15th Kashag Completes Four Years in Office: Exclusive interview with Home Kalon Sonam Topgyal Khorlatsang

DHARAMSHALA: On the occasion of the completion of the 4th and the penultimate year of the 15th Kashag, Kalon Sonam Topgyal Khorlatsang, Department of Home speaks with Tenzin Chemey, Tibet TV on the achievements of Home Department under the 15th Kashag and discusses key priorities in his final year in office.

Following is the English translation of the interview with the Kalon, originally conducted in Tibetan. Watch here.

Tibet TV: Could you walk us through the department’s initiatives and its significant accomplishments in the past 4 years?

Kalon: In these past 4 years, one of the most significant initiatives or rather accomplishments would be the enactment of Five Fifty Vision under the leadership of the 15th Kashag. Even though there is a still a year left for the present Kashag to dissolve. Our goal, however, is to sustain the administration for another 50 or 60 years if needed. In order for that to happen, a strong foundation is crucial. We have to make changes that need to be made to ensure the strength and stability of the administration. During the 14th and 15th term of Kashag, many initiatives and reforms related to 5/50 vision were launched. On the aspect of the Home Department, a key focus has been to create self-sufficient Tibetan communities in the obedience of Indian law.

The legal status of the Tibetan settlement lands across India has been classified into three groups- a) settlements which are land leased by the Indian government such as the settlements in South India and North-Eastern parts. b) lands which are bought by registered organisation or institutions such as those of Bir, Poanta, and Puruwala settlements, and c) settlements such as Bomdila, the land is procured in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s name.

As for the land leased by the Indian government, for nearly 40-50 years the land has been under the administration of the Ministry of Environment and Forest of the Indian government. Since these lands are not registered in the name of our administration, we had to face many obstacles. We had tried multiple times and approached the Indian authority regarding that. Our administration had even visited those places and had a range of discussions with the respective settlement officers and drafted an appeal letter containing 15 points recommendation to the Indian government. That time the officials of the Indian govt’s Home Department were well versed with the predicament of the Tibetan refugees and had huge respect for His Holiness the Dalai Lama because of which our problems were swiftly attended and apart from the two points, rest of the 13 points were approved. The officials then contacted the concerned offices in Delhi and held a series of meetings and finally constituted a policy known as Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy 2014.

The recommendation was sent to the Chief Secretary of the States where Tibetans were residing. They were informed of the decision to implement a policy and all of them agreed in unison. On 20th October 2014, then Nangsi Kalon Kasur Gyari Dolma and I visited the Indian govt’s Home Department to discuss the framework of the policy and our meeting went successful.

Since then as per the policy, our first and foremost focus was to legally verify the lands in our name. For instance, settlements like Kollegal, Mundgod, Hunsur were legally verified. However, Lugsam and Dekyi Larso settlement in Bylakuppe is yet to be legalised.

When it comes to the policy, many tend to misunderstand that the policy is only linked with the Department of Home. That is entirely wrong. There are many recommendations in the policy pertaining to the Department of Education, Health, and the Culture and Religion Department, etc. For instance, not long ago India’s Ministry of Culture had written a letter to the Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh enquiring the number of Buddhist monasteries in the state and meanwhile proposing to distribute midday meal. In accordance, our Chorig Department submitted the numbers to the Ministry of Culture and the latter provided the free meal for our monks and nuns amid the pandemic. As for the Tibetan medical professionals and nurses, we were able to help them out with better job opportunities by having them enlist in the Nursing Council. In the policy, it is clearly mentioned that the Tibetan medical professionals can apply for jobs in the public sector.

Being a Tibetan refugee, we receive exclusive benefits from the Indian government as we can avail of the benefits and amenities of both State and Central government which is a rare occurrence for the people of this nation. Because we have such a policy, we are able to legally acquired the lands in our names but can we maintain the developments of the land? This is quite difficult to answer as many Tibetan youngsters nowadays are migrating abroad and settling there leaving only the elderly and kids in the settlements. Even though we have major agricultural settlements, we don’t have efficient manpower. However, despite minor setbacks here and there, today we are one of the leading successful refugee communities in the world all that is because of the blessing and kindness of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration.

