Draft RTI Bill

The government will table the Right to Information Bill during the first session of the Second Parliament. The cabinet is still discussing the draft bill, and would appreciate your comments. Thanks in advance.

 

Draft Right to Information Bill, 2013

PREAMBLE
Whereas, the Right to Information  upholds the principles of gross national happiness through good governance, it is essential to ensure an informed citizenry, to secure access to information held by public authorities, and to promote governmental transparency and accountability; and
Whereas, Section 3 under Article 7 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan guarantees the right to information to a Bhutanese citizen;
The Parliament of Bhutan at its _____ Session, on the _____ Day of the _____ Month of the ____________________ Year of the Bhutanese Calendar, corresponding to the _____ Day of __________ 20__, hereby enacts the Right to Information Act, as follows:
CHAPTER 1 – PRELIMINARY
Short Title and Commencement
1. This Act shall:
(1) be called the “Right to Information Act”;
(2) come into force on the _____ Day of the _____ Month of the ____________________  Year of the Bhutanese Calendar, corresponding to the _____ Day of __________ 20__.
Scope
2. This Act shall:
(1) extend to all citizens of Bhutan; and
(2) all branches and levels of government, including the executive, legislative, judiciary and military as well as private bodies  carrying out public functions or receiving public funds.
Construction
3. In this Act, the singular shall mean plural and masculine shall mean feminine wherever applicable.
Repeal
4. The provisions of existing laws and regulations that are inconsistent with this Act are hereby repealed. [Continue Reading…]

Inviting questions

The 10th and final session of the 1st Parliament got underway last Friday. During this session, the National Assembly will discuss just two bills: Contract Bill of Bhutan, and Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill. In addition, the National Assembly will consider the National Council’s comments on Road Bill and Domestic Violence Prevention Bill which were adopted by the Assembly in the 9th session. The Disaster Management Bill will be discussed in a joint sitting to iron out differences between the two houses.

Question Hour, when MPs get to question the government, are held on Tuesdays and Fridays. I’ve prepared some questions, but I’d like to hear from you as well. What question(s) would you like to ask? And to whom would you like them directed ? I’ll try to incorporate as many of your questions as possible in the opposition party’s questions.

Ambassador for life?

Should Parliament make the Prime Minister GNH Ambassador for Life?

The proposal to make the Prime Minister GNH Ambassador for Life was tabled by the Speaker. But it was not discussed in the National Assembly. Yet, the proposal was forwarded to the National Council. And it was almost included in the Assembly’s resolutions as a proposal that had, more or less, been accepted. The Speaker also made indirect reference to the proposal in his address during this session’s closing ceremony.

So should Parliament make the Prime Minister GNH Ambassador for Life? No. First, the Parliament did not follow due process. Second, no one knows what “GNH Ambassador for Life” entails – what it means, and how much it will cost. Third, the nominee is a serving member of the Parliament – such titles should be reserved for past members only, if at all, and only after they’ve proven themselves. Fourth, the nominee is currently under investigation for the Gyelpozhing land scam case. And Fifth, it is outside the scope of the Parliament’s authority.

That authority, to appoint a GNH ambassador for life, belongs to His Majesty the King. According to Article 2, Section 16(a) of the Constitution: “The Druk Gyalpo, in exercise of His Royal Prerogatives, may: award titles, decorations, dar for Lhengye and Nyi-Kyelma in accordance with tradition and custom.”

Lyopno Khandu Wangchuk, the economic affairs minister, however, claimed, the Assembly, that a broader, more liberal interpretation of the Constitution would allow the Parliament to bestow that title to the PM.

I’m not sure. The government has consistently called for a broader, liberal interpretation of the Constitution. And the opposition party has consistently maintained that doing so would be dangerous, especially if those doing the “broad, liberal interpreting” are the very ones who stand to benefit.

Take Article 2, Section 16(a) of the Constitution, for instance. If a liberal interpretation of this provision is taken to mean that other institutions can also, in addition to His Majesty, grant titles and decorations, imagine how the subsequent provisions could be interpreted.

