Acting late

Four years ago the prime minister pledged to enact a right to information law. The prime minister didn’t give a definite time frame, but he promised that it would be done “soon”.

It’s already been four years since the government made that promise. And we are still waiting for them to keep their word. Now, however, finally, there seems to be some movement: the Department of Media and Information has conducted an RTI awareness workshop, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has distributed a draft RTI Bill for public comments and feedback.

But all this is for nothing. The government has been inactive for so long that whatever they do now will be too little, too late. Parliament has only one session left. And we need at least two sessions to pass a law. So, in spite of any assurances from the government, and any last minute flurry of activity, we might as well accept that the government will not fulfill their promise to give us an RTI Act.

We, the people, will not have an RTI Act during this government’s term in office. But what we have is the Constitution. And Article 7 Section 3 of the Constitution declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. So in the absence of a law regulating the right to information, we, the people, can continue to enjoy unqualified and unconditional right to information as an important fundamental right.

Short and sweet

Assembly

The 8th Session of the Parliament concluded last Friday. It was easily our shortest session: we started on 4 January and ended, barely 12 working days later, on 20 January.

But the 8th session was historic. Her Majesty the Queen graced both the opening and closing ceremonies; and the members of Parliament got to offer the Oath of Allegiance to the Throne.

Plus, the joint sitting of the Parliament amended the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act and the Public Finance Act to align them in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution which had been rendered in the first constitutional case (Incidentally, the amendments had actually been proposed by the ruling party in the 6th session to give the government sweeping powers to introduce, increase and revise all taxes); the Parliament amended the Tobacco Control Act, responding to public outcry that the law was flawed and draconian; the National Council passed the first-ever private bill, the National Flag Bill, introduced by NC MP from Wangduephodrang; and the Speaker invoked special powers granted to him in the Legislative Procedure Rules to block the Parliament from voting on the Election (Amendment) Bill that mainly sought to permit state funding for political parties.

The 8th session was also quite productive. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the National Assembly passed five bills (Consumer Protection Bill, Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill, Education City Bill, Disaster Management Bill and University of Medical Sciences Bill) and ratified one international convention (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands); the National Council passed the University of Medical Sciences Bill, the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill, and ratified the Ramsar Convention; the joint sitting passed the Child Adoption Bill; and both houses endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of tshogpas, and questioned the government on a range of issues.

The 8th Session was short. But it was productive. A lesson, perhaps, that we should keep our future sessions as tight as possible.

Educating ourselves

In 2010, when the government announced that 1,000 acres of land had been allocated to build the Education City, I had worried that, “government policy is being formulated around a particular project.”

Formulating government policy to benefit one particular project is never a good idea. There’s simply too much room for conflict of interest, favoritism and corruption.

But the government is not satisfied. They want to bestow even more support to the Education City project. They now want to enact a law specifically designed to benefit this one particular project.

So today, the government introduced the Education City Bill in the National Assembly. They argued that without this legislation the legal framework would not be adequate, that foreign investors would not show up, that international education institutions would not be interested, and that the project would fail.

Without even considering the merits and demerits of the proposed Education City itself, I argued that framing laws around a project must mean that relevant laws are absent; that relevant policies are missing; or that the new law would circumvent existing laws and policies.

If relevant laws are absent, frame them, especially if other similar other projects would require them. If relevant policies are missing, develop them, especially if such projects are a priority for the government. But don’t pass new laws designed to bypass provisions of existing laws or the government’s own policies just for the sake of a single project.

That would not be good governance. And that is putting it very mildly.

The Education City may be a good idea. It may attract foreign investment, it may create jobs, it may become a centre of excellence, and it may strengthen our economy. Or it may be a bad idea. It may become a white elephant, or, worse still, a breeding ground for large scale, low quality education catering to tens of thousands of foreigners.

But good idea or bad, by enacting the Education City Bill, we would make it legal. And that’s a terrible idea.

Digging deeper

Yesterday, the government released the Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations. The rules, which come a week after the government had issued guidelines to relax the implementation of the Tobacco Control Act, have made matters even more complicated.

According to the rules, we will not be sent to jail for attempting to bring tobacco into the country without declaring it or for possessing tobacco products. Instead, we’ll be let go with a warning or penalized in line with Sections 86, 87 and 90 which state that:

86.     If a person tries to bring permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product without declaring at the authorized port of entry, the tobacco and tobacco product shall be confiscated and the person shall be warned in writing.

87.     If a person tries to bring permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product without declaring at the authorized port of entry for the second time and thereafter, the tobacco or tobacco product shall be confiscated and the person shall be imposed a fine of minimum daily wage rate of one year.

90.     If a person is in possession of permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product, which is brought into the country without payment of tax for personal consumption, the person shall be imposed a fine of Nu. 10,000/- and the tobacco and tobacco product shall be confiscated.

But there’s a problem: These rules may say that we won’t be sent to jail, but the Tobacco Control Act says that we will. The Act is quite clear on this – that’s why the judiciary has already sentenced several of our fellow citizens to prison.

And there’s another problem: These rules say that we won’t be sent to jail, but they are immediately undone by Section 92 of the rules itself according to which:

92.     If a person violates section 11(a), (b) and (c) of the Act, he/she shall be charged as per the provisions of the Act, irrespective of the quantity of tobacco and tobacco product.

Section 11(c) of the Act prohibits us from buying tobacco. And, according to the Act, the offense for doing so is a misdemeanor (1 year to 3 years in prison) but only if we reveal the source. If we can’t reveal the source, a felony of the fourth degree (3 years to 5 years in prison) is added to the misdemeanor sentence.

The Tobacco Control Act is draconian. So we must correct it; we must correct the extreme penalties prescribed by the Act. But developing rules and regulations intended to circumvent the provisions of the Act is not the answer.

The answer is to amend the oppressive Act. We, members of Parliament, must accept that the Tobacco Control Act is causing unimaginable hardship and suffering to our fellow citizens throughout the country. We must amend the Act.