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?

Rule of the mob

Last week, when the government introduced the Land bill 2012, I had exhorted the MPs to reject the motion to discuss the Bill. The prime minister reacted strongly to my statement, disagreeing with all my arguments. I had wanted to respond to the prime minister’s strident remarks, but had not been given leave to do so.

It would have been good if we had had the opportunity to discuss my arguments and the PM’s counterarguments in a bit more detail. But we didn’t. There were several issues that I thought merited the Assembly’s, and the nation’s, attention through discussion, perhaps even debate.

One of them had to do with a very basic concept: democracy.

Responding to my views that ministers should not be included in the Land Commission, the prime minister accused me of not supporting the democracy. This, specifically, is what he said:

“The opposition leader’s lack of trust in the elected representatives is equivalent to his distrust in the people, who elected them and the process of democracy.”

This is not the first time this issue has surfaced. On various occasions, the government has claimed that they have won the people’s mandate – an overwhelming mandate, in fact – but that they do not have the powers to fulfill their promises and the people’s expectations.

True, the people have given the DPT the mandate to govern our country. And true, the DPT won with a huge majority. But that does not mean that they can govern our country in any way they please. They must conform to the laws of the land.

We have laws. And our laws define how the elected representatives of the people must govern our country. And they legitimize the powers of the government. But our laws authorize power to various other institutions too, to provide the checks and balances that are important for a healthy democracy. And most importantly, our laws, clearly and purposely limit the powers of the elected government.

The Constitution and other laws provide extensive powers to the government. But they do not give the government absolute powers. As such, they must abide by and work within the framework of the laws. Yes, the government can use their majority to affect policy and to amend laws to their favour, even if the people may not agree with them. That’s why many refer to democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

So long as the actions of the majority are consistent with the laws of the land, there’s nothing much we, the people, can do. Yes, we can, and must, voice our concerns if we do not agree with the government’s actions. But we cannot reject them. In the final analysis we must accept the tyranny of our majority, as long as what they do is within the framework of our laws.

But sometimes, a powerful government, one that commands an overwhelming majority, may be tempted to use their numbers to ignore important laws and bulldoze their way to achieve narrow political objectives. That, obviously, would be illegal. That is not democracy. That, put simply, is the rule of the mob.

Bhutan is a democracy. But we are a democracy as defined by the Constitution, not as it is defined in India or America or in any other country. And certainly not as defined by individuals to serve their immediate interests.

Democracy is about the rule of law. And our laws, especially the Constitution, legitimizes a range of powers to the government. But they also deliberately limit certain powers. Our duty, as citizens of Bhutan, is to support and participate in democracy, but only as defined by the laws of our land.

What we need to watch out for is the rule of the mob. We must be extra vigilant when a powerful government uses the “democracy card” to legitimize illegal actions. That would be illegal. And very dangerous. Our sacred duty, as citizens of Bhutan, is to stay  vigilant and prepare to fight, if need be, against the sinister forces of the rule of the mob.

 

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.

Taxing issues

The National Assembly passed the Tax Revision Bill last week. The Bill is now with the National Council. The Council will discuss the Bill, but, because it is a “money bill”, the Council can only make suggestions and recommendations that the National Assembly may, or may not, chose to accept.

(Last year, the Assembly did not accept any of the Council’s recommendations on the budget and tax revision bills. In fact, the Assembly just skimmed through the recommendations, barely discussing them.)

The National Assembly has passed the Tax Revision Bill. But, we didn’t discuss it properly. After the Bill was introduced, the members made general comments. But the specifics of the Bill, including the individual taxes were not discussed, and just one item – Green Taxes on vehicles – was put to the vote.

I’m happy that the National Assembly didn’t approve most of the taxation measures. In fact, in my humble opinion, even the reduced green tax should not have been approved, given that the government failed to make a strong enough argument justifying the tax.

Still, we should have discussed the bill properly. The government should have justified each and every tax raise that they had proposed. And the Assembly should have debated the proposals thoroughly before deciding to approve or reject them.

Here are some of the issues I’d hoped to raise:

Justification to raise taxes. The Tax Revision Bill proposed introducing a Green Tax (for vehicles, fuels, lubricants, kerosene, LPG, refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners); raising the Excise Duty (on alcohol, domestic and imported); and raising the Sales Tax (on meat, fish and eggs, silk fabrics, furniture, and power chainsaws).

The government informed the Assembly that the proposed taxes would help address the ongoing rupee shortage. But we didn’t get to discuss how, and by how much, the taxes would reduce imports from India, or enhance overall exports.

