Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Tobacco Debate

For those of you who do not know, smoking without a tax receipt in Bhutan is illegal and can get you jailed for three years three months. Crime- fourth degree felony.

Finally read the ACT book/text book that we have been debating about. The preamble which justifies the need for the ACT to have been enacted banks on a social, heath and environmental concern that affects our GNH philosophy or something similar on these lines.

Heath wise:
Does domestic violence occur because someone went out for a smoke or drank a bottle of LEGAL whisky? Does the mortality statistics show that the death rate is more due to tobacco consumption or because of alcohol? Or the sooth from kerosene equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day? Accidents due to bad roads? Pharmaceutical drugs? Psychological cases due to broken marriages, which again uncle alcohol is usually present and so on. An interesting thought I came upon today when conversing with someone; what if our parliament constituted of 50% women? We would probably ban or restrict the sale of alcohol and not tobacco.

As a social scientist, I do agree with the ban of smoking in public spaces which are used by children and adults alike, in pubs and clubs and other such spaces and people to be id'ed above 18 and so on, like some western countries do and which is strongly enforced without partiality to any class or strata of the society. But for cops to walk into someone's office, that too a media office? I thought Journalists were the public watchdogs, since when did Journalists get blue dogs around to watch us; sniffing around and waiting for the "crime" to happen? There is respect every individual deserves by virtue of being human, it is called human dignity. When you encroach into someone's private space whether it be raiding an office or a house or a shop or where ever, it sends out the message that their behavior is monitored and if it isn't monitored then there is something inappropriate that could happen. So what are we? Social beings that do not know how to conduct ourselves in social settings? I thought we were done with the colonial age! Socially, there are much more problems this ACT and BAN is creating and will create and sadly the repercussions could be very serious and disastrous. We really have to be mindful of what we are doing and how strategic it is in the long term, most importantly as a DEMOCRATIC nation. Democracy is based on public consensus right? Yes our MPs did voice our concerns but perhaps it is not reflective of the larger audience who want this ACT to be amended.

As a conservationist I know for a fact we are one of the few countries in the world that have negative carbon sequestration, which simply means you need not even worry about air pollution, that too from cigarettes! Please shut the mines and the other heavily polluting non-carbon conscious industries which do much more harm at a greater scale. Let us plant trees instead, or do something that really reflects our urban environmental consciousness and let this “environment” word being dragged and its free flowing usage be done much more mindfully.
Furthermore the Act is named Tobacco CONTROL act; how does one control when there is a BAN and there is no sale? Isn’t the ACT itself very paradoxical?

We should use the budget allocated for the enactment of this ACT and the cost of its implementation including the prison charges of dal roti to build bridges, schools, hospitals, roads, and to lift the 23% who still live below the poverty line, that to me is a clever and smart move!

This text book, is vague, repetitive (we could have saved some paper really, time, energy and salaries of our dear MPs) and the ACT to me appeared to be just one page which is the penalty page and oh my, that makes me shudder, we all know why!

* The usage of the word blue dog is purely metaphorical and should not be mistaken otherwise.

Young Bhutanese Scientist designs eco-friendly Dhobi

Vishma Rai is a second-year computer science engineering student studying in Delhi Technological institute and has recently risen to fame in the international media for his innovative discovery of the fully automated pedal powered washing machine called Dhobi. The President of India will grant him an audience on the 12th of March. He has also been given a semester off by the Institute formerly known as Delhi College of Engineering to commercialize his team’s product Dhobi. Vishma said “I conceptualized the idea at the end of first semester and this project wouldn’t have been successful without my Institute’s support.” Dhobi was awarded the first price for innovative green energy technologies for India in New Delhi last month. He is probably the youngest Bhutanese scientist to have made such an innovative discovery.

Vishma is an alumni of Phuentsholing High School and Yangchenphug Higher Secondary School but is not on a government scholarship; he applied for his United States visa which did not materialize and so he found himself in Delhi Technological Institute. Vishma said “this was a blessing in disguise as the boy’s hostel where there were no washing machines and there was a regular rush to go to a gym and spend a lot of money to avail its facilities to burn calories, inspired me to club both the ideas and come up with the prototype for Dhobi along with my team members,” of whom some are his seniors. The calorie burning, pedal powered, gear system with shafts and a motor, washing machine is aimed to not only make washing an easier affair for rural women populace but it also comes with an idea to break certain engendered social constructions. Women are generally considered technologically incompetent, laundry is seen as a woman’s affair and this machine would inspire change and also inspire men to lose weight and wash clothes thereby making laundry a cost effective family affair.

