Archives for 2011

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

Important apppointments

New top

Dasho Tashi Phuntshog, the cabinet secretary, was appointed as the new ambassador to Kuwait yesterday.

The appointment has me confused. I don’t know what to make of it.

The cabinet secretary is our top civil servant. He draws the highest salary in the civil service – several thousands of ngultrums higher than other secretaries – and, as such, is the most senior, important and powerful civil servant.

So when the top civil servant is transferred, even before the completion of his term, as the ambassador of our smallest embassy abroad, we must ask ourselves if the cabinet secretary’s position is really that important.

It is important. Whether the government recognizes it as such is another matter.

Regardless, I congratulate Dasho Tashi Phuntshog on his new appointment. And I wish him success in his new office.

I also congratulate Dasho Penden Wangchuk, the home secretary, who has been appointed as the new cabinet secretary. As our new top civil servant, Dasho Penden Wangchuk must represent, protect and fight for the interests of all our civil servants; he must guide and counsel them; he must be their role model; and, most importantly, he must provide them with much-needed leadership.

I wish him success in this important endeavor.

Finally, I congratulate Dasho Nima Wangdi who has been appointed as the new health secretary. He has his work cut out, having to deal, immediately, with the health procurement scam and chronic drug shortages in our hospitals. His experience in the finance ministry will, no doubt, prove useful in correcting the health ministry’s disorders.

 

Constitution matters

“Constitution doesn’t imprison and shackle”. With these five words the prime minister argued that the government could raise tshogpa salaries without consulting the Pay Commission.

Indeed, the Constitution does not imprison; the Constitution does not shackle. That is not the purpose of the Constitution. And we know that.

We also know that the purpose of the Constitution is to provide a set of rules outlining how our kingdom must be governed. These rules define the responsibilities of the various institutions of the State – the monarchy, the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, constitutional bodies, local governments, and others – and authorize powers to these institutions so that they can fulfill their respective responsibilities.

But none of the institutions, not a single one of them, enjoys unlimited powers. That’s why the rules also specify checks and balances limiting the scope of their authority. These checks and balances are intended to minimize the risks of mistakes from being made when governing our kingdom. They are also intended to prevent dangerous concentrations of power and authority.

So yes, the Constitution does not “imprison and shackle” the prime minister and the government. But whether they like it or not, the Constitution does subject them to various checks and balances to ensure that our kingdom is governed well.

But it wasn’t just those five words. A story by Bhutan Observer shows that a lot more words were used, and excuses made, to argue that the Pay Commission did not have to be involved to raise salaries.  It’s worth reading the entire article again. So I’m reproducing it here, along with my comments which I’ve inserted, in parenthesis and in red, inside the article.

[Continue Reading…]

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.

Home is where the hurt is

Waiting to be seen

The prime minister was in New York when the September 18 earthquake struck. He’d left Bhutan on 12th September to address the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly on 23rd September.

Most heads of government would have rushed home if, during their absence, an earthquake that hit their country caused widespread destruction. Our PM did not. He chose to stay on in New York. And from there, instead of returning home, he chose to go straight to Tokyo to address the 24th Congress of Architecture on 28th September, and then to Kolkata to meet the chief minister and to attend a Buddhist society meeting.

The PM eventually came home on 2nd October, two weeks after the September 18 earthquake.

It’s been over a month since he returned home, but, as far as I know, the PM still has not visited any of the areas that were hit by the earthquake.

And last Sunday, the PM left the country again, this time to attend the SAARC summit that will take place in The Maldives on 10th and 11th November.

Meanwhile, our people are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their homes. The September 18 earthquake damaged 9000 structures and cost Nu 888 million.

DHI and us

Kuensel quietly carried a corrigendum today clarifying that DHI had not given iPhones to the PM and the cabinet. And in it, the editor helpfully points out that: “Officials from the PM’s office, meanwhile, said the reference was to an occasion that happened in 2009.”

The corrigendum is helpful. But it is quiet. Too quiet.

Kuensel must now ask the PM – not “officials from the PM’s office”, but the PM himself – why he did not clarify that he was talking about something that took place almost three years ago, and why he misinformed the public about DHI giving iPhones.

The PM could have easily told the truth and put the iPhone rumour to rest. Instead, he chose to sensationalize it, and, in doing so, planted serious doubts about DHI’s credibility. For that, he owes the public an explanation. And he owes DHI an apology.

