Observing the state of the Nation

I made a brief statement on the PM’s state of the Nation address today in the National Assembly. What follows is a summary of what I said…

Introduction

I thank the Honourbale Speaker for allowing me to submit my views on the prime minister’s annual report on the State of the Nation to the Parliament.

I congratulate the prime minister and the cabinet for presenting a detailed report on the activities of the government during the last year. I’ve divided these activities into four broad categories: (i) those that were part of the Ninth Five Year Plan; (ii) those that were executed by government corporations; (iii) those that were executed by non government organizations; and (iv) those that are part of the Tenth Five Year Plan.

Activities of the Ninth Five Year Plan

A considerable amount of the achievements that are reflected in the government’s report are part of the Ninth Five Year Plan. I congratulate the government for implementing these “spill over” works of the Ninth Plan, but would like to note that these activities were finalized and funding secured by the previous government. These include roads, bridges, hospitals, the national stadium, the tendril thang, and the repair of monasteries and dzongs.

Credit for successfully completing the “spill over” works of the Ninth Plan must go to the current government. But, the report should have indicated which of the activities belonged to the Ninth Plan, and, more importantly, how much of that work was completed in the last year. This would have given us a better idea of how much of the work was actually done by the government.

For example, according to the PM’s annual report, 292 km of farm roads were constructed during the last year. This may be so, but we do not know how much of these roads are spill over from the ninth plan and how much, if any, are part of the tenth plan.

The construction of the Gyalposhing-Nganglam highway, Gomphu-Panbang highway, Samtse-Phuentsholing highway and Nangar-Ura highway were all part of the ninth plan. Funding for these projects were already secured and the work had started before the new government took over.

I thank Project Dantak for undertaking the double-laning of the Thimphu-Paro highway, Chumzom-Phuentsholing highway and Samdrupjonkhar-Tashigang highway.

Activities of government corporations

The works of government corporations have also been included in the annual report. And this is necessary to provide a complete picture of the country’s development in the last year. But, the report should have also attributed the successes to the corporations and the DHI directly. These include rural electrification (which is funded by the government and executed by BPC), expansion of transmission lines (BPC), mobile connectivity (B-Mobile), internet connectivity (Bhutan Telecom) and Dagachu hydropower project (DGPC). I would also like to add Druk Air has, for the first time in its history, not just turned a profit, but paid taxes as well.

Activities of civil society organizations

I acknowledge the good work done by our NGOs. The beneficiaries of their hard work include youth, women, the disadvantaged, the poor, animals and the environment. Additionally, NGOs are responsible for successfully showcasing Bhutan through exhibitions and festivals.

Tenth Five Year Plan

The government’s annual report does not indicate which of the work implemented during the last year form part of the 10th Five Year Plan. While some of the work must be from the 10th Plan, we cannot tell as the Plan documents were being distributed only recently. I, for example, got the plan documents only last week.

I wish to report that all of us must work together if we are to realize the objectives of this plan. But we have barely three and a half more years to complete the 10th Plan. I am concerned. At Nu 148 billion, the tenth plan is more than twice the size of the ninth plan, which was only Nu 73 billion. And yet, the ninth plan was extended officially by a year. Now, if last year’s activities are also mainly from the ninth plan, then the Ninth Five Year Plan would have taken seven years to complete. And, I repeat, we would basically have only three and a half years to complete the entire tenth plan.

I thank the Government of India for their generous support of the Tenth Five Year Plan. Though they and other donors have contributed generously, the tenth plan still has a shortfall of Nu 18 billion. This is after taking Nu 10.2 billion in loans. Therefore, I would like to request the government once again (I’d submitted a similar request during the second session) to consider if that much money is really needed to meet the overall objectives of the tenth plan.

Poverty alleviation

23.3% of our people live in poverty. And of the people living in rural areas, 30.9% are poor. Poverty is, therefore, more pervasive in our villages. Yet, I did not see anything definite in the government’s report in terms of targeting poverty.

In order to eradicate poverty, we must follow through with our government’s promise to connect every gewog with a motorable road. And we must allocate more resources to the local governments. In this connection, I wish to reiterate that the funds for the Constituency Development Grant should be allocated directly to local governments without the interference of the members of parliament.

I wish to also report that I am still to receive a reply to the letter I personally submitted to our honourable finance minister expressing my views that the CDG may be unconstitutional. If the government is not willing to explain why my concerns are unfounded, I may be left with no option but to seek the opinion of our courts.