The Dhobi is based on bicycle components that stimulate motor action. There is also a gear system in place very similar to that of bicycles. An average electric fed washing machine rated at 2200 Watt for a washing cycle of 1.5 hrs costs Nu. 12 and if a household uses it twice a day, it easily comes to Nu. 24, and a monthly expense of Nu. 720. Dhobi is a onetime investment and will cost Nu. 3500 for rural areas and Nu. 4500 for the urban crowd wherein for the urban one there would also be a digitized meter that would monitor how many calories have been burnt. For the urban crowd it is also aimed to reduce unhealthy lazy habits, obesity, hypertension, heart diseases, abnormal blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments for which people either go to a doctor or to the gym. The parts are maintenance free and this machine will never become redundant says Vishma. He further adds “the only thing missing as compared to the electric washing machine is that there is no hot air drying system but the clothes come out significantly dry even without it.”

When asked how he will commercialize the product, he says “through microfinance and social entrepreneurial model adopted by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. He also hopes international bodies like World Bank and Asian Development bank will help distribute it for free. He also says “incorporating innovation and capacity building leads to newer ideas and innovation and would generate employment and lead to a self sufficient society. Helping the poor to be industrious will drastically decrease crime rates and other forms of violence.”

Dhobi is an eco friendly green technology project that harnesses energy, saves electricity and washes clothes. He derives his inspiration from scientists like Thomas Edison and James Watt. Apart from talking about Dhobi, discussing patent law with his Vice Chancellor and meeting eminent Scientists, Vishma is also very interested in E-waste management whereby he wants to supply rural schools in Bhutan discarded computers that can be re-assembled and reused. He also attended two international conferences last year; International Youth Forum, Seliger and World Youth Congress, Turkey and his travel was funded by the Cabinet Minister of Bhutan. He found these conferences online and managed to raise funds. Vishma feels very strongly about being a part of a global village and participating in it.

When asked if he would like to say something to the Bhutanese audience, Vishma said, quite like a scientist “I quote Jonathan Schattke, ‘necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife. And we feel that concept of pedal power washing machine may have struck many minds but few hands have worked it out.” In ten years time Vishma intends to be a Scio-Eco-Entrepreneur a term he hopes will be coined in time.

Deconstructing the Tobacco Act Evidences

If you wondered why Bhutan formulated the Tobacco Control Act then you should think this document to be the child of the parental document, World Health Organization FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control). Bear with me, there are few documents that we need to go through, not the most interesting to read but it sheds light on the unnecessary penalty of the Tobacco Control Act like never before.

On 12th August, 2004 Bhutan was one of the first forty countries to ratify the WHO FCTC. It is one of the most popular United Nations treaties and has 172 signatories. The WHO FCTC “is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health. It represents a paradigm shift in developing a regulatory strategy to address addictive substances; in contrast to previous drug control treaties, the WHO FCTC asserts the importance of demand reduction strategies as well as supply issues.” The document defines tobacco control as “a range of supply, demand and harm reduction strategies that aim to improve the health of a population by eliminating or reducing their consumption of tobacco products and exposure to tobacco smoke.” “The core demand reduction provisions in the WHO FCTC are contained in articles 6-14: price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco (which most countries are implementing and South Korea made US$ 17 million from tax), and non-price measures to reduce the demand for tobacco, namely: protection from exposure to tobacco smoke; regulation of the contents of tobacco products; regulation of tobacco product disclosures; packaging and labeling of tobacco products; education, communication, training and public awareness; tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and, demand reduction measures concerning tobacco dependence and cessation. The core supply reduction provisions in the WHO FCTC are contained in articles 15-17: Illicit trade in tobacco products; sales to and by minors; and, provision of support for economically viable alternative activities.” In some countries like China compensation to people are paid by tobacco factories on health grounds.

While it also encourages countries to take national legislative measures, in Article 13 it also states that parties which have a ban on certain forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship have the sovereign right to ban those forms of cross-border tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship entering their territory and to impose equal penalties as those applicable to domestic advertising, promotion and sponsorship originating from their territory in accordance with their national law. Very importantly it states that it does not endorse or approve of any particular penalty. Most countries that have ratified the convention, especially the European countries are implementing measures where packaging of tobacco products have pictorial representations or stickers which showcase the ill effects of using tobacco or by introducing high percentages of tax and by banning smoking in public spaces and work places. So if the above were the guidelines to frame the historic Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan, what is the basis for the fourth degree felony penalty? The first of its kind in the world!

