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Unity in Diversity: Vice Presidential Debate Reveals Varied Approaches, Echoing a Shared Vision for a Prosperous Bhutan

In the conclusive Vice Presidential debate convened on November 23, strategically positioned just ahead of the imminent primary round of National Assembly elections slated for November 30, key issues spanning the realms of economy, health, education, youth unemployment, technology, and agriculture took center stage. Representatives from all five political parties articulated a shared commitment to progress and fulfillment, emphasizing that the distinct strategies advocated by their respective factions are harmoniously oriented towards a collective vision for societal betterment. Despite nuanced disparities in approach, the overarching aspiration remains unity in fostering a healthier and more developed nation.

PDP’s Holistic Approach to National Development: Infrastructure, Agriculture, and Tech

Dorji Choden, Vice President of the People Democratic Party (PDP) faced scrutiny over the ambitious $1.5 billion economic stimulus plan, defending its proven effectiveness and outlining the party’s commitment to creating 10,000 jobs in key sectors like hydropower and manufacturing. The PDP’s vision extends beyond economic revival, aiming for a transformation into a developed economy. Choden emphasized that the party’s pledges are realistic and attainable, presenting them as a beacon of hope for the nation in an economic crisis.

She detailed the broader vision of transforming the country into a developed economy, highlighting the importance of a robust economy and a flourishing private sector. Addressing concerns about external borrowing, Choden explained its inevitability due to insufficient internal fund generation. The PDP is dedicated to youth empowerment, aiming to boost manufacturing’s low GDP contribution and enhance youth skills through technical education. The party reassured equal attention to central and non-central schools, with a focus on improving infrastructure and supporting farmers for agricultural transformation.

She defended her party’s commitments, asserting that the pledges and promises put forth are not mere strategic maneuvers to captivate voters but are instead realistic and attainable goals. Emphasizing the viability of the proposed plan, she underscored its proven track record in effectively addressing economic challenges, presenting it as a beacon of hope for the nation currently grappling with an economic crisis.

In outlining the broader vision of the PDP, Vice President outlined that, if elected, the government’s focus would extend beyond economic recovery to the transformation of the country into a developed economy. She highlighted the significance of a robust economy and a flourishing private sector as foundational elements crucial for overall national development. Addressing concerns about external borrowing, she explained that after thorough examination, the party concluded that internal fund generation would fall short, making borrowing an inevitable alternative, regardless of the ruling party.

She acknowledged the challenges of a limited domestic market and expressed the necessity for support and acceptance of new ideas and initiatives.
Turning attention to youth empowerment, Dorji Choden stressed the vital need for guiding young individuals during their formative years to shield them from negative influences. Emphasizing the importance of early skill development and the cultivation of a robust work ethic, she highlighted that such initiatives ease the path for youths to secure employment or embark on entrepreneurial ventures based on their capabilities.

Additionally, the PDP pledged to enhance youth skills through technical and vocational education programs, review existing courses to align with youth expectations, and promote youth entrepreneurship by facilitating access to credit financing. Clarifying the party’s stance on youth migration, she emphasized the importance of creating better opportunities and providing support for those who choose to remain in the country. The PDP expresses confidence in the youth as pivotal drivers of economic transformation. With a focus on critical sectors such as hydropower and manufacturing firms, the PDP has pledged to create approximately 10,000 jobs. It is noteworthy that manufacturing currently contributes only six percent to the GDP.

When questioned about the feasibility of establishing a chiwog school and concerns about the potential impact of central schools on boarding and community schools, Dorji Choden reassured that both central and non-central schools will receive equal attention from the government. Dorji Choden clarified the PDP’s stance on youths traveling abroad, stating that it is an individual choice, and the party neither encourages nor discourages it. She emphasized the importance of creating better opportunities and providing support for those who choose to remain in their home country.

