Perth, Australia

Opening up, Transformation and Australia Rush define 2022

The year began on 1 January 2022 but in some way the real date for 2022 started from the 17 December 2021 National Day Royal Address of His Majesty The King in Tashichhodzong where His Majesty laid out the many important national tasks ahead like the urgent need to move beyond conventional development to sustainable prosperity, improve our education system, reform the civil service and ensure accountability among other points.

Transformation

It was after this address that in 30 January 2022 around half of the 62 senior executives at the Secretary and Director General level failed to meet expectations and were being managed out.

In February 59 Directors were assessed while one third did not meet expectations and were managed out around one third were found to be promising.

This move sent out the message that the reforms were for real and were starting from the top and also that henceforth civil servants, no matter how senior, would be held accountable.

In December 2022 the RCSC announced that of the 230 P 1 officers who voluntarily took part in the Executive Eligibility Assessment around 34 officers were found outstanding representing around 15 percent of the pool and they will be put on assignments to test their suitability for Executive-level positions.

Throughout the year there were major developments in this field. In March the remaining executives were tasked to see if Bhutan really requires 10 ministries and multiple agencies and how coordination and service delivery can be improved.

This finally resulted in the Civil Service Reform Bill passed in the winter session which did away with the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources and Ministry of Information and Communication by merging their departments into other ministries and created a new Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.

There were several other changes at the department levels too.

 Again teams of senior civil servants and experts worked on the Clean Wage concept which not only restructured the pay of the civil service to make it more transparent by clubbing allowances with pay, but also introduced the concept of Performance Based Incentives which was passed as law in the winter session.

The RCSC in the meantime also introduced the RADA rules to make civil servants more accountable, and is currently working on improving the Performance Management System (PMS) to help reward individual performance.

The assessment did not stop at the civil service as DHI, SOEs and RMA also underwent assessment.

Another major and visible move of the transformation reform was in the tourism sector which reopened in 23 September with major changes like a USD 200 SDF, only three star and above hotels allowed to keep tourists, a liberalized Minimum Daily Package Rate whereby tourists only need pay the USD 200 SDF and need to follow a strict itinerary with choice of stay, food, transport and guides.

The above were the visible reforms, however, transformation reforms were also playing out in several sectors. The Education sector is also undergoing reforms in its courses and teaching systems while the Royal University of Bhutan will be redoing all the RUB courses to make courses more job centric and aligned to the market.

His Majesty The King’s candid Royal Address to the Parliament in November 2022 brought out the importance and aims of the reforms as His Majesty talked about challenges in various sectors and also how the aim is to eventually help people like Karma Dechen lead a better life.

Though predating the Transformation exercises the Gyalsung Bill was an important Bill passed in Parliament for the youth.

Though not a part of the Transformation reforms the government also inspired by long term goals for the nation took the bold decisions of bringing about the Property Tax Bill that revised land and property taxes untouched since 1992, and also brought the Tax Bill that raised taxes on junk food, tobacco, furniture, plastics, cement to improve health and local industries and also raise revenue. It also reduced customs duties on essential imports so that these can be imported from third countries in cases their supply from India is impacted.

Opening up

Towards November and December 2021, Bhutan saw the rapid rise of the Omicron variant across the world and this combined with efforts to get workers for the Punatsangchu II project and other sites resulted in a breach in Wangdue in January that spread across Bhutan and resulted in lockdown from 16 January 2022 onwards.

There were also several cases of Omicron in the borders areas and schools which were supposed to be contained, but the highly transmissible nature of the virus only meant cases kept going up.

Bhutan put up a brave fight till mid March and by then the high vaccination rate, the milder nature of Omicron and huge economic pressures lead to a decision to live with the virus and protect the vulnerable and so a series of relaxations were implemented from 28 March 2022 onwards that started with allowing vehicle movements and offices and then culminated in schools opening and the 7-day quarantine from high risk areas being done away with.

The opening up lead to high infection rates that peaked by April and then went down by July with a slight uptick again in September. 

The opening up was also tied with efforts for economic recovery and so despite limited resources the government put a higher capital allocation with focus on skilling, ICT, infrastructure, renewable energy etc.

The Monetary Measures IV was also implemented to continue to provide a soft financial cushion for sectors under stress due to the pandemic like hotels, manufacturing etc.

The Australia Rush 

The Australia Rush did not start in 2022 as it had its roots going back all the way to even before 2008 and it kept steadily increasing over the years with a noticeable jump from 2016 onwards.

However, three things happened which led to a huge rush in 2022.

The pandemic in 2020 and 2021 created a huge backlog who could now travel only in 2022 along with the 2022 travelers.

Secondly, Australia had made visa conditions more attractive as the 20 hour per week working cap had been removed from February and made limitless for students due to the labour shortage.

Thirdly, with the large numbers of Bhutanese doing well there and economic conditions not improving in Bhutan, there was a huge ‘word of mouth’ and pull factor as many resigned and left.

The Australia rush affected all segments, but its impact was most telling on civil servants as larger than usual numbers put up their resignation and left.

This led to shortages across government agencies.

Another segment that was hit were large numbers of fresh graduates who no longer applied for the RCSC or local jobs, but applied to go to Australia instead.

This became the biggest crisis of 2022 as this huge migration would mean a depleting labour force and population in the longer run.

However, given the almost herd like rush the hidden dangers are the Australian government announcing the work cap of 20 hours per week will come back in 2023 July, a housing shortage and a looming recession and how it will impact the jobs that Bhutanese seek.

