Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Save the herons

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Opinions

For a country that preaches the gospel of environmental conservation, the death of five young White Bellied Herons reported sometime in June this year must come as a huge blow. Given the total world population of the white bellied heron at 200 of which 30 are in Bhutan, it is a big loss to Bhutan’s much touted rich biodiversity.

The incident reveals that conservation efforts to protect one of the most endangered bird species on the planet are not up to the mark. So it seems.

Environmentalists have consistently raised awareness on how these birds are being threatened by human activities, calling for a more holistic approach to protect the birds. Somehow it seems not enough has been done. It’s a wakeup call to step up our conservation efforts beyond mere lip service.

The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) and the National Environment Commission have been putting in measures to protect the bird’s habitat. However, over the last few years, increased human settlement and activities near the natural habitat of the birds have disturbed the ecosystem. And with the constructions of Punatshangchu hydropower project underway, environmentalists have repeatedly warned that this could pose huge risks to the birds, which are on the brink of extinction.

While it raises the perennial debate over conservation versus development, we must not forget that each single life of the bird is precious. This would be, if we manage well, one of Bhutan’s greatest contributions to ecological welfare.

There is a need to balance, as usual, our approach toward development and environmental protection. Indeed, we need to seriously rethink how to address this fragile issue of sustaining the birds by keeping the ecosystem intact, with limited or no human interference in the area. To do that, the government must first put in place strict vigilance system and declare the area out of bound.

Second, there must be advanced technological set up and research labs that will trace and study the birds. This could help in collecting valuable information and data which could be used in framing certain policies.

Environmentalists are getting on board local communities to work on the protection of the birds. The significance of the White Bellied Heron needs to be understood by the people so that there is least human impact on the ecosystem, if at all.

Above all, the government needs to have the political will to conserve the environment and protect the birds. This might come at the expense of certain developmental activities.  If not, the government must take appropriate measures so that natural habitats are not disturbed and the ecosystem of the birds is protected. The environmental cause to protect the endangered birds must not be lost. We have lost five birds; we should not let this repeat!

 

Safety First!

Posted: September 25, 2010 in No- nonsense, Opinions

The neighboring hills of Kalimpong and Darjeeling are favorite destinations for tertiary education to children of many average middle class Bhutanese families. Particularly for two reasons that is – because of proximity of the colleges and affordability of tuition fees.

The tradition goes a long way back to the 50’s and 60’s when the Bhutanese nobility started sending their children to these places for their education. A majority of government officials of rank and file are products of colleges from the hills.

Even today, hundreds of Bhutanese students graduate from numerous colleges in the region every year. Until recently, the hills have been ideal educational hub but for the ongoing political turmoil and unrest there.

More than 500 Bhutanese students are at present pursing various undergraduate courses there, exposed to vulnerabilities of all sorts. In a recent incident a few Bhutanese students were dragged into a political procession under coercion.

Although there have not been any reports of assault or unlikely mishap, this incident only reaffirms the fact that Bhutanese students are not free from possible danger. There are reasons to be concerned (but not to be alarmed or frantic), after all it is a matter of safety of Bhutanese students studying there.

Parents must be aware of the ongoing political tensions and the impending risks to their children, both in terms of their education and security. This is not to discourage parents from sending their children to the hills but a cautionary note. Often colleges have been disrupted during political strikes stranding students amid political confusion and upheaval in the hills and worrying parents back home.

The logical solution is to stop students from going to the hills, at least until political calm is restored. But that is easier said than done. Many parents cannot afford to send children to other parts of India or for that matter abroad for studies given the expensive college fees.

Therefore, the onus falls on the government ultimately, to create avenues for tertiary education within the country. The government must encourage private colleges that offer affordable education to Bhutanese students. This will not only solve ongoing difficulties faced by students studying abroad but will also boost tertiary education facilities in the long run.

Bhutan is planning to become an education hub in the region with plans to attract foreign students to the country. We might as well start by providing facilities to attract our students to study in our own private colleges first.

Mission Abortion

Posted: September 25, 2010 in Opinions

The issue of abortion has been swept under the rug either or we have turned a deliberate blind eye and nurtured a sense of stoic indifference over time. We are shocked quite often though, when a dead and disowned foetus emerges from the heaps of garbage dump or is extracted from sewerage pipelines.

Our Buddhist compassion is deeply aroused momentarily, which is again mixed with a sense of disgust for the woman ‘who could commit such extreme an act’. That is it? We do not look beyond the obvious. We just play to the popular tunes of stereotypes and stigmas and miss out the larger picture.

The issues of right to abortion or the contrary, the right to life of the unborn, need sincere and honest discourse, at all levels of Bhutanese society. Two things are crystal clear – abortion is a taboo from the highly dogmatic Buddhist perspective and it is unlawful from the legal point of view. These are rigid systems that would not move easily.