Despite a decline in the number of students each year, she argued that closing schools based on enrollment numbers would be unwise and unfair to the few remaining students.
โ€œThe chiwog schools will cater for the needs of the students from classes PP to three without being separated from their parents,โ€ said Dorji Choden.

In the health sector, she mentioned the success and advantages of the health trust fund and the autonomy granted to Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) during the Peopleโ€™s Democratic Partyโ€™s term in the government.

To support the technological sector, Dorji Choden committed that PDP will focus on building infrastructure and facilities to bridge the digital gap among the citizens. She said that the party will explore ways to enhance internet connectivity with a 50 percent reduction in internet charges. Dorji Choden acknowledged the progress of technology in schools through various platforms, benefitting students across the country.

Agricultural farming plays a crucial role in the lives of Bhutanese people, with more than 70 to 80 percent depending on agriculture. However, the dynamics have shifted due to rural-urban migration, resulting in approximately 56 percent of the population residing in rural areas. Recognizing the need for transformation and to support rural communities, PDP is committed to enhancing infrastructure, specifically improving road connectivity, even in less populated regions, to facilitate and incentivize farmers.

In its pursuit of agricultural transformation, the PDP aims to bolster farmers by providing additional resources such as power tillers, irrigation water, and fertilizers. These initiatives are geared towards empowering farmers to increase their agricultural output, fostering self-sufficiency within the country, and contributing to the potential for agricultural exports.

DPT Unveils Vision for Bhutan’s Economic Prosperity: Hydropower, Mines, and Minerals in Focus

Ugyen Wangdi, Vice President representing the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), outlined the party’s economic agenda, placing emphasis on bilateral agreements for three hydropower stations and unlocking the economic potential of Bhutan’s mines and minerals. Despite challenges faced by the Mines and Minerals Bill, the DPT remains dedicated to re-deliberation, underscoring the economic benefits associated with Bhutan’s rich mineral resources.

The party expressed intentions to review and establish a revised Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) while clarifying that the national vision involves an SDF increase without reduction or augmentation. Ugyen Wangdi further pledged support for health professionals, including the provision of mobile clinic services and ambulances to all gewogs.
Ugyen Wangdi stressed the importance of a third internet gateway, IT parks, and ICT startups, and expressed commitment to solving issues related to the third internet gateway. Additionally, the DPT aims to provide a fruit tree to every gewog, address challenges in agriculture, and invest in efficient land management. The party emphasizes its commitment to long-term economic prosperity, drawing attention to its track record of fulfilling past commitments and urging citizens to support the DPT’s vision.

Ugyen Wangdi, outlined the party’s economic commitments with a focus on bilateral agreements for three hydropower stations and unlocking the economic potential of Bhutan’s mines and minerals. Despite challenges faced by the Mines and Minerals Bill, DPT remains committed to re-deliberation, emphasizing the economic benefits associated with Bhutan’s rich mineral resources. The Mines and Minerals Bill faced stagnation due to disagreements between the National Council and the National Assembly. In response to inquiries about potential collaboration between DNT and DPT to raise tourist SDF, it was clarified that the national vision involves an SDF increase; nevertheless, the government should maintain a fixed SDF without reduction or augmentation. The DPT expressed intentions to review and establish a revised SDF.

In addition to a pledge to offer five doctors for all dzongkhag hospitals, Ugyen Wangdi promised to support health professionals and provide mobile clinic services and an ambulance to all gewogs. In education, DPT pledges to include study leave as an active service, achieve 100 percent Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) coverage, integrate ICT in schools, promote further studies in STEM subjects, and revive some arts subjects. Ugyen Wangdi also mentioned that civil servants, including teachers, will be allowed to do business by taking three years of leave. He noted that some civil servants have good business ideas but are prohibited by the Civil Service Act until now. To replace those who leave to seize business opportunities, Ugyen Wangdi said that proper guidelines will be framed. Along with the promotion of STEM subjects, he also stated that the party would revive a few of the Humanitarian subjects that were removed.

