DPT leaders

Allegations that Dasho Chang Ugyen had illegally acquired 10 acres of community and government land in 1987 has drawn widespread outrage and public condemnation. The allegations come even as the Gyelpozhing land grab case is still being investigated.

Both the land cases involve the senior most DPT leaders. The president, both vice presidents and several senior members of the DPT are alleged to have acquired large tracks of land illegally.

Some commentators here have pointed out that the land was acquired many years ago, much before DPT was established, and that, as such, DPT should not be linked to the allegations. They are right. The DPT party should not and cannot be held responsible for what their members did long before the party was established. But the members, if they broke the law then, must be punished now, even if it has been many years since the misdeed.

Instead, DPT leaders seem to be using their party to shield themselves from scrutiny. First, after the Gyelpozhing case was reported, the prime minister went on record to suggest that the allegations were politically motivated as they had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”.

And now, after Chang Ugyen’s case was reported, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba has asserted that, “… It is sad to see that a personal issue is being politicized.”

I agree. The cases should not be politicized. But for that, DPT leaders must accept that they, like everyone else, must be investigated for alleged wrongdoings. And when that happens, DPT leaders must themselves refrain from misleading the public to believe that the allegations are politically motivated.

The Bhutanese

Bigger paper

The Bhutanese, Bhutan’s latest newspaper, was launched today, coinciding with His Majesty the King’s 32nd birth anniversary, in a quiet ceremony in their offices in Chubachu.

The Bhutanese is our 11th newspaper. But it is the first to use the broadsheet format. So while we’ve become used to reading small, comfortable tabloid papers, The Bhutanese offers the feel of a bigger and more real newspaper.

They’ve used the extra space well. In their very fist issue they take on the “DPT vice president involved in Nu 300 mn Thimphu land scam”, the “Commission Raj in the health ministry…”, arbitrary printing price increases, new political parties, and other important stories, both in the capital and in the districts. More importantly, in a break from existing practice, they spell out their editorial policies clearly and publicly in which they promise to “…be impartial and not favor any political party, business house, organization and prominent individuals.”

The Bhutanese was launched in a quiet ceremony. But they’ve started off with a bang.

Well done. And congratulations.

Health on drugs

Causing suffering

The Health Ministry has admitted that they have a problem: they have not been able to maintain an adequate supply of drugs to our hospitals. As a result, patients have had to postpone or even forgo medication. And doctors have been forced to direct their patients to private pharmacies, which, many times, have also been frustratingly out of drugs.

Worse still, the Health Ministry has admitted that they still do not know how to resolve the drug shortage issue, a problem that has reached chronic proportions during the past year. So they’ve announced that, as an interim measure, they will send officials to buy drugs directly from manufacturers in Bangladesh.

I suspect that the officials who’ll be going to Bangladesh will be mainly, if not entirely, ministry personnel, most of them from the Drugs, Vaccines and Equipment Division (DVED). If that is so, that could very well be the problem – a central agency unable to keep up with the growing and changing needs of referral hospitals in general, and the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in particular.

DVED is the Health Ministry’s central procurement agency. They buy, stock and distribute drugs and equipment to hospitals throughout the country. That’s a lot of work, work that just gets more complicated as more people use the health system. Between receiving orders for drugs from individual hospitals to supplying them with the drugs is a logistical nightmare that includes compiling and approving orders from the field; tendering and awarding procurement contracts; receiving, verifying and storing drugs; and finally, distributing them to every hospital and clinic, throughout the country. And all that must be done within the framework of the government’s tight financial rules and regulations.

DVED’s centralized operations have served the nation’s health system faithfully till now. But the health system has changed drastically since the establishment of referral hospitals. And DVED would now find that procuring and delivering drugs to the new and growing referral hospitals is an increasingly difficult and complex matter, especially when their main task is still to service all the other hospitals throughout the country.

So it’s time to decentralize procurement, at least for referral hospitals, and definitely for JDWNR hospital. And why would JDWNR hospital be able to do a better job? Incentives.

When drugs run out, hospital staff take the flak. They are the ones who interact with patients every day, and the ones who, as far as patients are concerned, are at fault if hospital services are not adequate. So it is in the interest of hospital staff – nurses, doctors, technicians and administrators – to ensure that drugs, especially essential ones, are always available. Ministry officials, including DVED staff, cannot, and will not, share the same levels of concern.

