UN Security Council

Coveted seats

“In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member,” US President Obama recently announced in India’s Parliament.

And just like that, after years of demanding a permanent seat in the Security Council, India’s bid received a powerful boost.

India is the world’s second most populous country. Its economy, already among the biggest in the world, is one of the fastest growing. And it is playing an increasingly important role in global affairs.

So the US president’s pledge is timely. His assurances are good for India, and indeed, good for the world. Obama should fulfill his promise. He should push to make the UN’s anachronistic Security Council more relevant and effective by allowing today’s world leaders to take their rightful place in the Council.

Coincidentally, India’s friend and neighbour, Bhutan, is also vying for a seat in the UN Security Council, albeit as a nonpermanent member. The prime minister announced Bhutan’s ambitions during his visit to New York in September. And, since then, he has already visited several countries to lobby for their support.

In this connection, about two months ago, I posted a poll that asked, “Should Bhutan lobby to join the UN Security Council?” Of the 249 readers who took part in the poll, an overwhelming 70% (or 174 votes) answered “Yes”. The rest said “No”.

The poll results show that you, the reader, clearly support the government’s initiative to join the Security Council. This was also evident from the comments that you left on my post that introduced the poll. Most of you felt that there would be no harm in trying for the seat, and that, if we do get in, the membership would enhance our stature and international standing.

One commentator, Sonam Ongmo, offered more information about Bhutan’s aspirations for Security Council membership by way of her blog, “Dragon Tales”. And, lest the opposition opposes, she provided this lesson from Canada:

Canada lost its bid to run for a non-permanent security council seat after its vote count went down from by 30 percent in the second round of voting. Canada’s Foreign Minister has blamed its Opposition leader for the loss because of a lack of support and for being critical of the notion that Canada was not deserving of that seat.

I get the message, loud and clear.

Incidentally, I too think that serving in the UN Security Council is a good idea. But, only if the journey to the Security Council is not costly. And, if the adventure does not lull us into a false sense of success.

Fundamentally right

Several readers didn’t agree with my suggestion that the government should pay more money for the land that they are acquiring behind the Tashichhodzong.

“Dorji Drolo” favours increasing the land rates only for the original inhabitants of Hejo, but fiercely opposes increases for the others, most of who would have purchased the land at much lower prices. “Dorji Drolo” also agrued that, since the land was “… earmarked for green area some 20 years back” the compensation rates were sufficient.

I agree with “Dorji Drolo” that the original inhabitants should be paid more, much more, for their land. Many of them have already contributed most of their land to the government. And some of them could now lose whatever little they still own. 26 of the landowners are original inhabitants. They should be paid more for their land.

But what about the rest? There are 36 of them. There’s no doubt that they would have purchased their land relatively recently and at much lower rates. And there’s no doubt that some of them would profit substantially. However, there’s also no doubt that some of them, especially civil servants, would have had to service loans for many years in addition to spending their entire savings to purchase the land. So they – yes, all of them – should also be paid more for their land.

Most of us do not own land in Hejo. I certainly don’t. So why should we worry if the landowners are not compensated sufficiently? Why should we get worked up? We should, because the issue is not just about land prices. It’s much more important. It’s about our fundamental rights!

As citizens of this country, we are guaranteed certain fundamental rights. These rights are enshrined in Article 7 of the Constitution. It is our collective duty and in our common interest to recognize and understand our fundamental rights. And, to fight for them.

Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution, which sets down our fundamental right when the government acquires our property, guarantees that:

A person shall not be deprived of property by acquisition or requisition, except for public purpose and on payment of fair compensation in accordance with the provisions of the law.

To this, one commentator, “Lamakheno” asks:

BUT What is a “fair compensation?” For some, even the market rate may not be considered fair.

“…the provisions of the law” that Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution refers to would include the Land Act, Section 151, according to which:

The valuation of the land and property shall consider the total registered area, registered land category, its current use, location in relation to accessibility to vehicular road, immovable property, local market value, and other elements such as scenic beauty, cultural and historical factors, where applicable.

If these conditions were applied faithfully, landowners in Hejo would be entitled to much more than the Nu 180.38/sft as “fair compensation” for their lands.

But the entire stretch of land that the government is acquiring was, as “Dorji Drolo” points out, “…earmarked for green area some 20 years back.” Correct. Except that the government did not acquire the land at that time. Nor did the government pass any law creating a new category of land called “green area”. And to make matters worse, the government has already compromised its construction ban on the so-called green area zone by permitting the construction of the Supreme Court in a green area.

“Lamakheno” also asks if:

… land acquired in the late 90s for constructing the sewerage tanks at babesa and the expressway construction should have been paid the same rate as the commercial price existing than in the same area?

And advises me not to:

… focus on the land behind Tashichhodzong alone but look at the national picture. Throughout the country, government has been, is and will be acquiring land for constructing schools, hospitals, roads, training centres, airports, offices, etc.