Now the next document to go through is the recent International Tobacco Control (ITC) Bhutan Project report. The overall objective of the ITC report is to measure the psycho-social and behavioral impact of key national level policies of the WHO FCTC. The study very clearly lists two main limitations of the study in their report. Firstly “the ITC Bhutan survey was conducted before the 2010 Tobacco Control Act, and thus could not measure the impact of 2010 law, with its specific penalties for violations, affected enforcement, the tobacco black market, and smoking in public places. Secondly, the ITC Bhutan survey was not a fully national sample since it was conducted only in four dzongkhags.“ The report is a recent compilation of a survey conducted two years ago therefore the data is out dated. I say outdated because to justify the existence of such a severe penalty in our legal system, recent and accurate data is needed. But since it is a piece of research some good information has come out of it which can later be used as a baseline data or reference point.

The other big problem is extrapolating the results of four dzongkhags to the whole country which is problematic because of individual differences, scoio-economic differences and cultural reasons which have not been considered in the survey. Researchers generally also face the challenge of collecting accurate information especially when government officials are conducting the survey and the truthfulness of the respondents is questionable. Other limitations would be the kind of questions that were asked (the questionnaire was not released in the report) and also linguistic translations when the questions were being asked. One of the preliminary questions had the word “sophistication” and how would that translate in Dzongkha or Sarchop or Nepali or Bumthap? And the biggest flaw of this survey is the sampling. The survey attempted to understand people’s beliefs, attitudes and behavior of tobacco users and non users towards the 2004 national ban, and the sample consisted of 84% (1555) non tobacco users and 16% (251) tobacco users, so every time any percentage was calculated it was obviously sky rocketing 80s and 90s on whatever was being questioned. Now do the math of the match, majority was five times the minority, and so whose ideas would dominate the survey?

Amidst all this sophisticated study, Lyonpo Zangley Dukpa stated that “the results of this study will reinforce our government’s mandate to continue creating strong barriers to the availability of tobacco in Bhutan.“ The report also highly recommends cessation programs, public education campaigns and scientific research. No where does the report speak of penalty or encourages to continue enforcing the penalty. This leaves room for researchers to conduct a psycho-social research on the current scenario after people have been imprisoned for possession of tobacco without a tax receipt. Also a good scientific research should be replicable and the validity of this survey is questionable.

The third report is a recent report published this month called the FCTC “Needs Assessment for the Implementation of the WHO framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Bhutan” and contains international feedback on the report submitted by Bhutanese officials. One of the statements says “Tobacco Control Act goes beyond the Convention by banning cultivation, selling and buying and supply and distribution of tobacco and tobacco products in the whole country. Bhutan became the first and thus far, the only country to have ever embarked on such a course of action.” The comment on the above by FCTC was, “it is therefore recommended that Bhutan may identify other areas such as introducing strong measures like packaging, etc in which it can implement measures beyond those required by the Convention.” This essentially means that Bhutan should try to put stickers or put pictorial messages on tobacco product covers to discourage advertising of tobacco products. The Bhutanese comment on the report also says that Bhutan cannot control packaging of tobacco products available abroad (but since we want to always stand out), it mentions “Bhutan has the opportunity to implement the best packaging and labeling measures,” there we go again, we want the best looking cigarette covers now! This report identifies the gaps and has recommendations on how we should have proper clinics, hot line numbers for people who need help, commercial products which help de-addict nicotine, and really emphasizes to focus on treatment and raising awareness before the enforcement of the law.

The FCTC, ITC, The Tobacco Control Global Progress Report and even the Tobacco Control Act have good motives as their basis, which is to encourage people to live a healthy life, but what was the reason to enact such a severe penalty, the only kind in the world- to curb the use of tobacco? The tobacco control measures should be strategic and aimed towards changing human behavior, converting tobacco users to non tobacco users, through demand reduction strategic means and measures not through punishment, a fourth degree felony! What is this supposed to achieve? Health of the highest standard? How?

I think the ruling government has to really reconsider the amendment of the penalty at the earliest. There is no basis, what so ever for such a penalty to exist in our legal system, that is actively destroying lives of people (27 so far) by imprisoning them and that too on no grounds of reasonable evidence.

