Utter nonsense

The National Assembly’s live TV broadcasts are proving useful. One observer, for instance, a senior civil servant, followed the recent debate on the Anticorruption Bill, and noticed that I “didn’t utter a word” during the discussions. She spoke to Kuensel about it, which reported that:

A senior civil servant said the opposition leader was very emphatic about the severity of the tobacco Act’s penalty that he went to the extent of hiring a lawyer for the first Bhutanese to be convicted under the Act, pro bono.

“He didn’t utter a word when members were deliberating the corruption amendment bill,” she said.

Yes, the senior civil servant is correct when she says that I was “emphatic about the severity of the tobacco Act’s penalty”. Yes, I objected to the excessive penalties for seemingly minor infractions provided in the Act. But I, like most of Bhutan, completely agree with the aim of the Tobacco Control Act, which is to reduce – perhaps even eradicate – the consumption of tobacco in our country.

And yes, the senior civil servant is correct when she says that I “didn’t utter a word” when we deliberated the Anticorruption Bill. I did not speak – either for or against the Bill. But I, like all of Bhutan, completely agree with the aim of the Anticorruption Bill, which is to reduce – hopefully even eradicate – corruption in our country.

Why didn’t I speak? I didn’t because I couldn’t. And I couldn’t, because I was not given the floor on the two occasions that I put my hand up.

The speaker probably did not see me. But had he noticed my hand go up, and had he given me leave to address the Parliament, I too would have argued that the penalties proposed in the Anticorruption Bill were excessive, and I too would have supported the revised penalties.

The senior civil servant seems to insinuate that I should have opposed the revised penalties. I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t get to speak. But because this time, I actually agreed with the majority. Even if I were given floor, I would have just recorded my support for the revised penalties.

That, incidentally, is why I voted “No” for the Tobacco Control Bill, and “Yes” for the revised Anticorruption Bill.

I hope that the senior civil servant in question will now see some consistency in my actions. I do not, and I cannot, oppose for the sake of opposing.

But were the penalties that were originally proposed in the Anticorruption Bill excessive? You decide…

According to the original draft, the penalty for all bribery and embezzlement offences was:

A person guilty of an offence under this section shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not less than five years to not more than nine years.

In other words, almost all offenses were originally categorized as third degree felonies, regardless of the magnitude of offense. So if a person is caught giving a Nu 100 bribe, that person is liable to spend five years in jail. But if a person is caught offering a Nu 13 lakh bribe – or for that matter a Nu 13 million bribe – that person is liable to spend a maximum of nine years in prison.

The penalties did not differentiate between the severity of the offenses. And while the penalties for small offenses were excessive, those for very big offenses were exceptionally lenient.

So the Parliament, in a joint sitting, revised the penalties as:

An offence under this section shall be a misdemeanor or value based sentencing, whichever is higher, subject to maximum of a felony of Second degree if the value of the amounts involved in the crime exceed the total amount of minimum wage at the time of the crime for the period of 35 years or more.

Under the revised penalties, a person caught offering a Nu 100 bribe could be sent to jail for 1 to 3 years. But, on the other hand, a person caught offering a Nu 13 lakh bribe could now be sent to jail for 9 to 15 years, not just between 5 to 9 years as was originally proposed.

The new penalty structure is more reasonable. And it’s more logical. As such, it should be a much more effective weapon in our war against corruption.

That’s why I did not oppose it. And that’s why I voted for it.

Social forestry day

rich mountains

rich mountains

Today, 2nd June, is social forestry day. It is also the day when, 35 years ago, we celebrated the coronation of His Majesty the King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. What’s the connection? It’s quite straightforward: Our Fourth Druk Gyalpo, despite heavy odds, made our country one of the world’s most famous hotspots for biodiversity.

So I asked my daughter to help me select a picture to celebrate social forestry day. She chose this photograph, of the mountains opposite the Gasa Dzong. My photo does not do the forests justice but, believe me, the mountains are heavily forested.

Early warning

Early yesterday morning, the health assistant in Lunana was woken up by loud rumbling sounds from the Gotu-chu. At 3:30 AM he found that the river, a tributary of the Pho- chu, had swollen to thrice its size and dispatched a wireless message to the Early Warning Station in Wanduephodrang warning them of a possible flood downstream along the Pho-chu and Punasang-chu.