Similarly, I have not received replies to several other letters to the government which I shall not discuss now.

The economy

Our government’s reaction to the global financial crisis has not been clear. As a result many businesses have still not recovered from the affects of the crisis. This is especially so in the manufacturing and tourism sectors which provide employment to a large number of our people.

It is not easy to do business in Bhutan. And a recent study by the World Bank indicates that doing business in Bhutan may in fact be getting more difficult.

Education

Several surveys were conducted over the past year. And, they indicate that the quality of our education is poor. The quality of our education must improve if we expect our youth to enjoy gainful employment. Otherwise, the social problems that our prime minister mentioned – alcoholism, drug addition, prostitution, gambling – will only increase.

Though a lot of money (almost Nu 10 billion) has been allocated for the education sector in the 10th Plan, I am concerned that monastic education will receive none of it. The monks that attend schools in our dratshangs and shedras are also Bhutanese children. In fact, most of them belong to the poorer sections of our society, so we should be even more concerned about their education.

Housing

Housing is a major problem. In many parts of Bhutan, our farmers live in shacks that cannot keep out the rain or the cold.

And in our towns, especially in Thimphu, our people cannot afford the rents. The Tenancy Act is not implemented at all. An obvious solution to the housing shortage is to encourage more people to build houses. But, in most parts of Thimphu land owners are still not allowed to construct new houses. More houses mean rents would automatically fall to reasonable rates. Today Thimphu must have about 100,000 people. It can easily accommodate 200,000, if it must, but if and only if the housing problem is solved.

Media

An independent media is crucial for a vibrant democracy. And, yes, the media must be responsible. But they do not need constant lecturing. This will intimidate our media, since most of them depend on the government for their revenues.

BICMA is already regulating the media. And there are laws that protect us from possible abuse by the media.

Recent floods

The government estimated that about Nu 719 million in damages were caused by the recent flash floods. But the government’s estimate does not include losses in business. Road blocks in many parts of the country and the diversion of the Druk Air flights would have caused losses totaling many millions of ngultrums.

In this connection, I wish to acknowledge the work done by Project Dantak to restore the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway soon after it was damaged severely during the floods.

According to the Constitution, the government is required to establish a Relief Fund that will be used by His Majesty the King in times of natural calamities. I am concerned that the Fund has still not been established. I raised the same issue during the first session of the Parliament, and the Hounourable Finance Minister had assured the Assembly that the Relief Fund would be established within the year. It still has not been established.

Constitution

Our Prime Minister expressed concerns that the Constitution is being used as a detailed manual. And that interpreting the Constitution in rigid and narrow terms undermines good governance and weakens the government. He also reported that we should not unnecessarily invoke and test the Constitution.

I disagree. I firmly believe that we should constantly refer to the Constitution. And that, even if we don’t understand any other law, we should study the Constitution thoroughly. After all, the Constitution is the mother of all laws in Bhutan.

If disagreements arise in the interpretation of the Constitution – and they will be many differences – they should be discussed amicably and with the understanding that all parties involved want nothing but what is best for our country and our people. And, naturally, if these disagreements cannot be resolved the option to take the matter to the courts is always there.

The big picture

I spy with my little eye...

I spy with my little eye...

Here’s a challenge.

The first one to recognize this picture wins a prize, the book “Portrait of a Leader” by Dr Mieko Nishimizu.

Wanted: live TV

The poll on the National Assembly’s decision to ban live TV coverage for most of its proceedings attracted considerable interest. But with 292 of the 315 participants (that’s 90% of them) disagreeing on the National Assembly’s recent decision, our readers’ views are clear. Only 23 voters (7%) supported the ban. And 10 people admitted that they really didn’t care.

The public outcry against the National Assembly’s decision is obvious. And I’m not just referring to our poll. BBS has shown many people, from various walks of life, all denouncing the restrictions imposed on BBS TV’s live broadcast. Yet, the National Assembly shows no sign of reconsidering its decision.

This is a very serious matter. And we cannot just ignore it. But what can be done? To begin with, write to your member of the National Assembly. Tell them that the ban is not good for democracy. And that you expect them to reconsider their decision.

The media also needs to do something. If they feel that the ban undermines free media, and that it is illegitimate, then they must demand that BBS be allowed to continue with the live telecast. And if their demands are not met, they should be ready to take the matter to the courts.

I’ll meet with the media to seek their views.

