basic, intermediate and advanced Dzongkha Language Teacher’s Certification (DLTC) courses, which could be delivered by public and private institutions. Anyone thereafter who is certified can teach Dzongkha in schools or anywhere in the world. Similarly, a basic DLTC certification could be a requirement for certain jobs requiring a public interface. 

Such a system could open an industry of its own, which will then go a long way into popularising the language. Private language centres will mushroom and some people might even venture into foreign soils to teach Dzongkha to the Bhutanese diaspora. English, which is one of the most difficult languages with complex syntax, grammar and even pronunciation has become the most popular language in the world – thanks mainly to such aggressive campaigns. It didn’t happen just like that – or out of the blues.

New pedagogical approach. Third, systematic research needs to be done in earnest to further develop different pedagogical approaches to teaching Dzongkha. The existing rote-memorization-and-reprimand method may work within the monastic walls but not in a liberal education system. Besides, different native speakers have different ways to comprehend a new language and Dzongkha-teaching should factor these cognitive and linguistic realities.

Promotion through popular art. Fourth, the two agencies that have contributed immensely to popularising Dzongkha (besides the school education system) are the Bhutanese film industry and the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service. Could we inject more resources and recognition to these two institutions? Could we take a leaf out of the Korean wave, where over US$ 200 million is injected annually into the K-pop industry by their government? Why don’t we push what works instead of lamenting what is not working?

Lastly, Dzongkha should be seen as more than a subject. It should be viewed as an education in itself – by integrating and expanding to other skills and aspects of society such as art, music, history, culture, folktales and values education. Some of these are imparted as extra-curricular already, which is not enough. It is high time we develop further and move them into the mainstream.

In conclusion, let me also point out that in the past any public discourse on the promotion of Dzongkha has been countered with the argument to do it at the expense of English – our current medium of instruction in schools. To me, these arguments are lame excuses or non-starters. The Dzongkha-English debate is not an either-or case. I know many friends and colleagues who are perfect in both. Some are perfect in three or even four languages (Dzongkha, English, Sharchopkha and Bumtap). Swiss people are, for example, fluent in all three official languages – German, French and Italian – and some even in English. Some of the best Dzongkha speakers of my generation are from Mongar, Lhuentse, Bumthang or Trongsa. English is the language that we need to engage with the World – and engagement with the world, at the political level as well as through participation in a globalised economy and travels, is necessary to enhance and sustain our very sovereignty. 

The call for protection and promotion of Dzongkha, therefore, should not be equated to cosmetic jingoism or ultra-nationalism but as a genuine concern to retain an important element of national unity, identity and stability. For, Dzongkha is more than a language. It is our national language – one of the binding forces that will ultimately define our destiny as a nation.

 

Dreaming through New year eve

1.1.2019 – Nothing has changed in me as far as New Year Eve’s are concerned. For many years now, I have stopped making any big deal about. No remorse of the year that goes by and no resolutions for the year that sets in. New year Eve? It is just another night. Every night I go to bed being thankful for who I am and what the world gives me. Every morning I wake up to a new day of opportunity to something worthwhile or be of service to others.

Here is what I wrote in 2014

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I slept on the New Year eve. For two reasons:

First, I felt sleepy and regretted a bar-hopping invitation from a friend (it’s more than a year since I totally quit drinking anyway).

Dremetse, October 2009 – Sleeping in a earthquake-damaged
classroom during the Royal Tour

Second, and more important, for me no day is more important than another day. Any new day that I am alive and kicking is a new day and a new year for me. I welcome each day with a smile and a little prayer. I go to bed every night with the same little prayer and a wish – to see another day. Last semester on my return to Sherubtse from a foreign trip I resumed my lecture with, “Nice to be back with you. I had a helluva great time in Vietnam.” I paused and change my tone. “Actually, I have a great time wherever I am.” The class laughed. But I really meant what I was saying.

Still, every New Year is a time to reflect on the year that went by and a time to look forward to what life has in store for us – and for those for whom we matter.

But whatever has happened and whatever will happen, one thing is for sure – life will go on.

So I have one wish for myself (you may wish the same if you want) – and that I would be able to go to bed every night, say my little prayer and sleep well – without any worry, without any remorse and with a smile on the face looking forward to another great day.

Welcome to 2014, on that note.

Gup-drep Samten – a tribute to an icon

There comes in your life people who simply humble you with their knowledge, wisdom and eloquence – no matter who you are or how old you get. Gup-drep Samten, was one such man. Every word that he spoke, every story he told and every piece of advice he gave, were loaded with well-situated wisdoms and age-old traditions transcending the time and space. It is trait that I have rarely seen in an ordinary man. He never uttered more than what was required. And when he did, it was like he had an autocorrect software and thesaurus in his brain that edited every word that came out of him.