I’m all for raising taxes. But only if the government can justify, with numbers, why the taxes need to be raised and how the increased revenue will be spent. The government would also have to prove that the increased taxes would not overburden the people, directly or indirectly, and that they would not make doing business any more difficult.

In this case – if taxes are being raised to address the rupee shortage – I also wanted to know that the government would not spend the extra revenue generated. Spending that money would just add to the rupee problem, not solve it, as almost all of the government’s expenditure ultimately goes to finance imports of goods and services, mostly from India.

Green tax. All taxes must have a legal basis. The Income Tax Act authorizes the imposition of PIT, BIT and CIT. The Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act authorizes sales tax, customs duty and excise. The Land Act legitimizes land tax. The Local Government Act authorizes the collection of land tax, building, cattle, grazing, entertainment, advertisement and other taxes. And so on…

The so-called “green tax” is a new tax. As such, the Parliament should have first discussed the need for this tax, and then amended the relevant laws to permit the government to impose this new tax. Then, and only then, either as part of an amended law or as part of the Tax Revision Bill, should the government have proposed to levy the tax.

But I had several other questions on the Green Tax. One, why levy a green tax if the real objective is to reduce the rupee deficit? The purpose of a green tax should be to protect the environment, not to reduce the rupee deficit, and the proceeds from tax should go to programs that solve environmental problems.

But, two, do we have major environmental problems, and, more importantly, would the proposed green tax result in positive and meaningful contributions to the environment?

Three, wouldn’t taxing kerosene increase the cost of living for our poor? They are the ones who are the most dependent on kerosene for cooking and lighting. And wouldn’t taxing fuel increase the cost of transport, and therefore, the cost of goods? Would the general population be able to afford the resulting increase in the price of goods and services?

And four, do we really want to tax refrigerators and air conditioners? Would the taxes result in a decrease in the number of refrigerators, and if so, would that make a meaningful contribution to the environment? On the other hand, shouldn’t we be encouraging our people to enjoy the immediate health benefits and the conveniences of refrigerators?

Excise on alcohol. Alcohol is a real and growing menace in Bhutan. We need to act now, before we lose more people, especially our youth, to this scourge. But taxes alone will not prevent our people from drinking excessively. We need a holistic strategy, which includes taxes, but only as a part of bigger, more comprehensive action plan.

If the government must tax alcohol, tax those products that are the most dangerous. Last year’s tax increase avoided them; ditto this year.

Meat, fish and eggs. Taxing these items will, supposedly, lead to lower consumption, which, in turn, will lead to lower imports. Good. But what about domestic production? Wouldn’t the increased taxes also hinder domestic production of meat, fish and eggs?

Furniture. Tax imported furniture. But please, please, don’t make domestic production any more difficult than it already is.

Silk fabric. I have no idea how imposing a 10% sales tax and 50% customs duty on silk fabric will improve the rupee situation. But if it does, I’m for it. Otherwise, we need to rethink our strategy.

Power chainsaw. What’s the big idea of slapping a 20% sales tax and 30% customs on power chainsaws? If it is the environment, strengthen and enforce existing regulations. But, please, let’s not arbitrarily increase the price of labour saving devices.

The rupee crisis. The government must apply fiscal policy to address on-going and growing rupee shortage. One way is to increase taxes. But I’m not convinced that the proposed taxes would have had a meaningful effect, especially if the government were to spend the increased revenue from the increased taxes.

A better and more effective way to control the rupee crisis would be to reign in government expenditure. But that’s not what’s been happening. The government’s current expenditure for 2010-11 was Nu 17, 735 million. It jumped to Nu 17, 185 million in 2011-12. And just last week, the Assembly approved a current budget of Nu 18,262 million for 2012-13.

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

Subsidizing profits

In their story about MPs calling for certain state-owned corporations to be privatized, Kuensel quoted me as saying that the government was giving too much subsidies to the corporations. “As if providing land was not enough, the government is even generous enough to provide them subsidy, which meant extra burden to the government”, I supposedly said.

The quote is correct. But the context is wrong. I didn’t complain about subsidies that corporations receive. In fact, I believe that we must do a better job of ensuring that corporations that provide a public service – BBS, for example – have access to more predictable and sustainable subsidies without having to put up with political interference.

What I did complain about, and what I objected to, was the Nu 144 million earmarked as subsidy for the Education City. The subsidy, we were told, covers costs for constructing ancillary infrastructure including road, telecommunications, water supply and bridge.

