The Bhutanese takes a look back the year 2021 with a critical eye through its news breaks, critical stories and investigations.
The year 2021 started with the second national lockdown still on after a 25-year-old woman tested positive in a Thimphu flu clinic on 20th December.
There were gasps of disbelief as the daily tolls mounted mainly in the epicenter of Thimphu and Paro, and the mounting cases showed that the virus this time was more infectious than during the first lockdown in August 2020.
The Bhutanese did investigative stories in January that showed how the second outbreak had happened due to numerous lapses at various levels (see story on pg 1).
The second national lockdown was better designed and organized than the first one and so people did not face as much inconveniences in accessing basic supplies like vegetables and fruits. Certain businesses like industries and exports could also operate lessening the economic impact though small businesses were hit hard.
Like in the first lockdown the key role was played by volunteers like Dessups who not only ensured that the lockdown was followed well but they also helped deliver services.
Many public servants also slept in their offices in teams coordinating supplies and services.
The lockdown gradually started unlocking first in the 18 Dzongkhags and then finally in Thimphu and Paro.
In January itself, this paper found that recovered COVID-19 patients were suffering from long COVID or its lingering impacts.
As soon as the long second lockdown was lifted there was much crowding and laxity witnessed in Thimphu and other urban areas which would not be a good omen for events to come later.
A sour point during the lockdown was the high BPC bills which had been adjusted as BPC meter readers were unable to do meter reading during the lockdown.
The year did start on a positive development as Bhutan completed its largest international rescue of 160 Bhutanese women from Iraq on the Command of His Majesty The King. These women who were misled by agents were mainly working in nightmarish conditions.
The Royal Kashos on Civil Service Reform and Education Reform were symbolically handed over to the people 1st February 2021.
It was found that the dam site of the much delayed P-1 project would have to be abandoned after a cost Nu 23 bn with the proposal of building a barrage site. As the year ends there is no complete agreement yet to the barrage proposal.
The much talked about Criminal Conspiracy and Sedition case came to light where this paper did a series of stories to bring the facts to light (see story on pg 1).
An ACC in transition with a lone Commissioner took the decision to not look into the appointment of DNT leader Tenzin Lekphell as BIMSTEC Secretary General after a request was made by the National Council.
This was controversial as the full Commission was not yet formed and it was in contravention of ACC’s stand in 2015 when it looked to check for any conflict of interest in the import of electric vehicles on the request of the former Prime Minister.
In an embarrassment for the OAG the Supreme Court accepted the ACC’s appeal in the Jatan Prasad Lal Prasad (JPLP) after the OAG declined to appeal. The Supreme Court later convicted JPLP after ACC took over the prosecution.
This paper launched a major investigation into allegations of corruption in the export and transport of Gypsum. The ACC later investigated the case but could not collect vital data from Nepal and India and halted the investigation saying it will open the case again if new information comes to light (see story on page 5).
The Khamdang-Ramjar MP was detained and later convicted over building a road in a restricted border area. He had to later step down from his post.
The government also rolled back its January announcement of generous pay for youth willing to train and work in the Build Bhutan Project.
This was the year also in which this paper carried out many stories on the issues and needs of the Special Education (SEN) like limited SEN teachers, little budget, limited facilities and inclusive schools, an outdated curriculum and little future beyond class 10 (see story on page 4). The paper also highlighted the lack of adequately trained therapists for children in need.
This paper broke the news that SMCL was getting double the price for dolomite from the same Chunaikhola dolomite mine compared to Jigme Mining who earlier operated the mine. The company also announced a record pay out of Nu 1.2 bn to 443 shareholders to close its company which was a 5831% return.
Many parents also protested the additional fees they had to pay for the extension of the 2020 academic year.
On 27th March mass vaccination with Astra Zeneca was rolled out. At a time when slow vaccine rollouts and vaccine hesitancy hampered the world, Bhutan became a positive global example.
ACC decided to investigate the Thimphu Thromde’s Multi Level Car Park (MLCP) project based on a series of investigative stories by The Bhutanese on the controversial project (see story on pg 1).
Bhutan celebrated World Autism Awareness day on 2nd April as thousands of children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have little to no help with a shortage of trained people and poor awareness of the disability.
