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.


Public policies

Several multinational companies, like Tata, Airtel, Lafarge, and Infinity, have shown interest in investing in Bhutan. And others, like Mountain Hazelnut Venture, have already started doing business in our country. So it’s time the government finalized its foreign direct investment policy.

But before finalizing the policy, the government should hold thorough consultations with all stakeholders, particularly the private sector, to ensure that they understand the policy and, more importantly, that they commit to supporting it.

And once the FDI policy is finalized, it should be made public.

Incidentally, the cabinet approved the Economic Development Policy last year. But it is still not available to the public. Instead, just last month the prime minster informed a potential investor that:

Bhutan was finalizing the Economic Development Policy which would spell out the kind of environment in which they can operate.

Transparency is important. And it is especially important where there’s money to be made.