Perks and peeves

Two years ago, I had been surprised to hear that the cabinet had issued each minister with an additional car, a Wagon R. I had been surprised because that additional perk does not feature in the government’s approved list of “Entitlements of Cabinet Ministers and Equivalent Posts”, and because the additional expense had not been declared when the budget was discussed in the Parliament.

Now I’m surprised to hear that each minister has been receiving “an allowance for cooks and housekeepers from the cabinet”. I’m surprised because this perk is not part of the government’s approved list of “Entitlements of Cabinet Ministers and Equivalent Posts”, and because the additional expense has not been declared when the budget was discussed in the Parliament.

It’s perfectly okay for our ministers to enjoy certain perks. But those perks must be clearly defined. They must be transparent. And they must be approved by the Parliament. Otherwise, our ministers may be tempted to enjoy limitless perks.

Flirting with danger

Clear and present danger

Last month, on 17 February, at about 8:45 PM, a policeman was shot and severely injured when gunmen opened fire on the Rinchending check post. Moments later a bomb blast ripped through the check post.

The United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, an armed outfit based in Nepal, has claimed responsibility for the attack. URFB is just one of the many Nepal-based organizations committed to spreading terror in Bhutan.

Last week, on 1 March, less than two weeks after the attack on the Rinchending check post, the prime minister announced that he is willing to repatriate bona fide Bhutanese living in the Nepal camps who fulfill required conditions.

I’m shocked. Our country was attacked barely two weeks ago. So we expect the government to be on a war footing – we expect them to hunt down the perpetrators and to hold them to full account; we expect them to demand answers from Nepal.

But what does the prime minister do? He flirts with the idea of repatriating the very people who are committed to attack and to spread terror in our country.

I’m shocked. And I told the media as much. Here’s my full interview with Bhutan Today:

Bhutan Today Prime Minister has said that the government might bring back (repatriate) some of the people living in camps in eastern Nepal if they fulfill the criteria agreed upon earlier by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal. What is your overall view on the issue?

Opposition Leader I don’t understand how the prime minister can even consider repatriation.

In 2001 the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments began a joint verification of the people in Khudunabari camp. That verification process came to an abrupt end after the Bhutanese team was attacked and beaten up violently in 2003, just before they completed the joint verification of the people in Khununabari camp. The joint verification process did not resume after that unfortunate incident. Therefore, I don’t see on what basis, on what criteria, the prime minister could even consider repatriating people.

Does PDP support repatriation?

No. Repatriation is no longer possible. Repatriation of some people was a genuine possibility 10 years ago, but even then, only if the verification process was honest and complete. That didn’t happen. Now it’s more than 20 years since people settled in the camps, plus most of them have opted to resettle in third countries. If repatriation was not possible 10 years ago, in spite of the best efforts of the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, I don’t see how the prime minister can even talk about it as a possibility now.

At a time when most of the camp people have accepted resettlement in third countries, some observers feel that the prime minister should not have spoken that the government “will bring” some of the people back as the PM’s speech might disturb the resettlement programme in third countries. Please comment.

I fail to see the logic in the prime minister’s statement. How can he commit to repatriate people if we now don’t have any basis of even identifying whether a person is a genuine Bhutanese or not.

What is the best solution according to you?

I am grateful for, and support resettlement in third countries, especially since the people in the camps themselves prefer to settle in third countries. In addition, I strongly support honest dialogue between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to consider workable ways of bringing closure to this difficult problem.

Photo credit: BBS

Extremely determined disrespectful opinion

The government has decided to discontinue the constituency development grant. That is good news. The government had bulldozed the CDG through the Parliament, without a full debate, without a vote, and without any support of the National Council and the opposition party. The ECB had objected saying that the CDG undermines free and fair elections. And the media has repeatedly questioned the legality of the grant. So the government’s decision to discontinue the controversial grant comes as really good news.

But there’s bad news too. The prime minister has not accepted that the CDG was a mistake. He has not apologized, and he has not explained how he will make amends or who will take responsibility. Instead, he has blamed the people who questioned and opposed CDG. And he has threatened that the “next government” would, anyway, reinstate CDG.

The prime minister claims that he is discontinuing CDG to avoid the specter of another “constitutional case towards the end of their term” as there are “people who are willing to take the government to court.”

Yes, we did take the government to court for raising taxes illegally. And yes, we will not hesitate to take the government to court if they purposely violate important provisions of the Constitution. After all, the opposition party’s main responsibility, according to the Constitution, is to ensure that the government and ruling party function in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution

The prime minister has also complained that, “So here you have the majority opinion and majority feelings giving way to the extremely determined and disrespectful opinion of the few in a democracy.”