I first met Gup-drep Samten when I was researching on the legends and folktales of Punakha Dzong. His name was recommended by just everyone that I had asked around. The year was 2003 and I was directing the BBS production of the grand consecration of newly-renovated Punakha Dzong. I spent few hours interviewing him on the oral history of the great monument.

As years rolled by, I came to know his whole family through various associations of work and spiritual pursuits – plus a Sharchokpa-style relation when one of my distant nieces married his youngest son. For some time now he considered me as a part of the family. This new arrangement laid out more chances to go over to his place where I would just sit and listen to his wonderful stories and legends – of two rivers falling in love, of mermaids lumbering timbers towards Punakha Dzong and the myth of the giant meteor stuck near Punakha bridge. He also shared events of his life that had happened half a century earlier – with the finest details of a 4K high-definition camera.

However, all those knowledge and wisdom were not what made him a go-to-guy in Punakha valley. For me, it was his human side. It was the life he dedicated to the public service, which made him popular. Although he had no western education, he served as gup (county head) for seven tenures when there was no monthly salary as such. In his heyday, he was one of the first Bhutanese to be featured in US-based PBS TV documentary, Man of the People. He was also a pious man – donating part of his annual rice harvest to the monk body of Punakha Dzong for over 60 years. His genuine and selfless altruism – to go an extra mile to help anyone, made him a very special person. There is not a single adult person in Punakha district who didn’t know him.

My favourite story of his empathetic deeds, though, comes from another region – from the Oleps of Athang Rukha, a place in the Black Mountains and people that I have been associated with as a social worker for over ten years. The locals there narrates how they got their land as kidu from His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

It was the Year of the Dog (circa 1982) and two years had passed since we were not allowed to hunt or do tseri (shifting cultivation). We have been hunters-gatherers living off the forest since the time we existed.

We spotted this vast land left fallow in Rukha. We were told by the people of the neighbouring village of Athang that if we appealed to the King, we might be granted to settle here. So, our parents – six of them, went to Thimphu to try for the land.

After they approached the Gyalpoi Zimpoen (Chamberlain to the King), they were told that a No-Objection letter was required from the Central Monastic Body, as part of the land was their tsamdro (grazing land). So, our parents proceeded to Punakha.

When they were wandering around the Punakha Dzong not knowing where to go, a man approached them and enquired. Our parents told him that they were going to see the heads of the Monk Body – and gave him the reason. The man was shocked to see their conditions. They were neither dressed properly nor had a written application to be submitted to the Zhung Dratshang (Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs) – or carried anything with them as gifts. So, he said, “You cannot approach the lopen-zhib (the four Council members) in this condition. First, you need a written application (zutsi), and then some offerings of gifts. And you need kabney (ceremonial scarf) to enter the Dzong. If you go just swinging your arms. You will be shooed away at the entrance gate itself.”

Our parents were dazed and didn’t know what to do. They had literally come out of jungle and had no idea of such worldly decorum. Finding them totally confused, the man went again, “Don’t worry. I will help you. By the way, I am Gup Samten.”

He then took our parents to his house, fed them and hosted them for few days. Meanwhile, he wrote the application, borrowed kabneys for them and prepared gifts and presents on their behalf for the members of the Council. Then he led them to see the Dorji Lopen (vice-Abbot of Bhutan) and the other lopens – one after another – and got them to issue the no-objection letter. Then he prepared another application to His Majesty the King who gracefully granted the land.

After I heard this story from the people of Athang Rukha, my respects for Gup-drep Samten increased even further. Here was a true public servant, who didn’t think twice before going out of his way to help someone. It enhanced my confidence to help others without expecting anything back. 

Gup-drep Samten passed away peacefully – in his home town of Punakha near the Great Palace of Eternal Bliss (Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang) where he once served as Nyerchen-tsab (head of stores and finance). He was 88. Hundreds of people poured in – recounting stories such as the one above.

Days after the news of his death reached Athang Rukha, a group comprising of the sons and grandsons of those six men, travelled to Punakha to pay respects to him. This time they made sure to dress well and bring gifts too – of rice, vegetable, fruits, sugar cane, and whatever their land – which he helped get, produced. And the land on which they now have a home for some 22 households.

I have no doubt that this time Gup-drep Samten would have been pleased to see them – and not shocked.

