Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oh Happy Days

Today of all days demands jotting down some of my thoughts. It is literally the beginning of a new day where a beautiful idea is endorsed world over. As the world looks at Bhutan whilst celebrating the first international day of happiness, there are two kinds of emotions I am personally experiencing. One, I am proud to belong to this tiny kingdom in the mountains, out of which came what has now become a global anthem. It's an adrenaline rush and for this excitement we have but our Monarchs to thank. We are the people behind the topic because of their wisdom! How cool is that!

Second, with the excitement comes a personal sense of responsibility- an almost subtle need to try and revere 'happiness' in whatever form it takes. It brings to focus that there is much to life even as we lay wallowing in our current situations. It's about making a conscious decision to stop complaining and try making the best out of what we have got. Believe me, when I say i know- I am not the easiest person to be happy, but I realize today- must be the air- that there can be a tipping point to everything. I can be happy if I allow.

I know the one general criticism to this day is that only one day out of the whole year is observed as the happiness day. Why not everyday? For me, its simple. We can all try to be happy everyday. That to me is progression from a simple idea. Nobody has put a limit to what we can do to achieve and observe our collective happiness. I know- chagrin creeps in the moment we almost negate personal for the sake of collective happiness, but then what would collective be without personal. A huge mass of nothing.

 So my question to you is: would you rather be miserable pointing out faults today of all days? Or, would you join every mind in the world who is thinking of how best to be happy?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Oh! The Dutch Demon in Bhutan

All around the world, people have figured out a system of eating out; it is not unusual to eat less at home and definitely not unusual to pay separately while in a group. It gets me wondering about the evolution of dining etiquettes and the social construct from within this group activity. Dining out in itself is challenging, that the matter of the purse takes it to a whole new level - at least, in Bhutan. The rest of the world has given it a name, and for most –it is the rule. Not for Bhutan. The social construct around going ‘dutch’ is relatively new and has proven on many occasions to be nerve racking.  It is yet to become a norm, and has with it the risk of overriding the general hospitable nature in Bhutanese.
But I figure the general hospitable nature in Bhutanese has its roots in the fact that as a culture, we do not eat out. Guests are welcomed at home where foods aplenty. The restaurant concept is relatively new, and newer still the crowd that eats out. Eating out to an old school Bhutanese meant eating out of the house like a picnic, or at a relative’s place or a friend’s place, but never eating at a restaurant. In this context, the act of reaching out for the purse, soon after eating, might seem a bit odd.
As a society in transition, dealing with the whole new culture of eating out, is actually gnawing at most young Bhutanese in different ways. Here too rightly so, because there is no blueprint as to what norm we should ‘adopt’ with regard to payment. Keeping asides the faux pas of dining itself, the task is to understand the different ‘schools’ currently being established for ‘payment’ methods in Bhutan- albeit, sporadically and unconsciously.
I remember one evening at a cousin’s place; she had travelled out of the country with some colleagues and we were surmising about her trip to Phuket, Thailand. She mentioned that her colleagues were wonderful travel companions, specifically because each one believed in splitting the bill equally. For her and like so many others, this would be a welcome relief to have the awkward issue of payment ‘strategy’ established. This school of thought works mostly with young working professionals, and colleagues.
It adds another dimension though, when in a group, there is only one person who is elder to the rest or is the only opposite sex.  If older and senior by profession, it becomes a case of ‘looking out’ for the young ones, which might deter the splitting of bills. If of the only opposite sex, life is easier as the fairer one, though the issue of age might become a factor to what degree the split will be in one’s favour. This school also includes relatives and family friends; though status will be also an important factor.
Another school sticks to initial experiences, like the first time out with a new set of people, or friends of the one you are trying to woo. God forbid, you don’t want to come across as being tight fisted especially to the friends, let alone your object of interest. With newer set of people, generosity has always been an important, if not deciding factor, for the next stage towards anything.  Our ego plays a role in trying to prove that we are indeed worthy accessories to have. To emulate, my close friend’s then aspiring boyfriend used to foot most of our night out bills. Now when we reminisce about the ‘crazy’ days, he always reminds us of the fact that we always managed to have the most expensive meals, and that we never kept our drinks inside of us long enough to do his spending justice.
And finally, among close friends- it is always a case of each friend footing bills at different times, and this eventually ‘scores out’ expenses, but strengthens friendship. One close friend of mine succinctly described that ‘money should never be given a status among close friends’. He went so far as to buttress his opinion with an anecdote; while he was studying abroad, in their study group there were 3 Americans and then him. Each one loved their daily dose of caffeine. But each one was only getting theirs during the study meetings.  One day my friend decided to buy coffee for all of them, which led to a trend of one buying coffee for everyone on different days. He explained that this was incredibly beneficial in creating camaraderie and building relations, and none of them was incurring a loss-a case of ‘scoring out’. For a highly individualist western society, an uncommon show of ‘community’ proved to be very effective.
For Bhutan, I say it’s still a working process- solely because it’s sporadic and does not include the larger Bhutanese population. I relate to all these schools of thought. It has been many reasons for chagrin- on days when I am fumbling for my purse in my sack-of-a bag and somebody settles the bill, or when I sometimes foot an extremely large bill that eats into my monthly grocery budget.
Personally, I like to believe that in this regard I have laid my demons to rest; I offer when I can afford, but I draw my lines and go strictly dutch with mere acquaintances who have strangers in tow.
Each one will have to decide which school of thought to adopt, or mesh it all together and play it by ear. Having said that, we must not negate that there is still a section of Bhutanese society (a generation preceding us and the rural population) who still doesn’t eat out. For them, eating out will mostly remain a theme associated to special occasions. Just the other day, I attended a spiritual talk given by Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse, and he mentioned of a (western) disciple asking him the remedy to a ‘healthy, wealthy and happy’ life. The remedy he gave strikes even closer to home for us; he told the disciple to at least have 3 meals in a week at home- ‘you are healthy because of eating home cooked meals, wealthy because of money saved by eating in, and happy because you are healthy and wealthy.’
In the same line, I feel eating at home is relatively less stressful, and provides towards cementing relations with your near and dear ones. Plus, it keeps acid reflux at bay.  In retrospect, it is amazing how our parents got it right the first time around; by reserving eating out for special occasions, they have managed to add magic to celebrations.
And that is food for thought. Don’t worry, it’s on the house.