On 16th April after a 10-year-old class four boy in Phuentsholing Lower Secondary School and his mother tested positive a lockdown of the three thromdes and all satellite towns in the south were ordered.
Large scale testing done in the next few weeks and months would show outbreaks not only in Phuentsholing, but also Samtse and Samdrupjongkhar. However, Phuentsholing was the worst hit and would be in continuous lockdown for more than 100 days till 10th August 2021 having a major impact on the border town.
The cases in the south coincided with the second wave in India caused by the more infectious and deadly B.1.617 variant later named as the Delta variant which had managed to breach into Bhutan.
The high spread also showed the airborne nature of the virus which the WHO recognized even though a bit late and was updated by the MoH that started to emphasize on ventilation.
Thimphu got a scare on 20th April when three staff at a quarantine hotel tested positive with a cook even violating protocol to move around, but luckily all his contacts tested negative.
28th April was poll day for Thromde elections in Thimphu, Phuentsholing (voting done in lockdown house to house) and Gelephu and all three thromdes went for change.
It was in May that Penjore was detained for 16 days after the OAG filed a defamation complaint. This paper did a series of stories on this important issue (see story on page 20).
In May a picture of His Majesty The King having his lunch near a border outpost brought home the leadership taken by His Majesty to fight the latest outbreak with numerous visits to the affected areas to oversee measures and also encourage health staff and volunteers. His Majesty entered the 7-day quarantine numerous times.
Right from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 His Majesty provided important leadership and inspiration that made Bhutan a global success story, and led from the front to control any outbreaks.
In the same month this paper did a story on how the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader planned to campaign in the two bye-elections in Mongar (which became vacant after the conviction of the Home Minister Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen in May 2021) and Nanglam (which became vacant due to the death of MP Choida Jamtsho in April) despite the pandemic in the south. They decided not to campaign after they came in for much public criticism.
In June it was confirmed that the Delta strain was the predominant strain in Bhutan explaining the massive outbreaks in the South and especially Phuentsholing. Of the 30 samples sent around 87% was delta with 10% being Beta and only 3% being Alpha.
The Annual Budget for 2021-22 showed a record fiscal deficit of 8.59% or Nu 17 bn in shortfall which showed the economic and revenue woes and also led to austerity measures by the government.
On 12th June Thimphu went into lockdown for 72 hours after a school boy tested positive on the antigen test but later he and his contacts all came out negative on the RT-PCR.
It was in this month that this paper did an investigative story on how massive and uncontrollable tobacco smuggling is likely to bring in COVID. In the same month the Parliament legalized the import and sale of tobacco.
A security company was fined with nu 5 mn after its guard who tested positive was found mixing with Indian drivers.
Good news came as the USA sent in 500,000 Moderna doses that would be used as the second dose as part of the more effective mixed dose regime.
As the government decided to not reopen Drayangs on moral grounds this paper did stories to show that as per surveys and studies most Drayang girls are happy with their work environment and transactional sex is low, and how shutting down Drayangs would push them into a more vulnerable situation.
FCBL had to buyback Nu 84 million worth of ginger after India forbid its import from Bhutan showing a growing difficulty in exporting vegetables to India.
Bhutan got its first tourist in this month after 21 days of quarantine but tourism was later shut down again in order to prepare better.
As Kabul fell to the Taliban in August this paper got a unique Bhutanese perspective on their occupation and the chaos by interviewing a Bhutanese who was working in the UN there.
On 24th August Bhutan made its debut at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo with three athletes and para-athlete Chimi Dema who qualified on her own (story on page 4).
September started with a major rebellion within DNT as 5 DNT MPs openly came out against the Prime Minister’s choice for Karma Dorji as the new Labour Minister. They claimed many other MPs also felt the same. They felt there were more senior or deserving MPs, but the rebellion did not challenge the PM’s overall leadership.
This paper also did a story showing that the new Labour Minister’s IT company had won a Nu 81 mn tender in 2020 and so this would be the first minister whose company is implementing a government project. Lyonpo committed to transfer his 80% holding of the company to his family members.