The rumblings that the health assistant had heard spread panic in Punakha and beyond. And by mid-day, the entire nation was consumed by fear of the impending dangers in Punakha and Wangduephodrang. His Majesty the King was immediately in Punakha. As were our prime minister and home minister.

By the time I reached Punakha, traveling from Phuentsholing, the alert had been called off, and everything appeared normal.

I was happy to see the quick response of our government to a potential disaster. And I was happy to see our prime minister admit: “we were not prepared, thousands of lives would have been lost if this was a real flood.”

We now know that we are “not prepared” to handle a flood in Punasang-chu. And we know that, if the river were to flood, thousands of lives would be at risk. We also know that a “real flood” is inevitable – it’s only a matter of time.

How we use this knowledge will determine how we react to future rumbling sounds from Lunana.

Watching our mountains

On the 12th of April, I had promised to post a good picture of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Range. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get one. I’m sorry.

Dun dun was correct in commenting that I “was indeed in a hurry” and that my picture is “all hazy, washed out and dry!”

I will be honest: the real reason I wrote the entry, even though I didn’t have a good picture of the mountains, was to remind myself that our northern range is now called the “Jigme Singye Wangchuck Range”.

The picture of the mountain range I’m posting is a photo of the one that accompanies the popular binoculars in Dochula. The photo shows off our important mountains and their respective altitudes. It was given to me by a friend.

On a related note, most tourists visiting Bhutan know that mountaineering is forbidden in our kingdom. And all of them would know that that’s out of respect to our deities that reside in our high mountains.

But some of our mountains have been “conquered”. Do you know which ones? By whom? And when?

JSW mountain range

This morning, at about 8:00 AM, while traveling to Punakha, Dochula honored me with the visual treat that is the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Mountain Range. Our northern range looked simply grand. My photo, which I had snapped very quickly, shows only part of the range, and does absolutely no justice to the real majesty of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Mountain Range.

But I’ve already asked a friend to loan me a real picture of our mountains. I’ll post that soon.

Doing the work

Regular readers of this blog know that every once in a while I present an issue without making a judgment or giving my views. I just present the facts as I see them.

Why do I do this?

Firstly, to make us think. Merely raising an issue forces me think much more deeply about it. And I am hopeful that it makes you, the reader, also spend some time reflecting on the issue.

Secondly, to solicit your views. Your views are important to me and, I would like to think, to other readers as well. And, by the way, yes, I welcome your comments telling me I’m wrong, especially when they are told convincingly.

And thirdly, to encourage public debate. Constructive discussion will help us determine if an issue is important and, if so, how we, collectively, can address it.

My last entry “Construction waste” was one such issue. The idea was to raise an issue that many of us know about, but don’t necessarily talk about. And the idea is to talk about it publicly so that we, especially those who are responsible for it, are forced to take action.

Construction waste is dumped not only around Memelakha. The forest below the road between Langjophakha and Taba is another favorite spot. And I’ve seen construction waste dumped below the highway opposite the Semtokha Dzong and even on other side of the RBG garage near the Tashichodzong parking lot.

We all know that there’s a lot of construction taking place in Thimphu. And that the waste that’s generated must be discarded. But the question is where? Nobody seems to know. And nobody knows because it looks like we don’t have a landfill for construction debris.

If we had a landfill, most people would gladly take their construction debris there rather than risk being caught illegally dumping it below a road. So our government should identify appropriate landfills. There are many possible sites. The park near Changlimithang, for example, is built mostly on land reclaimed using waste – mud and debris – from construction sites.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? So why don’t we have a proper site to dump construction waste? Probably because no government agency has taken the responsibility. I mean, whose job is it, after all? The City Corporation? The Dzongkhag Administration? Ministry of Works and Human Settlement? Department of Forests? I don’t know. But what seems obvious is that the job, whoever’s it is, is not being done.

So we, you and I, should tell our government that something needs to be done. We can tell our friends in the government. We can express our opinions in the media. We can write to the government agencies. We can write to the member of parliament concerned, South Thimphu, in this case.

We can also bring the issue to the NEC’s notice – this is what I’ll do.

And if nothing gets done, we can get together, as concerned citizens, to clean up the mess ourselves. This has been done in the past. And I’m sure RSPN will be very happy to organize another clean up campaign.