While National Assembly might have endorsed the Right to Information Bill yesterday, some sections of the public found members’ decisions on certain issues dissatisfactory.
The concern was with members’ decision to give the authority to information and communications ministry to deal with cases emanating from denial of requests for information.
It was a genuine concern for some of the opposition members, a few contractors, businessmen, constitutional bodies and the media, who believe would have to frequently use the law.
Information people have to seek is from government ministries and public institutions that are run by bureaucrats.
Should they delay providing the requested information or deny all together, going by the assembly’s decision, the appeal is to another ministry that of information and communications, also run by bureaucrats.
It may be too premature to conclude so, but if international experiences are anything to go by, the chosen appellate body also grew up in the world of official secrets and bureaucratic elitism.
Therefore, the fear is, they too could share the sympathies and the outlook of the bureaucrats in all the rest of the ministries.
To embrace the culture of RTI, that asks not why a requester should have an information, but rather why the individual should not, will be a challenge.
The same would be the case with courts, if it were made the appellate body as the legislative committee members had suggested.
The RTI bill specifies the need for a National Tribunal headed by a former judge of a High Court, or a district one, who after gauging reasonable grounds to intervene would initiate an inquiry.
That would be a fine start.
Knowing the pains of having to exhaust the due process, many seekers of information would rather give up than pursue a case.
Therein lies the demise of a law we associate much importance in its ability to shake the systems and traditions the public servants have grown accustomed to and the people long weary of.
A paid entity, with a given mandate and responsibility would, however, not mind having to deal with various government agencies and court proceedings.
The hope of the law is to wean our public offices away from their attributes of protecting public information more than they would their personal properties and towards to a more transparent, open society.
That is why, to ensure the efficacy of such a law, it is of utmost importance for the need of an independent authority, empowered by this legislation, to take up issues with relevant agencies and follow up cases of denial for requested information.
Perhaps a little more deliberation on the issue was necessary and it is to the National Council that we look to as they take up the bill for review.
On both international and domestic flights, the airline saw a spike in passenger numbers
Tourism: The national airline Drukair also saw a subsequent increase in USD-fare-paying passengers in both its international and domestic sectors last year, with tourist arrivals increasing by about ten percent last year.
On the international sector, Drukair carried a total of 207,697 passengers last year, of which 104,346 were local passengers and 103,351 were USD-fare-paying passengers.
This is an increase of about 20 percent or 14,292 more passengers (local and USD fare paying) from the previous year. In 2012, Drukair carried a total of 193,405 passengers of which 97,195 comprised local passengers, and 96,210 paid the USD fare.
Last year, the total revenue generated through ticket sales for both domestic and international sectors stood at Nu 2.8B against Nu 2.2B the previous year.
However, Drukair officials said the revenue for 2013 is yet to be audited and could be subject to change. A breakup on what nationalities purchased the tickets could not be provided by Drukair.
On the domestic sector, a majority of passengers were tourists, records with the airline show. Of 2,725 passengers Drukair carried last year, 620 comprised local passengers while 2,105 paid in USD, generating revenue of about Nu 24M.
Compared to the previous year, this represents a significant increase. In 2012, the airline flew 870 passengers on the domestic sector, of which 340 were local passengers and 530 USD payees. A total revenue of Nu 7.3M was generated that year.
A Drukair official attributed the comparatively smaller earnings in 2012 to domestic flight operations having to be suspended for a couple of months due to the closure of airports for maintenance in 2012.
Last year, 116,224 international and regional tourists visited the country, which is an increase of about 10 percent, or 10,810 tourists more, from the previous year.
The launching of domestic air service in December 2011 came as huge relief for the tourism industry, especially at a time when the focus was more towards promotion of tourist in the eastern circuit.
Tour operators said, compared to 2012, domestic flight operations saw some improvement. “However, issues, such as reliability and consistency of the flights, still persist,” said one.
Lack of infrastructural development to cater to tourists, bad road condition, and the long journey to the east are the main obstacles in promoting the east as a tourist destination.
