Assembly: Ministers including the Prime Minister came under fire for frequently using  helicopter services raising concerns that the state is being unnecessarily burdened with such expenses.

Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi said that the perception among people is that ministers are frequently travelling in helicopters.

The Prime Minister’s trip in a helicopter on October 6 cost the government Nu 866,000. Ministers also used the service to travel for the National Day celebrations in Paro last year at a cost of Nu 1.5 million.

Each of the three pilots are paid a monthly salary of Nu 0.5 million.

“While it could be necessary to use the service, is there no limit as to how many times or how much a minister can spend,” Dorji Wangdi asked.

The Opposition Leader (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho shared how much the government spent on availing the helicopter services on his Facebook page yesterday. “How did we ever manage without helicopters?” he wrote.

He said between December 2 last year and November 8 this year, the cost of helicopter services availed by the Prime Minister was Nu 5.75 million (M) while the Cabinet ministers jointly spent Nu 2.73M.

“Add to this the cost of the vehicles and personnel detailed by road to cater to their ground travel needs,” the Opposition Leader wrote.

Foreign minister Damcho Dorji said that the ministers including the Prime Minister use helicopters only when it is absolutely necessary.

For instance, the Prime Minister has many important foreign diplomats calling on him, attending which would not allow him adequate time to visit places around the country for various purposes. “Using the helicopter service saves us a lot of time,” Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said.

This summer the prolonged monsoon rains destroyed Sarpang town and the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway. One of the reasons for buying the helicopters is for such emergencies and crises.

There is great risk in flying in helicopters and especially in summer the risk is greater, Lyonpo pointed out. “Despite that we’re using the service in unavoidable circumstances,” he said.

Payment for the services is not wasted as the revenue earned by the Bhutan Helicopter Services Corporation Ltd is returned to the government through taxes, Lyonpo said. The corporation paid about Nu 4 million as tax.

Information and communications minister DN Dhungyel said the helicopter services began from November 2015 after the government bought the first helicopter. The second helicopter commenced services in June 2016.

The health ministry called for 120 medical evacuations as of date, Lyonpo DN Dhungyel said.

The helicopters have spent 17 hours and 13 minutes flying medical evacuations to the gewogs of Laya and Lunana in Gasa, and the gewogs of Lingzhi and Soe in Thimphu.

For every hour spent on a medical evacuation, the corporation charges the health ministry about Nu 181,000.

The helicopter service is availed at a 50 percent discount to the seven gewogs that are not connected by motorable roads such as Geling gewog in Chukha, Sakteng gewog in Trashigang, Laya, Lunana, Lingzhi, Soe, and Naro gewogs. An hour of hiring the helicopter only costs Nu 65,500.

The minister responding to a query at the question hour yesterday said that the government was not approached with requests to subsidise transport CGI sheets.

He said that the helicopters can carry the materials but the government has to discuss and decide on giving the subsidy.

Tshering Palden