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.

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.

Fundamentally right

Several readers didn’t agree with my suggestion that the government should pay more money for the land that they are acquiring behind the Tashichhodzong.

“Dorji Drolo” favours increasing the land rates only for the original inhabitants of Hejo, but fiercely opposes increases for the others, most of who would have purchased the land at much lower prices. “Dorji Drolo” also agrued that, since the land was “… earmarked for green area some 20 years back” the compensation rates were sufficient.

I agree with “Dorji Drolo” that the original inhabitants should be paid more, much more, for their land. Many of them have already contributed most of their land to the government. And some of them could now lose whatever little they still own. 26 of the landowners are original inhabitants. They should be paid more for their land.

But what about the rest? There are 36 of them. There’s no doubt that they would have purchased their land relatively recently and at much lower rates. And there’s no doubt that some of them would profit substantially. However, there’s also no doubt that some of them, especially civil servants, would have had to service loans for many years in addition to spending their entire savings to purchase the land. So they – yes, all of them – should also be paid more for their land.

Most of us do not own land in Hejo. I certainly don’t. So why should we worry if the landowners are not compensated sufficiently? Why should we get worked up? We should, because the issue is not just about land prices. It’s much more important. It’s about our fundamental rights!

As citizens of this country, we are guaranteed certain fundamental rights. These rights are enshrined in Article 7 of the Constitution. It is our collective duty and in our common interest to recognize and understand our fundamental rights. And, to fight for them.

Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution, which sets down our fundamental right when the government acquires our property, guarantees that:

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.

To this, one commentator, “Lamakheno” asks:

BUT What is a “fair compensation?” For some, even the market rate may not be considered fair.

“…the provisions of the law” that Article 7 Section 14 of the Constitution refers to would include the Land Act, Section 151, according to which:

The valuation of the land and property shall consider the total registered area, registered land category, its current use, location in relation to accessibility to vehicular road, immovable property, local market value, and other elements such as scenic beauty, cultural and historical factors, where applicable.

If these conditions were applied faithfully, landowners in Hejo would be entitled to much more than the Nu 180.38/sft as “fair compensation” for their lands.

But the entire stretch of land that the government is acquiring was, as “Dorji Drolo” points out, “…earmarked for green area some 20 years back.” Correct. Except that the government did not acquire the land at that time. Nor did the government pass any law creating a new category of land called “green area”. And to make matters worse, the government has already compromised its construction ban on the so-called green area zone by permitting the construction of the Supreme Court in a green area.

“Lamakheno” also asks if:

… land acquired in the late 90s for constructing the sewerage tanks at babesa and the expressway construction should have been paid the same rate as the commercial price existing than in the same area?

And advises me not to:

… focus on the land behind Tashichhodzong alone but look at the national picture. Throughout the country, government has been, is and will be acquiring land for constructing schools, hospitals, roads, training centres, airports, offices, etc.

Yes, many people, throughout our country, have lost their land to the government for a wide range of purposes. The question is: did the government break any of the laws in effect when it acquired the land to build the sewerage tanks, the expressway, and the other infrastructure that “Lamakheno” talks about?

My answer: most probably not! The Land Act came into effect in 2007. And the Constitution came into effect in 2008. So unless the provision of some other law was broken, it would be difficult to argue that the compensation rates for these landowners would also have to be reviewed.

The Hejo landowners, however, have a convincing case. They have the Land Act to back them up. They have the Constitution. And they have fundamental rights.

On our part, we must, as “Sonam_t” notes, ensure that the government “protects our fundamental rights!”

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.