Hejo vs Denchi

Denchi: relatively expensive

About two years ago, I’d written about a group of residents in Hejo, Thimphu. Their land had been taken over by the government. But they had not accepted the government’s compensation for their land. They claimed that the government’s compensation rate – set by the Property Assessment and Valuation Agency, PAVA – was too low. They protested that their land, located adjacent to Thimphu’s dzong and close to the capital’s business center, fetched much higher prices in the market. And they pointed out that even PAVA’s rates were considerably higher for land that is located further away from the center of Thimphu.

The residents of Hejo have still not been able to resolve their case. They agree that the government can acquire their land for “public purpose”. But they know that the Constitution says that the government can do so only “on payment of fair compensation”. And since the current compensation not “fair”, they have been fighting for a better compensation rate.

Further afield, in Denchi, Pema Gatshel, the government has acquired land to develop a new township. But in this case, the government – the cabinet, no less – has granted compensation rates in excess of PAVA’s rates. The cabinet’s approved rate of Nu 9,000 per decimal more than doubles PAVA’s rate, calculated at Nu 3,952.42 per decimal for Denchi. In fact, the cabinet’s rate is 128% more than PAVA’s rate.

It’s obvious that the landowners in Denchi stand to benefit. And what has now become obvious is that a certain Aum Dechen, who happens to be the prime minister’s aunty, stands to benefit the most. She gets a cool Nu 21.60 million for her land. That’s a whopping Nu 12.12 million above PAVA’s rate of Nu 9.48 million.

The residents of Hejo are still fighting for”fair compensation”for their land. But those in distant Denchi have been given more than their fair share – thanks to the cabinet’s intervention.

To resolve the Hejo case, PAVA should revise the compensation rates, as they must, once every three years.

And to resolve the Denchi case, ACC should investigate the cabinet’s involvement for possible corruption.

Photo credit: The Bhutanese

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.

 

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.

Trowa

Leased land

Trowa Theatre in Changjiji sits on government land. The land, measuring 19,432.56 square feet, was leased to a businessman in 2001 to build an entertainment center.

In 2006, the government approved the transfer of the lease to another businessman. And increased lease rent from Nu 2 per sft per annum to Nu 42 per sft per annum, which was the amount being charged to other lessees occupying similar property in Thimphu.

The businessman taking over the lease did not sign a lease agreement protesting that the new lease rent was too high. He still has not signed a lease agreement with the government. Nor has he paid lease rent since 2006. The total outstanding lease rent as of last month is about Nu 5.24 million.

The Parliament discussed this case in its 5th and 7th sessions, in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and, on both occasions, decided that the government should resolve the issue in accordance with the laws of the land.

Last Thursday, during the Public Accounts Committee’s report to the National Assembly, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, the minister for works and human settlement, reported that his ministry was unable to resolve the issue, and that, as such, he had requested the Land Commission to sell the land to the lessee.

The government should answer how a businessman is allowed to run a business on government land, without signing a lease agreement, without paying lease rent, and for so long while violating laws and ignoring regulations. And the government should resolve the issue, even if the case must be forwarded to the court of law, as was recommended by the Public Accounts Committee.

That’s what the government should do. But what the government actually did do, instead, was to send a formal request to the Land Commission to sell the land to the businessman.

What was Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba thinking?

There are many other businesses, in Thimphu and in other parts of our country, which have also leased government land. Wouldn’t selling leased government land to one businessman open the floodgates for other businesses to also buy land that they have leased from the government?

And what about the rule of law? Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba must know that the laws of the land prevent leased government land from being sold. He must know that Section 307 of the Land Act states that:

Under no circumstances shall a land on lease from the Government land or Government Reserved Forests land be converted to ownership right.

Trowa Theatre sits on prime government land. That land belongs to the people of Bhutan. And the people of Bhutan would want to know that their government is protecting their land, not squandering it recklessly.

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.

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.

Paying for land

priceless

It’s autumn. And the Tashichhodzong, when viewed from the North, looks beautiful. Tidy terraced fields, lush with golden paddy present a perfect foreground for Thimphu’s auspicious dzong. Many generations of travelers before us would have, no doubt, taken in almost exactly the same tranquil view.

And thanks to the government’s plans to maintain that lovely stretch of land, many generations of travelers after us could also enjoy the uninterrupted view of the dzong. To ensure that that piece of property stays as it is, the government has decided – and rightfully so – to acquire 42.32 acres of farmland in Hejo.