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Gup-drep means ‘former gup’ (county head), a title which stuck with him because of his association with that position 

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Cultural identity

I am sharing a page from the book, Portrait of a Leader by Meiko Nishimizu, that has a compilation and some commentaries on the royal edits of the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

This page pertains to a Kasho (royal decree) issued in 1985.

While more than 30 years have passed, the topic of cultural identity will linger forever because culture itself changes bringing new opportunities as well as new issues and challenges. In other words, culture is not defined or cast in stone. This makes defining the cultural identity a moving target. Cultural identity is an unfinished business. In fact it will never be.

So this edict is timeless and I hope it will help to remind ourselves, reflect on it from time to time and discuss it.

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Education quality may not have decayed but…..

Quality of education in Bhutan may or may not have decayed. Without a credible research from an independent organization, anything that we say will remain as just opinions. Assuming that the quality hasn’t gone down, it is still a problem. Because the world has moved forward, while the education system hasn’t. Thus, the net result is that there is a gap. The education system is not capable of addressing the current needs. For example, some of the knowledge and skills needed now are things like social entrepreneurship, risk-taking, versatility, creativity and innovation. None of these are taught in schools – and not even as extracurricular activities. This is of course not to discredit the existing system from which we have derived benefits from. The point is, the next generation won’t benefit like we did.

I am fishing an old article from my previous blog that I wrote almost 10 years. In these ten years not much has happened and there lies the problem: our love for the status-quo, which is the source of all our woes.

Time for a paradigm shift in education?

Quality of education has been debated ad nauseam for years now but the recent article by the education minister and the debate in the parliament have made me interested on the issue again. Simply because it is a subject that concerns us all. I must admit that I am not an educationist but I feel obliged to join and contribute to the discussion. Quality of education stirs such a lively debate that even my uneducated father has strong views on the issue.

But what does ‘quality of education’ really mean? I think the debate starts from trying to give a definition. Is it the ability to read, write and speak English correctly? Or can it be equated to quality of teachers, school infrastructure or pass-percentages of board exams? Or is it simply the employability factor? Unless we know what we are debating, unless we define the problem, I am afraid we may never find the solution.

The first task, therefore, is to define what quality of education is. We should also be mindful that quality of education does not just depend on teachers, schools, students or the ministry. It is the result of active partnership between all those plus parents, the community and the whole government. We should also be careful to distinguish quality of ‘teachers’ and quality of ‘teaching’. One does not necessarily imply the other. Awaiting the definition of quality of education, one could say that through good education, the citizenry will be able to lead a healthy and productive life and contribute to nation-building. And hence the second question – how can our education system enable students to lead an active, dignified and contented life in this fast-changing and ever more competitive world?

While the general perception is that the quality of education has declined in Bhutan, my own view is that it is the level of competition that has gone up drastically. The net effect is of course the same. Our youngsters today are unprepared to face new realities. And where we might have certainly failed is perhaps in recognising years ago that there was the need to balance the traditional system of learning, the new requirements of the labour market and the much wider range of pupils entering the system. This would have meant restructuring and redirecting our secondary and tertiary education, introducing flexible and varied curricula, enhancing teacher’s knowledge and skills, updating learning materials and introducing modern information and communication technology. But we continued, and continue, to be generic while at the same time talking about mismatch between demand and supply.

There is no doubt that our education system worked perfectly for my generation and for the ones before because we were fast-forwarded to quickly fill-up the Civil Service. However, the curriculum that was relevant then may not be relevant today. Our examination system continue to decimate students and create more “dropouts” than successful ones (refer to an earlier article I wrote on this). Hence, to say that we were better than today’s students is totally misplaced because no one actually checked our overall competence when we were drafted into our jobs. There was such a shortage of qualified Bhutanese that heads of departments would be present in the RCSC office to grab us like how we grab gas cylinders during monsoon months. But as the civil service got saturated and the private and corporate sectors demanded specialised skills, high motivational level, good working attitude, communication skills and hard work, our education system was then caught off-guard.

Education goes way beyond simple “reading, writing and speaking”. These constitute what we call “qualification” and not “education” as such. Education comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to lead out or to bring out” the inner potential of pupils. An educated person is not simply a person with class XII or a university degree. It is a person with knowledge, and with the ability to apply that knowledge thoughtfully and wisely. Does our present education system prepare our youth with these skills? I don’t think so. Because let’s face it. Our education system is largely drawn from the British Raj which was designed to produce clerks and administrators for the British Empire. But while even the Indian education system has evolved, ours has remained virtually static. Our children continue to learn everything by ‘rote’ without understanding its application in the real World; questions remain the prerogative of teachers, and curiosity, critical thinking and inquisitiveness are slammed as being a nuisance. Of course then our children will not have the zeal to learn nor do our youngsters the zeal to succeed. “I don’t want anyone working for me for more than ten years.” I keep telling my young colleagues, “You will have to run your own company by then.” I am afraid they don’t understand what I am talking about.