In order to make the best use of the agricultural lands we have, we have taken the initiative to provide loans at low interest to youth who are interested in agribusiness and related activities. In addition, they will be awarded for their exemplary reports. In the past 4-5 years, we have witnessed a considerable increase in the interest of people toward farming and agribusiness and that is a very commendable and positive step. We have always encouraged organic farming but for certain lands that are less productive and are wastelands, we are trying to employ Jatropha cultivation. This particular practice of farming has been backed by the former President of India, late Dr Abdul Kalam.
During his address at the Agricultural University in Tamil Nadu, Dr. Kalam has encouraged Jatropha crop plantation. Jatropha plants generally produce oilseeds which is a great source of biodiesel. This practice of plantation is usually done on wastelands and it uses less water and prevents soil erosion and does not impact other crops.

In 2019, I visited the Agricultural University in Tamil Nadu along with Chief Planning Commissioner Dr. Kunchok Tsundu. We met with the Director and professors of the university who showed us the types of machinery of biofuel extractions and demonstrated to us the equipment used for research work at the university. We were swamped by the knowledge and the technique they presented to us. Since we have the fund available, our goal is to gradually employ this technique of farming in the settlements. We have already started the Jatropha farming on a 200-acre land in Hunsur settlement and it takes about 2- 4 years for this kind of plantation to yield the result although the economic lifespan of the tree is 30-40 years.

Apart from developing the agricultural and animal husbandry sectors in the settlements, the Department of Home also undertake rehabilitation assistance to the displaced Tibetan refugees and undertake sponsorship programs for the old, infirm and destitute. As of now, there are 43 settlements under the jurisdiction of Nangsi including 8 settlements in Nepal.

Our department is able to oversee the running of rehabilitation for the Tibetans in exile is because of the effort and hard work of sections in our department. There are 7 different sections in our department namely Administrative, Agriculture, Welfare, Account, Planning, Youth Empowerment Support, Housing and Estate, and Internal Audit. Each of the divisions is responsible for supporting specific aims and objectives. For instance, the administration division is responsible for overseeing the overall administration of the department and of the Tibetan Settlements in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.  The account division looks after the main department and settlement accounts, preparing yearly budgets, providing residential facilities to new arrivals, etc. The Youth Empowerment Support or YES provides short to long term skill training and micro-credit to the unemployed youth especially to those who could not continue their school or college, and school dropouts so that the number of unemployed youth is reduced by making them able to stand on their own feet. We have spent around 51 million on the Yes project.

As for the agriculture division, it looks after all the Tibetan Settlements engaging in Agricultural allied activities in India, Nepal, and Bhutan and encourages them to adopt organic farming by giving financial and logistical support. It also aims to ensure agricultural practices that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. So far we have spent around 180 million for agriculture-related programs.

The welfare division looks after and takes care of destitute in all the Tibetan Settlements and scattered communities and 14 old people home (OPHs) located in different Tibetan Settlements. In 4 years, besides the main expenditure, we have spent around 34 million on miscellaneous aids. Under the Welfare division, we have poverty alleviation section which is categorised into three categories a) Old age (65+ years of age) destitution with ill health who are cared under the Department of Home initiatives. b) Families with a large number of children are cared for under the Department of Education initiatives. c) Youth disabled by diseases who are cared for under the Department of Health initiatives. One staff from each section has been employed for the role. Each settlement has its own poverty alleviation committee. Two staff is employed to field survey all the Tibetan settlements in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The compiled report of destitute families found during the survey is submitted to the Central Poverty Steering and Alleviation Committee (CPSAC). After thoroughly examining the report, the committee further puts up this report to Kashag for approval. All those approved destitute families receive whatever support and services are needed by them. Four years back, we have had around 1500 destitute elderlies in the Tibetan settlements across India, Nepal, and Bhutan and the number keeps decreasing partially due to improvement in their financial status and mostly because of migration abroad. As of now, there are 1275 destitute elderlies in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In 4 years, we have spent around 262 million only on the stipend. The OPHs under the administration accommodates around 545 elderlies. On each OPH, we spend around 50-60 million each year. In 4 years we have spent in total around 159 million on the accommodation and needs of the elderlies at OPHs.

