Keeping Bhutan safe

A 72-hour lockdown has been imposed on Phuentsholing’s “Megazone 2”. This is terrible news, as it has been only a few days since a 62-day lockdown that all of Phuentsholing has had to endure was being gradually lifted. Imagine the relief when residents of Phuentsholing were informed that the lockdown was being lifted after they had been confined to their homes for two whole months. Now imagine their anguish when residents of the core area of Phuentsholing were informed that they will have to undergo another lockdown.

This is the nature of the covid virus. It spreads insidiously and can infect even the most careful. And the delta variant which has entered some places along our border with India is especially dangerous. That’s why Phuentsholing is still struggling to stop the spread of covid. That’s also why Jomosangkha experienced an outbreak recently, and why parts of Samtse are still scrambling to contain an outbreak.

Now if the delta variant of the coronavirus is so contagious, it should have spread to the rest of the country as well. And it should have hit Thimphu particularly hard by now. After all, the capital city is our biggest and the most populated. Yet Thimphu is safe. There hasn’t been a covid case there since the lockdown in January this year. There was a false alarm recently that prompted the government to impose a two-day lockdown, but after more than 2000 negative tests Thimphu was confirmed to be free of covid, for the moment at least.

So why hasn’t the recent strain of covid spread to Thimphu yet? There is one big reason: the one-week quarantine that is mandatory for anyone and everyone traveling from the so-called “high-risk” areas to the rest of the country. Yes, this is inconvenient for our people living in the high-risk areas – a strip of land all along our border with India – but their sacrifices, along with the hard work and dedication of our frontline workers, is what has kept the rest of Bhutan relatively safe. Without this rule, the deadly virus would have spread throughout our country.

If the one-week quarantine requirement is the reason that most of Bhutan is safe, there is one person who has made it happen: our Beloved King. When covid first threatened to enter Bhutan, His Majesty the King appeared on live TV to announce that we would have to close our international borders. When covid cases crossed our borders in spite of the best efforts of our frontline workers, the area along our border with India was deemed to be risky prompting the 7-day quarantine rule for travelers to other parts of the country. And then His Majesty toured every part of the “risky” areas, time and time again, personally leading our fight against covid: directing strategy, supervising institutional arrangements, motivating frontline workers and comforting residents.

In the last 15 months, His Majesty the King has toured our borders no less than 15 times. And every visit has ended with the mandatory quarantine. Even today His Majesty is in quarantine having returned from yet another tour, this time involving an arduous trek to personally patrol our remote borders and visits to several places that are struggling to contain the spread of covid.

This is what keeps us safe. This is what keeps life in Thimphu as normal as the present circumstances could allow. We are fortunate indeed. But we must do our individual bits too. We must remain alert and vigilant. We must follow all safety protocols. We must support our fellow citizens living along our southern borders. We must applaud our frontline workers. And we must offer prayers for His Majesty the King’s good health and wellbeing. 

Mind the gap

The DNT government achieved a significant milestone yesterday. And they did not commemorate it with any fanfare. In fact, the opposition party and the media and all of social media have also been quiet.

What’s the milestone? Six months: our third elected government completed their first six months on the job yesterday. For those who may have forgotten, His Majesty the King conferred dakyen to the incoming prime minister, ministers and opposition leader on the 7th of November last year.

But it’s only six months? Yes. Now, look at it another way. Six months means 10% of the government’s term in office. In other words, this government has already spent 10% of their tenure. That’s a significant portion of their time. Yet, I do not see anything significant in terms of narrowing the gap.

Yes, the government removed the cut-off mark after class X allowing all students to move to high school. But at what cost? Removing the cut-off mark has single-handedly done more to undermine the quality of education than anything else in the history of modern education in Bhutan. So all students can count on making it through high school, but because of the decline in the quality of education, students from poorer families will now be placed at a greater disadvantage.

Doing away with the cut-off mark was easy. It was also reckless. Now it is incumbent on the government to compliment that one reckless policy with a string of good policies, some of which will be difficult, to ensure that the quality of education is not compromised.

