Responsible government?

“As the Honourable Members are aware, our balance of payments with India has been worsening and the RMA has been facing a severe scarcity of Indian Rupees…” That was the finance minister’s opening line when he introduced the Tax Revision Bill in the National Assembly earlier today.

Yes, our balance of payments with India is in bad shape. And we are facing a severe shortage of Indian currency. In other words, we face a rupee crisis.

We have a crisis in our hands. And it’s no point playing the blame game. We must work together – we must think and act as one – to overcome the current crisis. And we must seize every economic opportunity, old and new, so that we emerge stronger from these difficult times.

Still, we must know who got us into this mess. And we must hold that person to account. That’s if we are serious about good governance. That’s if we are serious about getting out of this mess. Otherwise, with the same person in charge, the situation will just get worse.

So yesterday, during the National Assembly’s Question Hour, I asked the finance minister to tell us who should take responsibility for the rupee crisis. My question was straightforward:

The rupee crisis has caused a great deal of hardship to the people of Bhutan. More importantly, the crisis could compromise the economic sovereignty and security of our country. Will the Hon’ble Minister please explain who will take responsibility for the rupee crisis?

My question was straightforward. But the reply, which offered a detailed account of the causes and solutions of the rupee problem, was long and cumbersome. And the reply did not point out who, specifically, should be held accountable. Instead, the finance minister indicated that the Bhutanese people were both responsible and accountable for the current situation.

So let’s take a poll. Let’s see who we think should assume responsibility for the rupee crisis. Should it be the prime minister? Or should it be the finance minister? Or the RMA governor? Or should it be the people at large who should take responsibility for the economic mess?

Business on pedestrian day

The central secretariat complex outside the Tashichhodzong wore a deserted look on pedestrian day, this afternoon. No doubt, our civil servants were busy in their own offices, working, since they wouldn’t be able to attend the otherwise unending number of meetings that plague our government.

Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street, also wore a deserted look this afternoon. I saw students walking home and taxis zipping around, but I saw little else. Shops were empty. And some, like these shops on upper Norzin Lam, were closed for business.

There are many things wrong with pedestrian day. And one of the most damaging is its effect on businesses. Restaurants, grocery shops, hardware stores, commercial offices, even the small pann shops, are reeling under the effects of Pedestrian day. That’s why, during question hour this morning, I’d wanted to ask the minister for economic affairs this question:

Will the Hon’ble Minister please report on the amount of business that has been lost in Thimphu because of the implementation of “Pedestrian Day”? Furthermore, will the Hon’ble Minister kindly explain the Royal Government’s measures to facilitate business on “Pedestrian Day”?

However, my question was not included for discussion in today’s question hour. Perhaps the minister for economic affairs was of the opinion that my question was not relevant. And, perhaps, he convinced the Hon’ble Speaker to reject my question. But the question remains: is pedestrian day affecting businesses?

The government cannot continue to ignore this question. The question is relevant. And it is important. But it’s not just Thimphu businesses which are suffering – businesses in other dzongkhags, especially those in the South, are also reeling from the impact of pedestrian day.

Rupee questions

Powerful

Last Tuesday, during question hour, I asked the Prime Minister to explain the rupee crisis: what has caused it, what the government is doing about it, and when we can expect it to be over. I directed the question to the PM as I had assumed that our head of government would be the most concerned and, as such, would be happy to reassure the nation that he has contained the crisis, and that the rupee deficit will not spiral out of control.

Too bad then, that the PM made the Finance Minister answer on his behalf. Too bad also, that I had to remind the Finance Minister that his response did not satisfactorily answer my question. And too bad, that several MPs felt compelled to snap at me that it’s easy to raise questions, but difficult to come up with solutions.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is the government’s responsibility is to identify and address problems of national significance, and notwithstanding the fact that ruling party MPs should show more confidence in their government, I offered my services to help address the growing rupee crisis.

The government has not contacted me. Nor have they given me a written response to my question. I had asked an “unstarred” question. So they are required to provide a written answer.

Now some of you, our readers, have asked for my views. Naturally, I’ll be very happy to share them, especially since we must generate more discussion on this important issue. But first, by way on introduction, here’s what I wrote about the rupee deficit in February 2009. Here’s what I wrote six months later. And here’s what I wrote last month.

I’ll post my thoughts sometime next week, after we conclude this session of the Parliament. In the meantime, please share your views here: what, in your opinion, has caused the rupee crisis, and how, do you think, we can get ourselves out of this predicament?

Inadequate and insulting

 

Terrible job!

Farming in Bhutan is difficult work. Our farmers toil from dawn till dusk, in the sun and the rain, and with rudimentary tools, just to secure a basic harvest, which, at the best of times, is barely enough to feed their families through the year.