Note: A piece I had written for The Bhutanese in April 2012.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Media Culture

The first photographs of ordinary Bhutanese families surfaced around the 1950s. The family portraits would be a haphazard collection of children, grandparents and relatives, as and when one ran into a photographer. Or so it seems. Frozen monochrome expressions of the whole family; the patriarch standing stoic behind the family, his head held high, with his wife, children, grandparents and relatives by his side. Every Bhutanese will have family portraits from bygone days, commanding the best place on the showcase. My father also has one of family. He is not in the picture, but he still treasures it, most so because the photograph is the only evidence of his parents’ existence.

Surefire - Most Bhutanese families, who had foreign or luxury items would have brought it along for the photo session, to be frozen along in time. Ours, like few families, has a non-descript portable radio in the photograph. A foreign object like a radio would have been the most coveted item in the village. First for obvious reason, it’s foreign and second, it blared out sounds and music at the switch of a button. Who could beat ‘a box that speaks’. I wish I could have been there the first time it was switched on.

I don’t quite remember when radio came into our lives- it was always there. What I remember is the day my father was returning for ‘foreign’ country; my sister and I were beside ourselves with excitement when we saw the TV and VCR player he bought. He also brought along many Walt Disney classics like the Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs, Cinderella, Bambi, etc. It was the most treasured items for the two of us.

Then, came television. The hidden satellite dishes, behind the vegetable patches, was a source of pride for families as it garnered a certain ‘cool’ status in the community. Every Sunday, we would switch on the TV to watch ‘Chitrahar’ on Doordashan and sing along with damsels twirling around trees. It was like clockwork: Sunday, 6:00 am, Chitrahar. The one day my sister and I got up miraculously, without nudges, shouts and screams. And the only day our parents frowned over us for doing the one thing they wanted whole week.

My parents moved base in the early 1990s to the windy town of Yonphula, which put an end to television, but brought about a newer craze for movie watching. There again, we were one of the few families that had a TV set; which automatically meant our house would to be packed by friends, families, acquaintances and strangers watching B grade movies. These movie sessions were extremely interesting and noisy, since being the ones who understood Hindi we were nudged for translation.

Yonphula is the base of Wing 4 of the Royal Bhutan Army. The entire town was built around the army base and only few could afford TV sets then. So, the next best thing was the radio. Everybody in this place had a radio. Radio has been called the poor man’s TV and rightly so; not too heavy on the purse and portable.

My aunt used to run a general store in Yonphula. Her biggest selling items apart from groceries were lead batteries. Eveready lead batteries were used for torches and radios, the two items one couldn’t and wouldn’t do without in a small town - it almost bordered on obsession. So there I would be in my aunt’s shop hoping to be given a treat, watching cowboys, army privates, housewives and teachers come to buy their groceries and batteries. My father was also a regular consumer of the lead batteries; he loved his radio. He had a small portable Panasonic radio, and on this we have heard hundreds of songs, talk shows and drama from neighbouring India, BBC and VOA. However, our own homegrown Bhutan Broadcasting Services (BBSC) was a staple among rural Bhutanese.