Druk Warriors Foundation

Restoring lives transforming souls

In a land of more than a billion and half, you will probably find a maximum of four hundred Bhutanese students in one state of India. India has 28 states and 7 union territories and Bhutanese students are present in almost every nook and corner of the sub continent. Most of them would have never stepped outside Bhutan when they were home; home grown, home bred and home fed. When suddenly you are unleashed into a chaotic world of freedom, the search for one’s individualism seems scarily just to yourself, where family ties are far and forlorn and you yearn for mother’s food, but you are all that you have, and all that you will find. Relationships are put to test, while some adapt over a period of time, others for whom familial relationships are a necessity to live everyday and is otherwise emotionally draining and a feeling of emptiness overpowers, such people have a greater need to associate with fellow Bhutanese. It’s a special feel in a land of a billion strangers to find a Bhutanese. What binds a Bhutanese with a Bhutanese? It is our cultural values.

Most students who aren’t used to living outside home yearn for the community support and friends from home, especially during trouble and sickness and in such a vast land such can be hard to find, easily. Often times people go ashtray, sometimes and most often than not because of drugs. Most drug abusers share stories of rejection in common, be it friends, family or lovers, the rest could be just the curious ones. Adolescence is the curious age.

A common college lifestyle comprises of experimentation and exploration; body, mind and soul. Situation in India is no different, amongst many who come back with accolades of honor from their universities, there are some who never come back and who enter the realm of the dead, some who come back with tuberculosis or some such disease, some who come back with their 12th year mark sheets without completing their degree, just wasting their parent’s or relatives hard earned money and their precious time- I call these the dumb drug abusers.

Amidst such situations in India, which is very similar to the mushrooming scene in Bhutan, a foundation sprung into existence in October 2008 and Ugyen, a young student who died in Bangalore is in most parts responsible for the birth of Druk Warriors foundation. “In October 2008 when my student Ugyen died of drug overdose, he had fallen down from a building and when I saw his dead body, so cold and lifeless yet speaking to me, it was a turning point in my life. I realised certificates and degrees have no value unless we try to understand one another and appreciate our human lives. When I saw him at the morgue covered with blood, I remembered him dancing in Ugyen Academy when I was a teacher there. I felt like I had to do something for my people and I questioned myself, what is the purpose of our life? That is the moment I understood the purpose of my life, which was to help the Bhutanese youth find the purpose of their life, to transform lives and restore souls. That was the beginning of the Druk Warriors foundation,” says founder and mastermind T. B. Rana. Since 2008, he has seen three of his students die of drug overdose and three other because of bike accidents in the city of Bangalore. Since the inception, the foundation has brought back to track many drug abusers who are now clean and are doing exceptionally well in life.

Is prison the solution for drug addicts? I don’t call them addicts, it brings a negative connotation. These abusers firstly need a hug says the founder of Druk Warrior foundation, who I met on a train journey from Banglore to Bhutan. Throughout the journey I could feel the love he had for his students and the nostalgia he felt as he left the city where he had made a difference and touched and saved many lives. T. B. Rana has multiple degrees; M.A in History from Tripura University, PG Leadership, MD Philosophy and contemporary religious studies from Bangalore and has worked as a marketing manager for APTECH in Shillong and as a teacher in Ugyen Academy for four years. He believes that he is still a teacher but he is someone who goes beyond the four walls to reach out to his students and tries to enter their world. He believes that acceptance is what leads to change amongst the abusers and the most effective way is to make them feel loved and as part of a family. Unlike the prison act that the nation is implementing, Rana’s method of love and hugs seems to be a more effective way of de-addiction.

The Druk Warriors Foundation started with one member Jamtsho, who was a student of Rana in Ugyen Academy and was into drugs when he met him in Bangalore. Jamtsho said “when I saw sir in Bangalore, I had fear of not being able to live upto his expectation as a good student that I used to be, and that fear gave me the will power to quit drugs. I also could not go counseling others if I did not change myself.” Today the strength of Druk Foundation is about 200 in the cities of Bangalore and Coimbatore. They do not distribute forms or pamphlets but recruit mainly because of word to mouth form of advertising. Students seem to find the foundation a healthier way to invest their time and sharpen their skills. The presence of an elderly teacher seems to bring much comfort and security to their lives in these metropolitan cities.

The Druk Warriors Foundation aims to promote brotherhood and community values when they are away from home. They also conduct sports and co-curricular activities to promote team spirit amongst the Bhutanese and the international community in India. Other activities include celebrating Bhutanese festivals, visiting institutes and hospitals, conducting seminars and workshops on drug awareness, leadership, character cultivation, live in relationships, love and other topics of relevance in colleges and institutions where Bhutanese students study. They also have a quarterly print magazine called voice of the warriors where students write articles on issues concerning the youth.

