Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Poor Rich Man

It was early March, the season on which the temperature has risen in Thimphu, bringing the first true warm of the year. I waited for taxi near RIM, Semtokha gate after meeting one of my friends from the institute. The dusk had already fallen. Finding a taxi plying to Thimphu from Semtokha after the sunset was really hard, I presumed.

After waiting for 30 minutes an old Maruti-van taxi came. It stopped near me.

“Thimphu?” I inquired the cabbie. And he nodded. The cabbie was a pale, lean but tall man of late 30s. He wore a faded gho without lagey and few of his front teeth were missing. He has got a long chin which reminded me of malnourished-version of Phub Thinley (Bhutanese film comedian).

Mera dilbi kitna pagal hai…Bar shamuney jab tum atey ho, kuch bhi kehainey se darta hu… an old Hindi song from the rusted cassette player on the music box system tied with a plastic rope flared so loudly.

As I entered, I scanned the interiors of the van. It has only right-side rear mirror and no floor mats. Even the road was visible from the holes of the taxi. Battery and tape record’s wires were visibly naked and were clubbed together with brown cello tape. This reminded me of the 1980s-old Hindi song, lean-pale driver and condition-less van.

“You know lad, this is my favorite song,” the cabbie exclaimed as he sped his car. But as he accelerated, the van produced louder terrible sound, hopefully not the speed. Even the fully loaded trucks overtook us.

“When I was young like you this was a hit song. Its lyric is very pleasant and touching,” he added sounding very filmy.

“I don’t like modern songs. They are too noisy and nonsensical,” he justified in stark hatred as if his wife had been stolen by the modern songs.

After changing the second gear, his cell phone screeched in his pocket. It is a black and white phone as the green light blinked on the screen.

When we reached the junction to Semtokha Dzong, two young men got into the taxi. I knew later that they were ILCS trainees as they wore decent ghos and spoke in pure Dzongkha.

In a while, an old man in rag hailed the cab. As he entered, a gust of nauseating smell swept the taxi. A mix of dirt and sweats stomach-churned all other fellow passengers. The trainees covered their noses and mouths with lagey.

Betel-reddened mouth, this old man wore a ravaged brown jacket, a tainted Dhaka Sale trek pant and rubber shoes on his feet. To me, he appeared like an exploited mining labour or a dismayed vagabond in desperate search of a plate of rice.

He looked uneducated, close-minded and definitely without any ambition. All the poverty and adversity of the world were inscribed on his expression.

Apparently, my interest shifted from the comic-like cabbie to this newly arrived passenger and I watched this old man, strangely interested.

He stayed mute, not uttering a word until he called the cabbie to stop at Olakha. I was happy, most definitely, as I would be unleashed of this unbearable torture-the rotten smell.

“Meme, tiru nga
,” the cabbie demanded the taxi fare from the old man. The old man foraged his pockets, and told the cabbie he has no money.

The cabbie got angry and threatened the meme to call the police. My mind irked as these two men started fighting for Nu 5, a little amount even a two-month old baby carries these days.

I interrupted these men and told the driver, “Aw, I will pay meme’s fare.”

Then we moved away. But the cabbie stared at me rather hostilely and asked, “Why did you volunteer to pay that old man’s fare?” He grimaced at me and shook his head as if I had murdered that old man.

Uneasy and speechless, I shrunk to the van’s corner.

After a long eerie silence, the cabbie informed, “You know, that old man is not as what you see him. He has four buildings in Olakha and three passenger buses.”

I was stabbed at hearing this. Surprise, disbelief, thrill, all crushed in my mind. I just wondered in dismay that how a man in rag, discontent looks and wholly illiterate having this huge wealth.

“This is not the first time he refuse pay taxi fare. He always does this to cheat the taxi drivers,” the cabbie announced as we reached the town.

For the first time in my life I learned that a man with such a huge wealth can still be pitifully poor and discontent-poorer than poor. I just thought, amazed, that this old man was pathetic rich man, a man who thinks that his wealth remains with him forever.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Drayang: To ban or not to ban?

