Sunday, 29 December 2013

Get the people’s views on WTO

For any democratic regime, consultation and inclusion of people’s views are considered as the yardstick to measure its representativeness and pluralism. So it is for Bhutan. In spite of growing institutions and public spaces in our fledgling democracy, consultations in legislation and policy formulation seem minimal. Very recently, the Minister for Economic Affairs attended WTO Conference in Bali, Indonesia. Attempts to consult people were made by sharing post in social media to gather views on Bhutan’s possible membership to the WTO whereby urban literate got to express their stand. But what about those chunk of rural illiterate and the future of small cottage industries and many more?
If Bhutan is to join WTO, all stakeholders’ views need to be taken like that of ongoing presentation of Right to Information (RTI) Bill. The recent panel discussion on possible WTO accession in Broadcast Media (BBS) is good start for consultation and gathering views.
Talking to the people by the Members of Parliament during their constituency visits about the rules they have to abide by if Bhutan joins the WTO will enable the decision makers get people’s opinions even though they, rural illiterate may not know what WTO really is. With Bhutan nearing LDC graduation, WTO accession needs to ponder upon as Randall Krantz in his article ‘LDC Graduation and WTO Enrollment’, in Kuensel dated 14th December 2013 mentioned, “WTO is a one way street – it is not possible to test the waters and decide to go back”. Decision either FOR or AGAINST need to be well calculated!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Apathy or inconvenience - the dwindling figures of voter turnout in Parliamentary elections

The study of democracy and democratic transition would be incomplete without struggle for universal suffrage forming part of it. Starting from Athens in 500 BC to Arab Spring at this millennium, history is replete with sacrifices made by mankind in their claim for right to participate and vote in democratic system as well as in any other forms of government. Revolutions, bloodsheds and loss of lives stand as its testimony. Eventually, periodic election has evolved as one of the important features of any democratic regimes. In stark contrast to democracy elsewhere, Bhutanese democracy is the result of constant nurturing by visionary Monarchs through series of devolution, deconcentration and decentralization processes. To this, no theories of democratic transition can explain the evolution of democracy in Bhutan. Bestowing of adult suffrage to every Bhutanese above eighteen years of age disregard of gender, class and race from the throne in itself indicate the uniqueness of Bhutanese democracy. This has been further propelled by explicit provision under Article 7, Fundamental Rights, section 6 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan that envisages, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to vote”. Right that has come with corresponding duty.
In 2008, exactly after hundred years of Monarchy, Bhutanese went to polls to elect their representatives to the Parliament, the highest law making body of the Country. Amid keen observers, both from within the country and abroad, the voter turnout with 53% for the National Council and 79% for the National Assembly Elections were applauded far and wide, otherwise a developing country with almost half of the population being illiterate living in rural villages. This impressive participation by the electorates was attributed to His Majesty, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s and His Majesty the King, then the Crown Prince’s efforts to encourage people to take part in democratic setup during their nationwide tour to discuss the draft Constitution besides Election Commission of Bhutan doing its part through advocacy.
Five years later, electorates went again to the polls to determine the next crop of their representatives. Against the leaders being unequivocal that the first five years of democracy has taken firm root with all institutions in place, people opted otherwise. Anti-incumbency mood marked both National Council and National Assembly Elections. More worrying was the dwindling figures of voter turnout for the second Parliamentary elections in 2013. With 45.1% and 66% voter turnout for National Council and National Assembly Elections respectively, it was a drop from 53% and 79% correspondingly in 2008 Elections. Observers cited timing of the election as the probable cause for the low percentage of voter turnout. Spring and summer farm works kept farmers engaged in their fields, people in the high altitude areas were already into cordyceps collection while some electorates in the urban centres stayed back citing probable ever-sliding road networks in the monsoon as a difficulty.  
In the same vein, recently held by-election of National Assembly representative for Nanong-Shumar Constituency under Pemagatshel Dzongkhag after the resignation of Jigme Yoezer Thinley did not reveal the ideal picture either. During the General Election on 13th July, 2013, 4,753 people of the total 8,278 eligible voters of the said constituency cast their votes. However, the by-election saw only 2, 913 exercising their franchise. Postal ballot also dropped by large margin. Total number of postal ballot received and counted stood at 292, three votes lesser from 295, the losing candidate Pema Wangchuk got during the General Election in which Jigme Yoezer Thinley, the elected candidate received more than 1000 postal ballots. Electorates becoming apathetic are evidenced by their preference to watch television programmes such as English Premier League and others against election results broadcast by Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation (BBSC). If people’s exercise of their franchise is the yardstick to measure their participation in democratic process, the success of democracy needs to ponder upon.  
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008, Article 23, Elections, section 1 stipulates, “Under this Constitution, the general will of the people shall be the basis of government and it shall be expressed through periodic elections”. To this end, elections for both the Parliament and Local Governments are held after every five years. However, lower percentage of voter turnout for second parliamentary election compared to the first needs to be assessed and demands closer look. Comprehensive study by engaging relevant institutions and stake holders would help in drawing an evidenced based conclusion that would aid in designing appropriate approaches and strategies that would create enabling conditions for greater participation in elections by electorates in coming future.  
Written on Wednesday, 13th of November, 2013 corresponding to the 11th Day of the First 10th Month of Water Female Snake Year of Bhutanese Lunar Calendar