The foundation has three divisions. The legal department where LLB students can exercise their knowledge by helping other Bhutanese students in need of legal help or to sort out college matters. For instance, once, a fight broke out between some Manipuri and Bhutanese students. The Manipuri boys were chronic drug addicts and this happened sometime on a Wednesday. On Friday one of the Manipuri boy was found dead and a Bhutanese was arrested on alleged suspect of murder. He was not a member of the Druk Warriors then but Rana says they actively also look out for Bhutanese and ensure that the nation’s name is not tarnished. With the help of Bhutanese Students Association (BSA) and Druk Warriors they hired a lawyer and released the Bhutanese. The Manipuri boy was later suspected to have died because of drug over dose since he possessed pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana.

The second department, sports and cultural caters to organizing international basketball and football tournaments. Recently they organized an international basketball meet where students from thirteen countries participated; Mongolia, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ivory coast- who won the trophy. Deki who was once a vice president said “such tournaments provide a very good platform for the Bhutanese to socialize with other international students and helps them get good exposure.”

The third, Media department is led by students studying computer applications and journalism. These departments seem to provide a platform for students to exercise the skills they learn while in college. The foundation is governed by an elected President and two female and two male vice presidents. They also have in-service candidates studying in Bangalore who help the foundation.

Most Indian cities have a Bhutanese Student’s Association and they receive funds from the government which is one thousand rupees annually per student. It is no news that certain BSAs have on previous occasions misused funds and often times the governing bodies enjoy the fund facilities. When Druk Warriors started they faced a bit of a clash with the BSA. These days people who sign up for Druk Warriors are first made to sign up with the BSA. Druk Warriors foundation was issued a letter by the Department of Adult and Higher Education “recognizing them as a club that counsels students in need and that it should be seen as a wing of the Bhutanese Students Association (BSA) Bangalore.”

Now that T.B Rana has moved back to Bhutan after completing his course in Bangalore, he wishes to expand his foundation and his mission is to use the Druk Warriors model to help children in schools. They want to be present in India wherever BSAs exist and in all high schools in Bhutan. He also wishes to have a forum where students who study abroad and in-country students have a platform to share their thoughts and experiences. While he hopes that the government will recognize the necessity of such a foundation and that they would be interested to fund the Druk Warriors’ projects. Till date most funds have been shelled from his own pocket and also the warriors themselves who pitch in money for their activities. The Druk Warriors hope to become the bridge between the government and the Bhutanese youth.

A love letter to my country

Dearest Bhutan,

I love you unconditionally and I hope it remains so for lifetimes to come should there be many. I write this out of my love for you so please do not weigh me by the word or a phrase or two, it flows as swiftly as a mother’s milk, you couldn’t separate the drops and it flows as spontaneously as it is being suckled. You of all should know that the essence is the essential not the words, nor the phrases nor the full stop or the comma in the right place, the essence itself. I write this for I have gotten into trouble for unleashing words like swords that have pierced systems and institutions and I do apologise, so here comes the writer’s disclaimer. Should it offend you, please treat this to be fiction, should it touch your hearts and rush your mind then please do spend a moment or two and contemplate. For reasons that make me a woman, this is emotional, I guess I think from my heart and my womb and remember the dead and the unborn and worry for them and us all, again, another female trait. I write as a feminine voice, that today holds a high held head but still thinks very deeply from the heart and still sheds tears when need be.

I shall shout and scream here no more, this is the last, it seems pretty futile talking to deaf ears. I shall blame no one no more, it’s like a sour relationship where we all pass the blame game ball and rotate it over an oval ever rotating table. It quite reminds me of passing the parcel game that we all must have played when we were little. We are all to blame; starting from our votes (I am not saying we put the wrong people to power, am talking about the thought of voting ) which usually ended up for our cousins and friends and family members and their friends and so on and perhaps also for the few deserving ones. Most of us voted with our hearts, if you are an exception, I am sure there are many, then I applaud you. We are seldomly known for what we do but more for our father’s name or the bloodline or our ancestral heritage and it bothers me to think, what if you have none of these? These are the Sonam Tsherings. These are the people I am most concerned about.