Our next poll is on the performance of our government. On the first day of the Parliament’s third session, our PM spoke extensively on the successes of the government. I wish to know what you think.

Electric cars

Really powerful

Electric!

I drove an electric car last week. It was a Reva, an electric vehicle manufactured in India. The Department of Energy is currently testing the car on Bhutanese conditions.

The Reva is small. In fact, it’s not much bigger than a golf cart. So it can fit only two adults – that’s the driver and one passenger. The car actually has rear seats, where you can squeeze two little children. But if you do, you won’t be able to find space for even small luggage. Only this, and yet the car costs Nu 450,000 without taxes.

Theoretically, the Reva can run for 80 kilometers on a complete charge. So that means it is good only for local transport. A fully charged battery couldn’t take you to Paro and back. And you can forget about traveling to Punakha.

But there’s good news. The Reva emits zero emissions. So it would be good for Thimphu and our environment. It would also be very good for Bhutan’s image.

And there’s more good news. The Reva is cheap. Very cheap. It takes nine units of electricity to completely charge its battery. At Nu 1.40 per unit (that’s the price of electricity at the highest slab) that works out to Nu 12.60. A fully charged battery can take you for 80 km, so each km would cost Nu 0.1575 in electricity.

Now consider a small petrol car. That would give you about 15 km per liter. A liter today costs Nu 38.53. So a kilometer traveled would cost Nu 2.5687. Say you travel an average of 30 km per day. That’s 900 km a month. That would cost you Nu 2,311.83 on the petrol car. But only Nu 141.75 on the Reva!

That’s a huge difference. And the difference gets much bigger if you compare the Reva with larger internal combustion vehicles or if you are required to travel more each day. Plus, electric vehicles require much less maintenance because they are lighter, and they have fewer moving parts.

If the electric vehicle catches on, the difference at the national level would be immense. We’d be able to substitute expensive imported fuel with clean hydropower which we can generate in abundance. And this positive trade-off would do wonders for our economy. That’s where we, as a nation, would really gain.

So our government should aggressively encourage electric vehicles. To do so, it should test more electric cars, including bigger ones from other countries; subsidize import duties and taxes on them; use them as pool vehicles; and grant preferential parking, especially in town.

But the first step is obvious: our ministers should drive them. Only then would others follow.

Inaugural session

speaking up

speaking up

I’m posting the speech I delivered in Parliament today. I’d proposed a vote of thanks for His Majesty the King’s gracious presence during the inaugural ceremony of the third session of the Parliament.

The original speech was delivered in Dzongkha. And I spoke from points I had prepared earlier. But I’ve tried my best to translate what I presented into English as accurately as possible.

The photograph shows Tshering Tobgay addressing the National Assembly’s second session in January 2009

Vote of Thanks to His Majesty the King

Welcome His Majesty the King

On this most auspicious day, I, on behalf of the opposition party and with the deepest of respect, offer my heart felt gratitude to Your Majesty, for gracing today’s inaugural ceremony and opening the third session of the First Parliament of Bhutan.

The fact that Your Majesty has put aside all other important work of the State and chosen to attend the inaugural ceremony in person, is a real indication of Your Majesty’s support to Bhutan’s Parliament and, in particular, to the democratic process.

Thank our deities

It has been more than a year since democracy was introduced in the Kingdom of Bhutan. During this period, no untoward harm or misfortune has befallen on our two beloved monarchs, our country, and our people. This is because we continue to enjoy the benedictions of the triple gem, the support of our protecting deities, the combined good fortune of the Bhutanese people, and, most importantly, the supreme powers of our beloved monarchs.

State of democracy

Barely 15 months have passed since democracy was introduced in our country. And already many people, Bhutanese and foreigners, are amazed at how democracy was introduced – gifted from the Golden Throne to the people of Bhutan. And many people sincerely believe that democracy has got off to a good start and that it has already become a vibrant system of governance in Bhutan.

Our people acknowledge that the successes of democracy in Bhutan are solely because of His Majesty the King’s hard work and good results.

We must also accept, however, that not all the people are satisfied with the performance of democracy, our new form of government. This is mainly because the hopes and aspirations that our people have of democracy have still not been realized. And, to a large extent, they are correct.

So, it is our sacred responsibility to fulfill their dreams. But, in order to do so all of us must think and act as one, and work together. When I say “us” I mean the National Council and the National Assembly, the ruling party and the opposition party, civil servants and the private sector, and all other people. Only if we work together will we be able to achieve His Majesty’s vision of a robust and vibrant democracy that will deliver the hopes and aspirations of the people.