In small towns like this one, people become ingenuous with scarce commodities. They saved their batteries by taking them out of the radio, or torches, when not in use or dry them out in the sun. I would sometimes see my father bashing old batteries to make them run on a bit longer. No battery meant no radio; it probably feels the same way we feel when our laptop battery dies out in the middle of skype-ing, or when the electricity goes off during our favorite TV show.

As is evident, change in the media environment has also affected Bhutan in the same way it has many nations worldwide. We are only frantic consumers; no sooner are we exposed to a new technology, along comes a brand new one; and the brand new one we want.

The last 2 decades has been a bombardment of technologies. Most Bhutanese families in the urban areas would have gone through the journey of encountering mass media technology and discarding it for the next big sensation: from VCR to VCD to DVD players, from rotary telephones to numbered buttons to handsets to mobile phones, from spaceship-like stereo systems to portable cassette players to MP3 players to IPod, from box TV to Flat Screen to High Definition to 3D, from newspapers to blogs to social network. Yet, the journey is long from over. There is deep seated desire to be a part of the progressive world, of connectivity and relevance in urban Bhutan, but we quite forget 2/3rd of the population are off grid; no roads or electricity. There, TV is actually just the idiot box, and radio is the victor.

The staying capacity of radio is unsurpassed, challenged but never defeated. Every Bhutanese started off with ‘a voice in a box’; each of us owned or still owns a portable radio, our vehicles still has it, and even our latest mobile phones have it. WHY? Two reasons: it’s all encompassing and non-invasive.

The kishu tharas of Kurtoe are a rage among the ‘nouveau riche’ of Bhutan; women spend hours on color patterns and huge amount of money to find skilled weavers. Kishu tharas are a labor of love and require consistent hard work; it takes anywhere between 9 to 12 months, crouching over her handiwork from dawn to dusk, for a weaver to complete. Ever tried sitting in a particular position for long hours? If not, it can be excruciatingly mundane, and painful. Ever wonder what could be a source of entertainment without their focus being distracted from the kira? Yes, the radio.

Back in 2002, students in Delhi were most thrilled when the Delhi government permitted the launch of many private radio stations. Our hostels did not have TV (except in the common room), so we sought entertainment on radio. “It’s like cable on radio,” we used to comment.

‘It’s like cable on radio” for Thimphu as well. With a handful of entertainment radio stations for the valley and 2 radio stations with widest coverage in Bhutan, most of the Bhutanese population is kept informed. But how well informed are they? As the 4th arm of the government, are we actually and fully aware of our responsibilities as radio jockeys and journalists?

With the more interactive medium of the World Wide Web and subsequent social media, every individual has the potential to reach a wider audience. Anyone with access to the internet has the capacity to be informed; however the issue of authenticity and quality has been left to personal discretion. Therein lies our advantage; radio does not need an internet connection, electricity nor does it need visual focus.

But, radio needs to adhere to a discipline of quality in providing information regarding current affairs, issues, trends, etc. Personally, every radio station in the country needs to outline and define their responsibility. Have a self assessed and realistic image; adhere to certain fundaments of radio broadcast. Much is desired, when a radio show is more of personal rambling that imparting any sort of information. There is a need for strong voice, not inanity, for the listener.

It is a well known fact that every radio station provides community service through public service broadcasting, but I understand that we are on public service every second on air. It might be just entertainment and music, but in it we provide information of particular cultures and create ‘exposure’.

It is a social responsibility to be on air; we are informing many people about many things. We need to do it the right way; we are meeting the media needs of all, including a poor villager who has no other media options. Radio itself is about including the needs of minority, concerned with developing taste, promote understanding, help spread literacy and empower the disadvantaged.

Consider the influence of radio and our voice. It has historical evidence for being the engine of change, and has survived as long as it did because of its relevance. Therefore, we need to act responsibly; know our responsibilities are diverse and complex, mainly because we cannot contemplate the impact of our broadcast.

Just the other day I was watching the movie ‘Inception’. The protagonist and his team extract dreams from people. The whole movie is about ‘planting’ an idea in someone’s mind, so that it grows as their own and becomes them. It’s uncanny how similar their job is to that of a radio jockey or journalist, in that sense. We have the power to ‘plant’ ideas in the public, and so that they make it their own.

So let’s focus on bringing about a positive social attitude through the many programs each radio stations have. Yes, most radio station in the country is entertainment based but we shouldn’t condone insensitive frivolity. Let’s work towards being the medium of change, so that our future will unconsciously acknowledge us by making those ideas into reality. Let’s us be a trusted source of information to our weavers, and dispel their feeling of lethargy. Let’s us still be the ideal partner to housewives in the kitchens, children in the garden, farmers in the fields, cowboys with their cattle and drivers on long journeys. All we need to do is begin- sensibly.