We are all a part of this, this that is the contemporary scene in Bhutan, in all developmental spheres including this Amend the Tobacco Control ACT page that exists on Facebook for voices; urban educated expressive opinionated voices, voices that care and dare to share. Do not monitor or scrutinize this page and judge its intentions in terrible light but look at this as a new generation of voices, voices that want to participate in the democratic processes, voices that tell you please steer the ship and adjust your sails, for we are all sailing the ship of development and progress towards comfort and happiness, for it carries us all together through time, through thick and thin, let us stick together as a wise intelligent nation, that not only stands high on the mountains but that which makes decisions of the highest thought, the most profound and practical. Many such pages should in-fact be launched, using communication and technology for other policy matters will generate much more nuanced consensus and opinions rather than taking for granted that the people who we elected can read and understand our minds, hearts, conscience and consciousness which I think we did not surrender with our votes. But yes we did give them our voices, which should be their voices, not their individual ones alone. So when you say why were we sleeping when you passed the ACT, I throw that back at you, why did you get elected if you did not come to ask our opinions? Do you only come when in need of votes? So who was half awake?

I do wish to tell you, as a woman, I care, as a citizen too, the thought of people who are currently behind bars torment me, I get nightmares knowing that I hold one of the few pens that will touch your heart or fry your brain, that words come to me and by virtue of my education, I can think and reason, perhaps much better than many as we are a country of mostly farmers and so when I do not stir the storm, voice my concerns I feel hypocritical first of all to myself. Therefore these changing voices, sometimes anger seems to do the job and this I hope is much more subtle and touches your soul somewhere as a Bhutanese, as one of the brick in the wall that makes modern Bhutan. I wish to participate in such an interesting time that you are going through dearest Bhutan, Tobacco ACT and even otherwise as a nation. We are progressing, yes if growth means cars and buildings and all things materialistic. I will not drag GNH into this because that would make this letter an unending one, where again we all have opinions about its construction, perception and implementation. I believe dear Bhutan that we are a happy nation because of everything ancient that is intact, that has been handed down over the generations, with much care and concern, be it nature of which we all at times forget that we are still a part of, culture which again stems from it and both nature and culture evolve. Whether Darwinian or not, evolution is inevitable. As human beings too, we are evolving, the next generation that is born is always more intelligent, I am sure we all told our fathers that and our children will do the same. We all live, age and die, that is the ultimate truth.

I chose to smoke cigarettes when I was in high school, I wasn’t a regular but that was the start. But I chose it just to re-emphasize. Years later, I still do, not very regularly as nicotine doesn’t charm me much anymore but yes I do. When I was in London I used to buy a pack of twenty for roughly Nu.500; cigarettes in England are very expensive. Not very long ago they started a BAN too. They did not ban the choice to smoke, or to produce receipts which usually only air travelers have access to, they rather chose a more strategic implementable method; they banned smoking in public spaces, pubs and clubs and parks and so on. Importing cigarettes from another country into England isn’t allowed, well not for direct flights into England but transit ones can get away with it if you can pocket it into your check in baggage. There are always tricks and means, aren’t there? Dear Bhutan, why am I telling you about England? I have lived there for three years and what I have learnt is that when a reasonable logical system and an implementable one is in place then it is so much reasonable and easier to implement and enforce. Given my Asian looks and our anti-aging genes, I had to produce an identity proof every time I bought a pack, sometimes even for a lighter and bouncers at pubs too do the same for alcohol, strictly 18 and above. They control enforcement and very strictly so, on the sales part, with high end tax and penalizing people who violate the same, especially if they sell to minors. The enforcement is equal and the same for one and all. England itself here is not the example we should follow Bhutan, but perhaps to borrow some of its well functioning system and policies wouldn’t hurt us if from their ancient voyages around the never setting sun and their lessons learnt and wisdom earned can be used for our own need to maneuver our boat in this tobacco storm. What I do find (again this is a personal opinion), is that our own system is run by our hearts, dominated mostly by men’s thoughts (I want more feminine voices since we think differently perhaps we would govern differently), and as for the ego debate let us not ponder on the gender.
As His Majesty says, let us build a good system. Sometimes it is wise to let the system itself change and evolve and so I pledge on this page and the wider audience, let us all contribute, let us all voice our concerns, with words that do not abuse and swear, but reason and converse, let us all participate in this modern Bhutan that we are building, let us make the most prosperous nation in the whole world; we are almost there, we are not too far from the shore. Keep heart.

