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Powers of the empowered

Zhemgang​‘s​ ​Dzongkhag ​T​shogdu has decided to re-deliberate its resolution of making the national dress mandatory for ​the dzongkhag’s residents.

This is a wise move for its earlier resolution received much flak, not so much because the decision was taken to preserve culture and tradition, but because it was felt to be an imposition.  The residents took offence ​for not being consulted by their local leaders even though the local leaders are their representatives.

Much of the discussions have revolved around the preservation of culture and tradition and, to an extent​,​ on the powers of local government. These are pertinent issues that need attention​.​

​But we need to see this issue in a broader context.

What we also saw unfolding in this discourse ​is democracy at work, one that is occurring at the grassroots where the local government shares its power with the people. Local government is bottom up democracy. It is about self-governance​ that​ has room to learn and unlearn. Local leaders who are in the gaze of the people have the responsibility to respond to the needs of the people.

Article 22, section 3 of the Constitution states:​ “Local government shall ensure the local interests are taken into account in the national sphere of governance by providing a forum for public consideration on issues affecting the local territory.” Laws that empower the local government mandate local governance to be consultative.

While local leaders had earlier claimed that the people were consulted, their decision to review the resolution is an admission that they hadn’t. It accepted that it had erred by not getting the people on board even if their intent behind the resolution was good.  It is not often that we see or hear of elected leaders accepting​ their mistake​.

​Even if this was because of some probing from the central government,  the decision to review the issue is progressive. The people may not have been consulted but they have been heard.

But there are issues to be resolved and perceptions to be questioned. The debate that ensued after the resolution was passed, especially on​ social media, was more bitter and​ accusatory than discursive. The national dress resolution must not be used to judge the state of underdevelopment in Zhemgang. It is the central government and our policy makers and planners based in the capital who should be held accountable for the state of development and high incidence of poverty, not the people living there.

An important issue the resolution has also raised is  the powers and limitations of the local government. All agencies must collectively expound on what powers are decentralised to the local government and what these powers are subject to. Haa and Samtse decided to disallow mining activities a couple of years ago for environmental reasons, while Tsirang decided to not allow any drayangs in the dzongkhag. Tsirang’s decision was not problematised​,​but Haa​‘s​ and Samtse’s were objected to even though these dzongkhags had barred mining for environmental reasons.

The balance of power between central and local government matters because it concerns improving the lives of local people and communities. The responsibility of the empowered depends on where this power rests.

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