Yes, many people, throughout our country, have lost their land to the government for a wide range of purposes. The question is: did the government break any of the laws in effect when it acquired the land to build the sewerage tanks, the expressway, and the other infrastructure that “Lamakheno” talks about?

My answer: most probably not! The Land Act came into effect in 2007. And the Constitution came into effect in 2008. So unless the provision of some other law was broken, it would be difficult to argue that the compensation rates for these landowners would also have to be reviewed.

The Hejo landowners, however, have a convincing case. They have the Land Act to back them up. They have the Constitution. And they have fundamental rights.

On our part, we must, as “Sonam_t” notes, ensure that the government “protects our fundamental rights!”

Paying for land

priceless

It’s autumn. And the Tashichhodzong, when viewed from the North, looks beautiful. Tidy terraced fields, lush with golden paddy present a perfect foreground for Thimphu’s auspicious dzong. Many generations of travelers before us would have, no doubt, taken in almost exactly the same tranquil view.

And thanks to the government’s plans to maintain that lovely stretch of land, many generations of travelers after us could also enjoy the uninterrupted view of the dzong. To ensure that that piece of property stays as it is, the government has decided – and rightfully so – to acquire 42.32 acres of farmland in Hejo.

But the owners are not happy. They feel shortchanged.

The original inhabitants complain that they’ve already lost most of their land to the government. The National Assembly, Royal Banquet Hall, Centre for Bhutan Studies, Jimithang barracks, golf course, cremation grounds, and Wood Craft Centre all stand on land that once belonged to them. They point out that the compensations they received were never sufficient to purchase land of similar value elsewhere. And they worry that, once again, they are being compelled to give up their lands at undervalued prices.

They know that the Constitution and the Land Act allow the government to acquire their land for “public purpose”. And they agree that securing and maintaining the space around the Tashichhodzong is important. But they are unhappy with the price that the government has fixed for their land. They do not see it as the “payment of fair compensation” that the Constitution guarantees them.

So how much are they being paid? Nu 180.38 per square foot.

And why are the land owners not happy? Because Nu 180.38/sft is a pittance. By comparison, land in Jungzhina, which is upstream and further from the city centre, fetches Nu 600/sft; land in Taba, which lies even further upstream, costs Nu 600/sft; and land in relatively distant Kabisa already costs Nu 300/sft. Downstream, in Olakha, which is further from the city centre than Hejo, land prices are soaring at Nu 1000/sft for residential plots and Nu 1700/sft for commercial plots.

It’s no wonder that the land owners in Hejo are unhappy. The Nu 180.38/sft is nowhere near what they would need to buy comparable land anywhere else in Thimphu.

The property assessment and valuation agency (PAVA) appraises and fixes property prices for the government. And PAVA’s rates for Hejo are low because most of the land lie in the so-called “green area”, a zone on which government policy supposedly prohibits all construction. PAVA’s reasoning is that if you can’t build on your land, then your land can’t be worth too much.

But PAVA’s argument has two drawbacks. First, the government has allowed construction in the green area. The Supreme Court is currently being built on the 10.75 acres of green area, also in Hejo, that the government acquired from 28 owners at Nu 150/sft. So the land owners argue that, since the government can easily change policies to allow construction in so-called green areas, their land should be worth much more.

And second, there isn’t any legal provision allowing land to be categorized as “green area”. Section 19 of the Land Act recognizes 8 categories of private land – chhuzhing, kamzhing, cash crop land, residential land, industrial land, commercial land, recreational land and institutional land, but no land category for green area.

The government is correct in acquiring the land to protect the Tashchhodzong. But the Hejo land owners should not have to bear the brunt of the cost of doing so. Most of them are farmers. And many of them have already lost a lot of their land to development.

Instead, the government should advise PAVA that “green area” is not a legal land category, and that, as such, they should revise their valuation of the Hejo land.

Meanwhile, I’m writing to the minister of finance, urging him to protect the fundamental right of land owners as enshrined in Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution:

A person shall not be deprived of property by acquisition or requisition, except for public purpose and on payment of fair compensation in accordance with the provisions of the law.

Questionable lottery

Unreal?

According to Business Bhutan, Nu 150 billion worth of Bhutanese lottery tickets were printed illegally every year in the Indian state of Kerala alone. That’s a lot of money by any measure. But to get a proper sense of how much Nu 150 billion really is, consider that our entire GDP is only about Nu 60 billion. Or that the Tenth Five Year Plan outlay is Nu 148 billion (the Ninth Plan outlay was Nu 70 billion).

So I was surprised to learn that the prime minister’s fist response to the alleged lottery scam was remarkably casual. The prime minister has admitted that the lottery “business was unethical and not in conformity with the GNH values.” This is an important announcement. But surely it cannot substitute for a complete investigation.