Otherwise, the gap will increase.

Yes, the government also instituted the 4th Pay Commission and they are currently studying their report. But why did the government make the report public? Matters concerning money – that includes taxes and budgets, but especially pay and salaries – cannot be discussed in the public for one simple reason: you cannot please all the people all the time!

But you must fulfill your promises. You must narrow the gap.

Elementary support personnel will receive an increase of Nu 2,000 (from Nu 7000 to Nu 9000). That’s hardly going to narrow the gap, especially when the PM, ministers and MPs can expect increases of Nu 25200, Nu 18200 and Nu 9235 respectively. An increase of Nu 2000 for ESP is a pittance. That’s what they received way back in 2014 when their salary was increased from Nu 5000 to Nu 7000.

But General support personnel fare even worse. GSP I staff can expect a pay increase of Nu 1769 while GSP I can expect just Nu 1385! Similarly, O4, O3, and O2 can expect increases of just Nu 1790, Nu 1965 and Nu 2120 respectively.

And local government officials fare the worst. Elected local government officials will not receive any increase in their salaries! True, LG officials received two pay increases during 2013 to 2018. But that’s mainly because their original salary base was unacceptably lower than their counterparts in the government.

The Pay Commission’s report is not going to narrow any gap. In fact, it will widen the existing gap. So to narrow the gap among public officials, the government must narrow the pay gap – in absolute terms, not by percentages and compression ratios.

Otherwise the gap will increase.

Then there’s the gap between public servants and the rest of the country, especially our rural folk. Here, the government has done precious little. I can say that with confidence simply because I hardly see any new development work being implemented. With development work throughout the country at a virtual standstill, no gap is being narrowed, not between the public and private sectors, and certainly not between our rural folk and the rest of the country.

It’s been six months since the DNT formed the government. And they have already spent 10% of their tenure. But there’s been no new development work, not in our towns and not in our villages. And without development we cannot narrow the gap.

I voted for DNT. I voted to narrow the gap. It now becomes my responsibility to hold them accountable to fulfill their promise.

So as the government completes a significant milestone, and while the opposition party and the media and all of social media are (complicity?) quiet, I would like to respectfully caution the government: Mind the gap!

Who killed the private media?

Who’s the hangman?

The World Press Freedom report is out. Bhutan’s position has improved significantly to 80 from 94 from last year. Bhutan’s overall position has also improved during my tenure in government, from 92 to 80.

So I’m happy.

But I’m not happy about the state of our private media. In the two years leading up to the start of parliamentary democracy, private media thrived and continued to grow for a few more years. At one time, we had 11 private newspapers!

Then, gradually, private newspapers started shutting down. Bhutan Observer was the first to fold. They were followed by Druk Neytshuel, Bhutan Youth, Druk Melong and Druk Yoedzer in quick order.

So today we have only six private newspapers: Bhutan Times, Bhutan Today, Business Bhutan, The Journalist, Gyalchi Sarshog and The Bhutanese. Of these, Bhutan Times, a mighty paper during its heyday a decade ago, has been reduced to a sorry shadow of its former self. And The Journalist, Gaychi Sarshog and Bhutan Today are doing even worse – they are barely surviving.

So who killed the private media? The culprit is Kuensel.

Kuensel, a state-owned enterprise, has used its deep pockets, endless resources and strong connections to the government to drive private newspapers out of business. And they are continuing to do so.

The irony is that Kuensel recently ran an editorial, pointing out that the problem with state enterprises is that, they benefit from “favorable treatment” in the form of “subsidies preferential regulatory treatment and even state-backed guarantees”. The editorial went on to suggest that government should not engage in businesses that the private sector is capable of providing.

I agree with Kuensel, notwithstanding the SOEs I defended in my previous post.

But I wonder if Kuensel would be ready to practice what they preach. I wonder if they would be willing to let go of the unfair advantages and privileges that they themselves enjoy as a state enterprise. I wonder if they would be willing to heed their own advice to provide a level playing ground for their private counterparts.

