One-sided revision!

It’s anything but awing and astonishing – the pay commission’s proposal on pay raise for civil servants and parliamentarians that was approved by the National Assembly last week.

Civil servants get a 20 percent raise with another 20 percent as housing allowances, the Prime minister and cabinet ministers get a whopping raise of 131 and 67 percents respectively, 21 percent hike for parliamentarians, and increment in vehicle allowance from Nu 700,000 to Nu 1M. These are a few gist of the pay commission’s report.

Many are, however, questioning whether the pay revision, as pledged by the ruling government before the election last year, is timely considering the present predicament of the country’s economy. Or especially at a time when the country is experiencing mounting debt? How the revision would help the economy?pay

Whether the salary raise is timely or not, and while the revision would indubitably come as good news for many, there are also a host of other concerns too. How appropriate and reasonable is the hike when the government itself is on an austerity measure at the ministerial level? What about people in the private sector?

And while the revision is intended to benefit civil servants, especially in the lower income group, the proposal doesn’t do much to help them. While it only actually translates to five to six percent, considering inflation and other factors, for the lowest income level civil servants, the difference in revision, however, is more than 100 percent between parliamentarians and ministers.

Additionally, the pay hike proposal for now only seems to benefit people at the higher echelons, parliamentarians and ministers, while civil servants in the lower rung and private sector employees wait with bated breath to experience the looming ripple effects the raise is likely to bring along. House owners must be already mulling over increasing the rent. The prices of commodity, which is already experiencing inflation, will only go up. Income disparity and the gap between the haves and have-nots are also likely to grow. What the government would do to address these tangible effects of the pay raise?

Further, the revision has accorded the highest raise to those already getting hefty pay, while making it appear that those at the lowest rung also got equally. Simply put, it’s not the most-needy civil servants that are benefitting from the raise here.

Setting a good precedent

Quite historical was the verdict of the Supreme Court then when it decided the fate of the country’s first constitutional case about three years back.

In the aftermath of the judgment – there were people talking, analyzing, and reflecting then. Did the government lose? Or did the opposition win? And what kind of precedent the judgment would set for the future course of democracy in Bhutan?thatis

Not merely as the first constitutional case between the ruling and opposition party, but some saw the case in itself as a trial for the Supreme Court. At best, it was considered then as victory of the institution of democracy. Accountability must be upheld and the Supreme Court verdict had just done that – it ensured that the due process of law must be followed and that not even a majority government can get away with it.

While the opposition, now the ruling government, was resolute that tax re­vi­sion breached the provi­sions of Pub­lic Fi­nance Act and the Con­sti­tu­tion, the previous government then maintained that it would develop a tax paying culture and bridge the rich-poor divide in the country. The two started to wrangle, like two opposing sides locking horns.

The case is long over now. However, the government, which towed the line of legality, abided and preached the holy book of the Constitution as the opposition then, is now being questioned about disregarding certain provisions of the Constitution.

Political party like Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and other keen observers allege that the PDP government establishing a new centre to look after the Economic Stimulus Plan fund under the leadership of the Prime Minister is illegal, disregards certain provisions of the Constitution, Financial Services Act 2011, and oversteps the mandates of the central bank.

Another hovering question, among some, is whether the Constitution allows establishment of such centre. If the government of the day has not breached constitutional provisions, it should explain and elucidate rather than maintaining an aloof stand. The government has to explain if accountability is being demanded, and they should shoulder that responsibility.

And rather than, meanwhile, viewing it as a debauched attempt for political mileage, DNT’s concerns somehow also exemplify the true workings of a democracy, keeping a check and balance in the system. It sets a precedence which is pivotal in a democracy.

A Bhutanese thing!

The Rindhebi boat mishap in Zhemgang last week was a national tragedy. The death toll has reached nine. Three people, who were on board the fateful boat, are still missing. It’s very unfortunate that such unforeseen accidents occur, resulting in loss of many human lives. The whole nation mourns their death.

In such a time of distress, it’s deeply heartening to see Bhutanese from across the country pouring out their prayers and condolences, and sharing the grief and pain of the bereaved families. The scale and timing of tragic events such as this is not in any one’s control. We can only empathize with the aggrieved families and ensure that such tragedies do not repeat again.images

The national response to the tragedy reflects the collective humanity of our society. Love, compassion and solidarity are vital elements that bind us together as a community, as a people, as a nation. Despite materialism creeping in, and our busy lives making us oblivious of who even are our neighbors, we haven’t yet lost the essential values that define our society.