After the public of Paro made a hullabaloo to the National Assembly about drayangs causing social problems, a few MPs suggested an outright ban on drayangs. The discussion even rose to the length where Layog Lyonpo promised to guarantee jobs for all the girls working in drayangs if the industry closes down. Following are the selected opinions I pulled out from various online forums regarding the ban of drayangs in Bhutan:
  Photo: Business Bhutan

Ban drayangs:

1. Cause of all Evils

A socially concerned writer asserted that drayang is the “major source of all our social problems”. The author declared that drayangs are the place where “sexual harassment” and “exploiting…young girls” are rampant despite “strict rules and regulations for the operation of the business.” In drayangs “customers lack the moral conduct” and sexually abuse young girls. The author affirmed that “This place is cause of all evils,” a place where many “married people get divorced.”

2. Drayangs: another form of Prostitution

Several writers online say that the drayangs are the hub for “commercial sex” affirming that “drayangs are perceived as the only business in Bhutan in which prostitution and brothel are legalized.” One of them warned, “Drayangs…is one step closer to becoming a brothel in future, therefore, it should be banned.”

3. Immoral conducts

Here is a man who visited a drayang and was stunned. He wrote, “I have visited a drayang once and was surprised see the girls dancing drunk and sitting on the thighs of [male] customers.” He also wrote, “I have seen many of my friends going there to see gals [only].”

4. Against Buddhism and GNH

There is a group of religious-minded people who felt that the establishment of drayangs in Bhutan is against our religion, Buddhism. One of them wrote, “….we all being Buddhist I feel that it’s not good to have such an entertaining place where alcohols, smoking, immoral conducts is propagated.”

5. Drayangs benefit small section of the society
Some wrote that drayang industry benefits only a small section of our society but earns humiliation for our country. “It is becoming a kind of livelihood for thickheaded people on selling somebody’s flesh….the proprietors are misusing their employees…a sinful act,” wrote one.

6. Why rules cannot stop drayang disharmony

Few believe that no operating regulations can uproot the misbehaviors of the drayangs. “No laws; however, stringent can be applied effectively on the ground that foremost motive of this organization is money,” wrote one. He added, “drayang owners who are to be directly accountable for the safety of their employees cannot guarantee 100 % safety to their employees.”

7. Prevention is better than cure

A larger chunk of the online users suggested that prevention is better than cure regarding the ban of the drayang. “Right now Bhutan doesn’t have much drayangs and it is right time to stop such thing in a country,” wrote one of them.


Don’t ban drayangs:

1. NA discussion lacked understanding of the issue

Most people are against the idea of outright closing down of drayangs as discussed in the last NA session. A writer wrote, “The discussion lacked depth, sensitivity and understanding of the issue and was driven more with… indignation rather than pragmatic logic.”

The writer further explained, “To expect Bhutan to open up to the outside world, to modernize, to increase the number of tourists, to meet the ever increasing costs of living, and still remain pure and untouched is both impractical and unrealistic.”

2. Sign of economical development

Many feel and see that drayang as a sign of economical development and have been benefiting our society. One of them wrote, “….the drayang as package of development” and “Give jobs to those jobless.” It also makes “….contribution to the economy as well helping to generate the revenue and income distribution,” wrote another.

A male writer sees drayangs as one of the platforms for young girls to “show their talents.”

3. Discouraging private sector
Some felt that the government is going against the policy of private sector development while uprooting drayang industry. “To close down drayang is that our government was discouraging private sector in the country.”

4. Closing down is more problem than solution

Majority felt that closing down of the drayangs is only a short-term solution, not the right remedy. “Closing down is more problem than solution,” one of them wrote adding, “Banning is not a solution because it will manifest on one or other form. It is an entertainment industry that comes with development so there is no way we can stop it from growing.”

