Commentary by Tenzing Lamsang
A few days after I joined Kuensel in March 2008, a senior editor took me aside for ‘a talk’ on the sensitive areas of my work that were to be covered, if at all, with kid gloves. Key among them was the Government of India, its organizations and their projects in Bhutan. The senior editor told me that the Indian Embassy would be quick to take up any stories critical of them with the Royal Government, which in turn, may be obliged to take up the issue with the paper.
I was surprised, having got my grounding in the Indian Express Newspaper in Delhi from 2006-2008, where hard-hitting stories involving the Indian government and its senior most figures were the staple.
As a Bhutanese citizen, I was pained at the double standards of India – in claiming to be the world’s largest democracy with a free press, but its embassy in Bhutan not extending the same courtesy to the comparatively mild, fledgling Bhutanese media.
As any professional journalist, I decided to take my senior’s advice as optional – one that can be put aside if the right stories came my way.
My first tiff with the Indian Embassy came up sooner than I wished – a few weeks later (April and May 2008) when I published two investigative stories on the Nu 160 mn resurfacing of the Paro International Airport by Project Dantak.
I reported on the poor quality of the resurfacing work, which was due to an illegal sub-contracting by Dantak to a Siliguri road contractor with no prior airport-paving experience. The runway had multiple bumps, which, according to the pilots I interviewed, could lead to accidents.
During rainfalls, water collected on the uneven surfaces that could cause dangerous skids off the runway. Moreover, the blacktop was already coming off in patches.
Though my report was toned down by the paper, the offshoot was an official complaint against me by no less than, the then, Indian Ambassador to, the then, acting MoIC Secretary, Phala Dorji (and now Bhutan Airlines MD).
I’m happy to report that the runway was tornup completely and the job was redone by Dantak themselves and not the Siliguri road contractor.
Dantak and the Indian Embassy pulled its mighty weight in May 2008 again when I published a story on Dantak not following Environment Friendly Road Construction (EFRC) on the widening of the Thimphu-Phuentsholing and Thimphu-Paro highways. Contravening the commitment of the Dantak to follow the EFRC with the RGoB, by which mud and stones would be dumped in selected sites, it was instead just pushing them off the sides with devastating impact on flora and fauna below the highway.
There was also potential danger to the Tala and Chukha hydro power projects due to such heavy sedimentation and dumping.
I did my interviews and was about to publish a second and more critical piece on the issue, when the then Managing Director of Kuensel, Dasho Kinley Dorji, called me in the corridor between his office and the editorial hall and told me about a call he got from the Dantak headquarters.
Dasho said that a senior officer in Dantak told him that if I went ahead with my next piece on the matter, Dantak would be compelled to stop all construction activity in Bhutan – including the Phuentsholing-Thimphu and other highways.
This threat was disguised in the excuse that my stories were leading to questions being asked from New Delhi, and so all senior Dantak officials would have to head back to Delhi to explain the issue, which would mean freezing of all construction activities in Bhutan.
My first instinct was to go ahead and publish, daring Dantak to do the unthinkable, but the Kuensel management buried the story in what it felt was the national interest.
In 2009, I had the rare distinction of being the first Bhutanese journalist to call up and question an Indian Power Secretary. The secretary H.S Brahma, in his statements to the Indian media, had said that India did not have enough funds for the 10,000 MW by 2020 project in Bhutan.
He sounded both apprehensive and surprised to be questioned by a Bhutanese journalist over the phone. I brought up the 10,000 MW by 2020 commitment – including the grant component and asked if his views, reported in the Indian media, contradicted the commitment between the two governments. A bit stumped, he gave a diplomatic reply that said nothing concrete.
Based on this phone call, I did a story in Kuensel reminding the Indian government of the 10,000 MW by 2020 commitment along with the need for a fair grant component. The story is there in the Kuensel archives.
Unfair JV Agreements
In 2010, I joined Bhutan’s first business paper, Business Bhutan, as a News Editor.
In May 2011, I did a story about three household-sized drains in the Tala surge shaft that were leaking water into the entire mountainside. These holes should have been sealed by the contractor (Jaiprakash) after construction in 2006. The story also exposed the substandard quality of the automated and other electric parts supplied by the Indian Public Sector Undertaking BHEL in Tala.