But the owners are not happy. They feel shortchanged.

The original inhabitants complain that they’ve already lost most of their land to the government. The National Assembly, Royal Banquet Hall, Centre for Bhutan Studies, Jimithang barracks, golf course, cremation grounds, and Wood Craft Centre all stand on land that once belonged to them. They point out that the compensations they received were never sufficient to purchase land of similar value elsewhere. And they worry that, once again, they are being compelled to give up their lands at undervalued prices.

They know that the Constitution and the Land Act allow the government to acquire their land for “public purpose”. And they agree that securing and maintaining the space around the Tashichhodzong is important. But they are unhappy with the price that the government has fixed for their land. They do not see it as the “payment of fair compensation” that the Constitution guarantees them.

So how much are they being paid? Nu 180.38 per square foot.

And why are the land owners not happy? Because Nu 180.38/sft is a pittance. By comparison, land in Jungzhina, which is upstream and further from the city centre, fetches Nu 600/sft; land in Taba, which lies even further upstream, costs Nu 600/sft; and land in relatively distant Kabisa already costs Nu 300/sft. Downstream, in Olakha, which is further from the city centre than Hejo, land prices are soaring at Nu 1000/sft for residential plots and Nu 1700/sft for commercial plots.

It’s no wonder that the land owners in Hejo are unhappy. The Nu 180.38/sft is nowhere near what they would need to buy comparable land anywhere else in Thimphu.

The property assessment and valuation agency (PAVA) appraises and fixes property prices for the government. And PAVA’s rates for Hejo are low because most of the land lie in the so-called “green area”, a zone on which government policy supposedly prohibits all construction. PAVA’s reasoning is that if you can’t build on your land, then your land can’t be worth too much.

But PAVA’s argument has two drawbacks. First, the government has allowed construction in the green area. The Supreme Court is currently being built on the 10.75 acres of green area, also in Hejo, that the government acquired from 28 owners at Nu 150/sft. So the land owners argue that, since the government can easily change policies to allow construction in so-called green areas, their land should be worth much more.

And second, there isn’t any legal provision allowing land to be categorized as “green area”. Section 19 of the Land Act recognizes 8 categories of private land – chhuzhing, kamzhing, cash crop land, residential land, industrial land, commercial land, recreational land and institutional land, but no land category for green area.

The government is correct in acquiring the land to protect the Tashchhodzong. But the Hejo land owners should not have to bear the brunt of the cost of doing so. Most of them are farmers. And many of them have already lost a lot of their land to development.

Instead, the government should advise PAVA that “green area” is not a legal land category, and that, as such, they should revise their valuation of the Hejo land.

Meanwhile, I’m writing to the minister of finance, urging him to protect the fundamental right of land owners as enshrined in Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution:

A person shall not be deprived of property by acquisition or requisition, except for public purpose and on payment of fair compensation in accordance with the provisions of the law.

Land ceiling

The draft national land policy, particularly the proposal to remove the 25 acre landholding ceiling, has already become controversial. That’s why Thinlay demanded “to hear OL’s views on this very important issue.” When I didn’t respond, Thinlay sent this reminder: “do you … have opinion on this, because this issue is to important to be ignored?”

Yes, the issue is important. And yes, I do have an opinion on this matter.

Removing the existing maximum landholding restriction of 25 acres will be the quickest way of stripping our farmers of their property.

But the policy has caught me by surprise. I never dreamt that the land ceiling would be lifted in the foreseeable future. So I’m scrambling to gather information and consult people before presenting our views to the public and to the Government.

Meanwhile, I request Thinlay to grant me a little more time.

Returned rightfully?

On 7 March, BBS reported that: “The land occupied by the Paro Valley Area Development Project was finally handed over to the landowners today. It was handed over by the Agriculture Minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho to the Member of the Parliament from Lamgong-Wangchang constituency in Paro, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.”

The principle of returning the land to the public is right. The land was acquired by the government in 1990 and compensation paid to the farmers. But it was never put to its intended use. So though it’s been almost two decades, there is a strong case to return the land to the farmers.

But the way it was done was not right.

First, according to the Constitution and the Land Act, only His Majesty the King may grant government land.

Second, the land should have been handed over to the farmers or the gup or the thrizin … and not to the MP of the constituency, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.

Photo from BBS website