Farming in Bhutan is also a notoriously risky business. Rain, drought, floods, storms, hail, insects, disease and wild animals combine to keep our farmers on edge till they have harvested and safely stored their produce. But even after that, our farmers face one more big risk: markets. There’s absolutely no guarantee that their produce will fetch the money needed to make the hard work – and the anxiety – worthwhile.

That’s why, yesterday, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Agriculture Minister two related questions. One, I asked how the government would help our farmers secure more predictable prices for their produce. And two, I enquired when the government would start a crop insurance scheme.

The Agriculture Minister’s answers to both the questions were inadequate. And they were insulting.

To introduce my first question, I had reported that that the prices for cash crops – cardamom, mandarin oranges, apples, and potatoes, for example – are set by foreign buyers; that, as such, our farmers have absolutely no say over the price for their produce; that the prices are erratic and change every year; and that, last year, the price for potatoes fell three-fold in 7 weeks, from a high of Nu 21 per kg in October to Nu 7 per kg in late November.

Staying with last year’s potato disaster, I reported that, when I visited the Phuentsholing auction yard, I saw more than 150 truckloads of potatoes. Most of them had already been there for more than a week, paying Nu 500 per truck per day in demurrage, as the yard was able to auction only 20 to 25 truckloads a day.

Some farmers admitted to purposely holding on to their produce expecting the price to rise, but most others had no such intention; they just couldn’t get their potatoes to the auction yard earlier for a variety of valid reasons.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister if the government could look for ways of expanding local demand for cash crops; or ways of tying up with more reliable and established Indian buyers; or ways to do business with buyers from other countries.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that our farmers were gambling, that they were spoilt, and that the government would not spoil them any further. He also complained that when cash crops fetched good prices, farmers did not credit the government and expected even higher prices the following year. But he didn’t commit to, or for that matter comment on, doing anything to make the price of cash crops more predictable.

To introduce my second question, I had recalled that, last year, just before harvest time, a terrible hailstorm wiped out a lot of the paddy in Shengana; that 150 families had lost almost their entire crop; and that Aum Dorjim had cried inconsolably on national television bemoaning her misfortune and lamenting that she wouldn’t be able to feed her family or service her loans in the coming year.

I went on to report that, every year, many farmers face similar situations; we just don’t hear about them. Disasters routinely undo a whole year’s worth of hard labour, undermining the fortunes of entire families, and effectively trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty.

I also reported that way back in September 2008, the Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan and the Ministry of Agriculture had submitted a joint proposal to the government to begin a crop insurance scheme. Crop insurance is, no doubt, complicated. But it is possible. And it is necessary. It would remove much of the uncertainty and anxiety that dominate the lives of our farmers today.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister, to tell us what happened to that proposal, and, if possible, to let us know when we can expect crop insurance to be launched.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that his ministry had started a human wildlife conflict endowment fund, and that none of the members of Parliament had contributed to that fund. He totally ignored the question about crop insurance.

Farming in Bhutan is a difficult and risky business. Let’s take the plight of our farmers seriously. Let’s protect them from unscrupulous syndicated foreign buyers. Let’s guarantee them fair market value for the hard work. And let’s provide some form of basic crop insurance.

Inviting issues

The eighth session of the Parliament will start on 4th January. Here are the bills the National Assembly will discuss:

  • Tobacco Control ( Amendment) Bill 2011
  • Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill 2011
  • Disaster Management Bill of Bhutan 2011
  • Education City Bill of Bhutan 2011

And here are the bills that the National Assembly and the National Council will discuss in a joint sitting to resolve differences between the two Houses.

  • Child Adoption Bill of Bhutan 2011
  • Sales Tax, Customs and Excise (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2011
  • Public Finance (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2011
  • Election (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2011

The bills can be downloaded from the NC and NA websites. Please give me your feedback.

Also, please give me your suggestions on issues that I should consider raising with the government. I’ll raise them during question hour, or, depending on the nature of the issue, propose them as motions.

Asking questions

About a month ago, I posted the question on Facebook that asked: “What should the National Assembly discuss during the coming session?”

A whopping 1366 of my “friends” voted on the 73 answers they generated themselves. This morning the situation looked like this:

The top five answers, as you can see, are the Tobacco Act, corruption, disaster management, jobs and sports.

But there are many other suggestions. They include citizenship, social security national security, agriculture, irrigation; health, music, alcohol, FDI, BCSR, PCS and DSA.

One enlightened friend suggested that we discuss “How to liberate people from suffering”. And another suggested that the National Assembly “Discuss on raising their pay again”!

Thank you for your suggestions. We – Dasho Damcho and I – will see how we can incorporate them in our discussions in the Parliament and the National Assembly. We’ll do our best.