This time, the PHPA management (that also constructed Tala) and BHEL both took umbrage, as it showed both the Indian contractor and the Indian government company BHEL in poor light. BHEL, through official channels, wanted a retraction of the article, which we refused. In a public letter, BHEL accused me and Business Bhutan of trying to undermine, ‘…Indo-Bhutan relations’.
Reflecting the lack of understanding of Bhutan in India, a prominent Indian scholar on Bhutan, Medha Bisht (of the IDSA think tank) wrote a paper where she pointed to my story as part of an upsurge in ‘anti-India sentiments’ in Bhutan.
Just as this storm was dying down, another bigger one rose in June 2011 when I did a story on the unreasonably harsh terms that Indian PSU’s companies were demanding from Bhutan on the four hydropower joint venture projects.
The Indian PSUs did not want to give the mandatory free royalty power to the RGoB, wanted to restrict domestic use of the power by Bhutan and they also did not want to give the project back for free after 30 years, but wanted to sell it back to RGoB at the then market value.
The Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC),which was negotiating from the Bhutanese side was facing stiff resistance from profit hungry Indian PSUs.
A major front cover story in Business Bhutan led to public outrage in Bhutan and transformed this issue into a political one – with even the National Council taking up the issue.
A National Council member told me that in a closed door meeting between the then NC and the DGPC MD, the MD mentioned how my stories had the collateral impact on strengthening the negotiating position of DGPC.
When Bhutan was negotiating for tariff increases for the Chukha project, I carried stories detailing how Chukha has benefitted India more through cheap tariff rates over the years.
While in Business Bhutan, I also pointed to the failure of the Indian government to meet its commitment of a railway line from Hashimara to the Pasakha area in several stories.
LPG Subsidy Removal
The Bhutanese newspaper was launched in February 2012 with me at the helm. During the 2013 elections,as every Bhutanese knows, the Indian government withdrew the LPG and Kerosene subsidy. I have subsequently stated my view that this was completely unwarranted and even unnecessary – in part due to the fact that DPT was well on its way to losing due to entirely domestic factors, like the economy, corruption and governance.
Even today, I hold the view that this incident in 2013 was an unwelcome development. It was a blow to the principles of respect, goodwill and trust in Indo-Bhutan relations.
Keeping An Eye on 10,000 MW
Over the years, The Bhutanese has exposed several holes in the 10,000 MW deal, and was the first to point out and criticize India’s reluctance to go beyond the current ongoing projects and the four JVs.
As a result, we have been the only paper that has consistently and aggressively followed the 2560 MW Sunkosh project and the 2640 MW Kuri Gongri reservoir projects that India is hesitating to implement. Both projects hold tremendous potential to improve, not only hydro revenue, but also our industrial base by assuring stable power supply during the lean winter months.
We have continuously pointed out and criticized India’s attempts to backtrack from the preferred Inter-Government model by proposing loan or JV model for these projects.
The Bhutanese was the first to comprehensively report on Bangladesh wanting to invest in Bhutan’s hydropower sector. We have since written numerous articles and editorials lobbying in favour of Bangladesh investment in Bhutan’s hydro sector, as it would give Bhutan a separate option, apart from the current monopoly buyer, which is India.
The Bhutanese was the first and only paper to uncover and give consistent coverage on the unfair and one-sided Cross Border Trade in Electricity (CBTE) Guidelines. We uncovered the story in April 2017 and followed up with multiple stories and stinging editorials against CBTE and the Indian government. It was only until recently that other media houses picked up on the issue.
We pointed out that the CBTE regulations issued in December 2016 by India is not in Bhutan’s interests – as it had provisions that put Bhutan at a disadvantage in setting future tariff rates beyond the current government to government formula, denied Bhutan access to India’s primary power market where tariff rates are more competitive, and it restricted the type of hydropower investments that could be made in Bhutan. CBTE even asked that any power trading company exporting power to India from another country would be required to have 51 percent Indian ownership.
In a rare show of defiance by any Bhutanese government till date the government has refused to sign on the Concession Agreement for the JV projects that India is hankering after until the CBTE is resolved.
BBIN and Regional Tourism
My paper has closely followed the BBIN issue from day one. We ultimately we took a stand against BBIN in November 2016 by not only publishing the NC’s apprehensions in detail, but following it up with a stinging editorial endorsing the NC’s stand, and criticizing the government for trying to push BBIN down Bhutan’s throat. Apart from the paper’s stand, I also reflected my personal opposition to BBIN in four social media posts on my Facebook profile in November 2016.