Ps- I am told, please do confirm, that an ACT when passed cannot be changed for a year even if amended. So dear Bhutan, are you going to keep the victims of the system, so that the system and decisions made prevails? Or, will you think as a Buddhist country, be compassionate and loving and kind, and forgiving and free the monk and others who have little children, and their minds, what will become of the minds I do wonder? The body will wrinkle I know but their minds? Will they fear a ring of smoke or the smell of tobacco, the receipt that they could not produce or the system itself? Are we building fear my dear Bhutan? Building a comfortable country dear Bhutan I think first of all stems from happiness. Oh wait, did you not say that, that is not my line!

Until I return,

I remain yours truly,


Bhutan needs Yaks and Yak Herders

As I gazed into the lush green towering mountains, with one foot in Bhutan and one in Tibet, at a height of 5000 meters; on my right was the majestic Zangtopelri, clad in silver melting summer snow, a mountain that half belongs to Bhutan and half to Tibet, also revered as the abode of Guru Rinpochhe. On my left lay the rocky black mountains, covered with pebbles and boulders too little, too many, that one could easily hurt one’s feet while walking and when you get to the ridges with much difficulty and you are short of breath, you realize what paths the magnificently clever and illusive snow leopards walk and why they love it so much. On these mountains the only humans who have acclimatized themselves are the yak herders, and even them with much experience do at times suffer from altitude sickness. The bases of these alpine mountains are covered with shrubs and rhododendrons and beautifully coloured purples and pink, yellow and red wild flowers, most of which are medicinal herbs. These mountains are accessible after trekking strenuously for three days and are considered one of the most difficult treks. These mountains are also the habitat of some of the most exotic and high altitude living beings in the mountain ecosystem including the snow leopards, cordyceps, hedgehogs, high altitude endangered birds and so on.

Shingphel, the north eastern most village in Bhutan, under Tashi Yangtse dzongkhag is also considered to be a pious Guru Rinpochhe’s ney (pilgrimage) and since the journey matters more than the destination itself, it is the pilgrimage that makes you contemplate on the wonders of life like any other spiritual journey does, be it travelling to places or living life itself, everyday. At an altitude of 3100 meters, the village comprises of five yak herding households and about sixty household members, and 500 yaks, cows and genetically mutated socially considered incompetent and not taken care of- bochus (breed between a yak and a cow, one of the snow leopard’s favourite dish). Yak herders for your information are more politely in western academia now a days, no longer called nomads, or semi nomads, so these semi mobile people live travelling, in between shifting seasons and sheds.

They have sheds for themselves and their animals, and please do not imagine stitched up yak skins, they have quite nice mud pack wooden houses (of course with the regular one hole unhygienic outdoor toilets). In their main settlement Shingphel, they have some expensive possessions as well; television sets, sweets from China, cushions known as Damtse dens’, and yak sized woolen blankets that could keep you warm and make you sleep through the entire winter without waking up. And how can I forget the harsh tobacco, Chinese cigarettes and Lhasai Birak- beer from the roof of the world, nice rice beer and yaksha bathup and chugo! Reminds me, do we not need receipts for tobacco that side, I wonder if they even know of this ACT? The annual shopping list is given one year earlier to the Tibetan traders. I also found the remains of a coral reef which is revered as a jewel in a herder’s altar, lingering scientific proof of the rising of the Himalayas from the Tethys sea. Also, the higher you go the more sand that you encounter, perhaps from the timelessly forgotten beaches.

Over a cup of suja I get questioned and I am thrown rhetoric questions to which I did not have answers to. Is development equally distributed and emphasized in Bhutan? The tshogpa tells me NO; we all know that the cities get the first priorities and here we urbanites sit and complain about rural urban migration and discuss it over tea or the microphone and sleep over it. Another herder tells me that and very strongly so, how important they are to our political system, which I completely agree. Our northern borders are guarded by these yak herders who go through chasing Tibetans to go back to their national territorial space to collect cordyceps or when the Tibetan horseman with a Texan hat occasionally visits, rides in majestically and rides out because he is forced to. They are the ones who guard Bhutan and what do they get in return? Muddy pathless paths, two standing logs for bridges, one for each foot and we complain about our flyovers! Mountains slashed and sliced that your monkey instinct tells you to swing like tarzan to cross a big old log that was strangled to death by falling boulders, that could get your head and smash your skull, bridges that are made of old creaking bamboo nets with loosely strung wires which could give way any day and what if that is your expressway home? Life is hard for them and here we are complaining of pot holes on the road, yes rightly so traffic jams too. Campsites or migratory sheds are tick filled marshy lands, they are beautiful settings and have scenic views, don’t get me wrong, but what good is beauty without comfort?