This is not the first time the government has raised questions about DHI. On several occasions already, MPs from the ruling party have expressed concern and objected to how DHI is run and how their employees are paid. The government complained about and succeeded in revising the Royal Charter. And during the very press conference which featured the iPhone controversy recently, the finance minister protested that “the government has little say in the functioning of DHI since it is governed by the Royal Charter which gives absolute power to its board directors.”

Added to that, unknown agents continue to fuel stories about DHI being run as a “parallel government”.

DHI was established in 2007, the year before our first elections, as the custodian of our nation’s wealth. The idea was to separate the investment and executive arms of the Royal Government. That idea is still relevant: politicians, now and in the future, cannot be trusted to manage and expand the commercial investments of the Royal Government in a manner that is prudent and sustainable. And that’s why DHI was established as an autonomous organization incorporated under the Companies Act.

But that does not mean that DHI can do anything it pleases or that the government has absolutely no control over the organization. DHI’s performance targets, including how much money they must earn for the exchequer, are fixed together with the government. And, more importantly, most of the members of DHI’s Blue Ribbon Panel and the board of directors are appointed, directly or indirectly, by the government. In addition, their operations are audited by the Royal Audit Authority to ensure prudent and effective use of the people’s resources.

These checks and balances are important. And we must use them to address concerns about salaries, perks, recruitment or any other issue that we may have. But otherwise, we should not undermine the functioning of DHI. And we must not make unmerited attacks on its image. The company is simply too important for the current and future wellbeing of our people.

How important is DHI? The company is already worth more than Nu 45 billion. That works out to about 60% of our national GDP. And last year, the company contributed Nu 4.3 billion in taxes and dividends to the government. That works out to more than a quarter of the government’s domestic revenue.

But DHI is barely four years old. So we can expect them to make some mistakes. When they do, we need to work together, constructively and within the legal framework, to correct them. Otherwise, we should support them – our wealth, and that of our future generations, is at stake.

i-Question

Did DHI try to bribe the prime minister and cabinet ministers? If, as the PM claimed in Kuensel, DHI had indeed offered them “the latest generation iPhones”, then that would amount to blatant corruption. And the Anticorruption Commission should investigate it thoroughly.

Why should this particular gift be seen as “blatant corruption”? Because three years ago, during the new year, DHI had given Nokia cell phones to all officials holding cabinet rank, including the PM and the opposition leader. But, as far I know, most of the recipients did not accept the gifts; most of them had returned the cell phones after the National Assembly MPs rejected DHI’s bags, which they had received at about the same time.

Now after all that, if DHI is still tempting our ministers, this time with iPhones, we should be concerned. We should be alarmed.

But what if DHI had not offered iPhones to the PM or to any other minister? Then what? I ask this because DHI has apparently denied giving iPhones to the ministers. In fact, the very same Kuensel report states that, “DHI officials denied having done anything of the sort.”

So we have two stories. And only one of them can be true.

If the PM is right – if DHI had indeed offered him an unsolicited gift – we should be alarmed. And ACC should investigate DHI for attempting to bribe our senior most government officials.

But if DHI is right – if they have not offered iPhones to the PM or any other minister – we should be equally alarmed. The PM should then have to explain why he has misled the public, and why he is undermining DHI’s reputation.

Kuensel’s website has been giving problems. So here’s the clip of their iPhone story.

 

 

GNH vs GPH

Really growing happiness

Yeshey Dorji, a prolific blogger (and an excellent photographer), weighed in on minister Khaw Boon Wan’s controversial comments by concurring with the view that since we want to emulate Singapore, for us Singapore could well be the Shangri-la.

But regardless of where Shangri-la may lie, Au Yeshey admits to finding GNH confusing, and raises the alarming prospect that GNH may actually undermine personal happiness. This is what he writes:

“GNH, GNH. GNH – Oh God, it is so confusing. This GNH has me totally baffled. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the principles of GNH are the antithesis to GPH – Gross Personal Happiness.

“At one point soon, we must all calmly sit down and debate on the issue: Can GNH contribute to GPH; if not, what is the point? Can GNH be achieved without usurping GPH? Is GNH more important than GPH?”

Au Yeshey Dorji is not alone. GNH has indeed become complicated. This simple, straightforward idea, which has quietly guided our country’s development till now, seems to have suddenly become an animated metaphysical commentary on how to make the whole world a happier place.

So let’s go back to the basics, and relearn GNH.

