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Saturday December 3rd, 2022

“Happy” Bhutan threatened by climate change and geopolitics

ECONOMYNEXT – For decades, the small Kingdom of Bhutan, has carefully controlled its exposure to the more materialistic lifestyles adopted elsewhere in the world.  It’s concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) taking precedence over Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as envisioned by that nation’s 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck has won Bhutan the status of being the only carbon neutral country in the world.  It also fares pretty well on the world happiness index.

Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, this Kingdom of less than 800,000 people, has styled its GHN along the four pillars of good governance, sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development, environment conservation and preservation and promotion of culture based on the country’s Buddhist heritage.  The Kingdom seeks to apply a holistic approach to development and progress as a nation, striking a balance between the economic and non-economic facets of well-being.

But, its carefully crafted policies to protect its people and the environment, maintain the status quo and withstand issues not of their making, requires a keen balancing act.

These subjects were discussed at a webinar on ‘Liberty and Happiness in Bhutan,’ organised by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom (FNF) moderated by journalist Gopilal Acharya. In his introductory remarks Acharya said all development activities in Bhutan are centred around ensuring the happiness of the people, where liberty of the mind, and liberty from everyday situations is foremost, Bhutan must also struggle to safeguard its own identity. It may also have to consider diversifying its economy, he added.

The webinar which was held on June 2 had as its panelists Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Senior Columnist, Hindustan Times & Fellow, The Ananta Aspen Society, Dasho Paljor J Dorji, Deputy Minister and Special Advisor, Environment Commission and Dr. Passang Dorji, MP, Chairman of Human Rights and Foreign Relations Committee, National Assembly of Bhutan.  Bettina Stark-Watzinger, an MP of the German Parliament, the Bundestag and a Board Member of FNF, was the Keynote Speaker.   Moderator Acharya is a Consultant and Freelance Journalist and Founder of The Journalist.

According to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Bhutan, a landlocked country, sandwiched between India on the south and China in the North, and Nepal and Bangladesh in proximity, is faced with several challenges.

The primary challenge he said is the sustainability of the country’s 2600 glacial lakes. Because of higher temperatures Bhutan is vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) which would negatively impact the people living along the river valleys.  Nearly 70 percent of Bhutan’s population make the river valleys their home, and an equal number engage in subsistence agriculture.  The warming waters do not bode well for agriculture, he added, pointing out that climate change has already hit tea production in India’s Darjeeling region for instance, resulting in tea plantations moving to African countries such as Malawi and Kenya.

The second challenge will be the economy, Chaudury said that as hydropower, Bhutan’s main revenue generator, with most of the power produced sold to India, too could be impacted with fluctuating glacial water supply.

Bhutan, says Chaudhuri, is also placed in a vulnerable position, with the intensification of rivalry between India and China.  Of late, he states, China has become bolder, openly flouting its political and economic clout. Though both India and Bhutan have refused to be part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, both countries appear on the China’s websites on this plan. Bhutan’s borders are therefore threatened.

With India being a close ally of the USA, ‘Bhutan needs to be more nimble in geopolitics’, he advises, adding that the same is true for any country caught up between these powers.  In Bhutan’s case, he suggests reaching out to third party states for support, perhaps European countries, to help maintain the balance.

Bhutan adds Dr. Passang Dorji is the only country which has national happiness as a goal as it is mandated in the Constitution.

Transitioning from an absolute monarchy in 2008 to a constitutional monarchy, Dr. Dorji explains that the country has elected three different administrations, each time it went to the poll.  That is a sign of a robust democracy.  Though there may be criticism regarding freedom of expression, he claims that the more than eight mainstream newspapers are vibrant and critical of all the elected governments.  Social media platforms, he adds, have ‘destroyed social hierarchical structures’ and have provided the space for diverse views.  ‘It is not 100 percent free expression, but it is allowed, without fear and favour.’

Despite efforts to uphold its national goal of happiness for all, Bhutan is not without internal problems.   A country where half the population is under 28 years of age, unemployment is growing. Says Dasho Paljor J Dorji, as an infant nation, when its population was less than 500,000 it was possible to give everyone an education and employment.  But that is not the case anymore. ‘We are at saturation point we cannot provide employment to everyone.’  Therefore, the government is encouraging self-employment, the young are seeking opportunities outside the country, and that is a good thing too, he says.  “Not only are they remitting money to Bhutan, there is no brain drain, as many come back.’

More importantly, he urges a change of mindset and acceptance that there is no shame in taking on blue collar jobs.

Says Dr. Dorji, the country must address vocational and technical education. Bhutan’s reigning King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has instructed says Dr. Dorji that the country’s civil service and education system be reformed to reflect current world trends.

Dasho Paljor J Dorji popularly known as Dasho Benji, who is the brains behind the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation says Bhutanese ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to preserving the environment.  There is much activity in terms of research and social media engagement on this sphere.