His Majesty’s work

Now, when we consider His Majesty the King’s work, all of us know very well that, even before the Coronation, His Majesty had worked tirelessly to ensure that the foundation of democracy was well secured so that, although the people didn’t want democracy, the transition from absolute monarchy to democratic constitutional monarchy would eventually be made smoothly and effortlessly.

And after the historic coronation of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty the King has spared no effort to work with even greater force to serve the country and people of Bhutan. So, it is not possible to recount all of His Majesty’s good work today.

But, from among all his work, if I were to report about one, just as an example, we may be better able to understand His Majesty’s complete dedication to his country and his people.

It is no secret that most of our people live in villages, many of which are located in remote corners of our country that have not been visited by officers or civil servants. His Majesty has journeyed to these far-flung places. He traveled by day and night, for many weeks, in the scorching sun and soaking rain, and among leeches and insects. And no matter how tired he may have become, His Majesty insisted on visiting every village personally and, in it, dwelling place, with or without a roof.

He met his people in their villages, in their lands, and in their homes. He listened to their problems. And he personally solved their problems, right there and then.

We all know that the biggest problem our farmers face is the issue of land. Many farmers have “excess land”, land that they have not been able to pay for. Some have too little land. And many do not have any land at all – these are sharecroppers who for generations have slaved on other people’s fields.

In Lhuntse, in one dzongkhag alone, His Majesty the King granted various types of land kidu to a total of almost 5,000 families.  Similarly, His Majesty awarded many kidus to the people of Mongar. And, during the natural calamity caused by flash floods in various parts of the country, His Majesty rushed to see the devastation personally. And he met the victims and granted them kidu.

Monarchy in democratic Bhutan

Before the advent of democracy, our monarchy played a crucial role in the development of our country. And every successive monarch worked exclusively for the wellbeing of the country and the people.

Now, our beloved kings have deliberately given their powers to the people, and started a democratic form of government.  Yet the institution of monarchy, and His Majesty the King, must play an even more important role now to ensure the success of democracy, and the continued stability, peace and prosperity of our country and people.

Responsibility of parliamentarians

We, however, must also do our share of work. In order to enjoy benefits of a healthy democracy we must all work together. That includes parliamentarians, civil servants, private sector, farmers, the youth and all other citizens.

But, if we look at the situation today, many people feel that democracy has not given them what they want. And what do our people want from democracy? Our farmers want their hopes and aspirations fulfilled; our business community wants a much more stronger private sector that can contribute to a growing economy; our youth want quality education and job opportunities; and, overall, our people want GNH. GNH not just in words or on on paper, but real GNH that translates to improvements in their lives.

So, to fulfill the expectations of our people and of democracy, we parliamentarians must accept the biggest responsibility. The National Council and National Assembly, the ruling party and the opposition party, all of us have a collective responsibility to ensure that democracy succeeds.

As far as the opposition party is concerned, we will engage our body, speech and mind to serve the tsa-wa-sum, and we offer our pledge to do so here, in the incomparable great hall of the Parliament of Bhutan.

Conclusion

In conclusion, on behalf of the opposition party, I offer my sincere gratitude to Your Majesty the King for inaugurating the third session of the Parliament, and for making our democracy strong. Tashi delek!

Third session

National assembly-2The third session of the first Parliament of Bhutan begins tomorrow. His Majesty the King will grace the inaugural ceremony of the third session. And the prime minister will submit his annual report on the state of our Nation to the Druk Gyalpo and the parliament.

The proceedings tomorrow will be broadcast live by BBS. As will the entire proceedings of the National Council. But the National Assembly, as of now, has not changed its decision to prevent the BBS from broadcasting most of its proceedings.

I’m still working on some talking points for tomorrow. But I’m finding it very difficult. What does one report to His Majesty the King, in the joint sitting of the parliament, when one is so disappointed and frustrated with our performance so far?

Tweeting

Real twitters

Real twitters

I’ve now been blogging for more than six months. And I’ve started receiving good feedback. During the weekdays we easily get four to five thousand hits. And, increasingly, many of the readers offer valuable comments. So, overall, I’m quite satisfied.

But to enhance my interaction with friends, especially those in Bhutan, I’ve also been on Facebook, a free social networking site, for a while now. Please join me here.

