About relief

Consider this: His Majesty the King issued a Kasho yesterday granting Nu 200 million towards the reconstruction of the Wangduephodrang Dzong. Nu 100 million was granted from the armed forces, and Nu 100 million from His Majesty’s Kidu Foundation.

Now consider this: The government has allocated Nu 20 million per year to the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund until the balance reaches a ceiling of Nu 100 million. The Relief Fund was passed by the Parliament in the last session. Nu 20 million per year is woefully inadequate. I said so in the Parliament. And I wrote about it.

How much is Nu 20 million? It works out to under 0.06% percent of the government’s annual budget estimated at Nu 34,515.549 million for 2012-13.

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.

Disaster relief

Chamkhar fire

At 2:00 am yesterday morning, even as fire raged through Chamkhar town, the Galpoi Zimpoen’s office was already coordinating efforts to control the disaster. Three hours later, together with the Dzongdag, Royal Bhutan Police, civil servants, monks, students and local residents, His Majesty the King’s representatives in Bumthang were able to contain the fire from spreading throughout the town.

By then, the inferno had left behind a trail of destruction – two men lost their lives, 42 houses were razed to the ground, 66 shops were destroyed, and 267 people were left homeless.

But, at the command of His Majesty the King, who is in India, the Zimpoen’s office was already busy arranging food and temporary shelter for the shocked victims. And by the afternoon, His Majesty the Fourth King had reached Chamkhar to personally oversee the relief and recovery efforts.

Most of the victims in Chamkhar have lost their entire life savings. And their road to recovery will be long and difficult. I hope that their plight will move the Parliament to establish the Relief Fund as soon as possible.

Photo credit: BBS

Recalling 21/9

Wanted: Relief Fund

Yesterday, we marked the first anniversary of the 21st September earthquake. It gave us reason to recall the widespread destruction that the earthquake unleashed on the Eastern parts of our country, and the untold sufferings that our people had to endure.

It also gave us reason to celebrate the indomitable spirit of the Bhutanese people. During the past year, thousands of homes and countless lives have been rebuilt, as people from all walks of life – famers, civil servants, the clergy, the business community, armed forces, students, and civil society – throughout our kingdom, came together and joined the massive relief efforts that were initiated and personally led by His Majesty the King.

To be sure, a lot of work still remains to be done. A majority of the damaged houses are still under reconstruction. And His Majesty’s Peoples’ Project is still on a war footing helping earthquake victims rebuild their lives.

So, yesterday, as a member of parliament, I had reason to be concerned. It’s already been a year since the earthquake, and relief works continue. Plus nobody knows when the next big natural calamity will strike. Yet we, MPs, have not yet established the Relief Fund, which 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.

The ruling party and the government must act immediately to establish the relief fund. Otherwise, the opposition party may feel compelled to introduce a private bill to establish the important fund.

Relief Fund

“Disaster relief” generated a fair deal of debate. And most of it was good.

Some of our readers (Sonam, Shogan and others) felt that the donations were made specifically for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the damages caused by the May 26 floods. And that, as such, the donations should not be used for relief purposes.

One reader (Guest) pointed out that the restoration of damages caused by calamities is the government’s responsibility. And that kidu, which is His Majesty’s prerogative, should not be confused with restoration.

But other readers (especially Linda Wangmo) felt that the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the damages caused the floods should be financed from the government’s budget. And that the donations should all go to the Relief Fund.

And one reader (DRoLo) wondered if I was “trying to play up PM (and thus his democratically elected government) against the King.” That obviously is not true. And I regret that some of our readers may feel that way.

“Disaster relief” was not about His Majesty the King. Or about the Prime Minister. It was about the Constitution. And it was specifically about Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution which requires that “Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.”

We have not yet established a relief fund. During the first three sessions of the Parliament, we did not discuss any legislation to establish the fund. We did not discuss the objectives of a relief fund or its scope. And we did not discuss how the fund would be financed. Instead, we have earmarked Nu 20 million as a budget item called “HM’s Relief Fund” without establishing the scope of the fund – without defining what “urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief” means.

According to Change.org, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit, specific humanitarian relief activities include “food distributions, emergency shelter and other essential non-food items, camp coordination, provision of basic services such as health, water, sanitation and hygiene and education agricultural support and protection activities.” These activities are expected to provide a seamless transition “to early recovery which would lead to longer-term development.”

Obviously not all these activities, and the other definitions they provide, will be relevant to us. But we need to define by law – that is by the parliament establishing the Fund – what “humanitarian relief” means and covers in our context. Otherwise we’ll risk creating even more confusion.

The Relief Fund, once it’s established, would also define procedures for receiving donations and contributions – from governments, agencies and individuals – for disaster relief. All such contributions should, I believe, first be deposited in the Relief Fund. From there, the money would, if needed, be routed to relevant agencies (ministries, local governments, NGOs) that would carry out the relief work.

Disaster relief

On 21st July, the Ambassador of India to Bhutan presented Nu 100 million to our government. The money, a gift from the government and people of India, was to carry out relief works of the damages caused by the May 26th floods.

Yesterday, the Ambassador of Thailand to Bhutan presented US$ 20,000 to our government, also to carry out relief works on the May 26th floods.

The gifts reflect the sympathy of these countries towards us, and underscore the friendship and goodwill that we enjoy with them. We must put their money to good use. And the best possible way to do this is to deposit the money in the Relief Fund.

Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution requires that “Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.”

Parliament has not yet established the Relief Fund. Instead, the government has budgeted a mere Nu 20 million for “HM’s Relief Fund”. This is hardly enough. Consider that the May 26th floods alone were estimated to have cost our country Nu 720 million.

We will, no doubt, be hit by many more disasters, both natural and manmade. So obviously, we must prepare to provide effective urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief. What better way to prepare than by establishing a strong and reliable Relief Fund?

And what better way to start than by depositing the gifts made by India and Thailand to the Relief Fund? Their generous contributions are, after all, meant for relief.