Sandwiched, as women might find themselves, between these two overbearing structures of power, yet, we cannot deny that Bhutanese women are not aborting unwanted child. Every year hundreds of women cross the border to the strange and dirty back alleys of Jaigaon and Siliguri further down. In these clandestine locales and unsafe hands, away from the glare of social stigmatization and legal consequences back at home, Bhutanese women risk their lives to undergo abortion. Just recently, a young woman died of post abortion complications.

Is the issue of legality of abortion posing danger to young lives of woman, or is it lack of access to safe abortion? Should abortion be legalized will the situation improve in any way? Do women have the right to abortion or shouldn’t there be considerations for the rights of the unborn child?

The debate over the ‘rightness’ or the ‘wrongness’ of abortion is as complex as it seems simple. It is simple because the decision to abort a child is entirely an individual’s (under varying circumstances) right to freedom of choice. It is complex because abortion includes an unthinking and immature, unborn child who also has a right to life. The complexity becomes murkier when women resort to unsafe abortion, sometimes resulting in death.

There is a need to protect individual’s right and at the same, the right of an unborn. How do we address these dual issues?

Perhaps, the first step toward it would be by shedding certain sociocultural biases, followed by candid expressions of what must prevail – in legal terms.

Legal, religious and social barriers have far reaching consequences, but it should not come at the cost of a life.

Test of fire

Posted: August 28, 2010 in Opinions

Bhutan’s infant democracy is progressing in all its multifaceted aspects. It is a proud feeling that democracy is here to stay. The initial fears and doubts that much of the time clouded the beginning of the democratic experiment have ebbed away. There is now a growing sense of confidence in the new political system. So they say well begun is half done.

We have erected the best of democratic institutions and put in place a Constitution that is in itself all encompassing. Yet, we have a long way to go. It is a process that will be tested and tried and only time will tell how strong a foundation we have laid.

The system that we are building at present must withstand the consistent denudation of time and space. Only then would we have succeeded in claiming that we have established a sound, credible and a strong democracy.

The process of creating a democratic culture cannot be completed overnight, though. What bodes well is that people are increasingly becoming aware and conscious of their rights and they understand democratic system and values, now more than ever. There is still a need to reach out to many rural populations, permeating through the geographic walls that create divide and imbalance. Empowerment must take place at the grass roots.

The good news is the much awaited Local Government elections may take place very soon. Adding to the prolonged delay, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) is still facing shortage of candidates. If this is due to political apathy, it is high time we shed our misgivings and participate in the democratic process. If this is due to capable leadership vacuum, our young graduates must make the best of this opportunity. Our young must play a more active role.

The ECB is just two elections old. It is learning by doing. In times to come, there will be obstacles that will need to be overcome. The test has just started. Consistency in conducting free and fair elections for all times to come will be a crucial challenge.

In another incident, the minority opposition party has sued the government for an alleged Constitutional breach. This reflects that we have a system of check and balance. That even a majority government is accountable to the people.

The government of the day has a responsibility and mandate to fulfill. By all means, the conduct must be in tune with the law, devoid of any vested political interest. As the first democratically elected government, it must set a precedence of par excellence.

Meanwhile, it is very likely that the judiciary will face more of these cases in the future. This is just a beginning. The people are watching with bated breath. The judiciary’s independence, fairness, and discretion will be tested, over and again.

We have established a system. But it is not free of vulnerabilities. The system will have to stand its ground. Prove!

Red light rendezvous

Posted: August 23, 2010 in Opinions

This will not definitely sound any bizarre. We have had heard of such stories thousand times or more, either through the tragic-romantic portrayals in the media, or from juicy gossip mongers or the unstoppable rumor mills. These are stories of nightingales of the dark, forced by desperate circumstances to live off a profession that many scorn at.

It is a social ill, if we want to see it that way, prejudiced by the prevailing ideas and ideals. Prostitution is never and perhaps will never be recognized as a decent way of livelihood. Because at the core is society’s well structured and often times, rigid bigotry against what they call the debasement of popular values.

Yet, we forget, in blissful ignorance or rather arrogance that they are offsprings of dire strait circumstances. No one is born a sex worker. They are made.

In a close semblance of an organized prostitution in the capital, half a dozen sex workers tiptoe in and around what has come to be known as the Chinese line. Their modus operandi is simple and there’s nothing ill at ease about anything.

The sex workers wait for clients, negotiate a price and leave for love hotels during the day or for joyrides in the night. After the consummation of the sexual act, they return to the restaurant, to wait for another client. Period.

The irony is all this is happening right under the nose of the city police station. If what we have heard is truer than we believe, the police are aware of what is happening there. Yet, what can’t stop confusing us more is why nothing is being done.

We are not saying the sex workers or those seeking favors need to be criminalized, although the law is clear on that. The issue at hand is how to rehabilitate the sex workers back into the mainstream society.  How do we give them a second chance to live a decent life?