This is how His Majesty the King explains GNH:

“Today, GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people but to me it signifies simply – Development with Values.”

This is how Simpleshow describes it.

And this is how Mieko Nishimizu sees it:

“A philosophy that sets the mandate of government as removing obstacles of public nature to enable individual citizen’s pursuit of happiness.”

But what about Au Yeshey’s important question: “Can GNH contribute to GPH?”

Dr Nishimizu would answer “Yes!” In fact, just last week, she delivered a lecture at RIM telling us how Ina Foods, a  business company in rural Japan, has embraced GNH principles to make their employees happier, and how, in the process, the company itself has become more sustainable and very profitable.

Happy people, making money, in a sustainable way – perhaps Shangri-la is in Ina!

We should (not) be proud

I applaud how the prime minister has responded to allegations that he, and other powerful people, were allotted land illegally in Gyelpozhing. He has written to ACC to investigate the allegations, and he has promised that offenders, especially those holding current political authority, will be made fully accountable.

The fact that the head of the government demands to be investigated is a very good precedent. We should be proud.

But I also condemn how the prime minister has responded to the same allegations. He has questioned the motive for and timing of the media’s reporting on the so-called “Gyelpozhing land grab case”. On the one hand, he asked if the allegations had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”. And on the other hand, he asked if the allegations had been aimed at “discrediting the government” just as the all-important round table meetings were in session.

That this response smacks of fear mongering, a tactic used by unscrupulous politicians throughout the world, is not a good sign. We should not be proud.

Lottery issues

Last year, on 29th September, I wrote that media reports about Bhutan’s role in the Indian lottery scam screamed for answers.

On 11th October 2010, I wrote that the government needed to answer certain pressing questions regarding its dealings with Bhutan’s lottery agent in India.

On 14th November 2010, I suggested that, instead of pulling out of the lottery business, the government should use lottery proceeds to fund public service broadcasting.

On 30th November 2010, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Finance Minister to explain what the government had done to investigate the alleged violations in the appointment of Bhutan’s lottery agent in India, and the alleged violations by that agent.

On 22nd June 2011, I observed that the government’s decision to close lottery operations in India and, thereby, forgo revenue estimated at Nu 200 million per year was not a good idea.

Sometime in June 2011, the Royal Audit Authority issued a special report on the lottery operations. I requested the RAA for a copy of that report, but was denied one, as the RAA was still waiting for the government’s responses to their observations.

Also in June 2011, a month after the government cancelled the contract with their lottery agent in India, the Directorate of Lottery approached that agent to sponsor a local golf tournament.

And on 23rd August 2011, the cabinet issued a press release announcing it decision that “moral responsibility and accountability must be fixed”, and that “… it will finally do away with the Lottery operations altogether.”

I welcome the government’s decision to fix moral responsibility and accountability. It means that the government has accepted that violations did take place in the way Bhutan’s lottery operations were handled.

But who will accept moral responsibility? And who will be held accountable for the alleged violations in the lottery business?

The lottery director has resigned. But not because he admitted doing any wrong. It appears he resigned because the government had announced that “… it is washing its hands off from the lottery business.”

The government has shut down the Directorate of Lottery. But it has done so because of its decision to halt lottery operations. That’s why the government has announced that the staff will be transferred to other agencies.

So as of now, no one has accepted moral responsibility for violations that seem to have taken place in the lottery business. And no one has been held accountable, in spite of the fact that the government apparently lost billions of Ngultrums in the way the lottery operations were handled. And in spite of the fact that, even after the contract with the government’s lottery agent in India was terminated, that agent was asked to sponsor a golf tournament in Bhutan.

To make matters worse, the government has decided to terminate all lottery operations because it now views the business as “no less than gambling”.

The lottery scam screamed for answers. But the government’s decision to terminate Bhutan’s lottery operations is the worst possible outcome – it provides no answers, while depriving the exchequer of much needed revenue.

While no answers have yet been provided, while no one has yet been implicated, and while no one has yet taken moral responsibility, the government has already terminated the lottery business, and in doing so, forfeited potentially billions of Ngultrums of national revenue, money which could have been used to finance kidu and relief, public service broadcasting, sports or the activities of NGOs.

So the government must reverse its decision to terminate lottery operations. Otherwise it will be held responsible for squandering millions – perhaps even billions – of Ngultrums that belong to the people of Bhutan.

And the government must, without further delay, fulfill its promise to fix moral responsibility and accountability on those involved in the lottery scam.