Investigation

The Bhutanese early in the year launched an investigation into the online Enagic Pyramid Scheme that sold water making unproven health claims and also recruited many Bhutanese into an expensive pyramid scheme.

This resulted in the OCP investigating it and declaring it a pyramid scheme.

The paper in a series of investigative stories showed how Phajo Nidup had duped banks and private parties leading to several double and triple mortgages and also Nu 800 mn in NPL.

The ACC is investigating the case and so far has found that he bribed mid-level and junior officials across agencies.

The paper also did a detailed investigation on how the Omicron breach from Wangdue happened which was also acknowledged by the government.

The paper in a series of articles brought out that fact that Bhutan is overpaying for fuel to India by as much as Nu 35 per liter and paying around Nu 11 higher than Nepal.

The article resulted in the Ministry of Economic Affairs writing to its counterpart in India and agreeing to hold talks to resolve the issue and come up with an MoU.

The paper also investigated how 300 plus cancer patients in 3 years and 8 months where given treatment on a Radiotherapy machine that could not penetrate into deep seated tumors.

The paper looked into the story of the how the National CSI Board Director who had been detained was appointed by the government despite an ongoing case against him.

The paper took a comprehensive look into the factors behind the high rates of sexual assault and molestation of children and women in Bhutan. 

The paper also looked into the monopoly of Karma Feed and the lack of a suitable competitor as many chickens died.

This paper also did a story on how BBS was being made to sign an Annual Performance Compact with the MoIC 30 years after BBS had been delinked from the MoIC. This brought up the issue of the Public Broadcaster Status to BBS given by the 2018 ICM Act.

There were also other smaller investigations and follow ups done by the paper.

Hydropower

In hydropower the most important event of the year was the visit of the Indian Power Secretary in November when the 10,000 MW by 2020 was given a quiet burial.

Before that the 600 MW Joint Venture Kholongchu project was stopped due to differences between SJVNL and DGPC as there were issues over management control, method of raising financing and also SJVNL’s refusal to give 20 percent of the dam and power house works to CDCL.

There was no agreement over the P 1 right bank as Bhutan’s proposal to build a barrage was not accepted by an Indian team and so a joint team was formed to resolve the issue in six months.

In the beginning of the year BHEL sued Mangdechu Project for deducting its bank guarantee over a faulty unit’s repairs, but the issued was settled amicably as the two governments stepped in.

Bhutan also decided to built its own mini hydro projects which showed a way for the future. The 720 MW Mangdechu continues to be the lone bright spot as it generated revenue despite a faulty unit from BHEL and was successfully handed over.

The future promise now lies in the 1,220 MW P II project which is 93 percent completed with the aim to complete by October 2024.

Crime

In crime the year started with Khandu Wangmo getting a total of 30 years’ imprisonment with 21 years for sedition and another 9 years for a criminal conspiracy.

The other big case of the year was when the former JDWNRH President and Trongsa Dzongda Lhab Dorji stabbed an ACC Director and assaulted an ACC Commissioner.

The year also saw a high number of five prison break outs.

The BEO owners got convicted for 7 years and 11 months each for forgery in the Learn and Earn program for Japan.

The ACC investigated the MDP in Phuentsholing where wide scale bribery of customs officials was found.

Youth Icons

The year saw the rise of three youth icons.  The first was Miss Bhutan Tashi Chombal Dorji who was open about her Lesbian sexuality and life story covered by the paper. This story garnered a lot of international attention and buzz. She is competing in the Miss Universe pageant.

The second was Pawo Choyning Dorji who secured an Oscar nomination for his film ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,’ and was awarded the Druk Thuksey as the youngest recipient and the first film maker.

The third was Ryhaan Giri who did well in the Voice of Nepal and was perhaps Bhutan’s best Ambassador ever to Nepal.

Drayangs, Schools and Bars

The government made a major move in shutting down all Drayangs and there was a lot of debate around the issue.

There was bad news for private schools with class 11 and 12 as government schools absorbed students in large numbers and what would happen to them and the teachers was a major issue.

From July the government allowed the sale of alcohol for those with restaurant licenses.

Controversial cases

The death of Sostika Gurung while in quarantine also lead to a lot of controversy and a BMHC investigation. The paper covered the story in depth.

The controversial case of Dil Bahadhur Chhetri Neopani accused of molesting school girls generated a lot of interest and the paper did an in depth piece on it leaving it to the readers to decide.

Cordycep collectors from Wangdue and other parts of the country refused to respect the collection grounds granted to the Lunaps and scuffles and stone throwing ensued in the highlands resulting in one accidental death of a Cordycep collector after a warning shot seems to have gone wrong.

Others

A major development in mining was the Dolomite and Gypsum mines being handed over to SMCL which ended the debate over the Mining Bill.

The CT scan machine saw breakdowns. 

One disturbing trend was that Bhutan’s fertility rate dropping below replacement rate as it hit 1.8 births rate in 2022 from 1.9 in 2021. The replacement rate is 2.

The Thimphu Thromde announced heavy fines for various offences but its own clock tower facelift look did not please people.

There was also Nu 8 mn embezzled from its revenue account.

The Judiciary announced a series of new rules it was drafting to prevent conflict of interest, improve services and ensure better quality judgments.

The year also saw the rise of two new parties Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa headed by former MP Kinga Tshering and another new party to be headed by former Land Secretary Dasho Pema Chewang.

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