Some practical measures to curb social disharmony caused by drayangs:

1. Provide jobs to unemployed out-of-school youth

A regular blogger recommended that “…the women working in drayangs already have jobs. So they don’t need his [the labour minister] bold assurances. Unemployed youth, on the other hand, would welcome his guarantees. After all, they are the ones who are desperate for work.” Then he proposed to “provide out-of-school youth gainful employment. Then they themselves would choose not to work in drayangs.”

2. Empower the employees of the drayangs

A writer suggested empowering drayang employees through “proper education, control health risks and legal protection.” All those working in drayangs should be educated and sensitized on existing rules and their rights, according to the writer. The writer also felt that closing down of drayangs will only drive the activities into the dark alleys and shady bars where drugs are a common place.

3. Ensure safe environment

An architect felt that ensuring safe environment for those working in drayangs is imperative. “These drayangs should not be in the bars, or drayangs should not sell alcohols and other stuffs. This industry should remain clean and should have bouncers and guards to avoid fights and other problems,” marked him.

4. Develop strong rules and regulation

However, many suggested the most pragmatic solution for us to safeguard our society from the defamations caused by drayangs is to ensure strict licensing and operating rules and regulations that should be strictly complied with.

One of them wrote, “If the drayangs are not functioning the way they are supposed to…and…if the girls performing. …are being mistreated by the customers and the owners, then to me this speaks of two things. One, are the current rules and regulations governing the…functioning of these drayangs are not adequate and enough. Two…the existing rules and regulations…not being enforced properly.”

Drayangs are the place of entertainment where young boys and girls work for their livelihoods. Poverty and destitution forced them into this profession. They are vulnerable to money, sex, drugs and other crimes. We have a moral obligation to protect this young group of people and empower them of their rights. Prohibition cannot put end to the social problems caused by this industry. We have to accept this drayang culture (an inevitable social development) and deal it with most learned manner.

The role of the water in the lives of Umlingpas

It’s a four-hour walk from Gelephu town. Though I’ve lived in Gelephu, I’ve never been to Umling. Growing up, I heard people say it‘s beautiful. So I thought perhaps the day’s come for me to see the place and a friend who teaches there. It was two years ago when I was working with Bhutan Observer.
The people of Umling are tanned. They wear their ghos high above their knees and carry rug sacks on their backs. As the sun started setting, I packed my things and looked for the people of Umling in Gelephu town.

It was a hot afternoon. The sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds and as I was sweating, I saw a man wearing a gho way above his knees. He must be an Umlingpa, I reckoned.

I asked him, “Are you from Umling?” He nodded and said his name was Ngawang. I requested Ngawang if I could tag along with him to Umling. He agreed, but on the condition that I helped him carry a load or two. So I received a small carton while he carried a Umlingpas huge rucksack.

“Umling is a beautiful place but we have a lot of problems during the summer,” Ap Ngawang said. I announced my credentials as we started walking away from the town. “Bhutan Observer?” he jolted, as if he had been threatened.

Then he said, “Private newspaper?” He was awestricken and asked me again, “How many newspapers are there?” I said there were three. He turned away and murmured “Oh, man! Our country is developing!”

He said before we start the journey, we’ve to charge ourselves as the route is very long. We entered a bar and he ordered two bottles of beer and a plate of juma. My head swung. The weight on my back became lighter and softer as we left the crowded and dusty town behind us.

As we moved further, I found more and more tanned people wearing short ghos and carrying large sacks. Some of them were singing while others were carrying huge loads; a few were drunk and lying on the footpath.

As we walked, we passed a long paddy field. A few minutes later, I saw a big river; it was the Maokhola over which the Gelephu MP promised to build 2.5 km long motor bridge. A long bamboo bridge connects the two banks. “When the river swells during summer, this bridge will be washed away and we’ll have to use boats.Sometimes even the boats don’t work when there are strong currents,” Ap Ngawang said, as we were crossing the bridge.
                                                                         Pic: Temporary Bridge

“Every year, the river claims more than two lives.” He continued. After that, we crossed several streams. Now I know the reason why Umlingpas wear their ghos above their knees. It’s not because they do not follow Drig Lam Namzhag, it is because of the streams.