Not just this tragedy, whenever a calamity befalls our nation, Bhutanese people from all walks of life have always risen to the occasion in solidarity – ready to help the affected. These are intrinsic values of our culture.

And we as Bhutanese are proud to have a leader in His Majesty the King who is the epitome of these values. His Majesty as the beacon of our hope and inspiration continues to serve the people in the most loving way. As King, he has always been there for the people, during good and bad times, happy and sad moments. He has been there personally lifting those in grief, despair and distress.

Further, His Majesty does what is the only decent, humane, and a loving thing an individual can do. We are fortunate to have a King who places people’s happiness and wellbeing before his own. No matter how arduous the time or how grueling a struggle, there is always this assurance that we can look up to our Monarch for guidance and wisdom.

We must be inspired by His Majesty’s benevolence. While it’s unimaginable to fathom the loss of the bereaved families, let’s all help in small ways we can. Besides offering our prayers, let us try to genuinely reach out to the bereaved families. And beyond that, let us also come together and support the needy ones, many of whom are quietly suffering the burden of poverty and destitution, and many more.

Isn’t it a Bhutanese thing to do that?

Exploring the alternative

It’s quite ironical but none the less true. Rhetorically, we claim ourselves as an agrarian society and that about 70 percent of the population thrives on agriculture, but investment or support in terms of access to finance in this sector is ostensibly negligible.

Take for example the lending from financial institutions to the agricultural sector. It’s a meager four percent. The predicament of our rural folks in such a scenario is to thus lend money from a few loan sharks back in the village after paying exorbitant interest rate. This has been happening and continues to do so even now. Some pay as high as 30 percent interest.MDG : Bhutan : farmers transplanting rice shoots into rice paddies in Paro valley,

While it’s definitely helping the farmers in the short term especially during the time of death, crop damages, insurance payment, but it has its nemesis too. Rural farmers are being exploited. Money lenders eventually end up at the borrower’s farm and sometimes take away all that they find.

Even if there were drawbacks, informal money lending is proving to be more beneficial in rural areas. Such system in the villages apparently helps them to get direct access to finance without having to worry about collateral and banking rigmarole.

Indubitably, we could also contemplate whether the agricultural sector is getting the due it deserves. Why such a meager lending to this sector which claims to be the source of livelihood for a majority of the country’s people? It’s also time to revisit some of the modalities of the financial institutions in the country.

While there has been a proliferation of banks recently in terms of numbers, but little has it helped rural farmers in terms of access to loans. Banking red tape and the need for mortgage or collateral are norms with any bank in the country. Similarly, while branches are being taken to most remote places, but the interest rates levied by the banks are really not different from each other.

To put it aptly, rural people have access to banks, but no access to loans or finance. Perhaps, it’s this notion that hydropower and tourism sectors would be the solution to all our problems that we have forgotten this most rudimentary and essential sector. Agriculture could be our alternative.

Media woes

Bhutan observed World Press Freedom Day today. The event was timely given the country’s ranking in terms of free press plummeting over the years. It further plummeted from 82nd position in 2013 to 92nd in 2014. press-freedom

The event was also timely for some introspection given that most news organizations in the country today are in a precarious condition, never knowing when a few might have to fold for good.

Journalists at the event agreed that media needs to do more by adhering to the values of journalism – that we are here to serve the public, the commitment to ethics, that journalism is not a vocation but a calling. Deliberations also centered on the challenges confronted by the media to be independent and so as to exercise its freedom.

While it has been unanimously agreed fact that a free and an independent press is the prime requisite of a vibrant democracy, it was also acknowledged that sustainability issues have impacted media’s freedom and independence today.

This is also ostensible today. As such, exploring other sources of revenue for the media was also deliberated at length given the media’s huge dependence on government’s advertisements. Given that 90 percent of advertisements in the media come from the government, the issue of the government, perhaps, clamping down on the media in the wake of critical coverage by the media was also raised.

We saw that happen in 2012. The circular issued by the information and communications ministry regarding giving advertisements to the media created quite a ruckus then. There was also this sentiment that the government is targeting newspapers that are critical in their news coverage, subtly though, by severing their very lifeline or advertisements.

Such practices, however, continue even today. Take for example the recent report in the media, where a senior and dedicated reporter was allegedly reprimanded by the Business Opportunities and Information Centre management for running a story on the organization. Besides it was also allegedly conveyed that this new organization would sever all ads and printing works to that particular newspaper. What can we expect from news organizations in such circumstances? What if all government agencies and departments were to take a similar stand against the media?

Perhaps, such scenario subtly also explains the country’s drop in press ranking.