Article 2, Section 16(b) states that: “The Druk Gyalpo, in exercise of His Royal Prerogatives, may: grant citizenship, land kidu and other kidus”.

And Article 2, Section 16(c) states that: “The Druk Gyalpo, in exercise of His Royal Prerogatives, may: grant amnesty, pardon and reduction of sentences.”

Several commentators took exception to my last post, Rule of the mob. Think again. What is preferable? Rule of the mob? Or rule of the law?

Extraordinary

Something extraordinary took place in the National Assembly last Tuesday.

The government introduced the Land Bill 2012 in the Assembly. But they did not move a motion to deliberate the Bill, as was expected. Nor did they move a motion to withdraw the Bill in accordance with legislative procedure. Instead, the government proposed that the next Parliament deliberate the Bill. And the National Assembly endorsed the government’s proposal.

So what’s out of the ordinary?

One, the government introduced a bill that they never intended to discuss. But why would the government go through the trouble of introducing a bill, if they did not want it to be deliberated? Probably because they felt that the National Council would not agree to the main amendments to the Land Act (that the Land Commission is revamped so its members are largely ministers, and that the cabinet is given powers to grant resettlement land). And probably because they felt that the Bill would not pass the joint sitting of the Parliament that would have to be convened because of differences between the two Houses.

Two, the government decided that the next Parliament should deliberate the Land Bill. The current government enjoys a huge majority. And they, most likely, will form the next government. But to plan lawmaking on that assumption is presumptuous. And it is preposterous. I’m not sure it happens anywhere else in the world.

Three, the National Assembly endorsed the government’s proposal, and resolved that the next Parliament would deliberate the Land Bill 2012. That, in spite of the fact that, according to Section 192 of the National Assembly Act: “All Bills before the Assembly or any committee on the last sitting day of a term of the Assembly or when the Assembly is dissolved shall lapse a the end of that day.”And, in spite of the fact that, according to Section 318 of the National Assembly Act: “If the consideration of a matter has not been concluded by the end of a session, it shall be continued in the following session, unless parliamentary elections have been held in the interim …”

It’s clear that discussions on bills cannot be carried over to the next Parliament. Yet that’s exactly what we resolved to do. Extraordinary.

 

 

The power of the land

For our future

The following is a translation of my statement in the National Assembly yesterday:

Today we are discussing a matter of profound significance – land.

The historic First Parliament of Bhutan has already deliberated many issues of great importance. Today’s topic of discussion, concerning the amendment of the Land Act, is also extremely important. The decisions we take will have a long-term impact, for better or for worse, on our country and our people.

It may appear that our kingdom has been blessed with plenty of land. This is true, but the amount of land actually available for agriculture and human habitation is very limited. This is because our landscape is dominated by high mountains and steep cliffs, and mighty rivers and deep gorges.

In addition, the Constitution requires that a minimum of 60% of the total land is maintained as forest cover for all time. This further constrains the amount of land available for human use.

This is why land is such a precious and scarce resource in Bhutan. This is why each and every one of our kings gave special emphasis to protecting State land and resources, while ensuring that all their people had access to land ownership. And this is why each and every one of our kings has sorted out and solved land related issues, personally, and in a step-by-step manner.

In 1955, for example, the Third Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty the Late King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, abolished the practice of serfdom in our country, and initiated major land reforms by which the common people were granted ownership of and complete powers over their lands.

His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo continued reforming and strengthening land policy for the benefit and welfare of the people. He granted kidu land to the landless, and initiated the land resettlement program. In addition, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued no less than six Kashos all decreeing that only the Druk Gyalpo, and no other person, has the authority to give away Government land.

Land issues continue to receive special attention under the reign of His Majesty the King. From the very day His Majesty assumed the sacred responsibilities of Druk Gyalpo, He has worked tirelessly to address all land related problems of the people. He has done so personally, and without allowing other persons to interfere.