At Chuzangang, we climbed a hillock. As soon as we scaled the summit a woman cried, “Come on, we have bangchang, beer, juma, and momo!” She was underneath a small plastic sheet of a hut, displaying the beverages. Ap Ngawang put down his green bag on a huge stone and asked me to come with him. He ordered two bottles of bangchang and two plates of momo. We were reenergized. The rest of the walk was a blur.
                                                                             Pic: Place to recharge
When we reached Barthang, half way to Umling, the rains poured down furiously. I enjoyed the rainy wet walk. Several people started to join us; we looked like a band of gypsies. It was a rapturous walk. Perhaps the wine and the water did that.

“We have to carry the goods ourselves because the vehicles cannot cross the rivers in summer,” Aum Lhaden, a tall woman from Lingar, said.

Another woman, Lemo, recalled a bitter experience. “My brother had broken his leg after he fell down from a tree. We have one BHU in Umling, so he was forwarded to Gelephu hospital. But he had to wait for two days as the boat couldn’t cross the river because of the strong currents and the rains,” she said.
We crossed two long suspension bridges in the Taklaikhola River.

Another bottle of bangchang and I hardly knew how I crossed the longest suspension bridges in the country.

As the crimson sun stood in the west, we reached Umling. The entry to Umling was heralded by clean air, soft green grass, and beautiful hills with streams and brooks snaking everywhere. Long paddy and maize fields, beetle nut trees and banana plants surrounded the tin roofs and wooden walls of the houses. Cows grazed contentedly nearby.

As I stopped to admire an exceptionally beautiful place, Ap Ngawang called me to a shop, “Before going home, lad, we’ve to get charged one last time.”

It seems the reason Umlingpas wear their ghos high is not just the river, streams, brooks and rainfalls outside; it’s also the wine that flows inside.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pay Hike’s Post-Madness

Karma Dendup is a grade 8 civil servant in Thimphu. He pays monthly house rent of Nu 6,500 and another Nu 3,000 for groceries. Every month, a balance of Nu 2,000 remains in his pocket which is only enough to fill the gas in his car. Whenever the opportunity knocks he resorts to corruption because he has to live up to the lifestyle of the city.

Recently, the news on the pay hike by 20 percent made him happy. He thought he could at least earn Nu 2,000 more.

But he was shocked when his house rent has been increased to Nu 7,000 soon after the pay rise was announced. His monthly grocery expenditures also increased to Nu 4,000 as the price of the goods skyrocketed. He felt helpless. Even after his salary being raised by 20 percent, he was as helpless as before.

Paradoxically, in the last parliament session the finance minister appealed to the house owners and shopkeepers not to increase the house rent and the price of goods explaining that the pay rise was not huge. However, the house rent and price of the goods soared up frantically. Did any of the house owners and shopkeepers listen to the finance minister’s earnest appeal?

What’s wrong with the existing system?

Every time the government raises the pay scale, the house owners and shopkeepers go mad. It seems that the government raises the profit for the house owners and shopkeepers, but not pay increment for the public servants. It is for these two groups of people to pay back their loans fast and to make lump sum profit.

So, what our policymakers should realize is that they should build up some practical strategic mechanisms or regulatory bodies to curb post-madness of the pay rise.

Firstly, they should review the existing “dormant” Tenancy Act and implement it vibrantly by educating the tenants and house owners on its usefulness and clauses.

Secondly and most importantly, the MoWHS should form an agent or organization to look after the housing affairs in the country. Empowered to look into the housing matters in the country autonomously, the agent should possess efficient number of professionals and technicalities in architectures.