If they are, then good, let’s get cracking – there’s a lot of work to do. If they are not, then they would reek of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy of the highest order that emanates from outright arrogance.

Kuensel profits immensely as a state enterprise. This gives them an insurmountable advantage over private newspapers … and over printing presses, photo studios, publishing houses, Dzongkha translators, stationery shops and IT vendors.

Here’s how Kuensel profits as a state enterprise (most of the information is from the Royal Securities Exchange website):

  • 51% of the company is owned by the government. And that is not counting other government agencies, like the NPPF, that also own chunks of the company.
  • The land they sit on belongs to the government. Kuensel is the only newspaper enjoying government land on lease.
  • Their branch in Kanglung was established with subsidies from the government, including for, but not limited to, land, building and expensive printing equipment.
  • Their vehicles are subsidized by the government, and carry government license plates giving them undue advantages during travel and when seeking access.
  • Their printing department is their biggest source of revenue earning them a whopping Nu 83 million in 2017. Their main printing press, a Heidelberg offset printing machine, was purchased by the government. Private printing presses cannot compete as they need to buy their own machines, and are subject to government procurement procedures which Kuensel can bypass.
  • Advertisements is their second biggest earner, bringing in revenue of Nu 77 million in 2017. Most of this is government advertisements. And the amount of advertisements that they get is not funny – open any of their papers, including yesterday’s, and you’ll see more announcements and advertisements than news stories!
  • Stationery is their third biggest earner, making Nu 34 million in 2017. Again, most of their customers are government offices who place direct orders.
  • Additionally, they made Nu 7.3 million in 2017 by providing services related to photos, dzongkha translation, book publication, retail sales and IT. All these services are in direct competition with private businesses.
  • Kuensel’s total income for 2017 was Nu 214 million, of which Nu 77 million was paid as remuneration and benefits for their employees. Even so, at the end of the year they had Nu 47 million in their bank and had receivables totaling Nu 116 million.

This is gigantic, considering that their competition in the private sector are living from hand to mouth at best. In reality, most of them are in the deep red. And left unchecked, Kuensel will drive more private newspapers out of business.

So how to bell this cat?

First BICMA must ensure a level playing field. They must make sure that Kuensel does not continue to enjoy undue support and privileges from the government that undermine the growth of the private media.

Next, a special audit must be carried out, not by outside firms as has been the practice, but by the Royal Audit Authority. The special audit must go beyond the financials to cover the performance of the company and its effect on the private sector.

After the audit, the government must give serious thought to pulling out of Kuensel. At the very least, they must ensure that Kuensel stops competing with private businesses by providing services in the areas of printing, stationery, photography, translation, retail and IT. Instead, they should be required to stick to their core mandate of reporting news. More importantly, the government should distribute their advertisements among all newspapers, and more equitably, to address their own concerns regarding state-owned enterprises, if for nothing else.

As for me, I know that I should have done a lot more to improve the media landscape, especially in the private sector, during my tenure in the government. I regret that I could not and did not. That said, I will continue to support a free and fair media.

So I offer my services to the private media if they feel that they are unfairly constrained by Kuensel. I will take their case up with BICMA, the government, lawmakers, and, if needed, with the judiciary.

Similarly, I offer my services to private businesses if they feel that Kuensel is receiving and taking undue advantage. I will take up their case with the government and, if needed, the judiciary.

And I offer my services to Kuensel employees if they feel that there are corrupt practices in their organization. I will protect their identity, but will take up their cases with the Anticorruption Commission.

In 2010 I posed a question. It turns out that several readers guessed the identity of the hooded hangman. But the same scenario continues to unfold today, with Kuensel as both the unknown hangman and the one applauding the death of private newspapers.

We need to join hands to rein in Kuensel. Otherwise, the killing spree of private newspapers will continue.



State owned enterprises

The Interim Government

Last year, during the election period, the Interim Government seems to have conducted a study of state owned enterprises and released a report that is critical of companies established by the former government. That’s okay. It’s good that the Interim Government was concerned whether “established protocol” was followed while establishing the new companies and recommended strategies to streamline the system.

