New year wish

No smoking here

It’s a new year. And starting today, the Tobacco Control Act comes into effect. So if you cultivate or harvest, manufacture, supply or distribute tobacco and tobacco products, you’ll be jailed for at least three years and up to five years.

If you possess tobacco, and if you can’t prove that you’ve imported it for your own consumption, you’ll be jailed for at least one year and up to three years, but only if you reveal from where you got your tobacco. If you don’t reveal your source, you’ll receive an additional sentence, jailing you for least three more years and up to five more years.

It’s a new year. And I have a new year’s wish: that the first person to be caught and jailed under the Tobacco Control Act is a member of parliament.

That would only be fair, since we, MPs, were the ones who passed this draconian law.

Happy New Year!

Good news

The National Assembly has endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of public servants. Here’s the good news:

Civil Servants will get a 20% raise over their pre-2009 salaries. Pre-2009 is used as a base as that was when salaries were last increased (by 35%), taking the total increase to 55%. Civil service salaries will now range from Nu 7,067 (for GSC II staff) to Nu 52,654 a month (for EX-1/ES-1 level).

Secretaries to Government will draw Nu 55,490 a month. And the Cabinet Secretary will get Nu 63,000. That makes the Cabinet Secretary Bhutan’s top civil servant.

The pay scale for holders of constitutional offices, including members of the Judiciary, have not changed as they were fixed recently.

Members of local government will also receive a 20% increase over their pre-2009 levels, taking the salary for gups to Nu 14,355. The salary for thrompons has been fixed at par with EX-2 level (Nu 44,175). In addition, thrompons will get a house rent allowance of 20%.

The salary for Members of Parliament has been increased from Nu 36,000 to Nu 55,490. The Deputy Chairperson (of the National Council) and the Deputy Speaker (of the National Assembly) will draw Nu 63,000.

All that is good news.

But there’s more good news: the prime minister, chief justice, speaker, chairperson, cabinet ministers, and opposition leader have not taken salary increases. Their salaries will remain unchanged at Nu 78,000 per month.

The proposal to increase salaries will be discussed by the National Council today. They should endorse it, in which case the increases will come into effect on 1st January 2011.

Totally redundant

Yesterday, the National Assembly passed the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise (Amendment) Bill, and the Public Finance (Amendment) Bill. The two of us in the opposition party had argued that the bills would violate the Constitution, and, in the end, only the two of us voted against the bills.

The two amendments could allow the government to impose and raise taxes without having to seek the Parliament’s approval.

The bills will now be forwarded to the National Council, who will discuss them in the next session. If they pass the bills, the amendments will come into effect. If not, the bills will be submitted to a joint sitting of the Parliament.

Now here’s the strange part: the government’s legislative maneuvering is totally redundant.

Why? Because the Supreme Court will soon consider the first constitutional case, and rule whether or not the Constitution permits the government to impose taxes without fist passing it through the Parliament.

If the Supreme Court rules that the Constitution does, indeed, empower the government to impose and revise taxes without the Parliament’s approval, it would have been unnecessary to amend the existing laws in such a hurry.

But if the Supreme Court rules that, according to the Constitution, the government must seek Parliament’s approval before imposing and revising taxes, the amendments that the National Assembly passed yesterday would automatically become null and void.

The Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution and the final authority on its interpretation. We should have let them do their job, instead of jumping the gun, and becoming redundant.

Monitoring drayangs

Rigsar

The public of Paro informed the National Assembly that drayangs and discotheques cause societal problems and upset the social harmony. So they suggested that strict licensing and operating rules should be developed in order to reduce the numbers of such entertainment centres.

When discussing this matter yesterday, MPs, focusing mainly on drayangs, complained that these businesses lured young women from the villages, underpaid them and subject them to sexual harassment. So a couple of MPs pushed for an outright ban on drayangs.

But, thankfully, the majority favoured developing clearer policies and regulations, and leaving licensing and enforcement to local governments.

Some of us may not approve of drayangs. But we must remember that they are legal businesses. And remember that Article 7 Section 10 of the Constitution bestows the following fundamental right:

A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to practice any lawful trade, profession or vocation.

Incidentally, if drayangs really bother us, we should take note that cable TV operators, throughout the country, show almost nothing else on their respective channels but young students, especially girls, dancing on stage. These students are actually just participating in their school concerts. But recordings of their dance routines are broadcast almost continuously by cable TV operators.

The question is: Why?

And, more importantly, why do school concerts, throughout our country, feature so much rigsar dancing?

Photo credit: BBS

Funding parties

The ruling party today submitted a motion to amend the Election Act 2008. The motion sailed through the National Assembly, with only two members – both from the opposition party – objecting to it.

The proposed amendment seeks to include a new provision in the Election Act that would permit state funding for political parties.

According to Section 158 of the Election Act:

The income of political parties shall be made up of:

(a) Registration fee;

(b) Membership fees; and

(c) Voluntary Contributions from registered members.

Section 158 was debated extensively during the first session of the Parliament when the Election Act was passed. At that time, the Parliament had resolved that including state funding for political parties would contravene Article 15 Section 4(d) of the Constitution by which:

A political party shall be registered by the Election Commission on its satisfying the qualifications and requirements set out hereinafter, that: … (d) It does not accept money or any assistance other than those contributions made by its registered members, and the amount or value shall be fixed by the Election Commission.