I objected to the Education City subsidy because the government is already supposedly allocating 1000 acres of prime land for the project. If so, that would be a huge contribution by the government. So the investors – DHI and their FDI partner – should pay for the rest, including the ancillary infrastructure.

Otherwise, the government may end up subsidizing the profits of the Education City investors.

I’m sorry

My blog has been giving me a lot of trouble lately. I haven’t been able to access my control panel. So that means that I haven’t been able to update posts or approve new comments.

I’m sorry if you’ve had trouble with this site. I’ll try to fix the problem as soon as possible.

On a happier note, it looks like my recent problems are due to the increasing traffic on my blog.

Wangduephodrang Dzong

Image of hope

I was in Wangduephodrang on Saturday. I’d gone there to visit the De-Suung training program. After meeting the De-Suups, I stopped by the Wangduephodrang Dzong to see the massive renovation that the dzong was receiving.

While returning to Thimphu, I stopped briefly on the other side of Punatsangchhu to take in at the grandeur of the Wangdue Dzong, and, as usual, marveled at the brilliance of Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel. He had chosen the site personally, on a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dangchhu rivers, to defend His newly unified Drukyul against intruders from the South. He had succeeded beyond measure: the dzong, which straddled the high, narrow ridge, was impenetrable and dominated the Wangdue skyline for centuries.

Today, I was back in Wangduephodrang. But this time to join the nation in mourning. The mighty Wangdue Dzong, which stood magnificently for 374 continuous years, was no more. It had been gutted by fire yesterday evening. The fire reportedly started near the entrance of the dzong, and within hours, strong winds had fanned the fire through all buildings completing the destruction in a matter of hours.

Tragically, the very strength of the dzong – that it was virtually impenetrable – prevented all efforts from suppressing the inferno. The entrance was on fire, and the rest of the fortress was inaccessible.

So soldiers, under the personal command and supervision of His Majesty the King who himself had rushed from Thimphu, scaled the southern walls, broke into the monasteries, and rescued the many sacred relics that were in the dzong.

An entire nation is in mourning.

We have lost an important part of our history – a living, breathing monument that until yesterday served, as intended and without interruption, both the civil administration and the monk body. Yesterday evening, almost four centuries of continuous and daily offerings of butterlamps and prayers came to a sudden halt.

We are in mourning. But, miraculously, and against all hopes and expectations, we have, in our possession, the real essence of the Wangdue Dzong. Most of scriptures and statues and artifacts would have been consumed by the fire, but relics – the sacred treasures, many of which had been built and installed by the Zhabdrung himself – are safe. And that’s what really matters.

What also matters is that we begin the process of rebuilding the once mighty dzong immediately. We can rebuild our dzong, as in moments of national tragedy, our people, all of us, come together, easily and naturally, to think and act as one, under the command of His Majesty the King, the source of all our hopes and inspiration.

So there’s no doubt that the Wangdue Dzong will be rebuilt – bigger, better and stronger – and that it will once again, in a few years, dominate our western skylines.

Responsible government?

“As the Honourable Members are aware, our balance of payments with India has been worsening and the RMA has been facing a severe scarcity of Indian Rupees…” That was the finance minister’s opening line when he introduced the Tax Revision Bill in the National Assembly earlier today.

Yes, our balance of payments with India is in bad shape. And we are facing a severe shortage of Indian currency. In other words, we face a rupee crisis.

We have a crisis in our hands. And it’s no point playing the blame game. We must work together – we must think and act as one – to overcome the current crisis. And we must seize every economic opportunity, old and new, so that we emerge stronger from these difficult times.

Still, we must know who got us into this mess. And we must hold that person to account. That’s if we are serious about good governance. That’s if we are serious about getting out of this mess. Otherwise, with the same person in charge, the situation will just get worse.

So yesterday, during the National Assembly’s Question Hour, I asked the finance minister to tell us who should take responsibility for the rupee crisis. My question was straightforward:

The rupee crisis has caused a great deal of hardship to the people of Bhutan. More importantly, the crisis could compromise the economic sovereignty and security of our country. Will the Hon’ble Minister please explain who will take responsibility for the rupee crisis?

My question was straightforward. But the reply, which offered a detailed account of the causes and solutions of the rupee problem, was long and cumbersome. And the reply did not point out who, specifically, should be held accountable. Instead, the finance minister indicated that the Bhutanese people were both responsible and accountable for the current situation.

So let’s take a poll. Let’s see who we think should assume responsibility for the rupee crisis. Should it be the prime minister? Or should it be the finance minister? Or the RMA governor? Or should it be the people at large who should take responsibility for the economic mess?