What’s not okay is the timing. The Interim Government seems to have taken up the issue of SOEs immediately after the primary elections … that is after PDP lost. So I’m still wondering if SOEs would have received the Interim Government’s attention if PDP had made it through the primary round of elections.

If the Interim Government was honest and if they genuinely wanted to question the usefulness and viability of SOEs, they should have done so immediately after assuming office, without hesitating to consider if the former government would return or not. In fact, if SOEs was a burning priority, one that merited the attention of the interim government, the members, some of them at least, should have questioned the government even before their appointment as members of the 3-month long interim government.

The RMA Governor, in particular, should have voiced his concerns to the former government either directly or included them in the RMA’s annual policy briefings. He didn’t. Similarly, the DHI should have questioned the establishment of the Construction Development Corporation or the State Mining Corporation as a part of their organization. They didn’t; instead they readily accepted both the corporations.

But like I said, it’s good that the interim government conducted the review. And in spite of the fact that due process was followed while establishing each and every one of the new SOEs, I agree that better guidelines may need to be in place.

On the other hand, I object to Kuensel’s reference to SOEs as a “political tool” that “cannot be created to accommodate some party supporters in the name of growth”. In this connection, I challenge Kuensel to substantiate their views that some SOEs were established for political reason, and prove their allegation that they were created to benefit party supporters. These are serious accusations and must be dealt with forthright.

Here are some of the SOEs that we established in the previous five years:

  • Bhutan Lottery to revive the lucrative lottery business that was terminated in 2011. The corporation is already turning in a profit of about Nu 50 million annually. And that’s without yet entering the huge market in India.
  • Duty Free Shop to improve operations. DFS barely earned Nu 16 million when it was run by the Ministry of Finance. Last year, less than 2 years after its establishment as an SOE, it earned Nu 50 million.
  • Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services earned Nu 163 million in 2017 and is already declaring healthy dividends to the government.
  • Rural Enterprise Development Corporation was established as a corporation after the opposition party’s (and Kuensel’s) loud objections to the erstwhile BOIC. By 2017, REDC had already disbursed Nu 524 million to establish 360 small businesses in rural Bhutan.
  • Construction Development Corporation was transferred to DGPC to take up hydropower construction. They are already building tunnels in addition to some of the best bridges in the country. (Incidentally, I was responsible for encouraging DGPC to expand Bhutan Hydropower Services and establish Bhutan Automation.)
  • State Mining Corporation to harvest strategic mineral resources sustainably.
  • Farm Shops as a part of FCB to provide fair price goods and to buy agricultural produce in rural villages.
  • Farm Machinery Corporation to mechanize farms and to revert fallow land for cultivation.
  • Green Bhutan to help in conservation efforts, especially through afforestation and reforestation.
  • Livestock Development Corporation to produce animal husbandry inputs for farmers.

Granted, some of these corporations are yet to turn a profit. These include SMC, FMCL, Green Bhutan and LDC. But give them time and they all will become financially viable. At any rate, profit was not the main motive for establishing these corporations. That these services were not available, especially at desired quality and scale, motivated the government to establish these corporations. More importantly, they were established to create much-needed jobs for our youth, jobs that would be seen as “government jobs”.

I wish to make one final point. The government seems to be thinking of privatizing some of the SOEs. I don’t know which ones they may have in mind, but I hope they will be careful. I hope they will tread cautiously. I hope they will not misuse privatization as a ruse to transfer ownership of national assets (like the juicy lottery business) to a few already well-off individuals. And I hope they will not misuse privatization as a quick way of generating revenue to pay for expensive campaign promises. That would be unsustainable. That would be short-sighted.

Where is the opposition party?

PC: Business Bhutan

Article 18 of the Constitution requires the opposition party to “… play a constructive role to ensure that the Government and the ruling party function in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, provide good governance and strive to promote the national interest and fulfil the aspirations of the people.”

