Observing the state of the Nation

I made a brief statement on the PM’s state of the Nation address today in the National Assembly. What follows is a summary of what I said…

Introduction

I thank the Honourbale Speaker for allowing me to submit my views on the prime minister’s annual report on the State of the Nation to the Parliament.

I congratulate the prime minister and the cabinet for presenting a detailed report on the activities of the government during the last year. I’ve divided these activities into four broad categories: (i) those that were part of the Ninth Five Year Plan; (ii) those that were executed by government corporations; (iii) those that were executed by non government organizations; and (iv) those that are part of the Tenth Five Year Plan.

Activities of the Ninth Five Year Plan

A considerable amount of the achievements that are reflected in the government’s report are part of the Ninth Five Year Plan. I congratulate the government for implementing these “spill over” works of the Ninth Plan, but would like to note that these activities were finalized and funding secured by the previous government. These include roads, bridges, hospitals, the national stadium, the tendril thang, and the repair of monasteries and dzongs.

Credit for successfully completing the “spill over” works of the Ninth Plan must go to the current government. But, the report should have indicated which of the activities belonged to the Ninth Plan, and, more importantly, how much of that work was completed in the last year. This would have given us a better idea of how much of the work was actually done by the government.

For example, according to the PM’s annual report, 292 km of farm roads were constructed during the last year. This may be so, but we do not know how much of these roads are spill over from the ninth plan and how much, if any, are part of the tenth plan.

The construction of the Gyalposhing-Nganglam highway, Gomphu-Panbang highway, Samtse-Phuentsholing highway and Nangar-Ura highway were all part of the ninth plan. Funding for these projects were already secured and the work had started before the new government took over.

I thank Project Dantak for undertaking the double-laning of the Thimphu-Paro highway, Chumzom-Phuentsholing highway and Samdrupjonkhar-Tashigang highway.

Activities of government corporations

The works of government corporations have also been included in the annual report. And this is necessary to provide a complete picture of the country’s development in the last year. But, the report should have also attributed the successes to the corporations and the DHI directly. These include rural electrification (which is funded by the government and executed by BPC), expansion of transmission lines (BPC), mobile connectivity (B-Mobile), internet connectivity (Bhutan Telecom) and Dagachu hydropower project (DGPC). I would also like to add Druk Air has, for the first time in its history, not just turned a profit, but paid taxes as well.

Activities of civil society organizations

I acknowledge the good work done by our NGOs. The beneficiaries of their hard work include youth, women, the disadvantaged, the poor, animals and the environment. Additionally, NGOs are responsible for successfully showcasing Bhutan through exhibitions and festivals.

Tenth Five Year Plan

The government’s annual report does not indicate which of the work implemented during the last year form part of the 10th Five Year Plan. While some of the work must be from the 10th Plan, we cannot tell as the Plan documents were being distributed only recently. I, for example, got the plan documents only last week.

I wish to report that all of us must work together if we are to realize the objectives of this plan. But we have barely three and a half more years to complete the 10th Plan. I am concerned. At Nu 148 billion, the tenth plan is more than twice the size of the ninth plan, which was only Nu 73 billion. And yet, the ninth plan was extended officially by a year. Now, if last year’s activities are also mainly from the ninth plan, then the Ninth Five Year Plan would have taken seven years to complete. And, I repeat, we would basically have only three and a half years to complete the entire tenth plan.

I thank the Government of India for their generous support of the Tenth Five Year Plan. Though they and other donors have contributed generously, the tenth plan still has a shortfall of Nu 18 billion. This is after taking Nu 10.2 billion in loans. Therefore, I would like to request the government once again (I’d submitted a similar request during the second session) to consider if that much money is really needed to meet the overall objectives of the tenth plan.

Poverty alleviation

23.3% of our people live in poverty. And of the people living in rural areas, 30.9% are poor. Poverty is, therefore, more pervasive in our villages. Yet, I did not see anything definite in the government’s report in terms of targeting poverty.

In order to eradicate poverty, we must follow through with our government’s promise to connect every gewog with a motorable road. And we must allocate more resources to the local governments. In this connection, I wish to reiterate that the funds for the Constituency Development Grant should be allocated directly to local governments without the interference of the members of parliament.

I wish to also report that I am still to receive a reply to the letter I personally submitted to our honourable finance minister expressing my views that the CDG may be unconstitutional. If the government is not willing to explain why my concerns are unfounded, I may be left with no option but to seek the opinion of our courts.

Similarly, I have not received replies to several other letters to the government which I shall not discuss now.

The economy

Our government’s reaction to the global financial crisis has not been clear. As a result many businesses have still not recovered from the affects of the crisis. This is especially so in the manufacturing and tourism sectors which provide employment to a large number of our people.

It is not easy to do business in Bhutan. And a recent study by the World Bank indicates that doing business in Bhutan may in fact be getting more difficult.

Education

Several surveys were conducted over the past year. And, they indicate that the quality of our education is poor. The quality of our education must improve if we expect our youth to enjoy gainful employment. Otherwise, the social problems that our prime minister mentioned – alcoholism, drug addition, prostitution, gambling – will only increase.

Though a lot of money (almost Nu 10 billion) has been allocated for the education sector in the 10th Plan, I am concerned that monastic education will receive none of it. The monks that attend schools in our dratshangs and shedras are also Bhutanese children. In fact, most of them belong to the poorer sections of our society, so we should be even more concerned about their education.

Housing

Housing is a major problem. In many parts of Bhutan, our farmers live in shacks that cannot keep out the rain or the cold.

And in our towns, especially in Thimphu, our people cannot afford the rents. The Tenancy Act is not implemented at all. An obvious solution to the housing shortage is to encourage more people to build houses. But, in most parts of Thimphu land owners are still not allowed to construct new houses. More houses mean rents would automatically fall to reasonable rates. Today Thimphu must have about 100,000 people. It can easily accommodate 200,000, if it must, but if and only if the housing problem is solved.

Media

An independent media is crucial for a vibrant democracy. And, yes, the media must be responsible. But they do not need constant lecturing. This will intimidate our media, since most of them depend on the government for their revenues.

BICMA is already regulating the media. And there are laws that protect us from possible abuse by the media.

Recent floods

The government estimated that about Nu 719 million in damages were caused by the recent flash floods. But the government’s estimate does not include losses in business. Road blocks in many parts of the country and the diversion of the Druk Air flights would have caused losses totaling many millions of ngultrums.

In this connection, I wish to acknowledge the work done by Project Dantak to restore the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway soon after it was damaged severely during the floods.

According to the Constitution, the government is required to establish a Relief Fund that will be used by His Majesty the King in times of natural calamities. I am concerned that the Fund has still not been established. I raised the same issue during the first session of the Parliament, and the Hounourable Finance Minister had assured the Assembly that the Relief Fund would be established within the year. It still has not been established.

Constitution

Our Prime Minister expressed concerns that the Constitution is being used as a detailed manual. And that interpreting the Constitution in rigid and narrow terms undermines good governance and weakens the government. He also reported that we should not unnecessarily invoke and test the Constitution.

I disagree. I firmly believe that we should constantly refer to the Constitution. And that, even if we don’t understand any other law, we should study the Constitution thoroughly. After all, the Constitution is the mother of all laws in Bhutan.

If disagreements arise in the interpretation of the Constitution – and they will be many differences – they should be discussed amicably and with the understanding that all parties involved want nothing but what is best for our country and our people. And, naturally, if these disagreements cannot be resolved the option to take the matter to the courts is always there.