Monday, April 18, 2011


“The Royal Government of Bhutan has prioritized tourism as one of the lead sectors in view of its tremendous potential to generate employment and promote socio-economic development thereby contributing to Gross National Happiness…”

Naturally for 2011, Bhutan is bracing for an unprecedented flow of tourists for all over the world. The government is forecasting around 100,000 high end tourists for this year. Already Association of Bhutan Tour Operators cautioned the number as being too ambitious, and expected only about 60,000 high end guests.

However, three weeks ago a distant occurrence in the Pacific Ocean might change that forecast. As the tsunami hit north-eastern part of Japan, it brings to mind ramifications. When catastrophe of this size hits anywhere in the world now, it’s never an isolated event. Aftershocks and ripples will be felt all over the world. The tragedy will manifest in different ways to different sections of society all over the world. As losses run into trillions, the Japanese will begin their arduous journey of rebuilding their lives.

Countries like USA, Malaysia, etc. have already forecasted how this tsunami detrimentally affects their tourism. But, it isn’t the only sector that will be affected, albeit not directly. For 2010 Bhutan received 40,873 high end tourists and it was calculated that the sector generated a total of 7,481 direct and between 10,320 & 12,120 indirect employment. This number exceeded its own target of 35,000 tourists by nearly 17%. Japanese tourists rank at the top with one of the highest number of tourists in 2010 with 3000+ guests, only surpassed by the Americans.

This year might be a one of those years we will most naturally see a dip in the sector. Phenomena like natural disasters, political instability, radicalism, terrorism, etc are major deterrents to travel. Tourism as a nomenclature is movement of people for travel and leisure for a shorter period of time(less than 1 year). As a tourist destination, a country is laden with the task of convincing normality, tolerance, acceptance, stability, etc to attract guests. It poses a fine balancing act, which requires the ownership of citizens to be responsible towards conveying an accepted normalcy to guests.

It’s a hard act to keep up; especially if there is political unrest and each team is vying for power and legitimacy. The civil riots of early 2010 in Thailand totally annihilated tourism for those couple of months. As a popular transit and tourist destination, Thailand calculated a loss of billions of dollars for that period.

Bhutan is gifted with scenic beauty, unique culture, inimitable philosophy of Gross National Happiness and stable leadership; these attributes coupled with taglines of ‘Last Shangri-La’ and ‘Where Happiness is a Place’ allows us to levy the high tariff of USD 200-250 daily. But, as a country with a population of rare leisure travelers, we mostly play the host.

The difficulties in our tourism sector is, without a doubt, pronounced and professed –subtle acceptance or blatant outcry- in guide books and magazines. Our erstwhile deficiency of professionalism in this service sector was viewed upon as a quirk attributed to most under-developed quaint countries around the world. But the last 4 decades has been a journey towards achieving excellence in service. Introduction of FDI in the hotel industry opened new avenues to exploit standardized etiquettes. As hospitality etiquettes are most vital to tourism, our government has put extra impetus on trainings in hospitality and guiding.

However, it would be good to note that our travel agencies are mostly concentrated on the tariff paying tourist and negligent to the regional tourist, and totally ignorant to local tourists. There is a general agreement that once a tariff paying guest is confirmed, an agency can already estimate its net profits, since a guest will invariably rely on the agency for travel, food, hotel and guide (which the daily tariff must cover.)

Only now are we beginning to capture the importance of regional tourists. Yearly we see a marked rise in Indian tourists filing into the country on holidays. Admitted that due to our wonderful relation with India, they are exempt from paying the high tariff, but the logic is they still require hiring vehicles, guides, eating and sleeping while in the country. Maybe the travel agencies will not be able to estimate a larger and direct profit, but our taxis, restaurants, local handicraft vendors and hotels will benefit. It is opportune that Bhutan is trying to work with companies like MakeMyTrip to boost regional tourist influx now.

To draw light to another aspect of tourism, most of us have noticed and commented the flow of local tourists to popular destinations and sights. Agra as the place of Taj Mahal will probably have equal number of local as well as international tourists. Or any other place of interest in India. Yes, India is a large country with an increasingly large population which without a doubt creates density, but opportunities of self-sustainability also. We are talking about retention of income within a country, and yet looking to improve prospects of exchange of tourists as well.

We can take from them the trend of promoting local tourism in our own country as well. We can begin making local trip or trips within the country attractive. Why is it not done? Mobility isn’t a deterrent now that most regions are connected. As it is, most of the infrastructures are already in place to cater to international tourist; why not make it accessible to locals? It’s an annual trend that every winter Bhutanese travel out of the country for pilgrimage. Where is the retention? It’s not because Bhutan lacks sights of religious interest; in fact, throughout the country such sights are speckled plenty.