The Bhutanese has also been at the forefront of opposing the tremendous growth in the number of regional tourists mostly coming in from India, that threaten our high value and low impact tourism, and could turn us into another crowded, polluted hill station. Through stories and editorials, we have supported the efforts of the TCB to try and limit this tourist rush from India.
All of the above has not come without any observations from senior officials in the Indian Embassy.
In 2017, during the opening summer session of Parliament, I had a senior Indian diplomat walk over to me and ask me what other ‘anti-India’ articles I was working on. My witness to this encounter is the Prime Minister himself, who was well within earshot.
In a public event later in the Indian Embassy in 2017, at the height of the Doklam crisis, I had another encounter where again a senior diplomat walked up to me over a buffet dinner and accused me of writing several articles that ‘bashed India.’
A source of mine in the government even let me know that the Indian Embassy had raised issues with some of my Doklam articles.
Another source in the government also told me how the Indian Embassy, stung by my hydropower articles, has often wondered aloud with our officials on how and why confidential issues on hydropower are coming in my paper’s front pages.
To be fair, the Indian Embassy has become much less reactive compared to my Kuensel days, and I credit this in part to our overall government system and officials being able to deflect such issues, and also to our media fraternity for pushing the boundaries.
Political Scores and Indian Lackey Accusation
Now this brings us to the uncomfortable issue of how despite all of the above facts, some people, both anonymously and openly on the social media, accuse me of being a lackey of India.
The answer has to mainly do with a darker aspect of our young democracy.
Apart from the above stories, I was also engaged in doing investigative stories, not to spite anyone, but stories based on reaction to actual events on the ground and complaints by the poor, and oppressed. Some of these were Gyelpozhing, Education City, Bhutan Lottery, Denchi, other Land scams etc., all of which affected powerful people in the country.
Some politicians and their allies, unable to defend any of these stories, started floating theories of me being an Indian lackey, or even better a ‘spy’! This is a common charge made against investigative journalists across the world by abusive or dictatorial regimes.
Such baseless rumors among others was floated and pumped relentlessly into the political rumor network to discredit me and my investigative stories, for which I have won four back-to-back best investigative journalist awards. It is now again being revived by the same network with the 2018 elections close at hand.
In spite of all the above body of work, I seem to be subject to special scrutiny by some commentators and my detractors, whenever it comes to India.
When the Doklam issue first emerged, almost all media outlets in Bhutan carried the press releases issued by RGoB and Indian Government on Doklam. This was at a time when information was still hazy, and the press releases were the only reliable sources of information. I took the additional step of even including the Chinese statement on the issue.
Interestingly, of all the papers and editors, I was the only one chosen to be hauled over the coals by some in the social media.
During the Doklam crisis, I felt that as a patriotic Bhutanese citizen, and as a senior journalist, it was high time to let the regional and international media know Bhutan’s views on the matter and also highlight the unequal relationship with India.
Through a series of articles in the Indian media, I pointed to some basic truths. One was that it was Indian security at stake and thus it was India holding up the resolution of Bhutan’s border issue with China. I talked about the tremendous one sided sacrifices made by Bhutan to safeguard India’s security interests. I also mentioned the unfair trade balance and non fulfillment of commitments in the hydropower sector that adversely affected Bhutan’s economy, and how this actually is the biggest issue between the two countries.
However, this, as usual, was never enough for the powerful political forces and their instruments in the social media, bent on settling scores with me for my earlier investigative stories.
Despite accusations and rumors over the years – aimed to cut deep, I had so far chosen not to respond. Firstly, these are blatant lies and I had better things to do. Secondly, a reaction would be giving in to the base instincts of those spreading the rumors, and most importantly, I did not want to come across as a braggart talking of my stories and work. I thought they would speak for themselves.
However, as the old saying goes, a lie repeated enough times is taken as the truth. As someone whose profession is to seek and speak and write about truth, expose lies and corruption wherever and whenever I see them, I feel obliged to make a comprehensive response that will hopefully put to rest the wild allegations being made about and against me and my paper.
I know that no matter what I say, or what the facts are, I will always have people who will consider me as their enemy. For me, it comes with the territory. And the fact that some powerful people feel so hurt and angry with me is validation of my dedication to my work, and all the principles by which I have chosen to make my living. Because my work is to expose misuse of power, corruption, cheating and in doing so, contribute in some way to the noble goals espoused by His Majesty The King; A just, united, progressive, clean and self-reliant nation.
The writer is the Editor of the paper