But … where is the opposition? Yes, I see them attending ceremonies and photo ops with the prime minister and the government. That’s good. It promotes harmony. But just promoting harmony is not enough. In fact, if there’s harmony, but without a sound opposition, we risk undermining the institutional checks and balances between the ruling and opposition parties. In other words, the two parties could go in cahoots to put personal and party interests ahead of the national interest.

So where is the opposition party? I really don’t know. Except, that is, for the Dewathang-Gomdar MP Ugyen Dorji. He was in his constituency recently. And he opposed. Unfortunately, he opposed the previous government, not the current one!

Business Bhutan reported that “After touring the length and breadth of his constituency, and spending hours with the local people” MP Ugyen Dorji concluded that he is “disappointed with work done by last government”, and that gewogs in his constituency have “fallen into regression in the last five years”. (I’ve reproduced the entire article at the end of this post for your reading pleasure.)

I’m not going to bore MP Ugyen Dorji by recounting everything we did in his constituency in the last five years. He would already know all that. So let me highlight just a few of the work that was done … to help me understand why he is so disappointed.

Perhaps the honorable MP does not approve of the gewog center roads that we blacktopped. He would know that we blacktopped GC roads to Orong (12.3 km), Gomdar (12 km) and Wangphu (12.5 km) reducing the cost and time of travel while enhancing comfort in his constituency.

Or perhaps he does not agree that the two central schools we opened in his constituency, one each in Orong and Gomdar, are appreciated by his constituents.

Maybe he’s disappointed that Jigme Namgyel Polytechnic in Dewathang was upgraded to an engineering degree awarding college.

Staying with Dewathang, he may be upset that a brand new 40-bedded hospital was constructed there in spite of the fact that Samdrup Jongkhar already has a district hospital. And he may not approve of the fact that 6 medical evacuations were carried out from his constituency by helicopter.

Or could it be that he does not like his constituents doing business? After all, REDC provided subsidized loans for 120 projects totaling more than Nu 15 million. If that is the case – if he does not support rural businesses – then he would be really upset because we opened gewog banks in all four of his gewogs.

Perhaps it’s electricity. All households in his constituency receive 100 units of free electricity each month. This is the case in all gewogs throughout the country, but for some reason he may take exception to it. Similarly, again for some reason best known to himself, he may feel that doubling the rural life insurance was a bad idea.

Maybe the MP does not approve of the construction of the Southern East-West Highway that we had begun quietly, but in earnest. In particular, the road connecting Langchenphug in Jumotshangkha and Samrang is under construction from both sides. And a road to connect Chokorling in Nganglam to Dewathang is also under construction.

Perhaps the honorable MP did not like Gewog Development Grants which provided Nu 10 million to each of his five gewogs. This enabled the local governments to implement a wide range of development work which they considered important but were outside the scope of the 11th Plan. I know that the GDG scheme would offend him as during his tenure as an MP in the ruling party, he enjoyed using the Constituency Development Grant, a much smaller scheme, but one that gave MPs full control of the funds.

But who knows? Maybe he does not like to see industrial growth in Samdrup Jongkhar. After all we spent Nu 100 million for developing the Motanga Industrial Park, and he may be alarmed that 30 industrial plots have already been allotted. Added to that, he would have seen that a ­lot of ground work has been done on the Nyera-Amari hydropower project.

And who knows? It could be just that he does not like to see Samdrup Jongkhar thromde develop. After all, he would know that Nu 640 million was budgeted in the 11th Plan compared to just Nu 351 million in the 10th Plan. This would basically mean that, between the 10th and 11th Plans, development activities were almost doubled in Samdrup Jongkhar town.

Then there’s agriculture. But since MP Ugyen Dorji knows his constituency so well, let’s leave something for him to write about.

  • So perhaps he could tell us the numbers of power tillers that were distributed in his constituency. He would know that even though power tillers were introduced in the country 35 years ago, some of his gewogs did not have a single power tiller till we distributed a power tiller each to every chiwog.
  • Perhaps he could tell us about the new farm roads that were constructed including ongoing work like the road connecting Orong to Dewathang.
  • Perhaps he would care to mention where farm shops were established, and clarify if they enable his constituents to purchase essential products at fair prices.
  • And perhaps he could tell us how many kilometres of electric fencing were installed in how many of his villages, and if they help farmers protect their crops.