The allegations against the government’s lottery agent are extremely serious. And it would do well to investigate – immediately and thoroughly – if our lottery agent has indeed printed and sold fake Bhutanese lottery tickets in India. We owe as much to the government and people of India who have allowed us to engage in this very lucrative business for the past 25 years.

The prime minister has also been reported as saying that “…his government has nothing to do with the lottery issue and that the decisions were taken by the interim government in 2007.” That may be so. But none-the-less, the government owes the people of Bhutan some explanations.

Why, for instance, did this government, in March 2010, transfer its agreement with Martin Agencies to Monica Agencies even though they both belonged to the same person?

Why did this government extend the duration of the agreement with Monica Agencies by five months?

Why did this government reduce the contract from Nu 470 million per year to Nu 210 million per year, even though Bhutan lottery sales had been re-permitted in Kerala?

And why was one person allowed to run the Bhutan Lottery Directorate since 1987?

The government must provide satisfactory answers to these and other pressing questions. Otherwise, the ACC must investigate.

Photo credit: Outlookindia.com

Security Council?

Powerful lobby?

Our government has started to campaign for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Is this a good idea? Take the poll that asks: “Should Bhutan lobby to join the UN Security Council?”

McKinsey poll

During the last session of the Parliament I asked the prime minister to explain what Mckinsey were doing that couldn’t be done by our own civil servants. Subsequently, I ran a poll that asked you “Are civil servants impressed with McKinsey’s work?”

Of the 569 who took the poll, 408 (or 72%) replied with a emphatic “No!” while only 72 (or 12%) said “Yes!” The others (16%) answered “I don’t know.”

Our poll results are straightforward: An overwhelming majority of you are not impressed with McKinsey’s performance. That is terrible, especially if, as I suspect, many of you who took the poll are civil servants.

But there’s another side to the story. Last Sunday, Bhutan Times ran a story in which many people – civil servants, ministers and counterparts – went on record to endorse the good work that McKinsey and Company were doing in our country. That is good news.

So are McKinsey doing a good job? The verdict is still out.

About fines

Bathpalathang

I’m impressed at the government’s readiness to abide by the law. Bhutan Today (whose website has been woefully inadequate) had recently reported that:

The prime minister has ordered the information and communication ministry to pay about Nu 2.3 million in penalty for not following the environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures in the construction of the Bathpalathang airstrip in Bumthang.

But I’m not impressed at the prime minister’s cavalier disregard for the basic principles of accountability when he added that:

… the fine will have to be levied even if it means paying from one pocket to another.

I wonder what the Royal Audit Authority will have to say to that.

Incidentally, last week, in Bumthang, I visited the Bathpalathang airstrip site. The construction there seems to have already resumed. I am impressed.

Crushing stone

Obviously wrong

Earlier this year, in “Mining our business”, I’d explained why it would be unlawful for the government to permit L&T, Gammon and HCC to operate stone quarries for the Punatshangchhu hydropower project.

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like L&T, Gammon and HCC are now not operating the stone quarries. That is very good.

But what I do know for sure is that L&T, Gammon and HCC have each established stone crushing plants. That is bad. And that is illegal.

Stone crushing is a specific business, one that requires a separate industrial license, and one that is not open for foreign direct investment. Added to that, the lucrative business is surely outside the scope of the construction contract packages that L&T, Gammon and HCC have with the Punatsangchhu hydropower project.

So why have they been allowed to establish their own stone crushing plants?

I’ve written to the minister for economic affairs alerting him that the plants in question may be unlawful.

Good job

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, on employment:

I am pleased to report to the Hon’ble Members that a total of 320,900 are now employed. This shows that 96.69% of our workforce is employed leaving an unemployment rate of 3.3%, marking a downward movement for the first time in recent years. This indicates very clearly that this government is well on track to achieve its ambitious target of 2.5% unemployment rate in the next three years with a huge labour market in the making.

This is good news. After all, unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is one of our biggest concerns.

Foreign trips

Returning home

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, reporting to the Parliament on foreign relations:

My trips to India, Japan and Italy this year were also very useful in deepening our relations with these countries.

I agree. But, the prime minister understated his international travel account. The following, in fact, is a record of his trips outside Bhutan during the 2009-2010 fiscal year:

  1. July 2009: Goodwill trip to India
  2. August 2009: Fukuoka, Japan to deliver address on GNH
  3. November 2009: Itaipu, Brazil to deliver address on GNH
  4. February 2010: Delhi, India to attend Sustainable Development Summit
  5. February 2010: Mumbai, India to attend World HRD Congress
  6. April 2010: Kathmandu, Nepal to attend 13th day ritual of the Late G.P Koirala
  7. April 2010: Kochi City, Japan to deliver address on GNH
  8. June 2010: Trento, Italy to deliver a talk on GNH at the Festival of Economics

Photo credit: BBS