The paper did a series of investigative stories to show a nexus of journalists, SSB, Customs and a local political actor in Jaigaon extorting Bhutanese exports and even imports into Bhutan and larger corruption in the border area (see story on page 1). The paper also highlighted how the boulder exports from Bhutan had come to a standstill due to issues in West Bengal.
The paper also documented the growing numbers of sex workers in the capital due to the pandemic.
After relaxations after the second dose the paper reported on people crowding pubs and karaokes in Thimphu and partying away without masks.
The month of September also brought to light the BPC sexual harassment case.
HM The Gyaltsuen and October
13th October 2020 was not only the 10th Anniversary of the Royal Wedding but more importantly Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen completed 10 eventful years on the throne and Her Majesty’s contribution through her engagement with the Environment, Waste Management, Bhutan Red Cross Society, OGOP, Ability Bhutan Society and her Majesty’s role during the second lockdown.
The Bhutanese brought out and investigated the Sherubtse Harassment case where 10 female students had filed a harassment complaint against assistant lecturer Dorji Phuntsho where the college had taken very limited action (see story on pg 9).
The paper also brought out a story about how a minor in Punakha accused her step father of rape a month ago but the local police were yet to charge sheet the case and the step father was in fact out on bail. After this story the Punakha police sent the case for prosecution.
October was also an eventful month for the border talks with China as both countries signed a Three-Step Roadmap for expediting the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations.
The Prime Minister also formally asked the GNHC to review the five-year planning system to either improve it or have something else in place with the main aim being flexibility.
The month of November saw the state of the economy getting a close look by the paper.
With 77 percent of the total population being vaccinated there was growing pressure on the government to open up. However, the Prime Minister made it clear that any opening up will only be done gradually with combatting COVID as the main consideration.
A RMA stress test found that NPLs would jump from the current 14% to 29% after the deferment ends in June 2022. The Finance Minister proposed a longer loan period as a way forward.
The MoH found that despite having 150,000 Pfizer doses it cannot use it to vaccinate those from 5 to 11 as the dilution required would not fit in the vaccine bottle.
The PM revealed the government’s plans to borrow heavily to revive the economy the avoid a GDP slump during the 2023-2024 transition.
The paper also brought out the increasing difficulties in trading with India through restrictions and hurdles to Bhutan’s various exports.
An investigative story showed how certain cabinet ministers had a second luxury duty vehicle in the form of the Nu 3.2 mn Hybrid Toyota Camry.
The Royal Audit Authority’s (RAAs) expressed alarm over rising non-hydro debt, rising fiscal deficit and falling revenue.
The government’s 12th plan revenue projection dropped from Nu 217 bn to Nu 179 which is a drop by 38 bn. This 179 bn is also well below the Nu 194 bn current expenditure outlay of the 12th plan. This is expected to impact the overall size of the 12th plan.
In the meantime, Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air are suffering with 1.8 bn in losses.
From the end of November this paper started reporting on the spread of Omicron across the world.
Accountability in December
In December, The Bhutanese did a major story showing how Bhutan maybe turning into a remittance economy as the record remittance in 2020 and 2021 overtakes Tourism, FDI, CIT and BIT. The paper looked at both the pros and cons of the remittances.
The paper also looked at the dangers of Omicron to Bhutan as it arrived in India and how it can impact Bhutan’s health and economic recovery. The paper pointed to how Omicron poses particular risk to young unvaccinated children and the vulnerable population.
Measures are being enhanced at the airport and border to stop Omicron as it spreads across the world. The RCDC now has gene sequencing capabilities to test for Omicron and 15 samples were tested in December.
The paper also did a story on the MoWHS Minister Tshering Dorji admitting that the well off have got low-cost housing mainly by virtue of their spouses.
The highlight of December 2021 was the National Day address of His Majesty that asked for accountability to help achieve national goals and laid out the need to create greater economic prosperity for the future of the nation.
His Majesty starkly outlined the ground realities and fundamental challenges of Bhutan and what would happen if we cannot resolve them. His Majesty said there was a need to regain the grit and resolve of old to tackle the many serious challenges facing Bhutan in a rapidly changing world.
The accountability message hit home as the Prime Minister declined to present the State of the Nation Report to Parliament formally only sharing a soft copy of the report (which is the ministry and agency wise annual updates) and saying the government must do better.