Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Food for thought

A school feeding program in Khaling, that changed the way I looked at myself

I was fascinated at the sight of small kids dressed neatly in their school uniform queued up in a very disciplined manner waiting for their turns to be served lunch by the teachers. Today, the students who are mostly ten year olds are having egg, fish and some fruits.
They have waited an entire week for this heavenly fete.

It wasn’t a straight queue; as it appeared to me, those at the back (carrying empty plates pressed against their chest) couldn’t help watching what was up the menu. The kids were very small; boys wore a dull orange gho with their collars crossing tightly over their chest almost suffocating their necks while little girls wore their kira very high and their tego very low smacking them of a look of perfect innocence.
Slowly, the teachers fill the plates of everyone who then disintegrated into small groups across the school ground and savored their meals with sparkles in their eyes. Until the teachers realized all the kids have been fed, another kid appeared out of nowhere almost in tears as he thought he missed the lunch and that it was over.
Tears soon gave way to happiness as he discovered it wasn’t over and that there was still plenty for him. In the mean time, many came forward for a second helping.
Teachers in Khaling had since been seeking help and support for this program. “We initially thought we would cooperate with the parents and initiate this program like they do in other schools,” Pema Yangki, a teacher said, but most of them did not understand its importance and were reluctant in helping, so it could not take off.” The parents were also mostly farmers and could not support.”
Students in Khaling mostly hail from very humble background and their regular diet mostly consists of rice and potato. Without support from the community and the parents, it remained farfetched, until the school received a foreign teacher, Angele Sutton, who agreed to look for sponsors in the United States. That’s how their school feeding program ultimately became a success. As it picked up, the school received additional support from the local restaurants and shopkeepers and was able to provide nutritional food to their students at least once a week.
Health among the students had improved since the school began the program and teachers claim, students who performed poorly showed big improvements.
I admired and enjoyed the kids’ appetite and as I kept watching them in fascination, I was taken aback at the time when I first joined a boarding school at the age of 14 in Zhemgang. Being a frail, sickly, fragile boy, I was usually bullied and abused by many. On Sundays I could not escape from the school captain who made me wash his gho and his instructions were always to apply soap three times.
But the most boring part of that life I had was the food we received from the school mess. It was very deficient and very less in amount. During lunch break, our cook who never washed his face and was very bad looking held a spatula in his left hand and a ladle in his right with which he served us rice.
As he scooped the rice from the pot, he used the spatula in his left hand to level the rice and the rest of the rice fell back to the pot before it fell into our plates. Then we head to our dining hall were we had to wait for the entire students to start the grace. We spent that time, picking out rat poop, sparrow wings and worms from our rice.
The mess served us neutrala (soy) both during lunch and dinner. Some of the students who disliked neutrala complained to a teacher alleging there were bugs inside the neutrala. The next day, during the morning assembly, our headmaster told us that neutrala was named so because they were very nutritious. The headmaster also reasoned if there were bugs inside the neutrala, the bug ate neutrala, and that there were neutrala inside the bug, so basically bug or neutrala, they were both the same thing. After that the students never complained, although it still confounds me today as to why they never did.
But it was a sight for sore eyes watching tiny little students in Khaling enjoying their precious meals as if they were going to die tomorrow, for I know I would have died with joy, if this happened in Zhemgang when I was 14.

I don’t know if I was being overly sensitive, life had toughened me thus far, but no matter how strong you are, there are times when the heart cannot bear any more joy and that you simply turn away and feel your tears roll down a happy face. 

Green tax and its consequence

Green tax, which the government introduced recently, will eventually lead to significant cost increases in the hydropower sector, which would run into millions. Given their size, hydropower projects use tremendous amount of fuel, which has heavy machinery and trucks working round the clock.

Ultimately when these hydropower projects are commissioned and they start selling electricity, tariff rates will be based on the cost of construction besides other indicators like depreciation, return on equity, interest payment and working capital.

The costs of construction of hydropower projects are already increasing as a result of inflation, which averages between 10 to 12 percent every year. Green tax will further increase the extent by which cost escalates every year. Green tax, in essence is thus artificial inflation.

Since electricity tariffs are determined by the cost of construction of a project, an increase in the cost of construction ultimately means an increase in the per unit cost of electricity which consumers both in Bhutan and India will have to bear.

So basically, average consumers like us today pay an additional Nu 3 a liter for fuel and consumers will also have to pay an additional price for electricity later, which has resulted because of green tax and its consequent impact on the cost of construction.

