The Shangri-La-Man’s Mission Impossible!

The Shangri-La-Man’s Mission Impossible!

Ritu First from Right  

Ozone Protector from Bhutan Gets elected to the parliament.

 Talking to Ritu Raj Chhetri in Thimpu, capital of Bhutan, over telephone from Amsterdam in the Netherlands was like talking to some one who is much nearer to Stratospheric Ozone Layer from the place which is vertically farthest from it. Thimpu is third highest capital-city in the world. Amsterdam is one of the lowest capital-city in the world with its height below mean sea level.

 I congratulated Ritu for winning a parliamentary election from Tashichhoeling constituency by the large margin. He, from People’s Democratic Party (PDP) defeated the candidate from ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). It was late in the night in Bhutan when I phoned him. I could even hear in the background the barking of the dogs, quite common late in the night and much revered in Thimpu. Ritu was wide-awake, it was long day for him he said- full of celebrations. He was proud that he won the election with the highest margin whereby even defeating the former Prime Minister.

Sir, what I am interested is in the development Bhutanese population.  Providing proper communication facilities and basic amenities such as road, water and electricity where they are lacking in my constituency will be on the top of my agenda.” Ritu was excited when I asked him if he would repeat the successful efforts that he led in Bhutan’s implementation of the international treaty i.e. the Montreal Protocol on the substances that deplete the ozone layer.

And, Sir, I have not forgotten your passion for organic agriculture. I am committed to support the plans of Bhutan to be the first Organic Country in the world. I want to lead the environmental activities in Bhutan”.   Ritu had overcome formidable personal and professional challenges -that included his 2007 election failure and the serious health problems –to achieve this spectacular win. A big win of large hearted man from a small country with huge ambitions!

Bhutan had made huge difference in the world by introducing for the first time in its constitution ‘ intergenerational equity’. I was fortunate to have had opportunity to make small contributions to the amazing progress made by this tiny ‘constitutional monarchy’ in the field of environmental protection.

As I kept phone down, series of events scrolled down my memory lane. It was year 2004 when I first met Ritu in Montreal, Canada.  That time I was leading UNEP’s OzonAction Programme, which had mandate of enabling the developing countries through their capacity building to implement and comply with the Montreal Protocol. Ritu was a civil servant–a senior legal officer with the National Environment Commission of Bhutan. He was participating in the Extraordinary Meeting of the Parties in in Montreal as an observer. Bhutan had not yet signed and ratified the Montreal Protocol that had come into effect nearly 13 years back. Most of the developing countries had ratified the Protocol and were well on their way to meet the compliance. The control measures to phase- out Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had already begun, the first being freeze in the consumption in year 1999-2000. The next control measures to phase down 50 percent of CFCs from its baseline were just around the corner and one-year away -in 2005.

What more, the consumption of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in Bhutan was continuing unabated in wake of the breaks already in place and being applied elsewhere in the neighboring countries as required by the Montreal Protocol. The borders of two large countries with large consumption of CFCs were porous for the trade in CFCs. For smugglers Bhutan was ‘ CFC Paradise’, as it was in the middle of becoming a conduit to route the CFCs illegally to other countries. Bhutan had uphill task to catch up.

It was exceptional situation for Bhutan indeed!  For UNEP’s OzonAction Programme too it was unusual situation to assist Bhutan as it required courageous steps to trigger emergency actions to help the country to meet its compliance, when it had not even signed on the treaty.

As a Director in the lead for UNEP OzonAction, I had responsibility to be the ‘ path finder’ to channel the assistance and design hand-holding approaches to ensure that Bhutan catches up with the control measures of the Montreal Protocol. Of course I was not comfortable with the situation.  But Ritu and his boss –Deputy Minister of Environment, Dasho Nado Rinchhen not only sparked the national actions but also demonstrated some extraordinary qualities and leadership right from the word ‘go’. Ritu worked relentlessly with UNEP’s OzonAction Programme and UNDP to bring Bhutan in level with other countries in space of just 3-4 years. Those years and Bhutan’s example also demonstrated how the Montreal Protocol institutes worked proactively and creatively to bring the small countries that were lagging behind in implementation of the global environmental accord, in the compliance regime.

What precisely were the approach, strategy and mechanism deployed in Bhutan to achieve this spectacular success?

It was a story of multi-disciplinary actions with multi-stakeholders engaged with one focused goal- i.e. compliance.

That’s how it happened.