Again, Bhutan’s constitution mandates the country maintains at all times, 60 percent of its land under forest cover, and reports indicate that the current percentage is over seventy.

Development takes place, says Dr. Dorji, but not at the cost of the environment.

Multilateral diplomacy, says Chaudhuri is no easy task for Bhutan, but with climate change becoming a major issue, possibly for the next fifty years, Bhutan could, along with other governments develop strategies for climate resilience, providing an impetus to other mountainous nations with similar ecologies, he adds.

Dr. Dorji agrees. Bhutan, he says could promote soft power, playing the role of ‘small state, smart state,’ in climate resilience as well as peace and happiness in the world.

In terms of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative and the South Asian context, the country to watch closely says Chaudhuri is Bangladesh.  Sitting on $60 billion in foreign exchange, enabling it to provide a $200 million currency swap to Sri Lanka recently, Bangladesh is ‘neck to neck with India in terms of per capita income, and may well get ahead within the year.’

Dasho Benji attributes Bhutan’s control of the coronavirus pandemic, where to date there have been 1,669 confirmed patients, but only one death, to the leadership given by their King.  If the stringent rules regarding movement etc. are not obeyed, the long-term effects would be messy, he says. It is all about taking advice from one person   and adhering to the restrictions in force. The King has pulled out funds from the country’s reserves to fight the pandemic, he says.

Acharya explained that while the King has been guiding the initiative and providing creative solutions to fight the pandemic, the country’s Prime Minister, himself a medical doctor and the Minister of Health (an epidemiologist) have been out front ensuring the spread is controlled.  (According to WHO reports Bhutan had, by April this year, vaccinated 93 percent of its adult population.)

Keynote Speaker, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, welcomed the recent opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Western world, she said, has much to learn from Bhutan’s emphasis on valuing time and relying on the experience to shape the country’s policies, learn to slow down and concentrate on mental well-being.  Both countries share an ‘interest in climate policy and the preservation of a rule based multi-lateral and international order,’ and promotion of culture. Germany is also providing support to Bhutan’s initiative in preserving its ancient manuscripts, she added. (Colombo/June09/2021)

Reported by Kshama Ranawana

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Sri Lanka teachers struggle to abide by saree ‘law’

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s school teachers are struggling to continue the service with the ongoing high inflation destroying their salaries and with on ongoing battle to wear more affordable clothing than the traditional saree while.

With the country is going through its worst currency crisis in the history of its central bank, teachers say the rapid inflation in the country has forced them to go with more affordable clothing than the traditional attire of saree.

Price Shock

“Wearing sarees are a big cost, you need to iron and we have electricity tariffs, textile industry is collapsing and in turn prices are increasing” AM Chandani, an Advanced Level teacher for Mathematics told EconomyNext.

The traditional saree, is considered as the appropriate attire for all female teachers in the country, even though it has not been officially declared under any law. Students wear frocks.

Teachers says while sarees do bring a level of respect and formality, they don’t determine productivity and the quality to education.

“Quality of education is measured through the syllabus and depends on the skills of the educator, but not on what the teacher is wearing, why is education determined by a saree?” Chandani says.

“Saree prices have risen by nearly 50 percent, electricity prices had risen by 75 percent, transportation costs are also increasing and on top of that food inflation is also present in Sri Lanka. How do you expect one to save in a condition like this?”

Pontificating Ministers

At least two ministers wearing Western jacket and tie have pontificated on teachers’ dress.

“The minister for education and other ministers are busy making proclamations on what teachers should wear to school,” Sujata Gamage & Tara de Mel Co-coordinators, Education Forum Sri Lanka said in a statement.

“There is no indication that they have consulted the main stakeholders in this case, the teachers.

There is already a guideline on attire for teachers in Section 5.1.b of Circular 2012/3 on “Code of Ethics and General Rules on the Ethical Conduct of Teachers”. Specifically, teachers are required to:

“Dress in culturally appropriate, clean, smart, and well-tailored clothing, maintaining decency and modesty, at all times.”

“Insisting that the saree is the only appropriate attire, especially at this time when the teachers are struggling to provide for their families, get to work on time, and teach kids who are very likely to come undernourished or hungry, would be inconsiderate.”

“In addition, it would be a violation of their fundamental rights and a violation of the Constitution where the transfer and disciplinary control of all educational personnel is vested with the provinces.”

Sri Lankan teachers’ salaries were increase in January 2022, after the teachers went on a continuous protest, where an allowance of 5,000 rupees was approved by the Cabinet.

Cost of Working

The electricity tariff was increased last August in order to mitigate the continuous losses made by the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board after the rupee collapse from 200 to 360 to the US dollar after macro-economists printed money to target an output gap.