As such, many people, throughout the country have benefited. People with no land have been granted kidu land; people with excess land, have had their excess land regularized; sa thrams have been provided so that people can enjoy the power and privileges of land ownership; and where the land is unproductive, people have been resettled and rehabilitated properly elsewhere.

We, the people of Bhutan, have enjoyed unparalleled levels of good fortune and prosperity because of the enlightened leadership of our beloved monarchs. As a result, each and every one of us has the opportunity to fulfill our aspirations to own land and a home in our own country, and to ensure that future generations can live where their parents lived.

Yes, there may still be some land-related problems. But they are rare, and they can be easily addressed within the current laws, regulations and system. As such, we should not hold discussions to revise the Land Act 2007. With the permission of the Assembly, I will briefly submit why we should not revise the Land Act.

Firstly, the Bhutanese people expressed deep concern when Their Majesties the Kings introduced parliamentary democracy in our country – our people were afraid that, in a democracy, no one would take care of their individual problems. That is why, when preparations were being made to introduce democracy, the people made sure that the Constitution clearly bestowed all powers of kidu and land to the Druk Gyalpo.

Second, in keeping with this provision of the Constitution, the 87th Session of the previous National Assembly enacted the Land Act 2007. In accordance with the Land Act, the National Land Commission, an independent institution to oversee all land related matters in the country, was established purposely removing administrative powers over land from government ministries. Furthermore, and more importantly, to safeguard against further political interference, the members of the Land Commission were composed mainly of secretaries to the government and the Gyalpoi Zimpon, and deliberately excluded ministers of the elected government.

Third, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, His Majesty the King has travelled the length and breadth of the country, to every dzongkhag, in order to personally address the land related problems of each and every citizen. As a result, the people of Bhutan have expressed compete trust and confidence in His Majesty, and have consistently maintained that they are fully satisfied that their land issues have been resolved.

Fourth, His Majesty the King has issued a Kasho to the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chairman of the National Council and the opposition leader. In my personal and humble opinion this extraordinary Kasho reflects the deep concerns of His Majesty that deliberating the Land Bill 2012 could dangerously jeopardize the current system, a system that is working very well for the welfare of the people and the interests of the country.

Fifth, according to many news reports of the media, the people of Bhutan have expressed outrage and concern at the Parliament’s intention to deliberate the Land Bill 2012. The general public has clearly stated that there is no reason to revise the current Land Act.

Sixth, the term of this Parliament will soon be over. We have barely 10 months left. Therefore, we should not deliberate the Land Bill 2012, a matter of great significance, towards the end of our term when the current laws and system are working well.

In view of the points I have briefly mentioned, I would like to recommend the following course of action, and urge the Honourable Members of Parliament to support these recommendations.

  1. That we reject the Government’s Motion that the Land Bill 2012 be introduced in this session of Parliament but be deliberated by the next Parliament.
  2. That instead, the Government should file a Motion to withdraw the Land Bill 2012 in this session.
  3. That a Joint Parliamentary Committee be constituted to study the Royal Kasho, and to seek His Majesty’s guidance, who, by the Constitution, is one of the three integral organs of the Parliament, on how best to proceed keeping in mind the welfare of the people and the national interest.

Thank you.

Just shameful

Games people play

The government was caught off guard when the National Assembly passed the Tax Revision Bill last Wednesday. The Assembly threw out all but one of the proposed taxes. And before the government realized it, their proposals to raise taxes on petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG; refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners; meat, fish and eggs; silk fabric, furniture and power chainsaws; and alcohol were emphatically rejected by the National Assembly.

The only tax to get through was the “green tax” on new vehicles. But that too suffered a huge setback: the proposed 40% green tax on vehicles (with engines equal to or bigger than 1800 cc) was reduced by half, to 20%; and a 5% green tax, which the government had not proposed, was slapped on small vehicles.

On Thursday, the day after the Bill was passed, the government informed the Assembly that, when they voted on the Bill, they had understood that their proposal to increase taxes on alcohol had been accepted. They were wrong. The only tax that the Assembly approved, it turns out, was the green tax on vehicles.

