Vice ministers?

What? The prime minister wants to call secretaries vice-ministers?

Why? Who do we want to impress?

Shouldn’t we focus on streamlining the civil service instead? Shouldn’t we be working towards making the civil service small, compact and efficient?

Where did the prime minister get this idea from anyway? Where would vice ministers draw their legal basis from? And under what legal authority would they function?

What? The RCSC is in the dark? Really?

Questionable lottery

Unreal?

According to Business Bhutan, Nu 150 billion worth of Bhutanese lottery tickets were printed illegally every year in the Indian state of Kerala alone. That’s a lot of money by any measure. But to get a proper sense of how much Nu 150 billion really is, consider that our entire GDP is only about Nu 60 billion. Or that the Tenth Five Year Plan outlay is Nu 148 billion (the Ninth Plan outlay was Nu 70 billion).

So I was surprised to learn that the prime minister’s fist response to the alleged lottery scam was remarkably casual. The prime minister has admitted that the lottery “business was unethical and not in conformity with the GNH values.” This is an important announcement. But surely it cannot substitute for a complete investigation.

The allegations against the government’s lottery agent are extremely serious. And it would do well to investigate – immediately and thoroughly – if our lottery agent has indeed printed and sold fake Bhutanese lottery tickets in India. We owe as much to the government and people of India who have allowed us to engage in this very lucrative business for the past 25 years.

The prime minister has also been reported as saying that “…his government has nothing to do with the lottery issue and that the decisions were taken by the interim government in 2007.” That may be so. But none-the-less, the government owes the people of Bhutan some explanations.

Why, for instance, did this government, in March 2010, transfer its agreement with Martin Agencies to Monica Agencies even though they both belonged to the same person?

Why did this government extend the duration of the agreement with Monica Agencies by five months?

Why did this government reduce the contract from Nu 470 million per year to Nu 210 million per year, even though Bhutan lottery sales had been re-permitted in Kerala?

And why was one person allowed to run the Bhutan Lottery Directorate since 1987?

The government must provide satisfactory answers to these and other pressing questions. Otherwise, the ACC must investigate.

Photo credit: Outlookindia.com

About fines

Bathpalathang

I’m impressed at the government’s readiness to abide by the law. Bhutan Today (whose website has been woefully inadequate) had recently reported that:

The prime minister has ordered the information and communication ministry to pay about Nu 2.3 million in penalty for not following the environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures in the construction of the Bathpalathang airstrip in Bumthang.

But I’m not impressed at the prime minister’s cavalier disregard for the basic principles of accountability when he added that:

… the fine will have to be levied even if it means paying from one pocket to another.

I wonder what the Royal Audit Authority will have to say to that.

Incidentally, last week, in Bumthang, I visited the Bathpalathang airstrip site. The construction there seems to have already resumed. I am impressed.

Zoom on zoom

Quick updates on my previous post:

  • I’ve uploaded some photographs in the gallery.
  • Most of the officials who were invited to the art festival never did show up …
  • But, many other visitors turned up, especially on the final evening …
  • And, the prime minister made an unscheduled and unannounced visit to the closing ceremony of the festival. I applaud our PM.

Foreign trips

Returning home

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, reporting to the Parliament on foreign relations:

My trips to India, Japan and Italy this year were also very useful in deepening our relations with these countries.

I agree. But, the prime minister understated his international travel account. The following, in fact, is a record of his trips outside Bhutan during the 2009-2010 fiscal year:

  1. July 2009: Goodwill trip to India
  2. August 2009: Fukuoka, Japan to deliver address on GNH
  3. November 2009: Itaipu, Brazil to deliver address on GNH
  4. February 2010: Delhi, India to attend Sustainable Development Summit
  5. February 2010: Mumbai, India to attend World HRD Congress
  6. April 2010: Kathmandu, Nepal to attend 13th day ritual of the Late G.P Koirala
  7. April 2010: Kochi City, Japan to deliver address on GNH
  8. June 2010: Trento, Italy to deliver a talk on GNH at the Festival of Economics

Photo credit: BBS

State of the Nation

Reporting to Parliament

The projected order of business for the Fifth Session of the First Parliament for Bhutan had, among many others, the following two entries:

Thursday, July 1:

Presentation of the Annual Report on the State of the Nation, including Legislative Plans and the Annual Plans and Priorities of the Government, to the Druk Gyalpo and to the Joint Sitting of the Parliament.

Monday, July 12:

Deliberation on the presentation of the Annual Report on the State of the Nation including Legislative Plans and the Annual Plans and Priorities of the Government by the Prime Minister

As we all know, the prime minister delivered his State of the Nation address, as scheduled, on 1st July. But for reasons still unknown, we didn’t get to discuss the prime minister’s State of the Nation report. We didn’t discuss it, as scheduled, on 12th July. Nor did we discuss it at another time.

It wasn’t like that last year. The State of the Nation report was discussed, albeit briefly, in the National Assembly immediately after the prime minister delivered it to the joint sitting of Parliament.

I hope it won’t be like that next year.

The State of the Nation address is important. It is the prime minister’s report to the Druk Gyalpo, the Parliament and the nation at large, on the social, economic, financial and political condition of our nation. It gives the prime minister the opportunity to highlight the government’s successes over the previous year. And it allows him to outline the government’s legislative plans, policy agenda and national priorities for the next year.

Naturally, the prime minister would expect us, parliamentarians, to consider his annual report carefully. And to spend as much time as needed discussing it to offer valuable feedback.