The opposition party has only 2 members. That works out to just 4% of the National Assembly seats. And that makes us probably the world’s smallest opposition. But we have worked with extreme determination and we have not hesitated to express our opinion, even at the risk of appearing disrespectful. And I am happy that our unwavering stand has prompted the government, one that enjoys an overwhelming majority, to discontinue the CDG.

But there’s still something else: according to Article 22 Section 18(c) of the Constitution, “Local Governments shall be entitled to adequate financial resources from the Government in the form of annual grants.”

The controversial constituency development grant is no more. Good. But what about the annual grants that local governments are entitled to collect from the government? When will the government fulfill that important provision of the Constitution?

No doubt, the government realizes that the opposition party will be “extremely determined” and will not hesitate to express “disrespectful opinion” to ensure that local governments are provided annual grants, grants that they can use without the interference of their MPs.

Real accountability

Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, the works and human settlement minster, was reportedly “shocked and alarmed” at news that his ministry was underutilizing its budget allocations. The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement has apparently used barely15% of this financial year’s budget although more than half the year has already elapsed.

Is Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba really shocked and alarmed? I hope not. After all, we expect our ministers to have a good idea of how their respective ministries are performing or underperforming, as the case may be. So if he is really shocked, if he is really alarmed, we should be concerned. In fact, we should be horrified. We should be appalled that he does not know what’s going on in his own ministry.

The minister has assured us that he will look into the matter personally, and that he will hold “respective individuals accountable.” That’s good. We desperately need accountability. But accountability, real accountability, begins with the head of the organization, in this case with the minister himself.

So if his ministry is underperforming, and underperforming badly, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba must accept full responsibility.

But if, because of him, other organisations are also suffering, he must take even bigger responsibility. And that, unfortunately, is what seems to be happening with the Thimphu and Phuentsholing city corporations. The city corporations are not under the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. They are autonomous. Yet their budgets seem to be controlled by the ministry. If that is so, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba must take full responsibility for encroaching on the powers of local government and for undermining their performance.

Shock and alarm will not improve the performance of the ministry or the two city corporations. For that, there’s only one remedy: accountability.

State of our civil service

I watched the last part of the People’s Voice debate on BBS TV this evening. The motion was “Civil Service – efficient and accountable?”

The team arguing against the motion won by a huge margin, 692 votes to 184 votes. Obviously, they were able to convince the viewers that our civil service is NOT efficient and accountable.

But the votes are compiled from viewer SMSs (only one SMS per phone number is recognized). So the result also reflects widespread discontent at the state of our civil service.

What do you think? Is our civil service efficient and accountable? Please take the poll. And please share your views. This is an important issue. And the more of us that think about it, the better it is for our country and our people.

 

Walk the talk!

Careful

South Korea is home to 50 million people. They have the 13th largest economy in the world and are a member of the G-20. They are the world’s leading exporter of some of the best electronics (think of Samsung), home appliances (LG), cars (Hyundai Kia) and ships (Hyundai). They have hosted the Olympics, the World Cup and the Asian Games. They have the world’s best education system, enjoy one of the highest internet penetration rates, and boast a popular culture that has taken much of Asia by storm.

But in spite of all their successes, South Koreans are still grappling to identify themselves. And try as they might, they have not yet been able to brand their country successfully.

On the other hand, Bhutan, a small country tucked away in the Himalayas with barely 600,000 people and with one of the smallest economies in the world, possesses a powerful brand. Not may people know about Bhutan, but those who do know – almost every one of them – associate our country with GNH and happiness. GNH is a powerful brand, one that is the envy of some of the richest and most powerful nations.

The GNH brand was not created overnight. Instead it developed gradually – naturally and effortlessly – over several decades, during the period that our beloved monarchs worked tirelessly to improve the social and economic conditions of our people in an equitable, just and sustainable manner.

Today, however, that brand, GNH, is being undermined on two fronts. When we talk, we overuse GNH, and by overdoing it, we risk demeaning GNH to a hollow slogan, a trite cliché. But when we work, we ignore GNH, and by not practicing what we preach, we risk making our own people skeptical and cynical of GNH and its promises.

The GNH brand is a national asset. We must treasure it. We must nurture it. And we must celebrate it. But we must also remain faithful to it. For that, we, ourselves, must first understand what it really means, and then we, collectively, must work hard at putting it into effect.