May be the idea of legalizing prostitution is a farfetched, not even a sanely possible, attempt. It would be a radical move but it’s worth giving a thought. Why not if legalization of prostitution could work out better deals, where health workers and nongovernment organizations championing women’s cause, can reach out to them in a more effective way? The subtle way in which the underground prostitution operates could do us more harm.

The government has greater political goals to achieve and social problems of this magnitude may seem insignificant. However, at the backdrop of the rising number of HIV cases in the country, this high risk group needs the utmost attention.

Besides everything, it is about providing alternative livelihood opportunities to the sex workers. Sooner the better!

Unity in diversity

Posted: August 19, 2010 in Opinions

The popular notion, by and large, is that democracy is the best form of government. Bhutan’s peaceful political transition to a democratic polity is perhaps based on this popular idea.

There is good reason to kowtow this line of thought. Democratic principles place citizens at the center of its universe. It espouses the philosophy of equality, freedom, and human rights and sidelines socioeconomic and cultural hierarchy and discrepancies in a society.

At the level of idea, principle and philosophy, democracy is the perfect system. Only when the nuts and bolts of democracy are scattered out, do we realize that it is much simpler than we thought. Our democratic experiment is a work-in-progress. There is still much to learn through trials and tribulations.

We still need to come out of the trappings of the feudal mentality and cultural hang-ups of the past. As we construct a completely modern society – based on the values and culture of democracy – we must learn to evolve. In the right direction, with the right sense of balance.

Differences in our background, ethnicity, language and cultural sub-identities will always exist.   Differences in opinions and political views and sentiments will always crop up. Democracy therefore has,   in a small nation like ours, a huge potential to create rifts, factions and regionalism. That is the Achilles’ heel of a near perfect system we are trying to put in place.

During the first general elections, we have seen that happen. We have seen close relations between families and relatives rip apart. Let’s face it. Although not outwardly, an undertone of a sense of belongingness to one’s own region, has been strong. In other words, there are differences – in the way people perceive each other.

However, in actuality, this sentiment isn’t wrong. Human as we are. But what can create larger problems is political exploitation, that is in a worst comes to worst scenario. This may not happen, may be never, given the quality of our political leaders and the ideologies of the parties. Yet, the possibility cannot be ignored in future, as we will have more and more political parties, and as we become more politicized every day than the other.

We must think as a nation, always. The socio-cultural and religious differences within ourselves should complement each other. And not divide us. It’s diversity we should celebrate, in unison and rightfully so and not differences.

We are a new democracy – two and half years old – and we are going strong. Amidst all the political changes our country is going through, we must not forget that what binds us together as a country and a people, is the sense of belonging to the Kingdom.

Democracy of dissent

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Opinions

“While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of Patriotism,” – Howard Zinn, historian

Dissent, which literally means a sentiment or philosophy of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or an entity (web meaning), is gradually taking roots in the young, Bhutanese democracy. What was erstwhile a blatant act of rebellion today has toned down to an individual’s freedom to express differing or opposing views. An important hallmark of a vibrant democracy, dissent tears down the imaginary wall existing between the ruler and the ruled, the government and the governed.

The proliferation of mainstream media and technological advancement offer citizens to voice dissent in much easier ways than before. Media pluralism and diversity therefore encourages what media theorists call the ‘public sphere’ where diversity of opinions is accommodated from across all walks of life. This space which belongs to the citizenry is the hotbed of political, social, economic, and religious discourse. In other words, this sphere is democracy in words, letters and voices representing a vast canvas of the electorate.

Not necessarily, all opinions are contrary to prevailing ideas and ideologies. But again, it is not true that all the ruling ideas are quintessentially ‘holier than thou.’ That is where disagreement and opposition plays a vital role. Acknowledging what is fair or foul, true or false, good or bad – now depends on not the wisdom of a select few but the larger section of the people, the mass.

Democracy is therefore not just about institutions and structures; it is more of engagement in public debate and discourse on policies and issues that affect the lives of people. The discussions must be a bottom up process that emerges from the base of the democratic structure – the voters.

For instance, the recent tax revision by the government had certain quarters of the society debate on the issue, both for and against. However, there has not been any serious or consistent involvement of a wide range of people in the debates. Many sections of the society are silent, yet grumbling. And many do not understand the effect the tax revision could have on their lives.

On the other side, what a few describe as ‘radical democracy’ the last year’s solidarity walk, a protest peace march, was both heavily criticized and applauded at the same time. The protest garnered both support and ill repute. However, at the core was democracy functioning full throttle with people exercising their rights and expressing their opinions of dissent. Until recently, such acts would tantamount to unpatriotic proportions.

Media must facilitate and foster discussions, not necessarily dissentful discussions, but democratic and participatory ones. Debates to encourage diversity of views and pluralism of opinions will have to take place to strengthen a democratic culture and way of life. In doing so, certain archaic culture deeply embedded in our way of life must evolve with time. Our society must open up and so must the powers that be and their beliefs.