And to expand the blogging experience I’ve been experimenting with Twitter, also a free social networking site, but one that specializes in microblogging. Twitter users post updates, called “tweets”,which are entries less than 140 characters long, and which are available to their “followers”. To sign up and follow me, go here.

Now here’s the interesting part: if B-Mobile, say, were to allow Twitter to recognize their network, then users would be able to “tweet” using SMS’s, and “followers” would be able to receive updates as SMS’s. And that would be really handy.

Twikini_Theme_Windows

Twikini screenshot

I tweet on a smart phone, a Sony Ericsson Xi which runs on Windows Mobile 6.1. And I find it very convenient to post updates using Twikini, an application that allows you to use Twitter easily and quickly on your mobile phone. If you’re on 3G, I recommend Twikini to manage your Twitter account.

So why am I writing about Twitter, tweeting and Twikini? Because I wish to invite you to try out this very effective networking site that has taken most countries by storm. More importantly, I wish to inform you that I’ve decided to tweet regularly during the third National Assembly session.

Now for the birds, the real twitters pictured at the beginning of this post. These two birds have decided, very kindly, to roost outside our home in Taba. The picture shows the female bird carefully emerging from their nest (the horizontal member, made from bamboo, of my daughter’s swing) while her partner guards their territory.

The birds are Russet Sparrows. You’ve seen them. They’re plenty of them in Bhutan. But Yeshey Dorji, one of Bhutan’s foremost birders, tells me that they are very rare in other parts of the world.

Another bear cub is rescued

I’ve just learnt that another resident of Haa will be arriving in Taba soon. Pema Tshering, the Forest Ranger in Haa, has just informed me that they’ve rescued another bear cub. This cub was discovered in the Tshaphey Lower Secondary School premises with its back to the wall, defending itself from a pack of dogs. Officials of the Forestry Management Unit arrived literally on time to save the little bear who, I’m told, appears to be fine.

No one knows the whereabouts of the mother bear. So the cub will stay in the Wildlife Management and Rehabilitation Centre in Taba till she’s old enough to be reintroduced in the forest. Remember that the rehabilitation centre already has a resident bear cub, also from Haa. And that I visited that orphan last Sunday.

So I’m already looking forward to seeing the two cubs together. I’ll carry with me some milk and fruit.

Breaking news

A truely upper house

Truly upper house

The National Council has decided that their proceedings will continue to be telecast live on BBS.

I’m hopeful that the National Assembly members will reverse their earlier decision to ban live TV broadcast for most of their sessions.

Lakshuman Chhetri

Well done

Well done

Yesterday, Lakshuman Chhetri, a senior officer in the National Assembly Secretariat, left his office for the last time. After serving the National Assembly for 22 continuous years, Mr Chhetri left to take up his new assignment as head of BICMA’s media division.

Mr Chhetri, who I met in Sherubtse College (he was an outstanding athlete then), was the first graduate to join the National Assembly. He did so, as a trainee officer, in September 1987. And during the last 22 years, he’s seen the National Assembly Secretariat grow from a small office with only six staff to today’s efficient organization having more than 50 staff.

Yesterday, when I called on him to say thank him for his services to the legislature and to say goodbye, he reflected on his long and successful tenure. He recalled the shock waves that His Majesty’s kasho of 10 June 1998 sent through the National Assembly and the country. In that historic kasho His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo devolved all his executive powers to an elected council of ministers. At the same time, His Majesty insisted that the monarch be subjected to a periodical vote of confidence of the National Assembly.

Mr Chhetri remembered the many important debates over several consecutive sessions of the National Assembly concerning the presence of Indian militant camps within our country, and the threats that they posed to the security of our country and the friendship between Bhutan and India. In December 2003, the militants were finally removed from Bhutanese soil by His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo who personally led our armed forces in the operation that lasted barely 48 hours and showcased the bravery and genius of our beloved monarch.

And he recalled the period leading up to the first parliamentary elections, the first session of the first new parliament, the discussions on the Constitution and the signing of the Constitution. All emotionally difficult events for a population that didn’t want democracy but was forced to accept it by Their Majesty the Kings.

Mr Chhetri has enjoyed being part of these historic moments in our country. But now looks forward to a new chapter in his life. I wish him the very best of luck.

Incidentally, the longest serving officer in the National Assembly is Kazilal Rai. Mr Rai joined the NA Secretariat in July 1981 as PA to the then Speaker, the late Lyonpo Tamshing Jagar. Today Mr Rai is the Assembly’s senior administrative officer.