Tourism, being concentrated mostly in the west, tour operators said the domestic air service helped them showcase the eastern circuit with a new dimension.
However, the suspension of flights to Yonphula since last year was another issue, with tourists complaining about the distance of journey, and the deteriorating road condition towards the east.
Currently, Drukair operates a 48-seater ATR aircraft once a week to Bumthang. “It’s been about two years since the introduction of domestic flights, but the tourism industry is yet to benefit from its services,” a tour operator said.
Tour operators said, as they have to plan tours much ahead, reliability and consistency of flights affected them a lot. “We’re still not confident to put the journey by air in our travel itineraries,” a tour operator said, adding, if there was improvement, the domestic air services will benefit all tourism stakeholders.
Tour operators also charter domestic flights during peak season.
By Kinga Dema and Gyalsten K Dorji
It will now go to the council for review
Assembly: National Assembly yesterday passed the Right to Information (RTI) bill, 2014 after 32 members out of 40 present voted in favour of it.
Of that, four members abstained, while another four voted against the bill.
Following the endorsement of the bill, some members shared their views, both appreciative and those of dissatisfaction.
Panbang Parliament member Dorji Wangdi said he was unhappy particularly with regards to provisions pertaining to dispute resolution and appeals.
He said a court of competent jurisdiction should have been the body that people could take their petition to if their requests for official information was denied, delayed or false as legislative committee recommended.
“Making information and communications ministry the appellate body as in the draft, there can be conflict of interest because the ministry is also one of the agencies that should be providing information to the people,” Dorji Wangdi said, adding it was not in line with section 23 of the fundamental rights under the Constitution.
The section in the Constitution states that all persons would have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this article.
Health Minister Tandin Wanchuk said if there arose any problem while implementing the law, the members could always amend it.
Works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden said the bill was not tabled because it was the party’s pledge.
“Information and communications ministry already had the draft ready,” she said.
North Thimphu’s representative Kinga Tshering said although he appreciated the efforts the legislative committee put in to come up with recommendations, he was dissatisfied the bill was passed.
“Only about 50 percent of committee’s recommendations were accepted by the house,” he said.
Drujegang–Tsheza Parliament member said the law, at this stage was like a child and that it was unreasonable of members to express their concerns over possibilities of child falling down when it had barely stood up.
Dispute resolution and appeals saw lengthy discussions during the third reading of the bill on February 5.
The house deliberated extensively on whether the court or the information and communications ministry should to be made the appellate body.
The speaker called for votes from members to decide on this and 20 voted for information and communications ministry as the appellate body against 18 members. One member had abstained.
Some members were of the view the courts would be inundated with small cases if it were made the appellate body.
Economic affairs minister Norbu Wangchuk said the case should first go to the ministry, which if unable to resolve the issue could refer the case to court.
Some legislative committee members explained most people from various parts of the country would not be able to appeal if they had to travel all the way to the ministry in Thimphu.
Drametse–Ngatshang Parliament member Ugyen Wangdi said if courts were made the appellate body, people could file their petitions at the nearest courts.
He said they also created a provision where a tribunal was to be established according to the law if needed in future, just so courts are not overloaded.
“We initially thought of creating a new appellate body, but since cases would land up in courts eventually, we decided to make courts the appellate body,” he said.
By Nima Wangdi
Once a flourishing rice bowl, the drying up of Peling tsho robbed Decheling of irrigation
Agriculture: For want of water, the land, where paddy was once cultivated commercially as a viable and thriving business by the farmers of Decheling gewog, Samdrupjongkhar, has been left fallow for more than four years.
Back then, farmers from the three chiwogs of Namdeling, Shingchongri, and Bapta would be seen busy during paddy cultivation seasons. Today, save for buckwheat, maize, soya bean and oranges that villagers still grow, the farmers don’t want to go back to paddy cultivation anymore.
With water not even adequate for drinking and the only water source, Peling tsho, drying, farmers reasoned that cultivating paddy would only aggravate the acute water shortage in the village that has a population of 4,226.
“I’d prefer growing oranges, instead of looking forward to a plan of having enough water for paddy cultivation,” a farmer, Ngawang, said.
