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!

Tshogpa salaries

The government needs to understand what they can do and what they cannot do.

Last month, on October 27, during a press conference the finance minister announced that, “… while tshogpas deserve a raise, there is not enough money to raise their salary.” Furthermore, he clarified that, “an increment in the salary should be approved by the Pay Commission.”

So basically, we were told that the government can’t increase tshogpa salaries because (1) they don’t have enough money; and (2) the Pay Commission would have to approve any increase.

But last week, on November 16, the government announced that they had increased the salary of tshogpas to Nu 5,000 per month. And that that increase was decided by the cabinet.

So basically, now we are made to understand that (1) the government has enough money to increase tshogpa salaries; and (2) the Pay Commission does not have to approve that increase.

In fact, here’s what the government can do: increase tshogpa salaries. Why? Because tshogpas were being paid below the national minimum wage. So whether tshogpas deserved a raise or not, and whether the government had enough money or not, their salaries had to be increased to at least equal the national minimum wage level.

But here’s what the government cannot do: increase tshogpa salaries unilaterally. Why? Because only the Pay Commission has the authority to recommend increases in the salaries of public servants, including tshogpas who are members of the local government.

That’s why I called for tshogpa salaries to be increased, but objected that the government does not have the authority to do so unilaterally.

In order to ensure that the increased salaries of the tshogpas are lawful, the government should constitute a Pay Commission immediately to recommend revisions to the tshogpa salaries. There’s enough time for their recommendations to be approved by the government, and submitted to the next session of the Parliament.

Good governance

The Thimphu Thrompon recently ignored the “attic rule” by allowing the attics on 31 buildings to be replaced by an additional floor each. The government, which had earlier not responded to the Thrompon’s proposal to nullify the rule, reacted by quickly approving the proposal last Friday.

On Monday, members of Dagana’s Dzongkhag Tshogdu, led by their Chairman, reported to the Home Ministry to complain that their dzongkhag didn’t have a fulltime dzongdag, a dzongrab and several sector heads. They had traveled to Thimphu to request the government to appoint fulltime staff to these important positions.

What’s the connection between these two seemingly unrelated events? They show that our local governments have come of age. What’s obvious is that the newly elected local governments are taking their responsibilities seriously. But what’s not so obvious, and yet is very significant, is that they won’t hesitate to demand that the central government also fulfill their responsibilities.

Now that’s good for our democracy. And very good for our people.

Politics of LG elections

The local government elections are over. And the new gups – the heads of local governments – have started taking their charge throughout the country.

But a dozen gewogs still don’t have gups.

Goenshari in Punakha yielded a two-way tie. The election results in Bjabcho in Chukha was nullified as the winning candidate turned out to be overaged. And elections for Gongdue in Mongar could not be conducted as the lone candidate was disqualified for violating electoral laws.

So elections for Goenshari’s two candidates will be repeated. And elections will be conducted in Bjabcho and Gondue.

The remaining 9 gewogs don’t have gups yet, because the election results in these gewogs are being contested. And cases have been registered against the winning gups of these 9 gewogs.

I find one of these cases particularly disturbing. The winning gup of Tendu, Samtse has been alleged to have received help from an uncle who apparently is a DPT party worker.

If this is true, it is a flagrant violation of electoral laws. Local governments are nonpartisan. And political parties should not attempt to influence local governments in any way.

The Samtse dzongkhag court will, no doubt, hear the case carefully.

But because a political party has allegedly been involved, it may also make sense for the Election Commission to investigate the case separately.

CDG giveaway

Looking for power

During a recent meeting with gups, the PM reminded the local government leaders that, “The constituency development grant of Nu 2M … was not fully used in most gewogs”. And he advised them to put the CDG “… to use to benefit the poor and contribute towards alleviating poverty.”

The PM makes it sound like local governments have full authority over CDG. They don’t.

Firstly, local governments cannot decide how to use the CDG. They can only submit project proposals. The proposals must ultimately be approved by their MPs. And the ministry of finance can release CDG funds to gewogs only at the instructions of MPs.

And secondly, CDGs are earmarked for National Assembly constituencies. Each constituency is made up of a group of gewogs. Most gups have no idea how the CDG will divided, and how much their respective gewogs will receive. That decision seems to lie exclusively with the MP.

The government should be concerned that most gewogs have not used CDG fully. If that concern is genuine, the government should hand over full and complete authority of the CDG to local governments. There’s really no need to involve MPs.

Otherwise, and in spite of what the PM has said, most gewogs will still not be able to make full use of the CDG. In which case, something else should concern the PM: that his MPs may purposely delay use of CDG till 2012 in order to extract maximum political mileage. The next general elections, after all, is in 2013.

Photo credit: Kuensel

Open invitation by Haa

Your invitation

Have you been to Haa?

Chances are you haven’t. You haven’t been to Haa, because you probably didn’t have any work there – you didn’t have the reason to go. And you probably haven’t been there, because, like most people, you think that the journey from Thimphu to Haa is long and arduous.

But there’s good news. If you haven’t been to Haa, you now have good reason to go there. This weekend – that’s on the 9th and 10th of July – Haa Dzongkhag, along with the Tourism Council of Bhutan, are organizing the Haa Summer Festival to showcase Haa’s “rich alpine flower, folklore and culture.” You can download information on the festival from the ABTO website.

