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

Two years down, few more to go

It’s been little more than two years since I started off my PhD program here in Macau. One book chapter, two years, three awards, four papers and five international conferences later, I am more than happy, satisfied and honoured to be here. Really.

Will always be grateful to the University of Macau (UMac) for hosting me as I establish myself firmly in my third career as an academic – despite not being a spring chicken. The best thing about UMac is the beautiful campus, generous research facilities and a fantastic library (behind me).

Life is pretty simple out here – juggling between classrooms, dorm and library where I read loads of, and write some, academic papers plus theories and research methods, on topics ranging from social media, sociolinguistics, mass media and buddhist communication – all on Bhutan. And travel to academic conferences around the world where my papers are rigorously reviewed and accepted.

Why Bhutan? And why should the world care? Bhutan presents an interesting research site for for being the last country to enter into romance with social media and technology. Understanding what’s happening there will help the social scientific community to explain and theorise the influences on a society. Hopefully that would be our big contribution to the field.

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Traveling tips

Over the years I have perfected the art of air travels. Here are some tips from my long experience spanning 30 years, 35 airlines and 34 countries. 😎😎😎

BAGS – Travel light, which, of course, is impossible for many – especially Bhutanese. Avoid checked-in luggage. Seriously. They get lost or damaged. Sometimes you lose your connecting flights too. Traveling with a carry-on is possible. I once travelled for a month in Europe with a carry on, a suit bag and a backpack.

As for your laptops, opt for a backpack instead of the shoulder bag. It is more comfortable and better for your back – especially if you add papers, battery packs, tablets, books, notebooks, stationery etc. like i do.

DRESS WELL – Meaning no shorts, tee shirts or flip-flops – especially if you are travelling for official trips and conferences. You don’t want to give a bad impression to your hosts. Don’t overdress lest you feel uncomfortable. For me, a shirt works just fine. Jeans are best for traveling. They never look dirty. Slip-in shoes are a must – with many airports requiring you to take them out during security checks. Besides, as soon as you get on board, you can throw them away and be more comfortable and put them back on easily.

At times dressing well earns you a seat upgrade to business class if the flight is oversold. Yes, they judge the book by the cover (read as good looks in my case 😜😜😜).

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WEAR A SCARF. On long flights, it gets freezing cold up there at 39,000 feet. And add to that the germs-filled cabins you breathe in for tens of hours. You need to protect your throat and neck. Catching cough and cold would be a disaster if you have to speak at your destination. Mind you, it is easy to fall sick from a plane journey. And it is not a nice experience.

You can use the scarf to cover your nose in case the cabin stinks. Not all airlines are Singapore or Cathy Pacific. Some really stink like a public toilet.

GET A NECK POUCH. You can slip in your phone, wallet and passport. When rushing to the airports or pulling them out over and over again at the security, customs and taxis, they can be easily misplaced. For an absent-minded guy like me who keeps forgetting things everywhere, this is a lifesaver.

YOUR EARPHONES. The headphones (and the blankets) that the airlines provide are rarely washed or disinfected, it seems. Be safe. Don’t forget your personal earphones and don’t forget to use them instead of the ones supplied on board. Likewise, your tray table has more germs than a toilet seat. Carry an antibacterial hand-wipe to clean the tray table and the armrest before you start using it.

AISLE SEAT PLEASE. If you have chronic backache like me, flights longer than 3 hours is a torture. Choose an aisle seat so that you can get up and stretch whenever you want – without disturbing others.

LAST AND MOST IMPORTANT. Enjoy the journey, cherish the moment, talk to others, make new friends – even on board, be helpful to strangers. And make a good use of every opportunity by doing your best and letting one journey lead you to the next. Trust me. It works.

Don’t be in a haste to get to your destination. Savour the journey. Cherish the process.

Few of my publications

This is or students and educators in media, communication and sociology.
 
Here are some links to books and journal papers that I have published plus some recent news articles on middle path journalism, all of which might be of interest to you since there aren’t many in this field.
 
Sourcing and referencing are the biggest hurdles in doing any kind of studies in and on Bhutan – especially in social science. At the very least, hope these help you to expand your bibliography and save you from over-referencing of one or two sources. 🙋‍♂️🙋‍♂️🙋‍♂️
 

Dreams and power of imagination

I gave a talk titled, My Childhood Dreams and Role Models, to a group of youths brought together by the Bhutan Sharing & Loving Youth (BSLY) and Generation Y. The message that I wanted to drive hone was the importance of having dreams and role models, and working towards one’s dreams. As parents, I am sure it is extremely frustrating when your children have no dreams, no ambitions and no directions in life. 

I also touched upon the the power of imagination and empathy. Here are some extracts from the talk.

