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Are we on the right track?

There is a frequent reference to Bhutan as a happy country, free from challenges. Have the people been able to reap the best of the democratic process? Could Bhutan have done any better?

This was the underlying message the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering conveyed as he presented the State of the Nation report to the Parliament yesterday.

“It is time to ask ourselves; are we on the right track?” Lyonchhen said adding that the country must be cognizant of the past and considerate of the present to move into the future.

Lyonchhen presented the report in three parts – the past deeds, the current state and the way ahead.

The concern

Reflecting on the past, Lyonchhen said the country is getting closer to graduation from the group of least developed countries. “It is a sign of progress but a bigger challenge remains to sail further with limited official development assistance from the donors,” he said. 

Free health care does not ensure quality and timely services. “It is because of the huge inequality in gaining access to free healthcare that I resigned to join politics,” he said.

Today, an average of three health facilities are available for every 10,000 Bhutanese. About 96 percent of the population have access to a health facility located within two hours of walking distance. “There is still much work required to upgrade the services offered in most of these facilities.”

Lyonchhen also stated that in the last five years, more than Nu 800M was spent on referral cases.

Education, Lyonchhen said is similar to health. While free education is appreciated, he said advancements in education at all levels have resulted in more job seekers entering the market each year. On average, about 1,500 children as young as 16 years have been exiting from mainstream educational and TVET pathways on completion of Class X and entering the job market without any marketable skills every year.

“For example, our trainees are trained on old Maruti cars and go on to become mechanics repairing Toyota and electric cars,” he said.

Even as the country boasts of youth literacy rate of more than 93 percent, Lyonchhen questioned the point of giving free education if it does not lead to gainful employment.

Joblessness, he said is a sign of volatile economy. “Our eligibility to graduate from LDC is also based on social indicators. We have not met the Economic Vulnerability Index in both the graduation reviews,” he said.

Hydropower, cliched as the backbone of the economy also needs thorough examination. Due to hydropower financing, he said the country’s public debt has reached Nu 210B, of which hydropower loan constitutes Nu 154B.

“Many buy the argument that hydropower loan is self-liquidating and it doesn’t pose risk. I think that a loan is loan and it is no time to be complacent and indifferent.”

More than half of what citizens eat, Lyonchhen said are imported and that Nu5B worth of rice import annually is staggering. Citing an example in Gasa, he said farmers couldn’t produce wheat as estimated despite the government supplying seeds in abundances. This, he said is because wheat was fed to horses before the harvest was due. Figures, he said also indicate substantial amount of rice production from Kabisa in Thimphu, whereas in reality only a handful of paddy fields are cultivated.

Numbers, as opposed to the policy of “high value-low volume,” measures success of the tourism industry.

“There are reports of corruption, mismanagement of limited resources and wasteful expenditure in media every other day. Are we doing well on the scales of ethics and civic responsibility? Has the increase in current budget over the years, resulted in improved system efficiency?” the report stated.

Lyonchhen clarified that the facts are not to undermine the past governments but to reflect the reality. “Past governments have made good plans relevant during their term. The difference is that relevance and requisites change with changing situation and dynamics.”

Yet, he said the country come a long way as a nation and achieved much in all spheres. He said the country must understand that despite all the efforts, the present state is not without issues and challenges.

Way ahead

Lyonchhen updated the house on the current state of nation and reforms the new government has brought in and the priority sectors. The report was further divided into state of different sectors such as education, health, environment, culture, foreign policy, economy, governance, women and children.

One of the risks, he said was appropriation of planned budget and that it has almost become a trend to allocate the biggest share of budget towards the last fiscal year of the Planned period. “This could be misused by the party in power to gain political mileage resulting in wastage of resources,” he said. In the 12th Plan, he said only a small portion of budget has been earmarked for the last fiscal year.

He said that it is also time to re-calibrate the implementation of the Plans. “In the maze of changing government and planning processes, we need an overall vision that will take us forward as one nation,” he said.  The ownership of each development plan, he said should be left to the elected government.

“The problem lies when the outgoing government formulates the Plan and new government has to implement it,” he said adding this was because of lack of an overall vision. A policy, he said, would be formulated to empower the government of the day to draft its own plan while maintaining continuity.

In the coming year, Lyonchhen said that the government would implement the tourism policy to revive the visionary policy of “High Value, Low Volume.”

The government will also introduce breast-feeding allowance next year, as part of the 1,000 Golden Day Plus program, which ensures care and nourishment of mother and child since the day of conception.

“Every Bhutanese seeking endoscopy and ultrasound services will not have to travel beyond their dzongkhag or gewog, as we strengthen primary health facilities, a key component of our Health Flagship Program,” the report stated.

In pursuant to the commitment of eliminating cervical cancer, by the end of the year, the government will ensure all women requiring pap smear would undergo the screening procedure, as part of their routine check-up.

On foreign policy, the report stated that the government will establish at least one embassy or consulate while explore establishing diplomatic relations with two countries, given the large numbers of Bhutanese living abroad. A proposal to establish a diplomatic mission with Australia is currently under review.

Digital Drukyul, Lyonchhen said will not only digitise electronic patient information system (e-PIS) to enhance efficient and effective health services but also make tax administration electronic to plug leakages.

Next year, Lyonchhen said that the government would distribute three colored bins to every household and institution across the country.

To keep pace with changing times and to keep the laws relevant, the government, he said, will initiate the enactment of Limitation Bill, for efficiency, and prescribe the period within which existing right can be enforced in courts of law.

By this year, the report stated that NCWC Bill to support women and children would be initiated.

“The government will also amend the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act so that we send our substance abusers to rehabilitation centers rather than to prisons,” Lyonchhen said.

There are also plans to initiate process to draft the Administrative Tribunal Bill, which will deal with administrative cases and reduce burden on the courts. The report stated that there are 98 laws in operation today. All will be reviewed for consistency and relevance and amendments will be proposed where necessary.

The government is also planning to approve and begin implementation of decentralisation policy to ensure clarity in roles and responsibilities among local governments, central agencies and other entities.

Gender friendly toilets across the dzongkhags are also on the cards.

The government also aspires to increase the GDP per capita to over USD 4,500 in the next five years.

Lyonchhen said that ensuring food self-sufficiency is the primary target of agriculture ministry “We must, at least, aim to substitute import of items that can be produced locally.”

In the tourism sector, Lyonchhen said that the government would discourage mass tourism, while initiatives to promote tourism throughout the country will be pursued.

“Hydropower will continue to be a priority,” lyonchhen said. However, he said the current focus of the government is to complete the ongoing projects, and then aspire to see the construction of Sankosh Reservoir Power Plant take off during their term.

A startup centre with full autonomy to create vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem would be established. The CSI flagship targets exporting 20 CSI products, support 1,050 business entities and create 4,700 additional jobs.

The report stated that the government would also strengthen existing public service delivery systems to ensure accountability. To avail services, Lyonchhen said that the first thing that comes to people’s mind is to find out if they know someone in that agency. “It only shows that we have no trust in our public service delivery system,” he said.

The government has, through the Digital Drukyul Flagship Program, allocated Nu 2.5 billion to make public services convenient and easily accessible.

The government, he said will work with the private sector to help it flourish by providing clear avenues for participation. The upcoming Bhutan Economic Forum for Innovative Transformation will serve as a platform to expand investment climate in the country.

Tshering Dorji

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