Nganglam drungpa, Nima Gyeltshen, said they visited the gewog a few times to identify a suitable location for a reservoir tank that would feed water for irrigation in future, but the land owners were least interested. “I don’t think paddy cultivation will materialise, and the plan has been shelved for now,” Nima Gyeltshen said.
However, the agriculture ministry is still pushing to revive paddy cultivation in the gewog. The ministry is also banking on the regeneration of Peling tsho, which would guarantee sufficient water for irrigation.
According to the agriculture extension officer, Pema Chorten, discussions were held with UNDP in 2013, and Nu 300,000 was committed to come up with an irrigation water pump in the gewog.
“But we need to carry out feasibility studies and submit the structural plan, before UNDP releases the budget,” Pema Chorten said. “The survey team managed to measure about 38.2 acres of land last year.”
Following budget constraints, the feasibility studies have come to a halt since then.
Another reason for farmers moving away from paddy cultivation was because of the registration of dry land as wetland. Since most of the area was marshy, dry lands were registered as wetlands, Pema Chorten explained.
“The complication here was that, although the land was wet in reality, it was reflected as dry land in the thram,” Pema Chorten explained.
More than a decade ago, it was a different story. Paddy cultivation was thriving with the Peling tsho irrigating the fields. However, rampant deforestation in the 1970s, affected the catchment area and the lake.
About four years ago, when the villagers realised the lake was drying, they decided to discontinue paddy cultivation, foreseeing the consequences and risks.
Now, the agriculture division and the paddy cultivators are looking forward to the conservation of the lake and building the water pump.
“When the water pump starts functioning and, if water is enough for every household in Decheling, we’ll use the excess water for irrigation purpose,” Pema Chorten said.
By Tshering Wangdi/Nganglam
Wildlife: Foresters of Royal Manas national park released the barn owl (Tyto alba) police at Gelephu border gate claimed to have rescued from Indians on January 25 in the park.
The barn owl, ranger Yeshi Wangdi of the park, said, was taken to Manas on January 26 and released in the park.
He said the Indians, who brought the barn owl for sale, told police that the nocturnal bird was captured from Bagmara, a bordering forest near Kanamakura in Umling. “It’s therefore likely that barn owls are found in RMNP too, as it’s the same habitat,” he said.
The release of the barn owl in RMNP, foresters say, takes the number of species of birds in the park to 432.
The barn owl, with its heart-shaped face, broad vertical chestnut-brown zone through each eye and feathers tipped blackish and chestnut-brown, is a nocturnal bird and hunts for prey only at night.
The eyelids of the owl are whitish and its bill is creamy yellow.
Four rounds of polls have yet to fill 17 posts in ten dzongkhags
LG Elections: Despite four major rounds of local government elections since June 2011, including the recent one, 17 tshogpa posts in some 10 dzongkhags are still without takers.
This would probably be the last of attempts to fill the gaps for now. The election commission of Bhutan (ECB) decided that they would not conduct any elections to fill the 14 vacant posts of gewog tshogde tshogpa and three thromde tshogpas.
That was because there was simply no candidate willing to stand for elections.
The recent one held on February 3 fetched nine new gewog tshogde tshogpas, while four more candidates were elected through by-elections.
By-elections were held to fill vacancies that resulted because of voluntary resignation of three gewog tshogpas in Haa, Punakha and Lhuentse, and the death of the earlier thromde tshogpa in Samdrupjongkhar.
“We wish all vacancies are filled by now,” chief election commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi said.
Although it is expected that the salary raise to Nu 5000 earlier helped retain a few, who were on the verge of quitting, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi said more candidates could be attracted, if the government considered a decent remuneration package for local government posts.
“Importance of positions need to be made apparent to serve as attraction for qualified voters to look at them, while also serving as a good alternative for employment,” he said.
Commission’s chief election officer, Phub Dorji, said ECB had decided not to conduct further LG elections since 2012, after doing three major and several supplementary elections.
“But the need was felt and dzongkhags requested the commission,” he said, adding this time, since by-elections had to be conducted, the commission decided to conduct elections for vacant posts as well.
