The scale and impact of the corruption cases the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) is investigating in Phuentsholing is evident in its report. Even as they continue investigating a nexus of corrupt activities in the border town, the anti-graft commission seem to have lost hope for the major transformation that the nation and its leaders are hoping for when we exit the pandemic.
The commission is convinced, even without completing the investigation, that ground realities, if not changed, would not only be the bottleneck to our hopes for major changes post Covid-19 pandemic, but also a grim reminder of where we are heading.
ACC is an investigating and prosecuting agency. Its remarks indicate the seriousness of the issue. Corruption is not new to Bhutan. But the fact that officials and people entrusted to ease the burden during a pandemic had misused authority, bribed or received bribes and let people evade tax is hard to digest.
Since the border gates were sealed, all focus was on saving lives and livelihoods. Fiscal and monetary policies were rolled out to help people ease the burden of the pandemic and thereby on the economy. Royal Kidus were granted without differentiating people and His Majesty The King had led the fight against the pandemic providing hope and inspirations that we will come out of this pandemic unscathed.
It happened at a time when the country needed revenue to fund the escalating cost brought by the pandemic. The bribery cases that led to leakage in revenue to the tune of millions of Ngultrums is a case of sheer betrayal. The mini dry port was converted to a one-stop centre for transshipment of cargo, facilitating trade and for efficient tax collection. What happened was it became a centre of extortion, bribery and tax evasion as officials and workers saw loopholes and made the most of it.
Many say that what the ACC found is only the tip of the iceberg or that it is nothing new. On a positive note, the pandemic has brought this into the open. What the ACC investigations confirmed is what had been happening all these years. Allegations of under-valuing goods or bribing tax inspectors are common tricks to evade taxes. It happens to the extent that traders or business people budget what is called a “non-harassment tax” when they calculate their profit. The non-harassment tax is basically a bribe to officials.
Once the ACC completes its investigations, those found guilty would be taken to task. What we can learn from this is that we know the weaknesses in our system. An active ACC may not be enough. Today, our systems are obstructing rather than facilitating ACC investigations. And, given the usual sensitivities of our small society, many of us accept rather than confront such decisions.
Investigators are already seeing a new challenge as they expose more and more people. If those being investigated use their “networks” to interfere in the investigations, we are not helping ourselves. The ACC had warned that those trying to interfere and “frustrate the investigation will face rigorous examination and will not be spared from legal consequences.” What we need today is cooperation to help strengthen our systems including fixing accountability.
The loopholes are many and this is an opportunity to plug them.