Addressing the prevalent youth unemployment rate of 28.6 percent, Ugyen Wangdi emphasized the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s (DPT) commitment to strengthening career counseling services in schools. The party aims to guide students toward future career paths by fortifying existing counseling programs within educational institutions. Additionally, the DPT plans to initiate training programs for youths, focusing on hydropower development, establishing regional IT tech parks, creating startup centers, facilitating easy access to loans, and promoting skill development activities to enhance employment opportunities. The party further pledges to support the continuation of studies for students who have left school prematurely and those aspiring to pursue higher education. During discussions with BTP’s representative, Pema Tenzin, on addressing issues related to youth substance use and drug trafficking, Ugyen Wangdi outlined the DPT’s intention to revise the current prison terms that have led to the incarceration of many potential youths. In addition to these measures, the DPT has pledged to develop sporting facilities, ensuring that all youth have the opportunity to engage in sports and pursue their dreams of excelling in athletic pursuits.

Ugyen Wangdi stressed the importance of developing a third internet gateway, IT parks, and ICT startups, and investing in E-governance so that offices can operate paperlessly using ICT. He mentioned that the third internet gateway is critical for the country, and the Bangladesh government has supported the project at a low price. However, he said the issue currently arises due to some service providers, and “DPT will solve this issue.” He also mentioned that proper guidance will be outlined to supplement the historic National Digital Identity project in terms of data protection and data privacy.

Ugyen Wangdi emphasized the party’s foremost pledge to provide a fruit tree to every gewog, taking into account climatic conditions. Additionally, the party aims to underscore the significance of efficient land management, guarantee a stable market for agricultural produce, and establish an export committee tasked with devising a robust export strategy. The Vice President stressed the need for increased investment in agriculture, pointing out the current disparity compared to allocations for health and education.

The party also recognizes the imperative of addressing human-wildlife conflict through heightened investments in chain-link fencing. With over 50 percent of Bhutanese relying on agriculture, the DPT acknowledges the challenges faced by farmers, particularly in terms of market access and pricing. To address these issues, he affirmed the party’s commitment to ensuring timely access to loans for farmers. Furthermore, the DPT intends to support farmers in southern Bhutan, enabling them to capitalize on the benefits of cultivating agar and teakwood. He underscored that while the DPT’s pledges may not be populist, they are geared towards fostering the long-term economic prosperity of the country, drawing attention to the party’s track record of fulfilling past commitments and urging citizens to support the DPT’s vision.

DNT Path to High-Income Status by 2034-Bhutan’s Economic Soar

Sonam Kinga, Vice President of DNT, highlighted Bhutan’s imminent graduation from the least developed countries (LDCs) and outlined key achievements in GNI per capita, human assets index, and the economic and environmental vulnerability index. With a 14-percent increase in economic growth in 2021, Bhutan is on a trajectory to achieve high-income status by 2034, surpassing the required GNI per capita threshold. Emphasizing improvements in environmental resilience and human assets, Kinga accentuated the rebound in Bhutan’s economic growth after a pandemic-induced dip in 2020.

The economic growth trajectory, with a 14-percent increase in 2021, positions Bhutan to aspire to become a high-income country by 2034. Sonam Kinga stated that in 2022, Bhutan surpassed the threshold for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), reaching a GNI per capita of USD 3,633.91, exceeding the required USD 1,274 per capita. The environmental vulnerability index rose to 32 percent or above from the 25.7 percent recorded in 2021, signifying increased economic and environmental resilience. Additionally, the human assets index improved to 79.5 percent in 2021, surpassing the necessary 66 percent for graduation.

He emphasized a significant rebound in Bhutan’s economic growth, surging by 14 percentage points in 2021 after a pandemic-induced dip to about -10 in 2020. With a recorded economic growth of 5.2 percent last year, Bhutan now aspires to achieve high-income status by 2034.