Otherwise, we will diminish our brand image. And, as a small country, with barely 600,000 people and with one of the smallest economies in the world, we will find it exceedingly difficult to rebrand ourselves. And we will find it impossible to revive the GNH brand.

Reckless power

The minister for economic affairs, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, is in New Delhi. He’s meeting his counterparts in the Indian government to discuss the hydropower projects currently under construction. And he’s attending the empowered group meeting that will consider future hydropower projects, including those that will be developed as joint venture projects by public sector companies of the two governments.

I hope that Lyonpo Khandu will remember the question that I had submitted during the last session of the Parliament. I didn’t get to actually ask it due to time constraints. But, as required, I had submitted my question in advance, in writing, so he knows that the opposition party has serious concerns about the joint venture hydropower projects that the government is negotiating.

Here’s my question:

The Government has reportedly allowed Indian Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) companies to build and operate 4 big hydropower projects under a build, operate, own and transfer (BOOT) mode as joint venture partners with Druk Green Power Corporation.

Will the Hon’ble Minister please explain why the Government should go ahead with the joint venture projects when the demands of the PSUs violate the Government’s sustainable hydropower development policy and create excessively favorable conditions for themselves?

Hydropower is a valuable resource. It is the cornerstone of our economy. And it is its main driver. So we must develop it. But we must do so carefully. We must ensure that each and every hydropower project contributes meaningfully to our economy, benefits our people, and strengthens our sovereignty. We must be careful. We cannot be reckless.

But that’s exactly what the proposed joint venture projects are: reckless. The government seems to be willing to ignore and violate important provisions of the sustainable hydropower development policy for the Indian government PSUs. Those policies were carefully developed just 3 years ago, so undermining them basically amounts to recklessly compromising the interests of our country and people.

The government, for example, has allowed the Indian PSUs to own 51% of the joint venture projects although the policy explicitly states that, “For Public-Public partnership, the RGoB undertaking shall have a minimum of 51% shareholding.”

What that means is that Indian government PSUs will have managerial and decision-making control over the joint venture projects. That is not good. That is reckless.

But that’s not all. The government seems to be giving in to even more demands of the Indian PSUs. These demands would create even more favorable conditions for Indian PSUs by simply ignoring even more of the government’s hydropower policy.

For instance the PSUs have demanded that the joint venture projects be exempted from paying royalty power to the government. Hydropower is a natural resource that belongs to the State. So royalty must be collected for exploiting that resource. That’s why the hydropower policy requires that, “A minimum of twelve percent (12%) of electricity generated shall be made available free of cost to the RGoB as Royalty Energy during the first 12 yeas of commercial operation of the project and a minimum of eighteen (18%) thereafter …”

The PSUs have also demanded that they enjoy ownership of the joint venture projects for 35 years. That also violates the hydropower policy according to which “The project shall be allotted to a Developer for a concession period of thirty (30) years, excluding the construction period.”

And the PSUs have demanded payment of “fair market value” of the projects when they are handed back to the government at the end of the “concession period”. What does the hydropower policy say? “At the end of the concession period, the entire project shall be transferred and vested in the RGoB at no cost and in good running condition.”

If joint ventures with Indian PSUs make sense, go for it, develop our hydropower resource, strengthen our economic base, and reinforce the strong ties of friendship that we enjoy with India.

But if the joint ventures don’t make sense, if they aren’t attractive enough, if they compromise our own policies, if better partnerships are available, then take a step back, pause, review the situation, and do what’s best for our country and our people.

There’s no need to be in a hurry. And there’s certainly no need to be reckless.

Indignity

Self-help

Last week, I reported to the National Assembly that, even four months after the September 18 earthquake, the victims of the earthquake still didn’t know what assistance to expect from the government. The government had, to be sure, provided corrugated iron sheets to some of the victims. And more importantly, the army, at His Majesty the King’s command, had built temporary houses for the victims.

But the victims have not been able to start working on their houses. Most of them have not begun to repair the damages, or to rebuild their houses. They have not been able to do so, because the government’s assessment of the damages has been slow and inconsistent. As a result, most of the victims have not received their insurance claims, and none of them seem to know if they can expect further assistance from the government.

So I questioned the government for not having a proper system in place to respond to natural disasters, a system that provides meaningful relief and offers adequate support for reconstruction.

