The prime minister has brushed off the accusation that the government’s decision to replace Zhemgang with Sarpang as one of the four dzongkhags in the tourism flagship programme was in violation of law.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering held a three-page justification prepared by the Office of Attorney general (OAG) as he defended the government’s decision at the monthly meet the press yesterday.

He remained adamant that the decision was lawful despite both the National Council (NC) and the Opposition and even the Speaker having asked the government in writing to revoke the decision citing legal and constitutional issues.

“There is no problem. It’s absolutely doable. The Public Finance Act and the Constitution allow it. The Constitution says there should be easy and free transport of goods and services across all dzongkhags,” he said.

Dr Lotay Tshering said there were precedents of such activities being re-allocated, re-appropriated, cancelled or withdrawn as per the Public Finance Act. The difficult question for the government, he said, would have been on why Sarpang was not included in the flagship programme.

He said the government’s decisions must benefit the country ultimately. “The people of Zhemgang are being actually misled. Our intention is to bring tourists to Zhemgang.”

However, the prime minister thanked the National Council and the Opposition for raising the issue. “We must be reminded and we must be corrected if we are wrong,” he said, adding that he did not see any issue of legality.

The Lyonchhen said that the government crosschecked and did its homework to see if there were legality issues but found none. “Two parallel lines will never meet.”

The NC and the opposition are of the view that the Budget Appropriation Bill has been passed into an Act and that the executive cannot alter it.

However, the prime minister said that the Budget Appropriation Act is different from other Acts as it comes every year. The financial rules and regulations, which is the by-law of the Public Finance Act, he said, also allows the executive to re-appropriate, cancel or incorporate provisions in the Budget Appropriation Bill.

“If it is legally not allowed, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) will stop us. It is the only ministry that has an Act. There is only one minister who is mentioned in an Act and that is the finance minister,” he said.

Providing a brief background, the prime minister said that it was the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), which is chaired by the foreign minister, that initially selected Zhemgang, Lhuentse, Dagana and Gasa as focus dzongkhags.

However, the prime minister said the TCB chairperson at a meeting later proposed that Gelephu should be opened as a gateway.

“He (TCB chairperson) explained his idea to me and I said that was wonderful. Ultimately, the disadvantaged society must benefit more than the rest because our mandate is narrowing the gap,” he said.

In replacing Zhemgang, Dr Lotay Tshering said that the government had corrected a lapse of not having included Sarpang initially. The issue, he said, said was politicized.

The decision, the prime minister said, would benefit other dzongkhags including Zhemgang more than Sarpang.

“Things are blown out of proportion and I personally don’t have any problems,” he said, adding that just opening a dzongkhag to tourism would not make economic sense without tourists.

He defied social media criticisms, saying that they would not affect him so long as Zhemgang develops.

He said, “The only problem here is the political narrative. I have nothing to lose here. The people of Zhemgang must be very clear on this. The shifting of the focus from Zhemgang to Sarpang is to benefit the people Zhemgang.”

The government approved Nu 200 million worth of tourism programmes for the fiscal year 2019-20 out of the Nu 1 billion in the 12th Plan.

The prime minister said that the government would shift the focus to other dzongkhags if the programme went well. The government, he said, needed to do more in eastern dzongkhags.

Zhemgang, he said, has been allocated the seventh highest budget in the fiscal year despite it being not a big dzongkhag. “Zhemgang already has programmes including bird watching, mahseer fishing and ecotourism projects among other projects that required tourists to be successful.”

He said the educated people from Zhemgang and those who want development in the dzongkhag must be happy with Sarpang being one of the focus dzongkhags.

MB Subba