What is lacking now and requires is to begin shedding light and commitment towards these strands of tourism. Arguments that most Bhutanese travelers within the country stay at private premises of friends and family are rampant, but this will change very soon if not already. The new and educated lot prefers to pay for the guiltless comfort at hotels. As population increases with increased standard of living, we should be adequately prepared. The whole make of changing society will demand it, even if we profusely refute any mutation in our social fabric.

Even as we implore the loss of our traditional hospitality, we can turn the tables by introducing cultural and religious tourism for our own people. For example, parents should be encouraged to take trips around the country to educate their children on local culture and customs. These kinds of strategies will provide for a well balanced approach to growth within the country, and provide opportunities for firsthand experience.

As a general rule among Bhutanese, we always profess exposure and firsthand experience is the best educator. And it is for the experience we like to travel and see places; otherwise wouldn’t a text or photograph suffice? Why not try to mint some monies as well as bring regional development and cultural enrichment this way? As affluent Bhutanese are slowly beginning to travel out of the country for leisure, it will be also be socially and economically responsible to promote local tourism.

Always banking on international guests might be risky, considering no event elsewhere is isolated. Already because of the tsunami our tour operators have large number of cancellations with Japanese tourists. Chances are the numbers of cancellation of travel plans with other international tourists will increase. As we are indirectly affected by the tsunami, so are other nations that have trade relations with Japan. These ripples will irrevocably affect rungs of society all around the world.

As rebuilding begins in Japan, industrial raw materials, labor and taxes are bound to rise. Everybody is bound to feel the pinch. As a tourist destination, our tour agents will be the first one to be hit. As tourist numbers decreases, so must the number of hired freelance guides and drivers. Indirectly income of taxi drivers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, potters, shopkeepers, etc will all decrease. Banks will also feel effects by way of fewer deposits, and less interest accrued.

This tragic event for Japan might be a time for Bhutan to assess current trends, explore diversity and have contingencies for tourism growth. The risk of globalization is as it meshes economies, it also brings forth manifestations from a seemingly isolated event. Isolation in this age is only physical, if ever it is.

* Article for The Journalist, 3rd April 2011.

Private Sector

It was Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations that said, "The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion indeed, but for any considerable time altogether.”

The price of monopoly in Bhutan was the highest during the time when it can be got. For a long time, a product monopolized by the masses, sought and was awarded the highest. Bhutan has witnessed over the last 40 years modest beginning of small family run general shop and domestic kitchens functioning as eateries. Due to its difficult terrain and the sporadic import of necessary or luxury goods to the country, shopkeepers took to their own discretion to set the value on items, thus monopolizing specific locality. There was no regulation of price, till the mid-1990s. The uncertainty of product availability, coupled with the sole ownership/provider in the market fueled consumers to begrudgingly indulge the providers.

When the market is monopolized, complacency and inertia are rampant; why possibly spend money to better products or services when there is already such a high demand? So a free market must exist to bring about competition, which because of market law will demand a showcase of ingenuity and creativity for survival.

It cannot be truer for Bhutan; though the whole process of divestment and commitment to foster private sector growth began during the 6th Five Year Plan it has taken the Bhutanese private sector a long time to establish itself as an equal partner in the economic development.

Earlier, the Royal Government of Bhutan played a leading role in developing the modern sector, due to the lack of capital and private sector capacity. Most of the initiatives towards development in tourism, manufacturing, mining, etc. were under public expenditure. Further, social services like education, health, etc. were provided by the government.

From 6th FYP onwards, a planned program of divestment and involvement of private sector partners began. To encourage divestment, a legal and suitable institutional framework was developed for privatization with the Companies Act of Kingdom of Bhutan, 1989, which led to the privatization of Gedu Wood Manufacturing Corporation, and corporatization of Druk Air, etc.

The commitment of the Bhutanese government towards fostering private sector growth with planned strategies of tax holidays, subsidization of goods & services, etc. has led to private partnership or ownership in most sectors. Slowly, but surely sectors like tourism, transport, wood industries were opened and eventually privatized. The business environment in these sectors are cut-throat and incredibly competent. There is a conscious effort to better products and services to capture the largest slice of the market.

With a more suitable legal framework for competition in the country, the economic environment has seen a marked as well as positive change of attitude towards consumers. With more players competing for a small market, the level playing field is riddled with obstacles and challenges.

Public sector involvement in various enterprises still exists, for strategic significance, but priorities were set by the government for stage wise privatization. The Bhutanese government has limited its role to few enterprises where there is no adequate private sector capacity. Now, free competition is more readily encouraged, considering there are some big private sector players. As the market opens up, competition is bound to happen; which is good, since it facilitates economic growth.