But more importantly, our people would expect us, their representatives, to consider and discuss the prime minister’s State of the Nation report thoroughly so that they can rest assured that the Parliament is doing its job.

Photo credit: National Assembly

Polling McKinsey

During question hour today, I asked the prime minister to explain what work McKinsey were doing that couldn’t be done by our own civil servants. And in my leader to the question, I’d reported that the civil servants I’d spoken with had confided that they were not impressed with the work that McKinsey had done so far.

Naturally, the prime minister saw it differently. He claimed that every civil servant he’d talked to had been impressed with McKinsey’s work and had lavished praise on the world’s leading consultancy firm.

Perhaps.

But still, let’s conduct a poll – we haven’t had one in quite a while. Today’s poll asks,  “Are civil servants impressed with McKinsey’s work?”

Advocating champions

Replace one of these ...

The prime minster, an advocate of cycling and walking to work, referred to a certain setback in his State of the Nation address:

I would also like to report that the government has not given up on its dream to make Thimphu a bicycle and pedestrian city despite the initial setback.

What is that “initial setback” that the prime minister lamented? After all, the government has made no serious attempts to promote cycling (apart from installing a few bicycle stands in the capital) or to encourage walking (besides the agriculture minister’s famous HEHE walks).

Bicycles. In particular the 400 bicycles that were donated by a Buddhist group to the prime minister during his visit to Japan last year. The prime minister had boasted that he would distribute them to civil servants who promised to cycle to work. And they had responded, in overwhelming numbers, for the free bikes.

The bicycles have arrived, some 358 of them. But virtually all of them are not road worthy. Not in Thimphu, at least. All of them are single-gear bikes. All of them are used bikes (bought into the country despite the government’s ban on importing second-hand vehicles). And, most of them have been damaged beyond repair.

The bicycles must be fixed. As many of them as possible, even if two bikes have to be combined to make one. And they should be used, to whatever extent possible.

But, they are not mountain bikes. And they do not have multiple gears. So, they’re of little use in Thimphu. Dispatch them, instead, to Gelephu and Samtse, where the topography is not as demanding.

And close the chapter on that “initial setback”.

The prime minister can do more than “dream” of making Thimphu a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly city. He can lead by example:

  • He can bike to office once in a while.
  • He can walk around town occasionally.
  • And when he must travel by car, he can use fewer of them.

... for this!

Everything else – safer pavements, bicycle paths, educated motorists, bike dealerships, and affordable financing – will then fall into place naturally.

And our prime minister would become a true champion – not just a mere advocate – of biking and walking in the capital.

Taxing explanation

The prime minister devoted a substantial part of his State of the Nation address to justify the government’s recent tax hikes. And to discredit the “vocal few” who challenged the government’s ill-conceived tax policies. The prime minister:

Much has been said of the fiscal incentives and tax increases in certain areas. It has been alleged that the government is being insensitive to the difficulties that these will cause to our poor and ordinary businesspeople and that they will suffer the most. However, one should not allow oneself to be influenced without seeing the full picture. One needs to be also mindful that such opinions could be planted to influence public opinion in order to protect the interest of those who are in positions of power and influence. As this is a serious matter, I would like to explain it in some detail.

And so he explained, in great detail, that we enjoy some of the lowest tax rates in the world; that we must replace external development assistance with internal revenue; that the policies are pro-poor; that the tax hikes are not aimed at generating government revenue; that taxes were being increased for the public good in spite of the political risks; that doing what is popular would be unpatriotic; that the opposition to tax increases benefits the rich and influential; that ministers did not take a pay raise; that increasing taxes will prevent widening economic disparities and social ills; that taxes lead to environment friendly development; that the tax measures would develop a tax paying culture; and, finally, that paying taxes is about democracy.

Indeed, we may need to increase taxes. So taxes, per se, is not what I’m concerned about. Not at this time, at least.

What I am concerned about – and what the public outcry is generally about – is that the government did not follow the law, particularly the Constitution, when it recently revised the tax structure.

The debate is not about if taxes should be revised. It’s about how taxes should be revised.

In order to deflect the debate, the prime minister used the State of the Nation address to explain, at great length, why taxes had to be increased.

But that won’t do. I’ve already reported the matter in the National Assembly. And if the government refuses to review its decision, I may be compelled to report it to the Supreme Court.

Working with NC

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, on differences between the National Council and National Assembly:

Already several issues have arisen between the National Council and this House which inevitably raised the question of seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court even before it was established. Now with its establishment, the wisdom of the judiciary too will be tested if indeed constitutional issues are brought before it.

My hope is that, through the ongoing dialogue between the two houses, these issues will be resolved without judicial intervention.

Very good.

Now prove that there’s some genuine commitment to resolve the many outstanding issues that the government and the National Assembly have with the National Council. Initiate that “ongoing dialogue”. And if differences can’t be resolved, seek the judiciary’s assistance. Major disagreements that need immediate attention are:

  1. Constituency Development Grant. The government has completely ignored the National Council’s repeated assertions that the CDG is unconstitutional.
  2. Question Time: Ministers have once again stopped attending the National Council’s Question Time.
  3. Budget appropriation. The National Council’s role in approving money and financial bills, especially in passing the budget, is still unresolved.
  4. NC resolutions. The government has not responded to any of the National Council’s resolutions. And during the current session, the National Council has made strong observations on the  economic development and FDI policies.