“Growing up, I was a restless kid with multiple dreams and corresponding role models. I wanted to fight like Bruce Lee, sing like Kishore Kumar and Engelbert Humperdinck, play football like Pele, become a pilot and fly to Moon like Neil Armstrong and look cool like Clint Eastwood. I was serious with my dreams too. I did Karate and Kungfu in college – before a shoulder injury forced me out of it. My dream to become a pilot went down when Druk Air didn’t even accept my enquiry – let alone an application. As for football, I barely made it to the college team. In short, I have failed to achieve most of my childhood dreams – except may be become a filmmaker just as Clint did.

Was it all worth then? Can we still dream even when we know that we won’t be achieving them? Yes, of course. Let me  also add that as humans, I believe, that the day you stop dreaming is the day you die. To merely exist without a dream is to wander around like a zombie.

If life is journey, dreams are your maps – and role models, your companion.

The greatest beauty about having dreams and failing is that in trying to achieve those dreams, you gather rich skills and experiences that will be useful in other life’s endeavours. Kungfu and soccer gave me a physique that would sustain my professional life as an engineer – trekking to high mountains to build radio and TV stations. Later as a filmmaker I managed to travel to every corner of our country to document places and people. I endured physically demanding walks and works. My flying-to-the-Moon dream, on the other hand, made me fearless of any feats or challenges that normally would be considered impossible. I ventured into the untrodden path – never even doubting my abilities or achieving the targets. Thus, came things like FM radio networks and Bhutan’s first TV channel, which I spearheaded into our once Forbidden Kingdom. Plus I won international awards for documentaries – the first Bhutanese to do and show the way.

Of the several childhood dreams and fascinations, though, I must say that the filmmaker’s dream has been the one that, as I start growing old, is increasingly becoming the most valuable. Not only did I quit a successful engineering career and became a documentary filmmaker but becoming a movie addict as a child opened my world to the power of imagination and creativity. This power, which is either not present or suppressed in our education system, is an important skill. For me it has led to the power of empathy. We need empathy, and more empathy, in this world that is getting cruel by the day.

Basically the power of empathy or imagination is the power to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose life may not be as fortunate as yours.

It is the power that makes you a good human being. The power that drives you to keep striving for a better world. This power served me well when I started volunteering for Tarayana in Athang Rukha in 2007. I continue to be involved in the Olep people even now and we are building the second community temple in Lamga – after we have successfully made them sufficient in food and necessities. For all the imaginative power and empathy that I have developed and have made good use of it, I can only thank one of my childhood role models, Clint Eastwood, for it.

Just as the power of imagination is vital in life, an unimaginative mind can be dangerous and destructive. That’s why people in the government make draconian rules and later rescind them when something unexpected, unimagined and unwanted developments pop up. With some sense of faint  imagination these mishaps can be prevented.

Lastly, disappointments and rejections. (I touched on this topic in the wake of the growing suicide among youth.)  

I know disappointments are hard to handle – especially for a populace that is always on ego swings. There is a general misconception that the country, we have today, has become worse. While my generation often romanticize OUR time and good ole let me tell you that we have had our fair share of hardships and struggles – and failures, disappointments and rejections. I often say that I have failed more than I succeeded in my life. However, now that I have crossed the half-century mark (I am 51) I look back and I realise that more than achievements, disappointments have been my greatest teachers. They are not as bad as it appeared back then. So, if you are going through one just now, wait. Don’t kill yourself. When you are old enough like me, you will look back and see how silly those despairs were.

Let me also share my own experience dealing with both. In triumphs and achievements, I have attracted envies and enemies. It is true. But in disappointments and despair, I have found my true friends and family members. Especially as a Sharchop, I have cherished the extended family culture.”

“Therefore, do not look at disappointments and obstacles with a heavy heart or with a resigned soul. If you can persist, success will surely come your way. 

Whenit does, however,

don’t let the success change you. And don’t let disappointments kill you.

Cry if you must. But don’t keep crying or sulking forever. Shake them off you and tell yourself, “Well! Enough now! Life goes on”.

Don’t be scared to dream. Don’t be shy to say you have a role model or that you admire someone. Sometimes to be able to dream is our only privilege.

I hope you will have many dreams and role models too – and unlike mine, you will be able to fulfil them. If you don’t, well, life goes on.

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With co-speakers, Tshering Pelden and Amrith Subba (to my right) and another Amrith Subba (of BSLY)

Tashi Delek Sherubtse

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.

Sherubtse Opening

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Kuensel 3

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Salary raise? umm….

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Headline on Kuensel, 19 May 2018

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. 

Not only.

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 solution

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.

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NB:

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.

 

FCB2
FCB price list. They did their job back then. Where did they lose the plot? (Photo : Kuensel page, 1987)