When the banking sector in Bhutan opened up to include Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the existing local banks scrambled to better their services and grabbed new age global innovations to entice the public. The Druk Punjab National Bank with its expansive network of banks all across India provided its customers a better ATM service, which allowed customers better access to cash– this was an instant hit among Bhutanese travelers and parents of students studying in India. Soon enough, Bank of Bhutan introduced MasterCard and BOB-Axis Bank Prepaid card for the Bhutanese public. With this, there is a huge array of services like internet banking, SMS banking, credit card and ATM facilities, competent interest rates, etc. for the public to choose from.

In 2007, the launching of Bhutan Times caused a wave of revivalism within Kuensel Corporation. There was frantic implementation of new marketing strategies within a short period of time; Kuensel’s decisions to print bi-weekly, daily, and providing e-newspaper are but trends swayed by fierce competition with the 6 odd newspaper firms now in the country. Gone are the days when an announcement would suffice for advertisement; TV and radio ads are becoming prolific.

Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation as the only national TV channel in the country also faces competition from Multi Service Operators (MSOs) like Norling Cable Operators and Etho Metho Cable Operators. Keeping aside the fact that these MSOs function more as a music TV channel with a perennial line up of amateur video for popular songs (in several languages), and though not licensed under the BICMA Act 2006 to broadcast information, they are still used by private enterprises for advertisements of their businesses.

Bhutan Telecom as the only mobile service in the country has over 145,000 subscribers irrespective of the service charges. As the only mobile service provider BMobile monopolized the Bhutanese market for over 5 years; there were changes in tariff rates, as and when it felt was time, but never much a dash from survival. The dash came with the advent of a new mobile service provider, TashiCell in early 2008. Tariff rates dropped drastically as well as new promotional schemes were introduced by BMobile. It is interesting to note here that earlier subscribers to the BMobile’s prepaid service had to recharge their vouchers at zero balance. However, it was a pleasant surprise after the launch of TashiCell, BMobile subscribers could opt to utilize credit talk time till Nu. -15, which was deducted from the next renewal, but gave callers flexibility. BMobile’s concern for obvious reasons laid in retention of old as well as attracting new users.

Bhutan Telecom also provided the first ever internet connectivity, which to begin with was 50 kbps. As more players like Druk InfoComm Pvt. Ltd. and Samden Tech. Pvt. Ltd. joined the rat race, rates dropped and services became better overnight. Subscribers could begin to demand best service for best price. Now the platter offers broadband, wireless sim, 3G, etc. for the lowest cost possible.

As more rival companies join the market, the existing firms begins to realize that there is no pot of gold, but a tremendous amount of hard work to retain the market, and a tastier slice of pie. As one by one the price of monopoly on every commodity and service are knocked off by competition, we see the Bhutanese private sector expand with more choices for the consumers. The size of the market might not grow exponentially, but the opportunity to be get from a vibrant private sector is recognized.

However, there will always be bone of/for contention between the government and private sector, mostly in their priorities of national interest and minting money. There are major steps taken to ensure public-private partnership, so that it enables both parties to do what they can do best in achieving a common goal of more opportunities in employment generation, revenue creation and increasing tax base in the country.

But as private sector develops, the government will have to ensure that the Bhutanese economy will be backed by tangible things and needs to be more economists. The liberalization of capitalism meant the economies were not backed by tangible things but run on speculation and credit. The recent trend hitting Europe is just that.

The Bhutanese private sector accounts for only a small percent of the GDP. Even as the highest sector for employment in the country, the environment is marred by irregularities of enforcement of regulations and lack of transparency. If the private sector needs to grow, the country needs to see a more efficient and competitive financial sector for mobilizing funds and facilitating long term micro, small & medium enterprise growth, as well as a legal framework for public-private partnership for strategic sectors.

Steps are always undertaken by the government to ensure that the private sector does not unhinge. In light that the public has more accessibility to goods and services, for example, the recent ban by the Drugs Regulatory Authority on Pharmacies from bringing un-registered drugs proved highly efficient, and has positive social ramifications. The same goes for psychotropic drugs and cigarettes.

We as Bhutanese have come a long way with our private sector. Gone are the days when a shopkeeper would almost refuse to display items for a possible customer if prior indication of commitment to purchase was not given. Every time we went out shopping, comparisons were invariably drawn between shopkeepers in India and Bhutan. We would draw the nearest comparison across the border from Phuentsholing; Jaigaon as a shopping destination was popular, as the shopkeepers treated the customers like royalty, with ready refreshments and sweet talk.

Circa 2011- Now take a walk around town and observe; our shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and boutiques owners’ erstwhile stony expressions are replaced by smiles and polite inquiry. Though the smile is towards the purse, the power lies with you.

* Article for DRUKPA magazine

Measuring Success

In so much as trying to explain a teacher in Bhutan, one must first try and understand the cultural construct in which this profession took root and from whence we haven’t been able to discard the linear interpretation of that profession.