Although electoral laws require the by-elections to be conducted within 30 days of occurrence of vacancy, Phub Dorji said the result would have been negative, if it was done as per the law, because none of the candidates fulfilled the criteria.
He said, there were interested and capable candidates, but did not possess functional literacy test (FLT) certificate. So the commission arranged and conducted a separate FLT for them.
He said they were also not comfortable having just one person standing for elections, since one person standing would mean “yes” or “no” votes, and if the latter outnumbered, there were huge cost implications.
The chief election officer also said, literally, there wasn’t any town in some dzongkhag thromdes like Gasa and Pemagatshel.
“So, there aren’t any candidate willing to stand,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the elections held on February 3 for nine vacant gewog tshogde tshogpa posts, the voter turnout was just about 22 percent.
For the by-elections of three gewog tshogpas and one thromde tshogpa, the voter turnout was about 29 percent.
Dasho Kunzang Wangdi said, given the dearth of interested candidates, voters knew for certain that candidates would get elected, even if they did not turn up to vote.
“No candidate had in all honesty conducted any election campaign for their contest,” he said.
The chief election officer, Phub Dorji also said most candidates did not campaign, and that people give less importance to chiwogs.
In accordance with section 580 of the election act, members elected to fill the casual vacancies will only serve for the remaining term of office.
By Tshering Dorji
Power: Efforts are made to start at least three new hydropower projects within this year, economic affairs minister Norbu Wangchuk informed the Assembly yesterday.
The minister however did not specify the name of the projects.
The minister was responding to a question raised by Bartsham-Shongphu member and former finance minister, Wangdi Norbu, on why the projects were stalled, and when they would start construction.
Earlier this year, officials from the economic affairs ministry expressed concern that it would be difficult to achieve the planned target of generating 10,000 megawatts (MW) of hydropower by 2020.
“We’re worried whether the target will be fulfilled, but we’re giving it our best effort,” said lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk.
Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk said, starting construction of new hydropower projects entailed a lengthy process, since the detailed project reports had to pass through a lot of clearing agencies, both in India and Bhutan.
India, he said, was handling new projects numbering above 100, and they were at present involved in studying and clearing more than 100 DPRs. This, he said, was a lot of work and it definitely takes time.
India was also working on generating over 50,000MW of hydropower.
The minister also said the planned hydropower projects were huge in terms of cost.
The total cost of the 10 hydropower projects identified under the 10,000MW initiative was working out to more than Nu 800B. This is almost 7 times more than the size of the Bhutanese economy.
The entire money, he said, had to be sourced in from India in the form of loans and grants.
Hydropower, he said, was important for both countries therefore, efforts were being put from both sides. “But then, there are challenges.”
Considering all the seven new hydropower projects begin construction this year, they will have to be completed within less than six years to meet the 10,000MW target. Punatshangchu I started its construction in 2009 and, as of today, it is expected to be commissioned in 2017, taking eight years time. This is also considering there will be no more delays.
Should there be more delays, it will have severe implications on the government’s development activities, since most of the planned development activities are based on future earnings from the hydropower sector.
Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk also announced to the house that the DPRs of the three projects Kholongchu, Amochu and Bunakha were cleared, and those of Wangchu, Chamkharchu and Sankosh were yet to be cleared.
By Nidup Gyeltshen
Saved: Police rescue a doe from the sewage pond in Babesa, Thimphu yesterday. It was freed in the forest above Dechenchholing
Their complaint about less compensation does not seem to cut much ice with the govt.
Dungsam: Landowners, who lost land to the Dungsam Cement corporation ltd, will have to make do with whatever they were compensated in the past with, going by the finance minister’s statement to the assembly yesterday.
Nganglam assembly member, Choida Jamtsho, submitted that thousands of acres of private land were acquired during the construction of the projects, and for mining purposes, and during that time, land compensation paid to the landowners was very less.
He said that Rongnowang village was completely displaced by the project and many people made homeless.
“When it came to construction of hydropower projects, affected households were given adequate land compensation, along with free electricity up to 10,000 units for an acre of land taken by the project,” he said.