The next time MP Ugyen Dorji visits his constituency, I suggest that he reduce the number of his parties and increase the quality of his observation. That would make a much better strategy to serve his constituents. That would also prepare him to be a constructive opposition to the government, and not make us ask “Where is the opposition party?”

Fueling growth

Everyone is talking about the Pay Commission’s report. And I too will gradually join the conversation. To start, I wish to discuss the Commission’s recommendation to increase fuel taxes.

Everyone would remember 2013.

The country was experiencing an economic crisis. In its efforts to address the critical shortage of Indian rupees, the central bank imposed a series of policies including restricting the supply of rupees; rationing rupees to Bhutanese traveling to India for business, studies, medical treatment or pilgrimage; closing bank accounts of Indian citizens; and suspending loans in several sectors. These policies did little to solve the rupee crisis. Instead, they fueled panic, prompting citizens to hoard Indian currency. The government also added to the panic by curtailing construction, banning the import of vehicles and furniture, and selling hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s reserves.

The result was that Bhutanese were buying rupees at a premium, paying Nu 110 for every Rs 100 when in fact the two currencies were pegged at equal value. More importantly, the entire economy took a big hit, growing at just 2.14% in 2013, the lowest GDP growth in decades.

So, soon after assuming office in 2013, I worked closely with RMA and successfully addressed the rupee crisis. In addition, we gradually improved the economy by injecting liquidity in the banking system, investing in infrastructure (notably in widening the East-West Highway, building central schools, improving airports, blacktopping gewog roads, constructing farm roads, and expanding the electricity and telecom network), reducing interest rates, improving ease of doing business, waiving taxes for small businesses, establishing REDC, and providing unprecedented support to hydropower, tourism, agriculture, livestock and CSIs.

Our hard work paid off. GDP growth rates increased from a low of 2.15% in 2013 to 5.4% in 2014, 6.6% in 2015 and 8% in 2016. Additionally, GDP was forecast to grow by 8.4% in 2017 and 9.2% in 2018.

Table by The Bhutanese

And to ensure that the economy continued to grow, fuel prices were reduced drastically in November of 2017. The idea was that lower fuel prices would drive down the cost of construction, traded goods and some other services. The idea was also to allow truck drivers and taxi drivers, most of whom own the vehicles they drive, to earn more money. And finally, the idea was to make travel cheaper in rural Bhutan where farmers are required to drive much longer distances to get to neighboring villages, gewog centers and dzongkhag headquarters.

That’s why I was alarmed to read the Pay Commission’s recommendation to increase taxes on fuel. Specifically, they recommended that “In order to promote the Polluter Pays Principle, it is timely to revise the green tax on fuel. For example, if the green tax is revised by 5%, there is opportunity to generate additional revenue of Nu.450 million per annum.”

If increased consumption of fuel is leading to increased pollution, I would support an increased “green tax”. But I would do so on condition that revenue from green tax should be used for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, not to finance increases in salaries.

Otherwise, the so-called green tax must not be misused. In fact, the price of fuel should not be increased so soon after they were deliberately reduced. Doing so would affect the incomes of truck drivers, taxi drivers and farmers. But, and more importantly, raising taxes on fuel would risk undoing all the hard-earned gains we have made in the economy since 2013.

In this context, the government should remember 2013.

Better late than never

PC: Kuensel

A bit of good news that the media covered last week caught my attention. Kuensel reported that, “the prime minister, cabinet ministers, opposition leader, national council chairperson, the chief justice of the supreme court, ACC chairperson, attorney general and the auditor general together surrendered 21 subsidised cylinders”. Kuensel’s coverage included two photographs of our leaders trading in gas cylinders “… for others who cannot afford the non-subsidised LPG.”

The photo-op was a part of “Our Gyenkhu”, the government’s initiative to encourage citizens to buy non-subsidized gas.

I applaud this initiative, and join the government in encouraging the use of non-subsidized gas so that those that don’t have the means, especially farmers in distant villages, will have better access to subsidized LPG.