Fuel, taxi and bus fares and food prices also went up with economists printing money.

Sr Lanka’s Ceylon Teachers Union (Check the exact name) said, on average, teachers get paid from 50,000 to 80,000 a month and, the union plans to go into discussions about the education system, rising cost of education as well as the salary offered to teachers.

“Teacher’s salaries are disappearing because the cost of living has risen… and the cost of working is also increasing such as buying of sarees and transport, this will cause an explosion in the education sector” Joseph Stalin, the teachers Union secretary told EconomyNext.

Meanwhile, Minister of Education Susil Premajayantha told parliament on December 01, that relief would be aided to teachers that are unable to afford sarees after media reports showed that teachers found it financially difficult. 

“Even if the government doesn’t approve allocations, I will make sure that aid is being provided to teachers finding it difficult to afford school attire,” Premajayantha said. (Colombo/Dec02/2022)

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Sri Lanka shares ends five week high on easing rate expectations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka shares gained for the sixth session on Friday closing on positive sentiments due to expectations of easing market interest rates and generated the highest turnover in two months, brokers said.

The main All Share Price Index (ASPI) closed 0.61 percent or 65.94 points higher at 8,769.73, the highest index gain since October 27.

The market witnessed a turnover of 4 billion rupees, higher than this year’s daily average turnover of 3 billion rupees. This is the highest turnover generated since September 27.

The market saw a foreign inflow of 1 billion rupees, the highest inflow since September 27. The total net foreign inflow stood at 20.2 billion rupees so far for this year.

“Most of the treasury counters gained today with the speculation for interest rates to ease with the inflation therefore treasury shares gained,” a market analyst said.

Analysts said Lanka IOC gained with the government keeping the fuel prices unchanged while global prices fell.

Former Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy said in a forum on Monday that the government is in discussions with Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank to get loans of 1.9 billion US dollars after a reform program with the International Monetary Fund is approved.

A policy loan now being discussed with the World Bank may bring around 700 million US dollars, Coomaraswamy told a business forum organized by CT CLSA Securities, a Colombo-based brokerage.

The Asian Development Bank may also give around 1.2 billion US dollars most of which will be budget support, he said.

In the last few sessions market gained after the Central bank governor said market rates should eventually ease despite the fears of a domestic debt restructuring as inflation falls, increased liquidity in dollar markets, and the inter-bank liquidity improves.

In the past sessions, the index continued to fall on the speculation of a local debt restructuring although no proper decision has been taken so far.

The more liquid index S&P SL20 closed 1.27 percent or 34.86 points higher at 2,774.60.

So far in December ASPI gained 1.3 percent.

The ASPI gained 0.5 percent in November after losing 13.4 percent in October.

It has lost 28.2 percent year-to-date after being one of the world’s best stock markets with an 80 percent return last year when large volumes of money were printed.

Sampath Bank pushed the index up to close at 10.8 percent to 39.9 rupees.

Other top gainers were Lanka IOC gained 6.2 percent to close at 206.8 rupees and Commercial Bank gained 1.8 percent to close at 51 rupees. (Colombo/Dec02/2022)

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Sri Lanka State Tourism Minister backs night life with with 24*7 operation of wine stores

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s State Tourism Minister Diana Gamage wants the island nation’s wine stores to opened all the time if the country wants to boost tourism.

Gamage has been vocal on opening up night time life to attract more tourists and boost foreign exchange revenue for the country to move out of the crisis.

“When tourists come, if all they have to do is roam around and go to sleep at 10 pm every night in front of their hotel room TV, then we will not be able to earn dollars from them,” Gamage told the parliament during the Committee Stage debate of Tourism Ministry.

“The issue with our country is, there is no place to go after 10 pm. This is a paradise. I do not know whether anyone knows the meaning of a paradise.”

“We have to keep this place open 24/7. I have spoken it about many time. Liquor is the highest tax earner in the country. In this paradise, we are closing bars after 11pm. Foreigners in hotels can’t get any alcohol if they need. Because all the places are close. We need to keep this country open 24 hours. Like Singapore and other countries. People must have to have entertainment.”

Gamage’s proposals for night life have been frowned at by some religious leaders citing that the move is against Sri Lanka’s rich and ancient culture.

“I talk about the night life, and when I talked about that earlier many criticized it and saw it as a big sin. That is ones who are incapable of understanding it,” she said.

“What we call night life is actually is a night economy. All the countries in the world have developed because of night economy. These countries get 70 percent of their income from the nigh economy. They only get 30 percent during the day time.”

“We have to develop a night economy in this country. That will earn 70 percent of the income. Only that can develop this country.”

“We can do that. And also our museum, that closes at 5 pm. In other museums earn most during night. It must be opened 24/7.  This night economy is essential for a country’s economy. People must have places t spend their money.” (Colombo/Dec02/2022)

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