Local leaders divided over gewog merger plans

MB Subba

The government’s plan to merge many gewogs before the third local government (LG) election, which has taken serving gups by surprise will distort their 2021 election plans, but will save the government millions.

Assuming that the government trims the number of gewogs by 57, one of the options worked out for the government by the Department of Local Governance (DLG), it will save about Nu 324M (million) annually in recurrent expenditure. This calculation is based on the salaries of local government functionaries.

A gewog merger report prepared by the DLG in 2015 showed that the government would save Nu 200M annually by merging 57 gewogs. The salaries of local government functionaries on an average have increased by 62.5 percent since.

According to the DLG, the ratio of public servants to the population is one of the highest in the world.

In view of the increased salaries, the average cost of running a gewog currently could come to about Nu 5.6M annually. Supposing that the government goes for the extreme option of keeping the number of gewogs below 100, it would be able to save about Nu 600M annually.

However, DLG director Kado Zangpo said that the prime minister had instructed the gewog rationalisation task force that the merger of gewogs should not be based on the cost factor alone.

“Lyonchhen asked the task force members whether we really believed in what we were doing. 

We said we believed in it and we worked with a high level of motivation,” he said, adding that the instruction to work on the gewog rationalisation plan had come from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).


For administrative efficiency

The immediate objective of the plan is to increase administrative efficiency. The DLG director, however, added that the long-term objective of the government and the DLG was to streamline local governance in line with the spirit of the Constitution and the LG Act.

Both the Constitution and the LG Act entitle local government to levy, collect, and appropriate taxes, duties, tolls, and fees in accordance with such procedure and are subject to limitations as may be provided for by Parliament by law. 

Accordingly, local governments in the long run are expected to come up with creative ideas to create employment and fund local plans with the taxes they collect.

The DLG director said that the central government had not shared all the powers to local governments as per the law due to their human resource constraints. He said the tax base for the local government ultimately should improve.

He said that local governments have been depending on the central government’s grants for development in the local jurisdiction. The gewog merger plan, he said, was aimed at making the country self-reliant at one point of time.

“There will be short term hiccups that the government will have to address. But if the local government is to be provided autonomy, this is the only way,” Kado Zangpo said, adding that the impact of the merger would be felt in one election.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering recently told Kuensel that his plan was to implement the gewog rationalisation plan in the upcoming election. However, it remains to be seen which of the five options the task force has submitted to the government on the range of the number of gewogs to be reduced will be implemented.

Local leaders divided

Local leaders are divided on the government’s plan, especially when the next LG election is due next year. However, some of the gups Kuensel talked to supported the plan in view of advantages larger gewogs would have.

Most gups are unaware where their gewogs would be merged, as the task force did not consult with local leaders. In extreme cases, up to three gewogs could be merged together, according to sources aware of the details.

Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) chairperson of Samtse, Nima Dukpa, said that he supported the government’s plan, saying that it would strengthen the local government’s capacity.

“I hope the government is also looking into human resources issues at the gewog level. Even if the laws and policies give us adequate human resources, we don’t have accountants and engineers,” he said.

Balam gup Lungten from Mongar said that he was positive about the plan due to its long-term benefits. However, he added that it would lead to issues when it comes to electing a right candidate for the posts of gup and mangmi.

“If Narang, Balam and Drametse gewogs are merged, then the candidate from Drametse which has the maximum population will have the advantage. This is the only issue,” he said.

Bartsham gup Kelzang Dawa from Trashigang is for maintaining the status quo. He said that his gewog has about 4,000 people and that it would be appropriate to keep the gewog unchanged.

A merger of gewogs, he said, would hamper service delivery and coverage of remote villages and that the government should consider mergers only in the case of gewogs that have smaller populations.

Citing the example of Merak gewog, which has the lowest population in the dzongkhag, Kelzang Dawa said that such gewogs still qualified as a separate gewog due to its remoteness.

He said the merger could also lead to poor monitoring of development activities in the gewog.

Trongsa’s Langthel Gup, Sonam Dhendup said he heard about the gewog rationalisation plan yesterday through the gewog administrative officer. He said candidates from the present gewogs that have fewer voters would be disadvantaged.

However, a gup said that the merger of gewogs would make the LG election more interesting and that he was thinking about re-stratigising his reelection plan in case the gewogs merge.

“We have to delegate some power to chiwog tshogpas who might also need their own office to cater services to the people,” he said, adding that it would uplift the status of all local leaders.