The government should be ashamed. They should be ashamed for not paying attention in the National Assembly. I had, in fact, tried to notify the Assembly that we had not discussed the Tax Revision Bill properly, in detail, and that, more importantly, we were not clear on what we were voting on. But the government, at that time, chose to remain silent. They chose to take the Assembly for granted. And they should be ashamed.

But the government should be ashamed for a bigger and much more important reason. They should be ashamed that the Assembly rejected almost every proposal in the Tax Revision Bill. Of the government’s many proposals, the Assembly passed just one – to levy a green tax on vehicles – and that too was watered down drastically.

The government has failed to persuade the National Assembly that the proposed taxes are necessary. And the government has failed to convince the Assembly that the proposed taxes are good for our country and good for our people. In other words, the government does not enjoy the confidence of the National Assembly. And that, for a government that commands an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, is just shameful.

 

Photo credit: Kuensel

9th Session

The 9th session of the Parliament begins tomorrow with a traditional ceremony, and will continue 11th of July. Here’s what we will be discussing…

Three bills will be introduced in the National Assembly:

  1. Domestic Violence Prevention Bill;
  2. Land (Amendment) Bill; and
  3. Road Bill.

Two bills that were introduced and endorsed by the National Council will be discussed in the National Assembly. They are:

  1. National Flag Bill; and
  2. Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill.

The following three bills, which were endorsed by the National Assembly and subsequently discussed in the National Council, will also be discussed to resolve differences, if any, between the two Houses:

  1. Education City Bill;
  2. Disaster Management Bill; and
  3. Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill.

If the two Houses are unable to come to an agreement on these three bills, His Majesty the King may command a joint sitting to deliberate and vote on these bills.

In addition to the bills, the following reports will be presented and/or discussed:

  1. The Prime Minister’s State of the Nation address;
  2. The Minister of Finance’s Annual Budget for 2012 – 2013;
  3. The Anticorruption Commission’s Annual Report;
  4. The Royal Audit Authority’s Annual Report;

And the following conventions will be presented for ratification:

  1. SAARC Seed Bank Convention;
  2. Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity; and
  3. Cape Town Convention and Aircraft Protocol.

If you wish to study the bills, they can be downloaded from the National Assembly and National Council websites. If you do study the bills, we, the members of the opposition party, will be happy to discuss them with you. More importantly, we will be delighted to receive your comments and suggestions.

Finally, the session will, as usual, have Question Hour. Please contact us, here or in our office, if you have questions for the Government that you would like us raise in the National Assembly.

More essential stuff

In my previous post I had proposed that, “the government is getting ready to sell even more foreign currency from our reserves.”

What if I am correct? What if the government is, indeed, preparing to sell foreign currency to alleviate the rupee crunch? If so, what is the procedure?

Last year, four months ago, the government sold US$ 200 million of our foreign currency reserves. At that time, US$ 200 million worked out to Nu 10.3 billion, which in turn worked out to 14% of our GDP. That was, and is, a lot of money. But no one questioned the process. All that was reported on the process was: The government on Thursday night struck a deal to sell USD 200M to address the country’s dire Indian rupee (INR) position…”

We will be required to dip into our foreign currency reserves occasionally. So we should think about the process. Who, by law, for example, can approve the use of our foreign currency reserves?

According to Article 14 Section 3 of the Constitution, “Public money shall not be drawn from the Consolidated Fund except through appropriation in accordance with the law.” In other words, the government cannot spend money unless that expenditure has been approved by the parliament.

But the Constitution is silent about the procedure for spending money from the foreign currency reserves. Instead, Section 115 of the Royal Monetary Act says that, “The Authority may purchase, sell or deal in– foreign exchange …”

Does ‘foreign exchange’ here include foreign exchange from our reserves? If so, should RMA have the complete authority to sell our foreign exchange? If not, what should be the procedure?