The education minister has rightly stated that the quality of education cannot be any better or worse than quality of teachers. But in my opinion it can be both better and worse, depending on the structure in which the teacher works. Where exactly is the problem then? In two areas. First, in the bureaucratization of the education system. Education is a specialised field and our current bureaucratic structure no longer works today because, many a times, critical decisions are being made somewhere and by someone totally extraneous to ground realities. Not to talk about good educationists leaving for other attractive positions in the Civil Service. A paradigm shift with the education system that is independent and less hierarchical, organised into multi-disciplinary groups may perhaps launch Bhutan into a better future. The role of the government should then be to set the standards, monitor the quality and provide continuous dialogue between the society and the education system so that there is no more that infamous “mismatch”.

Second, the motivation level of the teachers is at an all-time low. In my extensive travels around our beautiful country, I have met many who are committed but are demoralised, overworked and forgotten. My documentary “School Among Glaciers” was in fact dedicated to them. What happens then is that we may have “good” teachers but “poor” quality of teaching. Teachers are no longer even respected by the society – a stark contradiction for a Mahayana Buddhist country which has thrived on the lama-loma (master-disciple) tradition. The paradigm shift could address this problem because issues like incentives, professional enhancements and support materials can be tackled within the system and not by an external body or individual that is oblivious to the needs and problems facing the teaching cadre. A teacher will then be a teacher who can say with pride “I am a teacher” and not an ordinary grade 8 or 9 officer in the Civil Service.

Generally in Bhutan, I realise that it is not that we don’t know what to do. It is more often that we don’t do what needs to be done. I am sure many solutions would have been thrown and paradigms shifts proposed in plenty. To raise the quality of our education system requires action, not complacency. I may be forgiven for saying this – but if our education system fails; we will fail as a nation. The good news is that we have recognised as a problem. The bad news is – we have along way to go. But this a country where everything is possible, if we want to.

(also published in Bhutan Times, 27 Jan issue, under the Opinion page)

Hello hydropower, it’s me again

I have written extensively about this topic in the past. But since this is an ongoing public discourse of great national importance, let me throw myself in the ring again.

I am aware that this is also a sensitive topic – in some sense. But I assure everyone that what I express here is out of genuine concern as a citizen – and I do with no vested interest or political affiliation or biases. Besides, I am not doing to maliciously hurt those who are at forefront of this ‘accelerated’ development – or to downplay the works of hundreds of engineers and workers who, at times, are risking their lives working inside the tunnels or on top of dangerous ridges. I am only providing another perspective to the discussion.

For a start, I am not a hard-core environmentalist who is against any kind of exploitation of natural resources. I feel Mother Earth can, and should, sustain our reasonable needs but not our greed – to paraphrase Gandhi. I often joke with my environmentalist friends that for them Bhutan is a forest with some people living in it. I also speak as someone with some knowledge of this field. My first degree is in electrical engineering and I interned for a month in Chukha Project during its final construction phase. The current MoE Secretary, Dasho Yeshey Wangdi and his assistant, Sigay Dorji, were my line supervisors. So I have also worn a safety helmet and have seen people die or get injured down there. In later decades, I documented the entire construction phase of Tala Project for BBS TV as a documentary producer-anchor for BBS TV.

In this article, I will situate my arguments with all these direct experiences and contextualise within the larger areas of public policy, technology and human resource development.