But I’d like to invite some more suggestions, this time for the National Assembly’s “question hour”. If you have questions that you’d like us to ask the government, please post them here.

Obviously, I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to attend to all your questions. But I will guarantee that we’ll do our best.

Thanks in advance.

Relief for relief fund?

For the people

During Question Hour today, I requested the Hon’ble Home Minister to report on the status of the Relief Fund. In particular, I asked him if he, as the minister in charge of disaster management, would propose legislation to establish the Relief Fund.

According to Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution:

Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.

Bhutan’s first Parliament has already met five times. And the sixth session is currently on. Yet, and in spite of the opposition party’s repeated appeals, the Parliament has not established the Relief Fund. In fact, the Parliament has done no work to establish the Relief Fund. So the first elected Parliament risks defaulting on this important responsibility.

On the other hand, a spate of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms and fires – have struck various parts of the country during the last two years, and have caused unprecedented hardship to countless people. In almost every case, His Majesty the King has personally provided immediate relief, and overseen the rehabilitation and recovery process. And, during the opening of the Parliament’s sixth session, His Majesty spoke of His pledge to victims of the Chamkhar fire that:

… even though our nation may be a small, landlocked country without the great wealth of others, in their moment of great suffering, the King and government would do everything to find the resources needed to alleviate their pain and restore happiness to their lives.

Obviously, there’s a real need to establish the Relief Fund urgently.

So I was happy to hear the home minister report that his ministry and the Ministry of Finance have jointly drafted a proposal to establish a relief fund, and that the proposal would soon be discussed in the Cabinet.

And I was even more happy to hear the Hon’ble Speaker decide that the home minister will submit a motion in the National Assembly to introduce the proposal to establish the Relief Fund.

Question Hour questions

Responding to the agenda for the National Assembly’s sixth session, one reader, “sonam_t”, asked if there were any plans to discuss a “Right to Information Act”. “Truth”, another reader, asked if when Parliament would “… introduce Landlord Tenant act, which actually protects tenants.”

Both the comments are important. And, since both of them will not be discussed during the sixth session, I might raise them during Question Hour.

The Question Hour, which takes place every Tuesday and Friday, is an important mechanism in the National Assembly by which members can question every aspect of government administration and policy.

So if you have issues that you’d like to see raised during question hour, please post them here. Or, if you prefer, you can email them to me directly.

Suicide case

During question hour today, I asked the minister for works and human settlement if and when wages for the National Workforce would be increased. This issue has already received considerable attention in the National Assembly.  Still, I went ahead, hoping to push the government to raise the wages of our workers. It didn’t work.

And during question hour today, I wanted to ask a second question, this one on an issue that we have not talked about at all in the National Assembly. I’d wanted point out the growing number of suicide cases in the country. And ask the minister of health if the government was responding to this terrible trend.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask this question, as the Hon’ble Speaker did not allow it.

I’m worried that the number of suicide cases in our country is unusually high. And I’m worried that it is increasing.

In one month alone, in January 2009, 15 suicide cases were reported around the country. In January and February this year, 13 cases were reported.

According to police records, there were 53 suicide cases in 2008 and 49 cases in 2009. This year, as of April, the police have already recorded 25 suicide cases.

By any measure, these numbers should give cause for concern. But considering our small population, and our emphasis on GNH, these figures should be alarming.

25 suicides in 4 months. That, extrapolated, is 75 cases 12 months. That works out to 11.9 suicides per 100,000 people. And that would place us at number 34, if we were included in the list of countries by suicide rate.

Something is gravely wrong. And we – all of us, not just the government – need to do something about it.

Investing in Bhutan

During Question Hour today, I asked the Minister for Economic Affairs:

Newspapers recently reported that 100% foreign ownership of hotels is allowed for foreign direct investments above US$ 200,000. Please explain why the minimum is fixed at US$ 200,000.

I was basically concerned that the minimum investment required to qualify for 100% foreign ownership of hotels was too low. I reported that many Bhutanese have already demonstrated that they can build and operate hotels that cost many times more than US$ 200,000. And that, while foreign investors should be encouraged, policies should ensure that opportunities are not taken away from Bhutanese investors.

Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk’s reply was long. He talked the House through the history of FDI in Bhutan, economic growth, economic policies, employment, tourism, foreign currency, domestic airports, helicopter services, seasonal tourists, conference centers, infrastructure, credit cards, TAB, tourist visas, and hotels. He even mentioned McKinsey and Brazil!

It turns out that I was wrong. The minimum investment proposed for 100% FDI ownership is Nu 20 million, not US$ 200,000.

And it turns out that Lyonpo Khandu may not have known that I was wrong either. He didn’t correct me. Nor did he mention the figure Nu 20 million!