Every building leasing its apartments on rent should be made compulsory to register with this body. It should look and study each of the apartments of the registered building and fix the rent according to the size and amenities of the apartments, location, etc of the building. The fixed rent should be strictly followed by both the parties and is to be raised 10 percent after two years only.

Those house owners whose apartments are empty or whose buildings are under construction should also register with the agent about the date of vacating time and date of completion. So, those apartment hunters can consult the agent directly instead of knocking each door regarding the vacant apartments.

This agent can also help those who wanted to exchange an apartment at Babesa to Motithang or for those wanting to exchange an apartment at Jungshina to Changzamtog.

Many other unnecessary problems of the tenants and house owners can be solved. For example, a bachelor who is occupying a huge apartment can register with the agent in want of a small bachelor quarter or those with huge family occupying a small apartment can exchange with the bachelor. Or those wanting to share the apartment can also register with the agent, so any interested person who is interested to share the apartment can apply here. Moreover, it can help generating gainful job opportunities.

Thirdly, landowners can also lease out their houses as Paying Guest (PG) so that the new office goers need not take the burden of renting a huge apartment and paying bulky amount for the rent.

Lastly, the trade and industry office should issue as many business licenses (except bar license) to the interested business entrepreneurs to avoid monopolistic market. This can, definitely, bring greater and healthy competition in the market helping retain the price of the goods. The trade authority should also strictly regulate the MRP of each necessity goods.

Note: This is a collective work of Rekkha Monger, RIM and myself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rs displaced Nu

Conversation 1: “What is the price of this? Rs 450?” a girl buying sandals asked the shopkeeper. “No! It is Rs 550, but you can take it @ Rs 500,” replied the shopkeeper. This is a conversation between a shopkeeper and his customer at Thimphu Market.

Conversation 2: “Aw, song request la. Please! Only Rs 100 for one song la,” a drayang girl was enticing her customer.

Conversation 3: “I want to fax Rs 8,000 to Trashigang. What is the charge?” inquired a man to an official behind the Post Office’s counter to fax his money. “Rs 420,” responded the official.

Conversation 4: “Bro, what’s the balance in your cell phone? I have an urgent call to make,” asked a lad to his buddy. “Rs 15,” retorted his friend and lent the phone.

Conversation 5: A daughter demanded her father, “Dad, give me Rs 700. I want to buy a short.”

Conversation 6: “You visit Om Bar. It’s a cool place. A bottle of Wedding Bells costs only Rs 150,” a RJ was talking to his female fan on air.

What wrong have you noticed from the above six different conversations?
There is discomfiture and foreignness in every conversation. This is what Bhutanese speak everyday, everyday committing mistakes. Rs, Rs…and Rs. We forget our own Ngultrum. We always use Rs for Ngultrum every time we have to deal with money or talk relating to money.

Last week, I attended a very important Workshop concerning the nation’s plans and policies. A handful of chilips was also attending it. A few officials of Executive Level made presentations, and it was quite embarrassing that they frequently uttered “Rs 7 lakhs”, “Rs 200 millions”.

There are also some Bhutanese manufacturing industries that don’t use our currency name on the packaged cover of the goods. For example, a local produced bread has the price marked on its cover, “Rs 15”.

Also, we frequently come across Rs in official letters like Note Sheet, Proposals, sanction order, Memo, etc.

But who is to blame for this?

Last week when I was solving Class IV mathematics problems for my nephew (student of Rinchen Kuenphen PS), I came across that the whole text book was Indian Education Curriculum based. “Mahesh has Rs 150. He gave away Rs 50 to his friend. Now, how much he has in his hand?” one of the problems from the text book reads.

Isn’t it high time for MoE to revise the school text books? The borrowed text books from India implant foreign diction in our youth which impairs our identity.

To avoid this error, all the school text books should be revised and the syllabus should be aligned with Bhutanese context.

There is also need to implement stringent laws on using Ngultrum on every official document or letter. Officials of all agencies or media organizations should be strictly directed to use Ngultrum, and anyone violating the directives should be dealt according to the rules.