TPS book week

In wonderland

Mountain Echoes, a four-day literary festival in the capital, organized by the India-Bhutan Friendship Association, has concluded successfully.

Coincidentally, Thimphu Primary School organized a lesser known, but no less important, literary festival of their own last week. Students pledged to stay away from television during all of “book week”, yielding, instead, to the delights of storybooks. They read books, wrote and told stories, designed book posters, donated books, bought books, and quizzed each other about books and authors.

And yesterday, at the final day of the TPS book week, the students put on a costume parade for their parents and teachers. Most of them dressed up as their favourite characters from their favourite books.

This week’s banner showcases the Class VI students of Thimphu Primary School. You’ll find more photographs of the costume parade – mostly from Class VI, I’m afraid – at the gallery.

Public business

Members of the National Assembly met last week to consider points submitted by the local governments and MNAs for inclusion in the Parliament’s 5th session.

The so-called “pre-agenda” meeting is an important conduit for issues of national importance to receive the National Assembly’s attention. We must take the issues seriously as they are an important part of our responsibilities. Article 10.2 of the Constitution requires that:

Parliament shall ensure that the Government safeguards the interests of the nation and fulfils the aspirations of the people through public review of policies and issues, Bills and other legislations, and scrutiny of State functions.

During the meeting, the opposition party proposed four issues to be included in the forthcoming session. They are:

  • Review of the recently approved Economic Development Policy;
  • Review of the government’s proposed reform measures for the construction sector;
  • Review of McKinsey, especially to consider how and why they were recruited, and the work that they are doing.
  • Review of the Punatsangchhu hydropower project and especially to consider why work that can be done by nationals are being awarded to foreign contractors.

The meeting decided against including these points in the agenda, arguing that the MPs would require a lot more time to study the issues carefully.

Since the opposition party feels that these issues are both important and urgent, we have decided not to wait for future sessions. Instead, the opposition party will file motions to discuss these issues during the Parliament’s fifth session itself.

The opposition party also appealed to the Honourable Speaker to permit live TV broadcast of the entire proceedings. The speaker reiterated that live TV broadcast would be allowed for all important sittings, but not for the entire session.

Trial by secret jury

The first annual journalism awards drew strong criticism from the media when a judge won the prize for the very category he was adjudicating.

This time, during the second annual journalism awards, the government was careful not to repeat last year’s howler. And they managed. How? By concealing the identity of the jury. The public – and that includes the media – did not, and still does not, know who this year’s judges were. In fact, it appears that the judges themselves do not know who their fellow judges were!

Being cautious is one thing. But being secretive is quite another matter, especially when we’re supposedly honouring our journalists. And when we’re ostensibly celebrating freedom of information.

Summer residence

His Holiness the Je Khenpo and the central monastic body took up their summer residence in Tashichhodzong last Saturday.

This week’s banner celebrates this centuries-old tradition. The gallery has a few more photos of the soelthap arriving at the Tashichhodzong.

Paying for support

Dasho Nima Wangdi, director general of finance, justifying the government’s decision to increase the allowances and benefits of gups, was quoted as saying that:

The pay commission, which was not a full time committee, could be instituted by the government only for major systemic changes in pay and allowance structures. “In the gups’ case, the government has the full authority to decide.”

He’s right: the Pay Commission is not a full time committee.

And he’s wrong: the government does not have any authority to revise the pay and allowances of public servants, including gups, independently. It can do so only at the Pay Commission’s recommendation, and subject to the endorsement of the Parliament.

Article 30.2 of the Constitution:

The Pay Commission shall recommend to the Government revisions in the structure of the salary, allowances, benefits, and other emoluments of the Royal Civil Service, the Judiciary, the members of Parliament and Local Governments, the holders and the members of constitutional offices and all other public servants with due regard to the economy of the Kingdom and other provisions of this Constitution.

Article 30.3 of the Constitution:

The recommendations of the Commission shall be implemented only on the approval of the Lhengye Zhungtshog and subject to such conditions and modifications as may be made by Parliament.

The government’s decision to increase the allowances and benefits of the gups is arbitrary. It may also be illegal. And Dasho Nima’s support for the decision is misguided.

Increasing the travel allowances of the gups and providing them with mobile phone vouchers is no small matter. The decision is expensive. The decision affects other public servants. And the decision could be politically motivated.

But, it’s not just the gups who are benefiting from our government’s disregard for procedure. Last year, ACC employees were also granted an allowance arbitrarily. And the National Assembly approved pay increases for members of parliament without the recommendation of the Pay Commission.

The rule of law is important. Especially during these early years of our democracy. And especially so, when we’re dealing with money.

Granted, there may be a need to revise the salaries, allowances and benefits of the public service. If so, reconstitute the Pay Commission. Let them do their job. But take their recommendations seriously.

And follow the law. Then civil servants won’t have to cover for the government.

Education city

Today, yet another concerned person asked me about the education city. And he too wanted to hear my views on the 1 billion dollar project.

Some of you may have seen my views in Tenzing Lamsang’s story. But, it appears that many others haven’t. So, with the permission of Business Bhutan, I’m reproducing their entire story….

Billion $ education city under scanner

US$ 500m foreign exchange a year and around 30 international universities on 1,000 acres: this is what the prime minister’s pet project, the planned education city, aims.