The first ever dialogue I had with Ritu, to trigger the first action, was during special meeting organized by my programme taking advantage of Ritu’s presence in Montreal in 2004. It was to inform him of the possible crisis that Bhutan is facing and disadvantages that might result if Bhutan remains non-Party to the Montreal Protocol. I decided to conduct this meeting with a novel experiment. We included in the discussions, apart from the Ozone Secretariatof  the Montreal Protocol, small countries in South Asian region i.e. Maldives and Sri Lanka who had ratified the Montreal Protocol and had benefitted from the technical and financial assistance from the Multilateral Fund. Idea was that Bhutan gets information directly from ‘horses mouth’ i.e. from other small countries in the same region about the benefits of joining the Montreal Protocol. Such meeting was part of our specially designed activity called ‘South-South Cooperation’. It not only worked but later it became the prime mover of Bhutan’s and many other small countries’ successful implementation of the Montreal Protocol.

My notes of that first meeting with Ritu, on 25th March 2004 stated: ‘Mr. Chhetri assured that he will prepare the justification (of ratifying the Montreal Protocol) report and executive summary within a months time and hand it over to the Deputy Minister of Environment for onward submission to the Council of Ministers of Bhutan. He also informed that the process of ratification could be completed in following months’.

I had experience of working with all the 146 developing countries in building their capacity to implement the Montreal Protocol. Not all countries followed what they promised for various valid reasons. In case of Bhutan what followed post-March 2004 meeting in Montreal was not only fulfilling the promises but also going beyond them. The activities post-2004 meeting was nothing short of massive mobilization of innovative ideas on behalf of UNEP’s OzonAction Programme to make sure that Bhutan complies with the Montreal Protocol. What followed during next 3 years was –for the lack of better words- the activities on ‘war-footing’. It was indeed a ‘war’ declared in Bhutan on CFCs, except that it is not in good taste to call these operations as  ‘war’ in normal sense and particularly for the peace-loving country like Bhutan. Ritu was in-charge of the control room in Thimpu and devised the strategies and tactics in this operation. Regional node of our Ozone action programme in Bangkok did not lose a single opportunity to mainstream Bhutan in the Protocol activities.

That promise of accession to the Protocol given by Ritu in March 2004 was met with surprising speed. In August 2004, Bhutan had already acceded to Montreal Protocol and all its amendments at one go through its cabinet approval and had submitted its instrument of ratification to UN in New York.  Ritu’s persuasive follow up supported by his Deputy Minister of Environment had succeeded I their first step to become part of the Montreal Protocol family. It was small but significant first step that proved to be confidence building exercise .

In the mean time, UNEP as an implementing agency along with UNDP, moved swiftly in making ‘business-unusual’ request to the Executive Committee of the Multilateral Fund, to get approved in advance, the Funds for the Institutional Strengthening that would help Bhutan to kick start the activities and take-up national regulatory measures and the preparation of the projects. Executive Committee, noting the preparative efforts in mobilizing the national resources by Bhutan as well as UNEP’s credibility in assisting the  small countries took bold, proactive and exceptional decision in approving the funds in July 2004, even before the accession of the Protocol by Bhutan.

UNEP then accelerated extraordinary steps to build the capacity of Bhutan’s fledgling Ozone office by training Bhutan’s staff in Japan with generous help from Japanese government and in India’s Ozone cell of Ministry of Environment. Bhutan’s customs officers were trained in India’s National Academy of Customs and Narcotics. The media representatives of Bhutan were given opportunity to attend media training to create awareness among the stakeholders and particularly cross-border traders and dealers on controls and phase out of CFCs.  Ritu was invited to UNEP’s Paris office to develop a strategy document for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol through innovative approaches like preparing Country Programme, Refrigerant Management Plans, and National Compliance Action Plan in one go and as integrated document. He was trained in Information, Communication and Education (IEC) activities, which helped him to develop awareness programmes. He  produced a cartoon book and video with Bhutanese characters called ‘ Ozzy Ozone’ to reach to the nooks and corners of Bhutan. He organized the TV programmes and debates on Bhutan National TV about Ozone Layer Protection. His colleagues participated in the network meetings of National Ozone Officers right from April 2004, organized by the regional staff of OzonAction Programme. Regional network meetings in six months intervals gave them opportunity to exchange the experiences and learn from other countries as to how they overcame the difficulties in compliance with the Protocol. In record time Bhutan was able to promulgate the legislations and set up licensing system to control the consumption and trade of CFCs. Ritu’s legal background was extremely helpful in grasping the issues and also implementing the control measures.

The Implementation Committee–which monitors compliance by the countries-invited Ritu to make presentation on the challenges Bhutan faced and provided guidance to him. Subsequently, Bhutan with the help of UNEP and UNDP prepared the road map to ensure compliance. No stone was left unturned.