By the way, it takes under three hours to drive from Thimphu to Haa. The journey is beautiful – you’ll travel through several villages, and along pine forests, meadows and buckwheat fields as you make your way to Ap Chundu’s protectorate.

But if you wish, you could also bicycle to Haa. TCB has organized a bike race from Chunzom to Haa via Paro and Chelela on the 9th of July. That should be interesting, especially the ride from Bondey (which is at 2,200 meters) to Chelela (3,800 meters).

 

More local government

Wanted: power and authority

The elections for local government are over. So soon, and for the first time, we will have local governments – thromde tshogdes, gewog tshogdes and dzongkhag tshogdus – elected and empowered by the Constitution according to which:

Power and authority shall be decentralized and devolved to elected Local Governments to facilitate the direct participation of the people in the development and management of their own social, economic and environmental well-being.

The local governments that were recently elected will serve for five years. But the first elected parliament and the current government have less than two years left in office. So it’s important that the government, parliament and local governments work together, as soon as possible, to reach a common understanding of the Constitutional requirement that “Power and authority shall be decentralized and devolved to elected Local Governments…”

That’s why, yesterday, the opposition party proposed that financial authority should be decentralized to local governments. That is, they should be provided annual block grants which they themselves would decide how and for what to use. Obviously, rules would first need to be framed defining limits, outlining procedures, and fixing accountability.

The current practice of approving annual budgets submitted by the dzongkhags is cumbersome. And it is restrictive. That’s part of the reason why local governments have not been able to make full use of their capital budgets.

Instead, give them annual grants. To begin with, the grants could be more or less equal to the budgets they currently receive. And what they receive is a pittance. So the government should be more than ready to give local government’s that much financial autonomy.

But the government is not ready. They argued that annual grants and annual budgets mean the same thing. They argued that decentralization and devolution of power and authority must take place incrementally. And they argued that the Local Government Act requires gewogs and dzongkhags to submit budget proposals for the government’s approval.

The government should reconsider. They should refer to Article 22 Section 18(c) of the Constitution which states that:

Local Government’s shall be entitled to adequate financial resources for the Government in the form of annual grants

And to Article 22 Section 18(d) according to which:

Local Government’s shall be allocated a proportion of national revenue to ensure self-reliant and self-sustaining units of local self-government

 

Inappropriate

The Budget Appropriation Bill for 2011-12 proposes how Nu 42,174 million of the government’s Consolidated Fund will be divided during the coming financial year.

Central agencies will keep a good 74% of the funds.

The 20 dzongkhags together will get about 20% of the funds.

And the 205 gewogs combined will get barely 6% of the funds. And that includes money to build farm roads. Take away farm road construction, and the winners of the forthcoming local government elections will have very little money to fulfill their campaign promises.

ECB’s right

Testing times

The Election Commission of Bhutan is correct in cautioning the government that the local government elections would be incomplete and unconstitutional if those elections were conducted without first finalizing the yenlag thromdes (satellite towns).

Yenlag thromdes have still not been identified for the Dzongkhags. So holding the local government elections now would, as ECB maintains, result in incomplete Dzongkhag Tshogdus, and risk violating Article 21 Section 9 of the Constitution according to which:

The Dzongkhag Tshogdu shall comprise:

(a)            The Gup and Mangmi as the two elected representatives from each Gewog;

(b)            One elected representative from that Dzongkhag Thromde; and

(c)            One elected representative from Dzongkhag Yenlag Thromdes.

Local government elections have already been seriously delayed. As such, development work at the gewogs have suffered. And more importantly, two and a half years after the first general elections, our people continue to be deprived of the main benefit of the democratic process which is to elect and to hold to account their local leaders.

Yes, local government elections must be conducted as soon as possible. But the local governments so elected must be complete and must conform to the laws, especially the Constitution.

So I welcome the chief election commissioner’s announcement that the local government elections “could happen in the spring of 2011”. In the meantime, the government must finalise a complete proposal for yenlag thromdes in every dzongkag, and submit it to the next session of the Parliament scheduled for November this year.

And, one more thing: the government must desist from advocating the idea that certain parts of the Constitution do not have to be implemented immediately. The Constitution “is the Supreme Law of the State” (Article 1 Section 9), and, as such, it must be implemented immediately and in its entirety. Anything less is disrespectful to the Constitution and is dangerous for democracy.

In this regard, the government would be well advised to withdraw its statement, justifying local government elections without yenlag thromdes, that:

… the decision on whether all the conditions listed in the Constitution should be established immediately, regardless of the ground realities, should be left to the parliament and government

Photo credit: BBS

Testing ourselves

Functional literacy?

The ECB’s “functional literacy and skills test” for candidates to local government elections is comprehensive. Aspiring candidates will have to take a written test to determine their computational, analytical, managerial and correspondence skills. And they will have to undergo an oral test to demonstrate their reading, writing and speaking skills.

ECB’s diligence will, no doubt, ensure that only the most competent can stand for the local government elections. And, that must be good.

But I’ve been wondering: how many of our current MPs would have passed the functional literacy and skills test?

I don’t know about my colleagues in the Parliament, but since the test is conducted in Dzongkha, I, for one, would have failed.

Photo credit: Bhutan Observer showing graduates re-learning Dzongkha for RCSC exams.