But I have one question: why did our leaders take so long? Why didn’t they make this simple sacrifice a year ago when the government launched non-subsidized LPG with an announcement to “appeal and encourage all in urban areas to come forward and voluntarily give up their subsidized LPG and avail non subsidized LPG.” In fact, the former MOEA minister followed up this announcement with personal letters to all government and international agencies. Some responded promptly and I wish to acknowledge their support and cooperation. Chief among them were the Zhung Dratshang and senior officers of the armed forces.

Now let’s get this important initiative rolling. Let’s make it a success. It’s better late than never.

Bhutan for Life

Our responsibility to look after our protected areas – that’s 51% of our country – just got easier. Bhutan for Life and GNHC signed a grant agreement for Nu 2.4 billion to finance conservation activities during the next 14 years. Most of this should be spent during the 12th Plan period to protect our national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries, and to ensure that people living in them receive support to enhance their livelihood.

I’m happy to have had the opportunity to tell our conservation story to the world and to take part in the fund-raising efforts. My thanks to WWF-US for their leadership and support in putting together this unique funding mechanism. Thanks also to all BFL partners – individuals, foundations and institutions – for believing in Bhutan and for their generous contributions.

And most importantly, I offer thanks to His Majesty the King for providing the vision for BFL and for inspiring the entire country to work together to protect what ultimately belongs to our future generations … and to the world.

Enough entertainment

The Royal Audit Authority seems to have recently submitted their report on hospitality and entertainment expenses to the government. Their findings have caused widespread alarm in the country.

I have not responded to the report for a simple reason: I have not yet received a copy of the report. I have not seen it, and I don’t know if they expect a response from me.

The media, on the other hand, have already obtained (or were given) copies of the report. And they have run with it. Kuensel alone has written six pieces on the RAA’s findings and has convinced a very concerned nation that the previous government wasted huge amounts of money on lavish chagoep and nyendar, followed by soelra, contributions and semso.”

I have not responded to the media, also for a simple reason: they have not contacted me. Not a single journalist has tried to contact me (or any of my colleagues in the former cabinet) for my thoughts or views or comments on this important matter. So I’m forced to conclude that Kuensel has made no attempt to tell the news objectively. They have relied on a single source and have purposely excluded the views and concerns of people who may be directly affected by their stories. Why? So that they could cherry pick sensational bits from the RAA report, combine it with their personal biases and produce inflammatory stories. That’s why their viral stories has everyone convinced that the entertainment expenses were excessive and that they were used solely for “nyenda and soelra”. No need to plough through their stories for evidence; just look at their cartoon at the start of this post.

I now owe the people an explanation.

In the middle of 2017, RAA issued a draft report on hospitality and entertainment expenses of the government. The former cabinet agreed with their main recommendation that proper guidelines needed to be established, and promptly directed the Ministry of Finance to prepare the guidelines.

In the absence of clear guidelines, cabinet ministers (and the chief justice, speaker, NC chairman and opposition leader) had blindly followed precedence. And according to precedence, expenses related to the travel of ministers and their teams, travel of government guests and expenses for unplanned national events were also booked under “hospitality and entertainment”. In fact, this practice was not just entrenched, it was accepted practice. That’s why, until their 2017 draft report, the RAA cleared the “hospitality and entertainment” expenses of all ministers, each year, every year without any comment. Not once did they ask any question or raise any objection. And I’m referring to the annual audits going back to 2008 and beyond.

So based on the RAA’s draft report, the Ministry of Finance was instructed to develop clear guidelines. In addition, all ministers were directed to review their individual expenses and submit segregated accounts. My office at that time (the PMO) also studied and segregated the expenses of the former prime minister (that’s me) and conveyed their findings to RAA .

For the period 2013 to 2018, Nu 39,662,234 was spent on “hospitality and entertainment”. Incidentally, my predecessor spent Nu 51,684,107 during his tenure. This is according to the report generated by the Finance Ministry’s public expenditure and management system (PEMS).

