Yangchen C Rinzin 

Dzongkhags or thromdes have to adjust the budget to procure stationery for students and free uniforms for needy students from the annual block grant, Ngultse Lyonpo (Finance minister) Namgay Tshering said.

A notification from the finance ministry, which was issued to all public offices last year, notified that there was no budget for procurement of uniform, beddings, and stationery items this fiscal year, all schools should refrain from procuring these items.

During meet the press session last week, Ngultse Lyonpo said that the notification stated that the government decided to discontinue the practice of transferring funds to the central and autonomous schools in the form of grants.

“But nowhere in the notification indicated that we’re withdrawing free stationery and uniform,” Lyonpo said. “It only means that the separate budget was withdrawn for autonomous and central schools because an annual block grant is allocated to all agencies.”

The finance ministry’s decision comes after the government rationalised annual budget in light of the Covid-19 pandemic situation.

The decision to do away with the procurement of uniform affected 12,050 identified needy rural students.  Doing away with these provisions could save the government Nu 30.125M.  The uniform includes a dress set, shoes, socks, and slippers.

With a huge cut in the budget, 156,108 students across the country will not get the regular free stationery items this year.  The students have to buy their own.  The education ministry provides free stationery items to each student twice a year worth Nu 2,000.

Calling it a miscommunication, Ngultse Lyonpo said that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected domestic revenue and the recurrent budget had to be adjusted. “However, moving forward, the education minister has already been notified to procure stationery and uniform from the block grant.”

Sherig Lyonpo (Education Minister) Jai Bir Rai told Kuensel that, although it was advised to adjust from the annual block grant, it would not be easy given the limited budget. “The budget for the stationery shouldn’t have been withdrawn. But many dzongkhags and schools are trying to adjust the budget to help students.”

Sherig Lyonpo claimed that schools in a few dzongkhags have adjusted from the annual block grant and all schools have received free stationery.

However, when Kuensel confirmed with one of the dzongkhags, the official from the dzongkhag said that it was only one school that managed to adjust. “This was also because they had a leftover budget from the previous year and procured the items. It wasn’t from the annual block grant.”

Sherig Lyonpo said that there was never a miscommunication regarding the procurement of items and all students must receive them and the ministry would try to provide them by the first week of March. “Maybe, some schools couldn’t get stationery or uniforms because of insufficient budget, but not because the government refrained them from buying.”

However, talking with some education and dzongkhag officials, it was expressed that they are yet to understand what all this means.  Some said adjusting the budget from the block grant would not be possible given that the block grant was reduced by half due to the pandemic.

Some officials said that adjusting the budget would depend on the finance officers and there was no space to adjust the grant when there was no budget provisioned for procurement stationery or uniform.

“When we’ve limited block grant, the chances of getting stationery budget is very slim,” an education official said. “The priority of block grant is developmental activities and construction, which is the first priority and takes half the budget.”

Another official shared that even if there was balance, the budget would be adjusted in the spill-over activities, which was why it was not easy to “adjust budget” from the block grant. “As per the priority, procurement of stationery or uniform would be the least. We’re in the field so, we know how the allocation of budget works and we need to follow several guidelines too.”

A few said that, despite trying, the budget was not sufficient and it could not be adjusted or some did not get the approval. “It’s not that dzongkhags are not supporting the education sector, but when there is already insufficient budget, how can we forgo other developmental activities?”

However, many schools have adjusted with the remaining budget from the previous fiscal year, while some are using the stationery and uniform purchased last year.  Some students received them last year but could not use them as schools remained closed.

“They (government) could just accept that there is no budget for stationery,” an official said. “With so many directives, it’s confusing us and only affecting students in the end.”