So decentralize drug procurement. Allow JDWNR hospital to acquire drugs without having to deal with the bureaucracy of the ministry. Otherwise, be prepared to face more serious drug shortages, more frequently.

In fact, decentralize equipment procurement too. And all personnel matters, including training. And finance. And administration. Make the nation’s biggest and fastest growing hospital fully and truly autonomous. That way, hospital staff would feel a sense of control, a sense of ownership, a sense of purpose. And that would drive them to realize their full potential and to achieve their vision.

But the Health Ministry must regulate them. And make them fully accountable. That way, services would improve, drug shortages would drop, and the health sector’s biggest disease – widespread corruption – would finally be contained for proper treatment.

Photo credit: Kuensel

Our King has spoken

The People's King

Our elders believe that the words of our kings are droplets of gold. They believe that to carry out a king’s command is to undertake a task that’s heavier than a mountain. They also believe that to ignore a king’s command is to waste an opportunity more precious than gold.

Our kings do not say much. But when they do, what they say is important; what they say has far-reaching implications. And what they say is gratefully received, studied and carried out with a sense of great urgency.

Our King has spoken. In his Royal Address, on 17th December, our National Day, His Majesty shared his “deepest concerns” with the nation: that we must strengthen the foundations of our democracy; that we must make education more relevant so that it leads to jobs; that we must step up the fight against corruption; and that we must build a self-reliant, sustainable economy.

Our King has spoken. Now will we, like our elders, accept his command as droplets of gold? Will we, like our elders, receive, study and execute his command, even though they weigh heavier than our mighty mountains? Or will we, unlike our elders, ignore and waste that what’s more precious than gold?

Observing anticorruption day

Here’s how I observed International Anticorruption Day yesterday:

One, I went through Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index report for 2011. Bhutan is rated 5.7 (10 means perceived to be very clean; 0 means very corrupt) and is ranked a decent 38 out of the 182 countries and territories that were studied. Bhutan’s rating of 5.7 remains unchanged from the 2010 corruption perception levels. Not bad, but we can, and must, do better.

Two, I tuned in to see BBS’s live debate on the topic “Is Bhutan doing enough in fighting corruption?” The debate, which was organised jointly with IMS, had six panelists, all honourable members of the Parliament. The debate would have been a lot more meaningful if the panelists were chosen to defend two different sides of the motion – one team contending that Bhutan is doing enough to fight corruption; the other arguing that Bhutan is not doing enough.

Three, I closed my poll that asked “Is ACC taking too long to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?” The big majority – 300 of the 352 who took the poll – answered “yes” the ACC is taking too long.

Four, I drafted a letter to the ACC encouraging them to investigate and resolve the Gyelpozhing land case as soon as possible. The case is significant as it raises serious questions on the conduct of our senior-most public officials, many of whom hold powerful offices. Did they, for example, violate laws in the way that land was acquired and distributed? And was conflict of interest standards compromised by senior officials who applied for and received land?

Five, I drafted a letter to the Royal Audit Authority requesting them for a copy of their report on the special investigations that they carried out on the lottery operations. I had asked for the report in June this year, but was denied it. I’m hopeful that, for the sake of transparency and accountability, the RAA is now prepared to make the report public.

Investigating Gyelpozhing

Last Saturday, more than two months after Business Bhutan broke their story about alleged land grabbing in Gyelpozhing by senior public servants, the Anticorruption Commission announced that they:

“… are in the process of studying laws related to land, policy issues, analysing and re- viewing the complaints they received with regards to Gyalpoizhing land case.”

The Gyelpozhing land case has raised serious questions about alleged corruption involving our senior-most public servants when land was acquired and redistributed in Gyelpozhing. This is a big case. And it is an important one. So the ACC is correct in studying the case carefully before they launch an all-out investigation.

But the questions remains: Is ACC taking too much time to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?

Please share your views here. And please take the poll that asks the same question.

We should (not) be proud

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

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

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

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

Lottery issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act against corruption

News that certain powerful people, including the prime minister and ministers in the current cabinet, were given large tracks of land, illegally, in Gyelpozhing has shocked our people.

News that that land had originally belonged to poor farmers, many of whom are now destitute, has angered our people.