Yet, when a nation needed to move forward, it was the teachers. Without the zealous loyalty and belief in the government by these groups of people, it would have been difficult altogether to crawl, let alone walk. Initiating a new wheel of learning and schooling, per se, would have required dedicated citizens to believe that wheel was taking them someplace better.

Talk to any educated person, from the erstwhile environs of rural life with an understanding that education was the red robes of the monastic body, and you will receive varying stories and impressions of bittersweet- stories of many strange men on horseback, claiming to be government teachers and looking for students to take along for ‘modern’ education; some parents were strong enough to believe that there is a better life which the government was offering for their children, and then of course, there were those who hid theirs behind barns, under hay or on rooftops. From these stories you can begin to take impression of what a teacher’s job consisted back then; for a nation that needed to teach, it also needed learners. The provincial mindset of a rural population must have needed much convincing, knowing too well that suspicion are rampant in ignorance.

The dedication of a young ‘modern’ nation can be traced in the provision of basic necessities to every student willing or willed to study; from toothpaste & brush, bedding, hostel and food. I also like to believe they were directly exposed to a well established system and holistic approach of learning. India as the only development partner provided a replica of their education system as well as their wealth of both native and foreign teachers, besides admission of Bhutanese students in their schools.

Back home, the many Jesuit nuns and fathers in the country were given the responsibility to shape and nurture the young Bhutanese minds. Most obviously, their responsibility always laid in guiding the few local teachers. The education system was holistic as it focused on not just books, but on activities like gardening, crocheting, baking, knitting, singing, housekeeping, games, music etc. Most of our country’s erstwhile students were not necessarily young, considering some of them were teenagers when they enrolled. Yet, they were given wholesome education to understand their own talents. Trying to teach a new form of art in a foreign language must have been a task; like teaching a young child, but without much the capacity to absorb as easily.

Through conversations one understands a hostel student’s day was scheduled to include these various activities of learning, and they were also given the task of taking care of the younger students. Most students then were boarders, as parents did not have the capacity to provide for or were generally far away. Every aspect of growth was the responsibility of teachers and the school administration. For the right reasons, teachers and the job as a profession were viewed with a great deal of respect among the population. Culturally, these groups were responsible for sowing seeds that are still taking roots. As imparters of knowledge, they had begun the process of learning in the country.

However, as the civil service base expanded, and came due importance to other forms of profession and employment, the educators were sidelined. Teachers on horsebacks were stories of the past. Perhaps, there is a need for us to understand the slow but steady sidelining of this profession.

As the Indian teachers slowly filed their way back to India, there was an increase of educated Bhutanese who took over the profession. As policies towards larger employment and training home grown teachers were initiated, it became an easier profession to choose. But when anything is made any easier than it was, it provides for laxity towards it.

As the laxity grew, so did the boundaries of the profession. It may not necessarily be the first choice for any graduate, at any level, and yet, the job requires for a kind of dedication an impassioned individual can only have towards a chosen ambition. Besides try and mold their teaching skills to the newest system introduced and of course, impart their knowledge to the students, they are also required to deal with several forms of life skills and advocacy programs.

Development policies are generally required to be implemented and considering the teachers are the main link to society, they are overburdened and made responsible for various initiatives of many ministries. There is always one or the other introduction and up-gradation program happening within the country and educators are invariably required to be part of the program: why? Because they are important to society. Teachers by virtue of their profession are connected through the students to their parents, who make up the community and of course, the students are the future of the nation.

Then why is there condescension toward the profession in our society?

Especially, now when the responsibility of a teacher is far greater; with several more lesson plans to be pre-produced, theories to be tested out before lecture, and the global trend of adolescence hitting Bhutan. The subsequent global policies on protection which are required to be inculcated in the system, gives way to unchartered territory for students as well as teachers. Don’t get me wrong; protection for both the students and teachers are necessary, but considering the mindset of Bhutanese people, this has created inhibition amongst the educators. I don’t condone capital punishment, nor is it right for a student to use any form of reprimand as grounds for complaints against the school management, without proper assessment.

Add on further responsibilities of being members to several clubs, committees, sub-committees, et al, which focuses to bring about wholesome education, and a teacher is exhausted come dusk.

In trying to bring about wholesome education, there is a need to recognize whether the same teachers were brought up with the same form of education. How should this work? Should knowledge and systemic approach work or should there be an innate capacity to recognize these nuances in educating also taken into consideration? How does the mindset of a teacher, brought under the old system of education try and deal with students with attitude? Is it always as easy as prescribed?

As educators in this new age world of information, the job of teaching just doesn’t stop with the text book. In a sense, a teacher, by profession has to be aware to different changes taking place. I believe the biggest problem is the change in attitude; not just within the profession, but with the students. The ‘cockiness’ is bound to have existed, but it’s become more pronounced. Who do we place the blame on for this trend taking place all over the country, and more so in the urban areas?