The member also asked, if it was possible whether affected people could be provided jobs in the project as well as some amount of share ownership.
Although the question was directed to the economic affairs minister, the minister requested the speaker that it be directed to the finance minister, since it was more involved with the project than the economic affairs ministry.
Finance minister Namgay Dorji, before responding to the question, said that, he couldn’t understand the question properly.
Giving a brief background of the project’s milestone, the minister said that the project was conceived some time ago in 1980, but the actual work only started in 2008.
Also the project started with an initial cost estimate of Nu 6B. However, towards the end of completion, it had increased to Nu 10.8B.
The affected people, he said, should have asked for compensation when the project started. When it came to hydropower projects, the compensation was already decided upon during the start of the construction, he said.
“I’m sure they were given land compensation then, because that’s the usual process,” lyonpo said.
“But if they need more, I don’t think how it’s possible now.”
However, he said, if it was really necessary, something definitely would have to be done.
The finance ministry, he said, will discuss this matter with Druk Holding and Investments and try and find a way out.
Dungsam Cement is a wholly owned subsidiary company of DHI.
As of today Dungsam cement plant has started selling cement both in the Indian market as well as the domestic market.
The plant entered its commercial phase beginning this year and consequently was granted a temporary license by the Bhutan standards bureau, allowing it to sell cement in the local market.
To be able to sell in the Indian market, the plant was granted a temporary license by the Indian ministry of commerce in January 22. The plant is expected to get its permanent license next month, which will allow it to sell cement in the Indian market on a permanent basis.
By Nidup Gyeltshen
Assembly: Bans on furniture and foreign liquor imports were unfair to the people, besides its limited advantage to solve the rupee issue, the finance minister said at the National Assembly yesterday.
He was responding to Bartsham-Shongphu assembly representative Wangdi Norbu, who asked whether the general situation of the foreign exchange reserves and of the economy improved immensely to warrant lifting of bans on the two items.
Finance minister Namgay Dorji said the bans were only effective for the common business people and not the government agencies and high-end hotels.
The bans further did not create a substantial impact.
He said government agencies continued to import furniture and ban applied only to business people and others.
Presenting numbers, the minister said furniture worth Nu 132M was imported in 2011, while after the ban took effect in 2012, an eight percent increase was noticed, taking the figure to Nu 142M.
The ban on alcohol, however, brought a substantial decline in import.
In 2011, Bhutanese imported alcohol worth Nu 410M, which reduced by 50 percent after the ban to Nu 169M in 2012. However, it rose by 22 percent in 2013 to Nu 206M.
“Despite the ban in place, senior government officials and high-end hotels could buy all the alcohol they wanted,” he said.
The minister said the more important reason was that the bans were in violation of trade agreements with India.
“While we continue to sell our goods in India, we can’t go on banning their products from entering our country for long,” Lyonpo Namgay Dorji said.
He said, had the government warned people on the approaching rupee crisis, which resulted in the ban, the situation could have been avoided.
“People, including the private sector, would have then prepared themselves and looked for alternatives, and the situation wouldn’t have worsened to this stage,” the finance minister said.
In 2012, the total foreign currency reserve was at USD 694M, and the reserve rose to USD 922M in 2014.
Following the shortage in INR, the previous government in March 2012 implemented several measures, such as banning the import of selected goods, like furniture and alcohol, to curtail INR outflows. The government then imposed 100 percent sales tax and custom duty on foreign liquor import.
On January 28, the cabinet lifted the almost two years of ban imposed on the import of furniture and alcohol.
“The lhengye zhungtshog agreed to lift the ban on furniture and alcohol in the spirit of renewing the bilateral trade agreement with India,” a cabinet press release stated.
The cabinet’s decision came a week after the Indo-Bhutan bilateral talks on trade and transit ended in Thimphu. The Indian counterpart asked Bhutan to review the import ban on vehicle, alcohol and furniture.
Ban on import of vehicles would be deliberated later, upon consideration of the pay commission’s report, the press release stated.
By Tshering Palden