In 4 years, the department has initiated 59 different projects in 17 settlements. For those projects, we spent around 52-53 million. We were even able to cover the compensation grant and provide relief funds to Tibetan shopkeepers whose livelihood has been affected by cases of fire mishap and other natural disasters. In 4 years, we have had over 9 such cases for which around 58 million was spent.

Despite our immense support to alleviate the poverty in our community, it is disheartening to see certain individuals discredit CTA and falsely accused it of not aiding the poor. We have not let shortcomings come in our way to provide for the poor and if any individual see it otherwise then they are urged to visit the respective department for any clarification.

The rehabilitation scheme of the Indian government does not mandate any benefits to the newly arrived Tibetans or undocumented Tibetans in exile, however, the 14th and 15th Kashag took it upon themselves to provide the needful assistance in the matter concerning their rehabilitation.

For that purpose, we initially built 75 housing in Bir for the newly arrived which costed around rs 700-800 lakhs. Gradually we keep getting more appeal for such assistance. Their names have been received and verified for eligibility such as those currently enlisted in schools, religious institutions, and the army cannot avail of the support until they passed out from the said institution. Our priority is to help those living in a rented house in the settlement. Out of the 100 applicants from Bylakupee, we have approved 80 of them and spent around 70-80 lakhs in housing.

In Mundgod settlement, we had over 40-50 families, and the housing them is currently under construction. In Dekyiling settlement too,  87 Tibetan families from in and around Dehradun who, until now, could not be facilitated in the Tibetan refugee settlements and had temporarily settled outside the jurisdictions of the Department of Home have been allotted the housing. 25 families of newly arrived Tibetans are also included in the auspices of the project. In total, the new housing will cater to 112 Tibetan families.

I have once said in the parliamentary session to devise my full effort in solving the rehabilitation problems faced by the newly arrived Tibetans in India which I believe is almost achieved. A similar housing project is under progress in Kullu but due to the pandemic, the work is currently put on hold. In Delhi, there are around 130-140 families in need of housing and we are currently working on that project. Till now we have spent around 296 million on the housing project. Looking after the welfare of Tibetans in the settlement is not the standalone responsibility of the home department as the department also looks after the welfare of CTA staff through its housing and estate division. During the 15th Kashag, our data shows that there is around 343 staff in and around Dharamshala. Out of the numbers, we have been able to allot the staff quarters to 243 staff. We have constructed 58 new staff quarters in Ghangkyi. Now we need around 30 more staff quarter and the housing issue of the CTA staff will be resolved.

On the environmental aspect, we have dealt with poor road conditions for a long time which has now been fixed and the smooth pavement is laid out. For the maintenance of road and cleanliness, we have spent around 187 million during the 4 years. In terms of the CTA staff salary, there has been a considerable rise in the pay, for instance, the pay of CTA’s official driver has been raised by 121% times and that of a Secretary by 109%. This also includes welfare benefits.

Tibet TV: What are the initiatives undertaken by the Home Department for the Tibetan community in Nepal?

Kalon: There are 8 Tibetan communities in Nepal under 8 settlement officers. The yearly expenditure on the administration of each settlement is completely borne by the Home Department. For instance, according to our data, in a year we spend around 50-70 lakhs INR depending on the population of the respective settlement. During these 4 years, we have spent 345 lakhs. Besides that, we had initiated many development projects and the expense of which is done through SARD to the Lutheran World Foundation in Nepal. When a severe earthquake had hit Nepal in 2015 causing widespread destruction, our department offered 300 million in relief fund.

Tibet TV: In the past 4 years, were there any issues and challenges that the department had to face and how did you overcome it?

Kalon: Generally speaking, there are many obstacles in any kind of administration. But if you have the firmness and will to overcome any kind of obstacles then the obstacles itself don’t seem much of a big deal. At present, we haven’t faced any external pressure or challenges. In fact, the government of India has been utterly generous and supportive of our struggle. In case of any possible legal issues we face, the Indian authority is always kind enough to guide us. However, the obstacles we are facing at times are caused mainly by internal matters. Like I said before, defaming and discrediting the administration from the comfort of their home is easy not realising the effort and hard work that goes into good governance, policy implementations, and monitoring and evaluation.