In terms of education, Sonam Kinga emphasized the government’s commitment to allocating the highest budget share for the sector in the 13th Plan. To enhance the appeal of the teaching profession and retain educators, measures include providing opportunities for skill upgrades through scholarships.

Aiming to alleviate teachersโ€™ workload, the DNT plans to recruit and outsource administrative tasks and extracurricular activities to trained personnel. Additionally, a notable initiative involves ensuring housing for all teachers within the school campus, thereby contributing to a conducive and supportive work environment.

Sonam Kinga also addressed improvements in the school feeding program, announcing an increase in the stipend for participating children from Nu 1,500 to Nu 2,040, aligning with the standards set by the World Food Program.

In term of health, he highlighted the secured funding for a multi-disciplinary super specialty hospital and outlined the DNT’s commitment to establishing 10-bed basic health units in every gewog. These health units would be equipped with medical professionals, ambulances, blood testing facilities, ultrasounds, X-ray facilities, and the introduction of liver transplant services in Bhutan.

Responding to concerns about the efficiency of medical services amidst the departure of healthcare professionals, Sonam Kinga highlighted the previous government’s initiation of the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) program and expressed the willingness to hire medical specialists from Bangladesh, India, and Thailand if needed.

Sonam Kinga highlighted that the preceding government generated 48,000 new jobs over the past five years. Among these, 5,040 positions emerged from the youth engagement program, 7,236 from overseas employment in the Middle East and Kuwait, 1,752 under Build Bhutan, and 3,664 were trained, with some venturing into entrepreneurship. These accomplishments lay the groundwork for discussions on future opportunities. To lay the groundwork for forthcoming employment, a critical emphasis is placed on skills development, involving multi-skilling and re-skilling. Kinga noted that DNT committed to creating 1,000 jobs annually in the digital economy, with a target of attracting Nu 100 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by 2034. Furthermore, Nu 0.5 million would be allocated as start-up funds for Community Service Initiatives (CSIs) and entrepreneurs.

He pointed out that the 13th Plan, backed by a budget outlay of Nu 512 billion, aims to generate new employment opportunities in the private sector. Various sectors, spanning agriculture, government, and the private industry, provide job openings, encompassing roles in road repair, cleaning, and other fields. The manifesto also underscores the potential for job vacancies in electricity generation and solar projects, not only ensuring employment but also fostering valuable experience and skills.

DNT’s vice president said, “The third internet gateway is under discussion, as well as collaboration with Star-link.” He said that the previous government started the National Digital Identity app and was ready to roll out services like permits for building houses, availing wood permits, hospitals, banks, and seeking employment. DNT also pledged to reduce the student-to-computer ratio from 1:10 to 1:5. In an effort to bolster the nation’s food security, Sonam Kinga highlighted the DNT government’s initiatives, including the provision of irrigation water through a dedicated water flagship program and the implementation of chain-linked fencing to mitigate wildlife encroachment on agricultural fields.

Bhutan has successfully achieved a food security level of 68.3 percent, and there is a targeted increase in rice self-sufficiency from 25.2 percent in the previous year to an ambitious 75 percent. Sonam Kinga highlighted the strategic measures taken by the previous government, initiating cold storage facilities in Khaling, Hesothangkha, and Jigmeling, with plans for additional facilities in Tsirang and Tingtibi. Looking ahead, the DNT envisions the commercial production of high-value vegetables and specialized crops such as asparagus, broccoli, potatoes, strawberries, mushrooms, nutri-cereals (including quinoa, buckwheat, and maize), black pepper, and adzuki beans, thereby diversifying and enhancing the agricultural landscape for sustainable food production.

DTT’s ‘Sunomics’ Shaping a New Economic Vision: Chenga Tshering Emphasizes Hydropower and Distinctive Tourism Strategies

The Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT) advocates for its economic philosophy, “Sunomics,” as a remedy for the country’s economic issues. During the vice-presidential debate, Chenga Tshering, vice-president of DTT asserted that their economic objectives, encapsulated in “Sunomics: Buddhist Capitalism with the Spirit of Gross National Happiness,” can be attained.

