Studying pedestrian day

On pedestrian day, the number of vehicles driven is halved, and the number of people walking is doubled. At least, that’s what a study by the National Environment Commission says. Good.

But what would be better, essential in fact, is for the government to study the impact that pedestrian day has on the quality of our lives. And the impact that it has on doing business in Bhutan.

Royal Grandmother

My last post was about Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. Dr Leatham, along with others, like Dr Albert Craig, had been invited to Bhutan by Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, to care for His Majesty the Third King.

Between then and now, Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother has also spearheaded innumerable programs to care for the health of the people. They include, among many others, the introduction of, for the first time in Bhutan, drugs to fight leprosy and tuberculosis.

What’s more, Her Majesty, now in her eighties, continues to work to improve healthcare and alleviate the sufferings of our people. Just last week, Professor Ian Frazer, the scientist credited with developing the HPV vaccine, was in Thimphu at the invitation of Her Majesty.

The human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer, a leading cause of death among Bhutanese women. So Professor Frazer’s work and the HPV vaccine have contributed immensely to improving the quality and length of the lives of our women.

But the vaccines are expensive. They currently sell for US$ 120 per shot in the market, and a full course, consisting of three doses, costs a whopping US$ 360. Luckily, under Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother’s patronage, the Ministry of Health’s extended program of immunization has received US$ 32 million worth of HPV vaccines from the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation.

The program to prevent cervical cancer began three years ago. That is when girls, throughout the country, started getting the HPV vaccines. The idea is to cover all women … and to put an end to cervical cancer.

For this, and for much more – for introducing modern healthcare in Bhutan, for eradicating leprosy among our people, for controlling tuberculosis – I humbly thank Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother.

Thimphu High Street

Thank you for taking part in the last Big Picture. Your answers were varied – Changangkha, Phobjikha, Gangtey, Wangdue, Paro, Bumthang, Dagana, Lhuntse and Thimphu town – and rightfully so. The old photo, after all, could have been taken anywhere in Bhutan.

The picture, as you can now easily see, was taken outside the Tashichhodzong. It shows the beginnings of modern Thimphu complete with offices, shops and, in the background, the dzong undergoing major renovation and expansion.

Dorji, “Pothery” and “River” all identified the place correctly. But the first correct answer came from Ugen, who wrote, “Settlement outside Tashichhodzong in Thimphu in early 50′s.” This picture was actually taken in the early 1960’s, but it couldn’t have been that much different in the 50’s, so I’m awarding the prize to Ugen. (Ugen: please email me to claim your prize.)

The photo is from a book “Hearts and Life and the Kingdom of Bhutan” by Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. This book is mainly about developments in the field of cardiology since 1945. But the author has included a chapter about his experiences in Bhutan, and that’s what gives the books excitement for us, and a sense of magic and mystery for other readers. He has also included almost 100 photographs, most of which show what Thimphu, and Bhutan, looked like in the 1960’s. Lovely. As we would expect, Thimphu has grown and changed beyond recognition, but the rest of Bhutan, luckily, has not changed very much.

So what is the connection between cardiology, Dr Leatham and Bhutan? The doctor was invited to Bhutan in 1963 and again in 1964  on a very important mission: as a physician to His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo. He nursed the Father of Modern Bhutan, and claims to have extended our King’s life by more than a few years. The significance of his service is not lost on the author who writes:

My patient, the King, with premature coronary artery disease (before the days of coronary artery surgery, dilatations and stents), survived for eight years, giving time for his son to take over; he died whilst on safari in Africa. I was presented with the Order of Bhutan by the Queen for restoring hi to health until his son was ‘of age’.

His Majesty the King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck passed away on 21 July, 1972. His son, the Crown Prince, ascended the Golden Throne to become the Fourth Druk Gyalpo at the tender age of 16.

 

About relief

Consider this: His Majesty the King issued a Kasho yesterday granting Nu 200 million towards the reconstruction of the Wangduephodrang Dzong. Nu 100 million was granted from the armed forces, and Nu 100 million from His Majesty’s Kidu Foundation.

Now consider this: The government has allocated Nu 20 million per year to the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund until the balance reaches a ceiling of Nu 100 million. The Relief Fund was passed by the Parliament in the last session. Nu 20 million per year is woefully inadequate. I said so in the Parliament. And I wrote about it.

How much is Nu 20 million? It works out to under 0.06% percent of the government’s annual budget estimated at Nu 34,515.549 million for 2012-13.

Big Picture 13

Where, in Bhutan, is this place? The best answer wins a packet of Nado’s zurpoe incense.

Shopping for poi

Come try this

Walk into a shopping mall, and you’ll be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes.

Walk into the Norling Building in Changangkha, and you’ll also be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes. But there’s one big difference. The customers in the Norling Building, in Nado Poi shop to be exact, would be trying out different types of poi – traditional incense sticks for religious offerings.

That, at least, is what I saw the other day. I went to Nado’s to buy some poi, and bumped into a group of Taiwanese tourists. They, like children in a sweetshop, were excitedly trying out various types of incense – lighting the sticks, comparing fragrances, and identifying the best offerings to take back home.

Nado, an ex-monk from Tharpaling Monastery, started the incense factory more than two decades ago. The factory, Nado Poizokhang, has come a long way. They manufacture at least 13 types of poi, ranging in price from Nu 30 per packet to Nu 370 for a packet of their top-of-the-line Zurpoe.

Producing poi needs at least 30 different ingredients and one whole month of hard work involving no less than 12 full time employees. Most of the poi is consumed within the country. But a good amount ends up in homes and monasteries abroad.

The next time you are in the Changangkha area, I recommend that you try out the wonderful fragrances at Nado Poi Shop – you’ll add a whole new dimension to your shopping experience.

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.