But now the ruling party proposes to insert a new subsection under Section 158 that would allow political parties to receive state funding. According to the new subsection, income of the political parties would include:

(d) Funding from the State to the Ruling Party and the Opposition Party

Another new section proposes to allow the government to decide the amount of funding political parties would receive:

The Ruling Party and the Opposition Party shall receive funding from the State to maintain their party machineries and the amount shall be determined by the Government in consultation with the Election Commission of Bhutan.

State funding for political parties was discussed thoroughly during the first session of the Parliament. And it was deemed unconstitutional. The National Council had ruled that state funding for political parties is unconstitutional. The National Assembly had accepted that state funding is possible only if the Constitution is amended.

The Chief Election Commissioner had categorically stated that:

State support to political parties would contravene Section 4 (d) of Article 15 of the Constitution.

And the Chief Justice of Bhutan had warned that:

State funding of political parties negates the very objective of democratic principles, and therefore the National Assembly resolution will have to be adjudicated to determine its constitutionality.

According to the proposed amendment, only the ruling and opposition parties would be provided state funding. If we allow that, it would become very difficult for new political parties to challenge the existing two parties.

And according to the proposed amendment, the government would hold the authority to determine how much funding to provide. If we allow that, it would become virtually impossible for new political parties to challenge the existing two parties.

But I oppose state funding for political parties, mainly because it would violate the Constitution, both in letter and in spirit.

Yes, our party, the PDP, is in deep financial trouble. And yes, because of that, we may not qualify for the 2013 general elections. But that’s no excuse to disregard the Constitution.

I knew I smelt danger.

Relief for relief fund?

For the people

During Question Hour today, I requested the Hon’ble Home Minister to report on the status of the Relief Fund. In particular, I asked him if he, as the minister in charge of disaster management, would propose legislation to establish the Relief Fund.

According to Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution:

Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.

Bhutan’s first Parliament has already met five times. And the sixth session is currently on. Yet, and in spite of the opposition party’s repeated appeals, the Parliament has not established the Relief Fund. In fact, the Parliament has done no work to establish the Relief Fund. So the first elected Parliament risks defaulting on this important responsibility.

On the other hand, a spate of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms and fires – have struck various parts of the country during the last two years, and have caused unprecedented hardship to countless people. In almost every case, His Majesty the King has personally provided immediate relief, and overseen the rehabilitation and recovery process. And, during the opening of the Parliament’s sixth session, His Majesty spoke of His pledge to victims of the Chamkhar fire that:

… even though our nation may be a small, landlocked country without the great wealth of others, in their moment of great suffering, the King and government would do everything to find the resources needed to alleviate their pain and restore happiness to their lives.

Obviously, there’s a real need to establish the Relief Fund urgently.

So I was happy to hear the home minister report that his ministry and the Ministry of Finance have jointly drafted a proposal to establish a relief fund, and that the proposal would soon be discussed in the Cabinet.

And I was even more happy to hear the Hon’ble Speaker decide that the home minister will submit a motion in the National Assembly to introduce the proposal to establish the Relief Fund.

Question Hour questions

Responding to the agenda for the National Assembly’s sixth session, one reader, “sonam_t”, asked if there were any plans to discuss a “Right to Information Act”. “Truth”, another reader, asked if when Parliament would “… introduce Landlord Tenant act, which actually protects tenants.”

Both the comments are important. And, since both of them will not be discussed during the sixth session, I might raise them during Question Hour.

The Question Hour, which takes place every Tuesday and Friday, is an important mechanism in the National Assembly by which members can question every aspect of government administration and policy.

So if you have issues that you’d like to see raised during question hour, please post them here. Or, if you prefer, you can email them to me directly.

Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill

One of the most important legislations that the National Assembly will debate during the sixth session is the Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill 2010.

The National Council had resolved to amend the Anticorruption Act 2006 during its third session. And based on that, the Council’s Good Governance Committee and ACC officials carried out a review of the Act. The Act was revised to clarify and rationalize some of its provisions with other laws including the Penal Code of Bhutan and the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code of Bhutan. It was also revised to ensure compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption guidelines.

The Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill 2010 was passed by the National Council during the fifth session. The Bill is not limited to amending certain provisions of the ACC Act. Instead, it seeks to completely overhaul the ACC Act.

You’ll find the Anticorruption Act 2006 here. And the Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill 2010 here.

Please post or email me your comments.

Sixth session

The 6th session of the Parliament is scheduled to begin on the 19th of November. During this session, which will go on till the 10th of December, the National Assembly will consider the following bills:

  1. Child Care and Protection Bill
  2. Penal Code (Amendment) Bill
  3. Anticorruption (Amendment) Bill
  4. Civil and Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill
  5. Sales Tax, Customs and Excise (Amendment) Bill
  6. Public Finance (Amendment) Bill
  7. Land Act (Amendment) Bill
  8. Election (Amendment) Bill

The government will submit reports on actions taken on the following resolutions of the National Assembly:

  1. Pay revision
  2. Zhaptog lemi
  3. Constituency development grant
  4. National minimum wage rage

The Assembly will ratify the SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services.

The Women and Children Committee of the National Assembly will submit their report.

And the National Assembly will consider a petition from the public of Paro to formulate stringent rules for drayangs and discotheques, and to review their licensing procedures.

I would like to encourage discussions on this blog on as many of these agenda items as possible. But the discussion papers for the 6th Session are yet to be distributed. So I do not know what will be discussed on most of these issues.

I’ll post information on these agenda items as and when they become available. In the meantime, please share your overall views on the items that will be discussed during the 6th Session.

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!”