If you look at the third-last row of the table (the one for the year 2017-2018), you’ll see that while Nu 1,962,758 was booked under “hospitality and entertainment”, more was spent on “national events”, “government guests” and “local government visits”. These activities are outside the scope of entertainment and hospitality, and, as such, were booked separately.

The PMO carried out the same exercise for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, and determined that actual “hospitality and entertainment” expenses for those years were Nu 926,840 and Nu 903,583 respectively and not Nu 14,450,176 and Nu 8,401,220 as reflected in the report. The actual expenses were calculated by segregating “hospitality and entertainment” from other allowable expenses, most of which consisted of in-country travel. So if the revised figures for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 are used, the total expenditure for “hospitality and entertainment expenditure” would fall to Nu 18,641,261. And if the correct expenses for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 are incorporated, the total “hospitality and entertainment” expenditure would fall further still.

This is a far cry from the Nu 55 million per year that Kuensel has misled people to believe I spent on entertainment, and that too mainly for chagoep, nyendar, soelra and semso

But why was travel booked under “hospitality and entertainment”? Because that was past practice, one that had always been accepted by the Ministry of Finance and RAA.

And why was so much money spent on travel? Because I travelled a lot. I visited each and every one of our 205 gewogs, with some, like Lunana, taking many days to cover. In addition, I visited all 20 dzongkhags on six different occasions — to report on the 11th Five Year Plan, to sign annual performance agreements, to coordinate the mid-term review of the 11th Plan, to discuss the draft 12th Five Year Plan and to report on the completion of the 11th Plan.

The travel expenses, including for hotels and food, for the entire team traveling with me was booked under “hospitality and entertainment”, but they were allowed to claim only 20% of their DSA. (In the past, civil servants accompanying the prime minister were also provided food and board, and they could claim full DSA).

It’s not for me to say whether the actual expenditure on “hospitality and entertainment” was excessive or not, but I agree with RAA that proper guidelines, including expenditure ceilings, are required. All expenses should not be lumped together as “hospitality and entertainment”. However, I object to the fact that they have issued this report after clearing these expenditures each year and every year, during their annual audits misleading the respective finance officers that everything was in order.

More importantly, I strongly object to the fact that the whole exercise seems to have been carried out so that the report could have been released just before the elections. Why so? Probably to influence the elections. But why do I say so?  Because sources have informed me that RAA had planned to release two other reports (on the East-West Highway and on central schools) just as we were wrapping up our tenure as the former government.

I don’t know what eventually held them back. But if there’s even a hint of truth in this, then, I’m afraid, we have real cause for widespread alarm.

Haa tragedy

I am shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the tragedy in Haa that cut short the lives of eleven of our young soldiers and injured ten others. Young Bhutanese men in uniform with their entire lives ahead of them, some with wives and children, laid down their lives while in the service of our nation.

I join all Bhutanese in offering my heartfelt sympathy to the families and loved ones of the victims of the Anakha tradegy. I hope that you can draw some measure of comfort knowing that you are not alone in your grief – that people across our country, and Bhutanese everywhere, pray and mourn with you.

For the families of the injured, please know that we will do whatever possible to restore the health of your loved one. We join you in your prayers for their full and speedy recovery. And, we will be there with you for as long as it takes.

At this time our hearts also go out to all members of our armed forces who risk so much in the service of our nation – who are always ready to risk their own lives so that the rest of us can live in safety and security.

And, at such times, it is always His Majesty the King who is first on the scene, the greatest source of comfort for those in pain, and the provider of welfare to the children and spouses of the victims. We are blessed to have His Majesty at Anakha, offering solace to bereaved families and ensuring that the injured receive the best medical attention. All of us in the government humbly stand by His Majesty the King, our Kidu-Gi-Pham, to serve and do whatsoever is required of us to provide support and comfort to the victims and their families of today’s tragedy.

At a personal level, it pains me deeply that I am not in Bhutan at this moment of tragedy. I will return home as soon as possible but until then my thoughts and my prayers will be with the families of our soldiers who have suffered a terrible fate.