  1. Let technology catch up. As an electrical engineer, my biggest concern is what kind of technology is being implemented in our on-going mega projects. For instance, simple things like, what are the efficiencies of the machines that are being installed? As I write this, newer technological advancements are occurring in the field of power engineering that are more efficient, lighter, smaller, cheaper and more durable. In other words, for the same investment we get more power. How about that we wait a little longer for these technologies to be rolled out into the market? Or should we risk being stuck for generations with less-efficient turbines and transformers – bolted inside our hills and mountains?
  2. Let our people catch up. Most of our mega projects are done on turn-key basis except the ones built by Druk Green (Actually the way to go is how we are doing with Druk Green. Smaller ones and within our means). Turn-key projects were necessary in the past. Chukha and Tala were done with that model. I bow to that. But now, with growing number of young Bhutanese engineers and technicians going unemployed, how about that we build our financial capacity first and then do these projects on our own? Again – slowly. That way, we not only build things on our own, we can also give jobs to our youth and we can become world-class in hydro-engineering and help other countries to build theirs? Too wild a dream? Well, actually, we are already doing that in other fields. In my frequent travels in and out with Druk Air, I meet lots of Bhutanese professionals working for UN and other international organisations who are building other developing countries such as those in Africa and in the Middle East. My own former technical colleagues from BBS built radio and TV stations in South Sudan and East Timor. If we give ourselves some time and opportunities, we can be donors and builders too.
  3. Let’s hear what Chukha Plant has to say. Hydropower plants do not last for eternity. Yup, they have an expiry date. The dams, especially, will last between 60 to 100 years. Not more. So, to think that money will keep flowing for perpetuity is totally a false promise. Once the expiry date is over, we need to blast off those dams and tunnels and build new ones. Chukha’s expiry date will be anywhere between 2046 to 2086. That’s just 22 years from now. In political terms, just four elections away. Time flies. Mind you. We have already had 3 elections. And 2008 seems yesterday. So, won’t it a good idea to wait what does Chukha whispers in our ears and then proceed? If it is worth it to build so many projects. Can we learn a little more from Chukha? I would. In the US and in UK, dams built in the 1960s have been removed to everyone’s delight. They don’t intend to rebuild them again. There is more to water than just producing electricity and one report claims that the governments there have been “blindsided by the prospect of cheap electricity without taking into account the full environmental and social costs of these installations.” Why are we rushing into a territory from where others are running away?
  4. Let’s focus on human power and not just hydropower. Having taught Bhutanese students (at Sherubtse and in RTC) and, now, also students from many other countries, I can affirm one thing with great pride – Bhutanese students are no less than any other nationalities. We can do anything that others can do and be what we want to be. We don’t have to only invoke our water God to save us or to take our country forward into the future. We don’t have to envy anyone doing great things. We don’t have to put all our money and minds in hydropower. There is an immense human power that lay untapped in Bhutanese youth and people. I already mentioned that some of the technicians and engineers I worked with in BBS were in high demand by the UN. Some of our best minds are (unfortunately) building things in other countries because back home we fail to realise their potentials. Even our babysitters in New York are in greater demand than the Filipinos who dominated the industry until now. So then, can we also start recognising human power and not just hydropower as our natural resources?

I have more points and arguments on this topic. I didn’t even bring up the topic of us sitting on the seismic zone 5 (the highest), or the contentious issue of financing modality and rising national debt, or the diminishing power market – and above all, the environmental impact. But I will stop here and let the above ideas and concerns sink in.

The reason that this whole accelerated hydropower thing has become so unpalatable in recent years is that, it is coming at the expense of all other sectors – in terms of direct investments. I may sound bit apocalyptic but this doesn’t look good at all. We are drowning ourselves in our own self-made oversized dreams – mentally, politically, culturally and financially. And I am not saying it now with the wisdom of the hindsight after what’s happened with PHPA I. I have been ranting since 2013 when I was teaching in Sherubtse and PHPA II had, back then, not even taken off. 

And I really hope that I am wrong in all my assessments.

 

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Time to heal?

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The long electoral campaign of 2018 is behind us. The winners have been declared and everyone involved have gracefully accepted the results. Or so it seems, living far away from the scene. However, I might point out that the scars of the bitter campaign will remain no matter what. And political parties, whether they intended it or not, are responsible for the communal divisions, which were inexistent before 2008.

Still, the issue here is not to say who was right or who was wrong. We can never fully establish that. It would boil down to another chicken-and-egg story. The dominant public discourse now should rather be to mend broken friendships, and heal divided communities before the next election comes to town.

In Italy, and in several countries that I know of, including India, the ruling party often concedes the post of the deputy speaker, and even the speaker, to the Opposition Party. It has been done as a part of reconciliation efforts by political parties. Every democracy faces the brunt of ugly campaigns and no one wants to see a divided country. It is impossible to govern one in that state – to begin with.

Perhaps this is something that we might want to look at. 

DNT’s convincing win has meant, many things to many people. What I haven’t seen or read is yet another perspective. And there can be many. We are all entitled to them. Among other reasons as to why the Bhutanese people voted them in, is perhaps that we are bit tired of this divisive politics planted by the two old parties – for ten years now. The bickering never seemed to end. Across the country, there is actually the subconscious yearning for the “good” old days and a sense of nostalgia that perhaps someone outside the Parliament could restore some communal harmony and the national unity.

I may be wrong. But still, it won’t hurt if the DNT offers to establish a tradition of healing – after an election – at this embryonic stage of our democracy. There is no need to follow the winner-takes-it-all dictum.

And in any case, may our nation heal. 

PeaceMaker