Monday, 4 November 2013

Other side of an Autonomy - view from below

Bhutan is known for her pursuit of Gross National Happiness as the development goal, otherwise, a tiny Himalayan Kingdom sandwiched between two populous nations of the world, China and India. This has been further propelled by explicit provision of welfare policies that the state and the government of the day ought to implement as provided in Article 9, Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008. In that context, free education up to the tenth standard and free access to basic health services should be provided by the state to all walks of life in all times to come.
Very recently, His Excellency, the Prime Minister of Bhutan during the State of the Nation Report, as stated in Kuensel Issue of 1st October, 2013 pledged to grant autonomy to Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) located in Thimphu. While this may seem in compliance with People’s Democratic Party’s ideology of ‘decentralization’ to which His Excellency was unequivocal during public campaign as well as after forming the government, this move may affect the poorer and poorest section of the Bhutanese populace.
Differences between the Ministry of Health against Administration and Doctors of the JDWNRH could be one probable cause for the move while the status of autonomy would also ensure greater efficiency and speedy delivery of services and other related works. On the other hand, with autonomy, State’s allocation of financial as well as human resource would be limited. There in, sustainability issue will arise. Consequently, the Hospital will be compelled to find its own way out. As Bhutan is developing at the fast pace, international donors are withdrawing their support from Bhutan in order to reach the helpless and voiceless ones who are in appalling conditions in other parts of the world. In such a milieu, charging and levying taxes on some services would only solve the problem of sustainability.

Two to three years ago, Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) was delinked from the parent Ministry of Education. No sooner did the RUB become autonomous than Colleges under it confronted the issue of ‘sustainability’. To nip it at the bud, decisions were reached involving RUB and the administration of the member colleges. Amongst others, students are to pay to re-appear the failed paper. The amount differs, in Sherubtse College, for one failed paper, one is required to pay not less than Nu. 7, 000/- and even higher depending on the subject failed. The justification for imposing such huge amount is to make students study hard. While this could be true, at times unforeseen emergencies during the time of examination would undo even the outstanding students. Most compelling situation amongst many is the brunt the children of the poor and agrarian parents have to bear with. Back in the villages, their parent’s month long labour in quest of hard currency hardly earns Nu. 4, 950/- a month, considering the National Minimum Work Force Wages of Nu. 165 a day provided the regulation is complied with. Students from the lower economic strata of the society are hardest hit of.
Should JDWNRH be granted the autonomy and subsequently follow the precedent set by the RUB, then, the provision of free basic health services would be the story of the past. Article 9, Section 21 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan envisages, “The State shall provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicines”. In that context, considering the standard of the hospitals and the Basic Health Units across the Country, two Regional Referral Hospitals in Mongar and Gelephu would not be in a position to cater the needs of the people of all twenty Districts. The change in the definition of ‘basic’ and ‘free access’ would be the probable solution?
My opinions would be ‘miscalculated and ill-conceived’ one, but it has significant bearings to some sections of the people if not all. To reach upon the RUB decision on the payment to be made to re-appear the failed paper and to fix the amount, students were never consulted. Even the grievances expressed ‘seem’ to be least bothered. In the same light, it is essential to clearly explain to the common people the fate of the autonomy of JDWNRH and their opinions considered, before it is declared autonomous. This would create informed citizen well in position to adjust with the changes brought in within the system. Further, decision making procedure needs to incorporate ‘bottom-up approach’ as much as ‘top-down approach’ is being put at work. Beside these, modus-vivendi is an important prerequisite among the institutions and various stake holders in the Bhutanese system for greater harmony and efficiency.
Written on Friday, 25th October, 2013 corresponding to 21st Day of the Ninth Month of Water Female Snake Year of Bhutanese Lunar Calendar