Regarding health, education, and youth unemployment, DTT pledges various initiatives, including vocational education, scholarships abroad, and technological support. Chenga Tshering emphasized the comprehensive strategy to align certification processes with global standards, addressing the youth unemployment issue. The party also commits to digitizing public services and establishing region-specific processing factories for agricultural value addition.

Chenga Tshering highlighted the wealth of experience possessed by the DTT through its eight candidates in hydropower, emphasizing their potential contribution to the economic growth associated with hydropower projects. He voiced apprehension about the long-term sustainability of such initiatives, expressing concern that, despite the commitment of all political parties to construct hydropower projects, there exists a risk of river depletion within 35 to 50 years if the projects proceed without innovative and enduring strategies.

In the realm of tourism development, he staunchly defended his party, asserting that the DTT has distinctive and unconventional approaches that set them apart from other political entities. He stressed the importance of these unique strategies in shaping the party’s vision for advancing tourism, suggesting that their approaches are designed to stand out in contrast to those of competing political groups.Regarding health plans and programs, DTT includes providing ambulances and portable vehicle services to remote areas. The party also has provisions for short-term overseas training and internship opportunities with international experts.

Chenga Tshering said, โ€œWe are concerned about the high attrition rate among doctors and healthcare workers. It has affected health services in the country. We should consider providing doctors with attractive incentives.โ€

Chenga Tshering said that DTT has given priority to the health sector with its vision: โ€œYou take care of your wealth; we will take care of your health.โ€ He also added that receiving timely health services is the right of the citizen.

In education, DTT pledges to provide nutritious meals and implement heating systems in high altitudes, as well as fans in low altitudes. Besides, the party plans to review the central school system, citing that it has benefited only a few sections of the people.

Chenga Tshering, while addressing the issue of youth unemployment, emphasized the critical importance of investing in vocational education and skill development within tertiary education. As part of this comprehensive strategy, there is a proposed collaboration with international vocational institutes to align certification processes with global standards, acknowledging the current shortfall in meeting these benchmarks within Bhutan. “We will collaborate with international vocational institutes for certification because the skills provided in the country do not meet international standards,โ€ said Chenga Tshering.

Speaking about youth and unemployment, Chenga Tshering stressed the importance of investing in youths for economic development. Recognizing that many parents aspire for their children to pursue prosperous careers rather than returning to farming and facing potential challenges, the strategy aligns with these aspirations. In addition to these measures, there is a steadfast commitment to providing scholarships for those in need.

With the youth unemployment rate at a concerning 28.6 percent, Chenga Tshering highlighted that DTT will continue to offer support for opportunities abroad with financial assistance. The proposed approach allows youths to stay overseas for four to five years, acquiring valuable skills that can later be invested in the country upon their return.
With the emergence of digital technology, DTT pledges to digitize all public services. This includes using advanced technologies like block-chain and artificial intelligence for safeguarding farms and implementing digital currency, among others.

โ€œWith the majority of candidates having technological expertise, we are prepared to adopt advancements in technology,โ€ ChengaTshering said.

โ€œTo directly address public grievances and build confidence in elected representatives, we have pledged to develop an online application. We have already achieved that with the Thuendrel App,โ€ he said.

DTT is committed to establishing processing factories in each region, strategically aligned with the specific agricultural output of that area, to enhance value addition to local produce.

Bhutan Tendrel Party’s Blueprint for a Progressive Tomorrow- Digitalization, Youth Empowerment, and Sustainability

Bhutan Tendrel Party’s Vice President, Pema Tenzin, articulates the party’s commitment to addressing economic challenges through innovative measures. The approach spans various sectors, including agriculture, youth empowerment, and tourism, with a bold target of Nu 120 billion in revenue within five years. The party also commits significant investments in hydropower and solar energy projects, reflecting a multifaceted strategy for economic revitalization.