And I criticized them for distributing “dignity bags” when it was quite clear that the victims didn’t need them. The earthquake had damaged thousands of houses. But thankfully, virtually none of them were razed to the ground. As such, the victims could enter their houses to retrieve their belongings as and when they wished. That’s why they didn’t really need the blankets, clothes, pots and pans, and plates and mugs that the dignity bags provided. What they desperately wanted is proper assessment of the damages, timely insurance payments, and a go-ahead to rebuild their houses.

The Home Minister, naturally, claimed that the government’s response to the disaster had been adequate, and that they were doing enough to help the earthquake victims. He also claimed that the dignity bags were useful.

But if the dignity bags are useful, if that’s what the victims need, why has the government not collected them from the RENEW offices? In fact, why did the government ask for them in the first place?

I can think of one reason: the government does not have a proper understanding of the ground realities. Given the nature of the disaster, the victims of the earthquake don’t need dignity bags. What they desperately need is the government to finalise its assessment – they want to receive their insurance claims; they want to know if the government will provide any additional support; and they want to start rebuilding their houses.

Inviting challenge

What's ours

The MP representing Bji-Katsho-Uesu, raised a very familiar question in the National Assembly last Friday. He asked the Foreign Minister to explain the status of the Sino-Bhutan border discussions.

The government’s reply – provided by Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, the acting foreign minister – was also very familiar. He reported that the border talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984; that the two governments have met 19 times since then; that in 1988, the two governments agreed to four guiding principles; that in 1998, the two governments signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquility on the Bhutan-China border areas in accordance with the accepted boundaries before 1959; and that various expert groups had met many other times.

A lot of work has been done. But, in spite of all that work, we are no closer to finalizing our international borders with China than we were in 1984. On the other hand, the Chinese appear to threaten encroaching on our soil every now and then. In 2004 and 2009 they built roads inside our country; in 2008 and 2009 the Chinese army intruded deep into our country no less than 17 times; they’ve built temporary huts inside our country; almost every year, Tibetans enter our country illegally, grazing in our pastures, killing our yaks and poaching our cordyceps; and on Friday, the Bji-Katsho-Uesu MP reported that our people living in the border areas are alarmed about the Chinese now building permanent houses inside our country.

A lot of work has been done. And the government promises to do more; that basically means that they will continue to conduct the bilateral meetings, diligently and hopefully.

So I pointed out in the Assembly that the numerous meetings don’t seem to be helping, that we have not made any significant progress in finalizing our northern border. And I suggested that the government might want to consider new strategies to resolve the long outstanding border issue with China.

In response to my suggestion, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk looked towards me, and declared that the government would welcome any alternative strategy that members of the Parliament might have in mind. His offer sounded more like a challenge than a genuine invitation.

Still, here’s my view, my biggest alternative strategy: visit Beijing.

Yes, visit China. Our government has been in office for almost 4 years now, and, so far, no one – not the Prime Minister, not any other minister, not even a government secretary – has visited China. This can’t continue. We cannot ignore our northern neighbour, not if we really want to resolve our border with them; not if we want to fully secure our national sovereignty.

Our PM has visited countless countries, from the US in the west to Japan in the east, and many countries in between. But he’s ignored China. And we cannot afford to do so. He must go to China. If he really wants to make a breakthrough in finalizing our northern borders, he must go to China.

High flying

Yonphula

Domestic air services were formally launched yesterday, coinciding with our 104th National Day. Druk Air flew their ATR-42 from Paro to Yonphula to Bumthang and back to Paro. And Tashi Air’s Pilatus PC-12 flew from Paro to Bumthang and back. The lucky passengers in the inaugural flight included the Speaker, MOIC minister, Members of Parliament and senior civil servants.

So, after missing several ambitious deadlines, domestic air services have finally begun. Truth be told, I had my doubts. Having spent three years in Kanglung in the 1980s, as a student in Sherubtse College, I was all too familiar with the weather conditions in Yonphula. The Yonphula ridge, where the airstrip is located, seemed to be forever shrouded in mist. And when it wasn’t, strong winds seemed to stage a relentless attack on the ridge. Or it would just rain, continuously, for weeks on end.

But the government has done it. Domestic air services are now a reality. I’m happy. And I’m grateful that the government has succeeded in opening up Yonphula and Bumthang to air traffic. There’s no doubt that the air services to these areas will boost the economies of central and eastern parts of our country through increased tourist arrivals and investments in related areas.

So congratulations are in order, first and foremost to Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, the MOIC minister. Then to the Department of Civil Aviation. And to Druk Air. And Tashi Air. Domestic air travel is possible because of their hard work. Well done. And thank you.

Photo credit: BBS