I was called by the Executive Director and Under-Secretary General of UNEP, Mr. Klaus Topfer, during Prague meeting late in 2004 and was instructed to provide all out assistance to Bhutan. Mr. Topfer informed me in the presence of Ritu and Bhutan’s Deputy Minister that I should call him directly in case of any problems encountered in Bhutan’s compliance with the Montreal Protocol. Such directive from the top-most authority in UNEP empowered me to devise bold and creative ways to assist Bhutan. It also empowered Ritu to aggressively push for national implementation. Coordination cell was set up within Bhutan to link National Environmental commission’s ozone protection activities with Prime Minister office, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Department of Revenue and Customs of Ministry of Finance, Royal Bhutan Police.  All worked in tandem to ensure that activities related to the compliance with the Protocol get priority. I recall that the Finance Minister of Bhutan chaired one of the network meetings, as Customs Department was part of the Finance Ministry. I dare to say that it was the first ever UNEP’s network meeting where Finance Minister was a chair and not the Environment Minister. That demonstrated that the Montreal Protocol is as much about economics as it is about environment.

Ritu moved swiftly to enforce the licensing system for CFCs, institutionalized the training for customs officers and technicians and even hosted a network meeting of the National Ozone Officers from 24 countries in 2007- year of 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol.

Ritu and his colleagues in National Environment Commission visited New Delhi to discuss bilaterally the cross border trade and the ways to collaborate so that imports of the CFCs and the equipment using CFCs are controlled. Tripartite dialogue between India, Bhutan and Bangladesh was held to devise the coordinated and collaborative mechanisms recognizing that control and monitoring of cross border was key to the success of the compliance of Bhutan to the Montreal Protocol. At UNEP’s request representative of US Department of State travelled to Bhutan along with me to provide onsite advise. The successful and not-so-successful experiences in controlling the illegal trade in CFCs were shared by the officials from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Since most of the ODS based equipment used in Bhutan is imported from Singapore, Thailand and India, UNEP helped with high-level Sub-regional Policy Dialogue with ministers to ensure that. Exporting countries (Singapore, Thailand and India) to export non-CFC equipment only.

 Bhutan finally caught up with compliance. Ritu had accomplished the ‘ mission impossible’.

Bhutan Archery-On Target

In 2007, network meeting of regional   ozone officers was held in Thimpu. That was swan song for Ritu. That year he took decision to enter politics. I did not know his plans before. But at the end of the meeting, he confided with me and asked me, ‘ Sir, what is your advice?’. I told him, “Ritu, you have achieved amazing success in the Montreal Protocol. You have potential to contribute much more to people of  Bhutan to enhance the ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’. It is quite appropriate for you to move on. Remember what Mandela said- quitting is to lead and to hang –on is to follow! Just go ahead.” King of Bhutan that year had voluntarily relinquished his absolute power and declared Bhutan as constitutional monarchy. It was opportune moment for Ritu to move on. Ritu resigned from civil service and entered the politics.

Ritu with his legal and environmental background can make immense contributions to the sustainable development of Bhutan. He has platform ready to act. Article 5 of the Constitution of Bhutan emphasizes the need for every citizen of the country to protect the environment, conserve its rich biodiversity and prevent ecological degradation including noise, visual and physical pollution through the adoption of environment friendly practices and ethos.  For protection of environment, para 4 of Article 5 of the constitution allows the Parliament to “….enact environmental legislation and implement environmental standards and instruments based on the precautionary principle, polluter pay principle, maintenance of intergenerational equity,” to ensure sustainable use of natural resources and reaffirm the sovereign rights of the State over its own biological resources.  A significant area that is emphasized in Article 5 of Bhutan’s constitution is intergenerational equity i.e., ensuring that Bhutan’s natural resources are used in a way that benefits present and future generations.  Bhutan is the first country to introduce ‘Intergenerational Equity’ in its constitution.

While in Bhutan in 2007, I bought dried Yak Cheese. It is one of the key ingredients of Bhutanese National Dish called ‘ Ema Datshi’. I tried to eat that cheese with French wine, when I returned to Paris. But failed.  Ritu wrote to me, “Yak cheese is normally taken hard and you have to work with your teeth for several minutes or hours and in the process becomes softer and as it gets softer you will be eating it bits and pieces. However if you still find it too hard then I would suggest that you keep it in warm water overnight or try to heat it in an oven and then chew”.

I realized that ‘gross domestic happiness’ comes as the result of slow, hard and patient work, like Bhutanese people who climb steep slopes of Himalaya with slow but determined steps.  END


Rajendra Shende

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