In short, consumers today are paying more for fuel creating a situation in which they will also have to pay more for electricity tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From Takila to Thimphu

Monsoon Travelogue 

Chorten Kora, Trashiyangtse
Vehicle drivers and passengers help clear the road manually 
I lay on the rough wooden floor of the gup’s office in Ramjar as I write this. It’s raining heavily outside and occasionally I stand up and scan my legs and knees for bug bites. My group, five of us, who came on a government survey, are tugged inside their sleeping bags, helping themselves on a bottle of ara.
It’s beautiful when it rains in Ramjar and the after-shower brings with it, a musical variety of insect sounds and bird chirps.
We had our dinner at the gup’s house. His wife, who laughed profusely at any normal conversational jokes, greeted us with warm Ara brewed in egg and butter. As I had recently quit drinking, I had to gently decline the offer, while my group carried on.
During my sixteen day tour of the remote eastern districts, I had this surprising impression that whenever you enter a house, you are offered alcohol. They never ask if you would like to have a cup of tea.
After the dinner, we headed back to the gup’s office, where he had arranged for our beds. Lying down, I stare at the ceiling, which is an artwork of cobwebs, various paint brush strokes and old stained tube lights. Moths and insects flutter around the light until they are caught in the web and die struggling.
Our Bolero struggling on the mud on the way to Bikhar
We are to start our survey on disaster management in the eastern districts the next day. The government has laid greater emphasis on disaster management when the country experienced a series of floods, earthquakes and major disasters in the last few years. A magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit eastern Bhutan in 2009 claiming the lives of at least ten people and destroying hundreds of houses, monasteries and schools. One year later, another 6.9 rippled across western Bhutan injuring many.
But the people seemed least prepared for any disasters in the future. While interviewing the villagers, most claim, jigita hangrang masela na lopon (I don’t know anything sir). In some cases, the villagers are almost beginning to lose their trust in the government. Several households, I interviewed had to say this- Nan dabhu taburang shekcha, diwa dini, par tab ni pura buwa, tshingey hang rang mala, (people like you come time and again, they ask questions, take pictures and then they never return).
As I confronted this house, I remembered what our king told us during the last national day that we Bhutanese are excellent planners, but lack in action and implementation. Perhaps, all the surveys and research papers are lying idle in some government offices for want of budget, I don’t know. But should it continue the people may no longer hold belief in the government. The biggest failure for a government I believe is when its people lose faith and no longer hope anything from the government. The people must always remain hopeful.
Interviewing on the move
The next morning, as we decide to move towards Yalang, which is located a few kilometers away from Ramjar, our bus got stuck in the mud and no matter how much Phuntsho, our driver, pushed the accelerator, the bus moved in all directions but forward.
So we asked the help of the gup who summoned all the villagers. We tied a rope to the bus and pulled it with the combined strength of all the villagers until we managed to get it off the quagmire of mud. The journey had to be cancelled because of the heavy downpour. I felt disappointed; we were lagging behind our deadline. The rain can be very unforgiving in the east and our roads easily get damaged with the slightest rain. I contemplate, you can’t just own a car and think you can go anywhere, without a road, a car is as useless.
So rather, we head back to Rangjung from where we hired a Bolero to travel to the remote gewogs upon farm roads. This sturdy Indian pick-up truck has the reputation of being able to carry huge loads as well as run in all kinds of roads. So much so that when it became quite popular in the east, they were branded Sharchokpa Hilux (Hilux of the eastern inhabitants) hurting the ego of the affluent sharchops who thought it generalized most sharchops as relatively poor.
As we headed towards Bikhar, we come across huge piles of empty beer bottles stacked beside roads that stood as stark display showing how much they loved to drink. Our bolero driver puts on the song “58 Ko Lauri” which suddenly takes be back to the 90s.
By the third day, the rain had damaged most parts of the roads in Trashigang. So I head towards Mongar and Lhuentshe where the roads are much better even during monsoon. On my way to Mongar I come across a village called Chali, where you can see, illiterate, village folks speaking English.
The Chalipas use words like hurry, come, go etc in their daily conversation. Surprisingly, their dialect is a mix of ngalong, sharchop, khengpa, lhotsham and almost all that’s spoken in the country including English. Legend has it that, While the gods were distributing languages to different villages, the Chalipas were the last one’s to receive, but by the time the gods reached the Chalipas, it had already run out and so the gods picked bits and pieces of all the languages it distributed earlier and gave it to the Chalipas.
Several hawkers have appeared along the roads in Mongar selling beaten maize. Maize, which is the major staple crop in the east, grows three times a year. Maybe the government could capitalize on the surplus production by entering into commercialization and setting up agro based industries that could reduce food imports and thus help in controlling rupee outflows to some extent.
Trashigang Dzong
As we moved onwards to Lhuentshe, I received an earful of history from an old man who hitched a ride on our bus. The old man in his typical rustic accent narrated to us the legendary tale of the ruler of Bangtsho who built an underground fortress to ward off Tibetan invasion some centuries ago. The underground fortress is still to be seen today in Bangtsho, Lhuentshe. Some archeologist had found clay pots and other utensils in the fortress.
But most people, the old man said dreaded entering the fortress as they believed the ruler was a Naga king who still lived within the fortress in the form of a serpent.
The old man also showed us a village called Budur in Lhuentshe which in ancient times was famous for its quality bamboos. King’s usually ordered their bamboos from Budur to be made into bows and arrows. But after the advent of modern compound bows, the village has lost its former glory and the name it held for supplying bamboos to the kings.
While on Lhuentshe, I made it a point to visit Takila and catch a glimpse of the ongoing construction of Guru Rinpoche’s statue. The statue which stood almost ten stories tall manifested an ambience of peace, compassion, love and above all majesty.
I had almost completed the survey by then, and had to head back to Thimphu. No matter how much you try and run away from the city, there is a strange feeling of nostalgia that pulls you back to the city.
It was again a long way ride back to Thimphu and I will omit the details as it was like any usual travel in the monsoon. When I reached Thimphu, I call up my friends, dress up in my best jeans and T shirts and head to a Karaoke bar where we drank mango juice and sang loud songs.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My article which came out in Kuensel, Share values slashed tenfold