If MediaGlobal, a United Nations-based news agency, is to be believed, the ground breaking ceremony for the city is just a year away.

“While anchor universities should start operating initially, it is likely to be 10 years for the entire city to be in place gradually,” MediaGlobal quoted Kushal Sengupta of Infinity InfoTech Parks, the agency that is proposing to implement the project at a site yet to be identified.

But critics of the project say the manner in which the country’s biggest foreign investment plan is being pursued is not proper.

Opposition Leader Tshering Tobgay said that he is ‘very concerned’ about the project by its lack of transparency. [Continue Reading…]

Registering CSOs

Commenting on my last post, several readers reiterated that the Tarayana Foundation is doing some wonderful work. I agree.

But did you know that Tarayana Foundation, established seven years ago, is not a registered CSO? Similarly, the Youth Development Fund, established 11 years ago, and RSPN, established 24 years ago, are not registered CSOs.

We know that Tarayana, YDF and RSPN are doing a good job alleviating rural poverty, developing our youth and protecting our natural heritage respectively. They’ve proven it. We also know that many other NGOs have made significant contributions to the development of our country and people.

So I was surprised to read that the CSO Authority has awarded the CSO status to only four organizations: RENEW, Loden Foundation, Centre for Media and Democracy and Bhutanese Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAOWE).

RENEW is doing a lot of good work empowering our women. So it’s good to see that they’ve been recognized as a registered CSO. And though the Loden Foundation is relatively new, they’ve been quite active.

The Centre for Media and Democracy, established two years ago, sounds promising. And they’ve already conducted several seminars and workshops. Still, I’m not sure how they would qualify for official registration if the likes of Tarayana, YDF and RSPN are left out.

And then there’s BAOWE. They’re also a registered CSO. But who is BAOWE? When were they established? And what have they done to merit recognition ahead of Tarayana, YDF and RSPN.

Fighting poverty

Very low income housing

A popular attraction at the recent Tarayana Fair was the Lhop house. The house, which barely measures 8 feet by 9 feet, had belonged to Ap Pen Tshering, and in it, he and his wife, Aum Gagay Lham, had raised their four children.

75 year-old Pen Tshering’s house had been dismantled and transported to Thimphu, where it was carefully reassembled to showcase the lifestyle of the Lhops, Bhutan’s first inhabitants. And Pen Tshering had been more than happy to abandon his house. After all, he had no need for it.

Ap Pen Tshering, you see, had built a bigger, better and stronger house – one that has four rooms, a separate kitchen and a CGI roof. He’d built his new house with help from Tarayana Foundation.

But his is not the only house that Tarayana has built in Lotukuchu, easily the poorest and the most neglected part of our country. In fact, Tarayana has helped almost every household in the three villages that make up Lotukuchu build better homes. At last count, 73 families have already moved into new dwellings. And houses for the remaining 10-odd families are already being constructed.

And it’s not just housing. Tarayana has helped the Lhops – in Lotukuchu and elsewhere – acquire the resources and skills needed to increase farm productivity and improve income generation. That’s why today’s Lhops are no longer living in abject poverty, completely cut off from the rest of the country. Today’s Lhops boast decent housing, piped water, proper sanitation, an oil expeller, a maize grinder, a cornflake making machine, a power tiller, a traditional paper factory, and a cooperative shop.

And it’s not just in Lotukuchu. Since its establishment, seven years ago, Tarayana has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our poorest people – simple subsistence farmers who live in some of the remotest corners of Bhutan. Before Tarayana, very few officials had visited them. And no one cared about them. They had been forgotten.

Not any longer. Today, Tarayana is intimately involved in 36 villages across 5 dzongkhags reducing poverty levels, improving the quality of lives, and giving hope to entire communities.

How do they do it? Raw determination. And the support of donors, volunteers and well-wishers. But also by making every ngultrum count.

It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication to transform the lives of our Lhops. But Tarayana’s war against poverty in Lotukuchu cost them only US$ 100,000. That’s about the price of a new Toyota Prado. And that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Imagine what we could have done with US$ 9.2 million!

Update on fifth session

The National Assembly’s draft agenda for the fifth session of the Parliament was distributed yesterday. The Assembly will discuss the Water Bill, Financial Services Bill, Disaster Management Bill, and the Annual Budget 2010-2011.

The joint sitting of the Parliament will meet to discuss and endorse the Tobacco Control Bill, RMA (Ammendment) Bill, Standards Bill, and Service Conditions Bill for Constitutional Offices. In addition, the prime minister will report on the State of the Nation.

Please keep sharing your comments on these bills. And, don’t forget to check the National Assembly’s website periodically to see if new bills have been uploaded.

Parliament’s fifth session

The National Assembly has announced that the fifth session of the Parliament will begin on 28th May. That’s in about three weeks.

But, I still don’t know what will be discussed. And I still haven’t received the bills, if any, that will be introduced in the fifth session. So I’m at a loss about how to prepare for the Parliament’s imminent session.

It appears that the government has recently submitted four bills to the National Assembly. They are the Childcare and Protection Bill; the Child Adoption Bill; Water Bill; and the Financial Services Bill. The first three are on the National Assembly’s website.

I’m assuming that these bills will be introduced in the National Assembly’s fifth session. So please send me your comments.