This is terrible news. It’s alleged that land was taken from the poor and illegally distributed to the powerful. We should be shocked. We should be angry.

Today, we stand at an historic crossroads. We can investigate the “Gyelpozhing land grab case” immediately and completely. And, if laws have been broken, if power has been abused, if crimes were committed against our people, we can hold the perpetrators to full account. We can punish them.

Or we can hesitate. We can dither. We can vacillate about who, how and when to conduct an investigation. And we can risk allowing potential perpetrators to go scot-free – unquestioned and unpunished.

Choose the former course of action and we will have strengthened the rule of law in our country. A serious blow will have been dealt against corruption. And against the abuse of power and authority. And the trust and confidence of our people in democracy and the rule of law will have been justified.

Choose the later and we will have undermined the rule of law. The shock and anger that our people feel will turn to desperation, and that desperation, eventually, to hopelessness and resignation. Corruption will rule. Greed will become even more unrestrained. And our people, who will have lost all faith in democracy and the rule of law, will suffer.

So we must choose carefully. The path we take will have far reaching consequences. The decision we make is crucial.

News that the Anticorruption Commission will look into the Gyelpozhing land grab case is welcomed. But instead of committing to an immediate inquiry, the ACC has said that they are not ready; that they need to first complete some ongoing cases.

The ACC’s hands are full. And there’s no doubt that every one of the cases they are investigating is important. But this case – the Gyalpozhing land grab case – is different. It involves our senior-most public servants, political leaders who still wield considerable power and influence. And, more importantly, this case, unlike many others, has already become a national concern.

But this is not just ACC’s mandate. All of us must play our respective parts. If we love our country, if we love our people, if we want to create a just society, we must fulfill our duty to fight corruption as enshrined in the Constitution, Article 8, Section 9 of which requires that “Every person shall have the duty to uphold justice and to act against corruption.”

That is why, as soon as I get to Thimphu, the opposition party will call on the ACC to urge them to investigate this case, not in the future, but now, immediately, and completely. And that is why we will study the case carefully, we will raise questions, and we will demand answers – inside the Parliament and outside.

Opposing corruption

“guardian” entered three comments on my last post. All three were on corruption.

In the first comment, “guardian” complained that I hadn’t given any attention to this important issue:

OL simply needs to get his priorities right. When there are so many cases of corruption in the country, OL has not even raised his voice once. I suspect that somehow if he does that, he will find more PDP supporters who are behind all these corrupt practices.

In the second comment, “guardian” laments that no one seems to be doing any thing about the malaise spreading through our society:

Right now the most serious problem which is leading to poor governance is corruption which seems to have pervaded every section of Bhutanese society. Sadly, though, it was the government which kept on stating that corruption in Bhutan was at manageable levels, only to find out now, that it is a tough nut to crack.

Even the ACC it seems is not able to cope with the scale of corruption in the country.

And in the third comment, “guardian” persuades the opposition party to challenge the government:

Ol does not need to do anything, there is enough evidence as per the ACC reports that there is rampant corruption. OL just needs to tell the DPT government that he is worried about corruption and ask the ruling government to do something about it.

The fact that he is not even blogging about it very worrying indeed. Don’t you agree with me!

But it’s not just these three comments. “guardian” has left a string of comments, in many of my posts, all calling for opposition to corruption in Bhutan. And it’s not just “guardian”. Other readers have also voiced various concerns and objections to corruption.

Corruption is real. Corruption is rising. And, left unchecked, corruption could get dangerously pervasive. So we must act against it, individually and collectively. Otherwise this scourge will become irreversibly entrenched in our society.

But how do we fight? How do we fulfill our constitutional duty to “… uphold justice and to act against corruption”?

We can file reports – even confidential ones – to the Anticorruption Commission. We can go to the press. And we can discuss this important issue here, in this blog.

So if you know of any instances of corruption I urge you to report them to ACC. I encourage you to talk to the media. And I welcome you to discuss them here. This issue is important for the health and the future of our country. So let’s discuss it. And let’s do so constructively and responsibly, without engaging in slander, libel or malicious gossip.

On my part, I’ll listen and I’ll learn. And I’ll raise your concerns with the government and the ruling party, especially in the Parliament, the next session of which begins on the 20th of May.