Are teachers really required to do so much? Or should we call upon our community to be involved? Why should prevention exercise happen only at school, and not also at home? When I began this article, I talked about the linear understanding of the profession. In linear, I meant as the least attractive job, mostly defined by a monotonous schedule of having to teach every single day, and having to deal with students.

Yet, there is no linear in their responsibilities, and there never has been. In the olden days, teachers were responsible for the curriculum and also the life and growth of students, since most of their lives were spent in boarding schools.

In this day and age, we still demand the same, when every other thing has changed around us. In trying to explore the responsibilities of a teacher, we might want to explore the responsibilities of parents, community, society and the students as well? Are we making our jobs easier by putting everything onto the teachers? What does that say about the parenting trends of the country or the acceptance of our society to such trends?

We may have to try and re-evaluate our education system vis-à-vis trends in society, familial ties and the responsibility of the government towards these disturbing, yet emerging trends.

“A teacher’s reach cannot be measured or fathom”, and yet, we serve as tangible proof towards a profession imbued in a dedication to pass down our knowledge and wisdom.

We should at least try and find ways to bring to light the journey towards modern education began under humble circumstances and was brought about by common people. Perhaps then, all those nasty, uncalled for comments may subside to bring glory back to the profession. We should let the assumption of regression subside and aim for wholesome community ingrained progress.

* Article for DRUKPA magazine, March Edition 2011.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Haunts & Dreams

If there is a way consumed by irony, it would be this way that points to you but leads me away. As I turn to see you find your path, my regret clouds your face and I can’t see beyond my own nose. So this is what it means….that I have to decide to say goodbye to my dreams and hopes.

And now, the yearning, the damned yearning which is banging against my resolve…...circumventing in an existence of plain will. I know yearnings are an integral part of being human, and sometimes challenging nature can cause so much unnecessary pain. Yet, my confusion doesn’t lie in the fact that I am yearning for the things I have lost. No, not at all- everything happens for growth. Otherwise, what really is the purpose of it all?

What is life, if it is coated in ego, which in turn is coated in inhibition? And what is inhibition when expressed as indifference? I sit now crouched with a desire to let know, but tied down by inexplicable fear of general hostility and indifference. Everything, everywhere and everybody feels indifference or hostile till proven otherwise…again the banging on walls. Yet it’s funny how we require proof for everything, and demand total ‘unseen’ trust. How does one capture faith in times of ignominious display of trailing drool and slob? And why are we so bent on proving our faith, trust, loyalty and even love? Is it a show by way of action that amounts to proof? Or should we just stick to our guts?

Giving up hope feels like accepting defeat. Yet, there is no proof as to what defeat is in this circumstance. There is no prior experience to this life I am living. Should I base it on my feeling and emotions? But as feelings go, they are subjective and individually bound. And emotions are sometimes baseless; in the sense that I have nothing concrete to base it on without a counter display of proof.

But again, a gut feeling is as instinctive as it is baseless. What is our destiny if it isn’t an echo of something both visceral and haunting? Are we all not haunted by our dreams and hopes? Doesn’t our gut make us puke as a sign of intuition? Makes me think that it is almost tragic to realize that we are haunted not by nightmares, but mostly by unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes and unrequited love?

And in it all, funny how I should be haunted by a face so so far away….imagined perhaps, but I guess I shall never know. There is no more proof that I even know of such a face. My problem is I base my experiences on moments that stick beyond time and retain an essence greater than exchanges- beyond a collision of space, breathes and lives.

Perhaps it is true- that we are as old as our experiences. But it’s not the experiences that makes us old, but the haunting of lost moments that draw out life and sucks us dry. It is living with the knowledge of understanding, and living surrealism, epiphanies and miracles, and then having to resign to never feeling the same euphoria. The memory of such moments of euphoria is the ghost that follows us all- taunting, teasing and mocking each of us and telling tales of how it used to be when we were young, in life and at heart. As scars appear and reappear, the true essence of it all is really truly lost. A scar is a scar, seen or hidden, which never really fades. I guess wise means knowing too well a good thing is a rarity. Finding and fulfilling our destiny stands as much a chance as finding soul mates or Ali Baba’s cave. My dream had a code I didn’t even know how to decipher.

As I weave a new journey on dashed dreams, I wonder if I will ever be rid of that haunting. Will I be proven right by my gut or proven right by my resignation? I wonder if I will find retribution for this burn or if I may find it redundant like a balm on old scars. Chances of this being the redundant balm is pretty darn high- see, experience marking territories on dreams.

At the end of it all everything was chance, that one moment I caught something different of me in your smile. I can still hear the click, the first time I realized I shall never be the same from here on. And I am not.