Cordyceps Sinensis is a caterpillar fungi; when a fungi grows on a half dead caterpillar, it becomes a medical herb of wondrous economic and medicinal value and a kilo of it can fetch the herder roughly eighty thousand Ngultrums. The legalization of the annual harvest of cordyceps was originally an idea to empower the mountain people from the alpine to have an extra source of income and it was His Majesty the fourth King’s idea, but the herders of Shingphel complain, and strongly asserting so because the scenes have changed with democracy. These days the collection of cordyceps have been extended to a larger space and includes places from next to towns till high pass Tibetan mountains. People who live at 1500 m go up to 5000 m to collect cordyceps and the joke amongst the herders is, some cannot stand the altitude and suffer from altitude sickness and head back. They also say sometimes people with their census in the capital cities and so, go back to their gewogs to send a person each for collection only during harvest season. Over brushing the cordyceps with a tooth brush, one herder tells me that “few years back we earned about 3 lakhs from auctioning cordyceps but these days they say to get a lakh is difficult.” One of the herder, a mother of eleven with her youngest one still being breast fed tells me that one of her son is studying in Bangalore and they spend about a lakh ever year. I was amazed. I also suspect that the large herbivores which are the yaks play a very important role in keeping the pastures open, without shrub growth and this should have a link with the growth and size of cordyceps. Both yaks and their herders are crucial for this ecosystem and this country to survive.

Migration is a big problem. How do you solve this problem? Keep the migratory birds happy where they are. So, the herders were a year ago planning to move down to the city/town, change professions to cow herders, and become one of us, really. As much as they love their high mountain passes, where time for them passes moving from a pasture to another, singing songs and smiling under harsh conditions, with no vegetables! They are torn between making a choice of continuing a yak herding tradition they started few decades ago migrating from Sakteng and nearby villages and carefully guarding this kingdom called home, and now they are tempted and lured towards a modern comfortable life where if not anything, there are flat roads to walk and bridges over rivers. Tomorrow should they be gone, tomorrow if they be in T town, for two days you could trek into wilderness and not find a human soul. We live between two giants.
I would like to also take this opportunity to thank all who were a part of this journey that I shared with, porters, ponies, friends- some are dead and some are living, and the hospitality of the herders who are not just tough mountain people, but are very kind and generous. I do hope the concerned authorities will do the necessary and keep Shingphel alive.

We don’t have budget for bridges, roads, pathways, land slide prevention and so on, is a commonly used phrase, I can already hear that familiar phrase ringing again. Can the money spent in implementing the quite unnecessary Tobacco Control Act- in terms of its importance and significance to this nation, please be put to meaningful measures such as these, please?

Looking for Royal Manas National Park

Its 1.12 AM.

I have a bus to catch at six thirty, I do not have a bus ticket and I don't even know if I will get a seat even if I go to check out the bus at 6 in the morning. I don't even know if I will wake up, so I have decided not to sleep. You see I am dedicated traveller, anything for the road.

I haven't packed, nothing new, been travelling for eight years that I pack in eight minutes these days. Throw all that you need in a rucksack and there you go, ready! I am yet to do the throwing bit. I am a lazy traveller, quite a contradiction but I don't shop, I don't buy souvenirs, I am usually a broke traveller, I make do with how much ever money I have, some times its barely a few thousand Ngultrums, at other times I end up home with fifty bucks and honestly I think the best stories are experienced when you are broke, it just has a dramatic effect on what ever you do.

This time, I am headed to Gelephug. I haven't been there for more than 12 years but I still remember my favourite stretch from Tsirang to Gelephug; it had lovely teak forests all around and a straight road where you could drive above 100 km/hr. Straight roads are hard to find in Bhutan, so it was a treat back then to zooom and zooop on a straight highway.

I am headed to Royal Manas National Park to do a pilot study (what a lovely excuse). I want to conduct some research there, plus it is the most biodiverse national park in Bhutan and I haven't been there yet. One horned Rhinos, Wild Buffalo, Tigers, some five different species of big cats and on and on.Currently there is a cat count going on.

It is like heaven I am told. But what is the way to heaven? I don't even know how to get to Manas from Gelephug and I hope, I was told that is the way to go and so I shall see where I will find myself tomorrow.

Gelephug will be sweating hot am sure, right now am in Thimphu wearing a sweatshirt and writing this, tomorrow will be quite another day.

Please pray that I get my bus ticket : ))