The government’s annual budget is debated and approved in the National Assembly. It is then submitted to the National Council for review. After that, it is submitted to His Majesty the King for Royal Assent.

The government’s budget for 2011-12 is about Nu 38 billion. That is not even four times the amount of foreign currency reserves that was sold last year (US$ 200 million fetched Rs 10.3 billion). The process to approve the government’s budget is vigorous. And rightfully so. But the process to approve use of our foreign currency reserves seems to be nonexistent. At best it is vague.

It is essential that the government and the parliament consider this matter urgently. Otherwise, we could end up recklessly depleting our foreign currency reserves.

Short and sweet

Assembly

The 8th Session of the Parliament concluded last Friday. It was easily our shortest session: we started on 4 January and ended, barely 12 working days later, on 20 January.

But the 8th session was historic. Her Majesty the Queen graced both the opening and closing ceremonies; and the members of Parliament got to offer the Oath of Allegiance to the Throne.

Plus, the joint sitting of the Parliament amended the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act and the Public Finance Act to align them in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution which had been rendered in the first constitutional case (Incidentally, the amendments had actually been proposed by the ruling party in the 6th session to give the government sweeping powers to introduce, increase and revise all taxes); the Parliament amended the Tobacco Control Act, responding to public outcry that the law was flawed and draconian; the National Council passed the first-ever private bill, the National Flag Bill, introduced by NC MP from Wangduephodrang; and the Speaker invoked special powers granted to him in the Legislative Procedure Rules to block the Parliament from voting on the Election (Amendment) Bill that mainly sought to permit state funding for political parties.

The 8th session was also quite productive. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the National Assembly passed five bills (Consumer Protection Bill, Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill, Education City Bill, Disaster Management Bill and University of Medical Sciences Bill) and ratified one international convention (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands); the National Council passed the University of Medical Sciences Bill, the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill, and ratified the Ramsar Convention; the joint sitting passed the Child Adoption Bill; and both houses endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of tshogpas, and questioned the government on a range of issues.

The 8th Session was short. But it was productive. A lesson, perhaps, that we should keep our future sessions as tight as possible.

No. No. No.

Is it legal? Is it logical? Is it needed? Three questions that we, members of Parliament, should ask ourselves today when we talk about state funding for political parties during the joint sitting.

Is state funding for political parties legal? No.

Article 15 Section 4(d) of the Constitution clearly forbids political parties from accepting “… money or any assistance other than those contributions made by its registered members”. That’s why the National Assembly decided almost 4 years ago that state funding for political parties would be unconstitutional. That’s why the Election Commission of Bhutan has called state funding for political parties illegal. And that’s why the Chief Justice of Bhutan has declared that state funding for political parties would go against the “spirit of the Constitution”.

Is state funding for political parties logical? No.

A political party, by definition, is a group of people who share the same ideas on how our country should be governed. These people work together to advance their political beliefs by securing the right to make laws, determine policies, and to run our government.

A political party, therefore, needs people. It needs people to support its ideas. And it needs people to finance the party machinery to advance those ideas. So if a party, any party, cannot draw enough people to support it, that party cannot claim to be a true political party.

You may agree with the ideas of a political party. Or you may not. If you do, you may wish to support that party, you may wish to become a member of that party, and you may wish to contribute financially to that party. But if you don’t agree to those ideas, you may wish to support an alternate political party. Or you may wish to stay neutral.

That decision is yours. That decision is your right. You may chose to support one party, or another, or you may chose to stay neutral. I repeat: that decision is your right. And what state funding for political parties threatens to do is infringe on that right. State funding would mean that your tax money will go to support all political parties; whether or not you want to support them, whether or not you agree with their ideas, your tax money will go towards propping them up.

To make matters worse, state funding for political parties would short-circuit the important relationship between political parties and the people. On the one hand, state funding would permit a political party to exist even if its ideas are not generally supported. On the other hand, state funding would mean that a political party does not have to be accountable to people. Instead that political party would essentially become, and should be required to operate as, a government department! [Continue Reading…]