Pema Tenzin emphasized the unexplored revenue opportunities within the agriculture sector, citing examples such as the high returns from cordyceps and the potential earnings from exporting Christmas trees. The Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) aims to empower youth in agriculture through cooperative farming, providing essential resources such as land, machinery, and financial assistance. The party’s commitment extends to revitalizing the tourism sector by reviewing policies, increasing tourist arrivals, and creating job opportunities. Additionally, ambitious energy targets include generating 242MW within five years, 8,086MWW within ten years, and 12,000MW from solar energy. The economic stimulus plan also prioritizes blacktopping farm roads and anticipates revenue of Nu 204 billion from mines and minerals over the next five years.

Pema Tenzin said, “The party has the expertise of a principal for education reforms. The students are not learning the 21st-century education syllabus in schools; they are still learning about World War II and Mahatma Gandhi, which is not relevant to the current scenario”.

He said that students have to carry 10 kilograms of books in their bags every day, causing stress for both parents and children during exams. โ€œThe party will review the education policy and implement the 21st-century curriculum with digitisation. We would also increase the stipend of students”.

The vice president said that the party also pledges to organise program tours for students at airports and hotels for exposure. The party will provide a laptop to all teachers and regularised contract teachers. The party pledges to develop a digital Drungtso app and initiate an annual check-up for all, along with outsourced dental services and medical certificates services like driving tests and for employments.

He said that annually, more than 5,000 youths seek employment, with only 1000 finding jobs in the government and the rest employed in private sectors. Recognizing this challenge, BTP has devised a strategy, beginning with temporary jobs to equip individuals with the experience and skills essential for official employment. A significant emphasis will be placed on sports, considering the widespread interest among the youth. Efforts will be made to change the mindset of parents who may underestimate the potential benefits of sports. Drawing inspiration from experiences in Dubai, where successful youths in sports are sent to Europe for further engagement, earning for themselves and the government.

BTP aims to replicate such success. Another avenue to explore is the geek economy and Business Process Outsourcing. With a focus on enhancing communication and technological skills, BTP envisions numerous opportunities for youths abroad, such as acting as intermediaries between doctors and patients in foreign hospitals. Creating these diverse opportunities also serves as a deterrent to substance use, including alcohol and drugs. Currently, a concerning 700 youths per year fall victim to addiction. While many political parties include youth-centric manifestos, the lack of follow-through post-elections has led to disillusionment among the youth, resulting in reduced voter turnout.

BTP emphasizes the need to guide and support youths in their various endeavors to foster success. Additionally, in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (Tevet) sector, where youthsโ€™ express interest in fields like cooking and mechanics, BTP pledges support from the initiation to completion, including reduced loan interest rates. The repayment of loans can be deferred until after the completion of their training, providing a practical approach to support the aspirations of the youth.

Acknowledging the progress of digital services, he said that it is crucial for people to switch to digitization. He said that the party will provide smart boards in schools and digital Drungtsho apps in hospitals.

He said that the party will use and bring environmentally friendly technology for mining and use advanced technology for road construction surveys so that there will not be many landslides. He said that the party pledges to establish a third internet gateway from Siliguri to enhance the efficiency of digitisation services.

He recounted his observations from his youth when the export of apples and oranges was abundant. However, in recent times, he noted a significant decline in exports, speculating that this downturn could be attributed to certain policies. Furthermore, he highlighted the economic challenges faced by constituents who used to sell potatoes to upscale hotels in Thimphu and Paro.

The reduction in tourist numbers has adversely impacted this trade, leaving farmers with a lack of market for their agricultural products. In response, the party aims to facilitate easier transportation for farmers and plans to establish cold storage facilities and warehouses to ensure a stable market, particularly during the winter season when vegetable imports typically rise.

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