Share values slashed tenfold 

By lowering prices thus, the exchange hopes to attract more small investors
RSEBL: Company shares traded in the country today would now be ten times cheaper with the royal securities exchange of Bhutan (RSEBL) slashing the face value of each share by ten times.
This means anybody owning 100 shares of any company listed with RSEBL will see their shares increase to 1,000.
RSEBL expects an increase in the number of shareholders in the country by enticing small investors to join the capital market.
The exchange’s chief executive officer Dorji Phuntsho said the idea was to bring down the price of shares, so that it is attractive to a larger number of people.  Reducing the price of shares will also improve liquidity, since the total supply of shares will increase in the market.
However, the value of shares in the market will remain the same, despite an increase in numbers. “It’s like slicing the same apple to more pieces, so that it can be shared among many people,” Dorji Phuntsho said.
When the price of shares decreases in the market, it will also have a psychological influence among investors to buy shares, as it has become cheaper, although the value does not change at all.
It is expected to create more demand for shares in the market, by reducing the price and increasing their total amount, so that there is more to sell and at cheaper rates.  However, it will depend on present shareholders, whether they would offload or sell their shares.
“When the prices of shares are higher, investors feel it’s unaffordable or expensive.”
A decade ago, shares of companies listed with RESBL were sold at a face value of Nu 1,000.  It was then reduced to the existing Nu 100 for the same purpose of increasing affordability and enticing new investors.
If a new company listed with the stock exchange decides to raise money by floating shares through initial public offers, it must accordingly price their shares at Nu 10.  The amount of premium, a company can add on the face value will also come down by the same extent.
This could mean a company would float a total of 35M shares to raise Nu 350M from the market.  Today, at a face value of Nu 100, a company floats only 3M shares to raise the same amount of money.
The local share market today has a total of 62,000 shareholder accounts.  However, since an individual investor can hold more than one account, the total number of individuals holding shares would be less.
The whole idea of increasing people’s participation in the share market should also be complemented through financial literacy, Dorji Phuntsho said.
T-bank’s chief executive officer, Tshering Dorji said, splitting of shares was prevalent in other places like India.
Companies today need not go through a lot of hassle in splitting the shares, as everything has been automatised.  Earlier, it came with a lot of manual work.
The royal securities exchange is also planning to introduce what is called a ‘lot system’. “We’ll be segregating shares into different lots, where each lot will include 100 shares,” Dorji Phuntsho said.
Investors, willing to trade less than 100 shares, will fall in the odd lot, while those willing to sell 100 shares will fall in the even lot.  Separate timing will be set for trading both odd lot and even lot shares.
This, Dorji Phuntsho said, will be done to prevent price manipulation in the market.  Two individuals, a buyer and a seller, could easily bring down the market price of share by drawing up an agreement.
However, when shares are traded in lots, such instances could be prevented, Dorji Phuntsho said.
There are 21 listed companies with the stock exchange today.  The market has a total of 68M shares with a total value of Nu 20.5B.  By bringing down the share price to Nu 10 from the existing Nu 100, the total number of shares will increase to 680M.
Contributed by Nidup Gyeltshen