Male Iron Rat Year

MB Subba 

The Covid-19 pandemic affected regular activities of Parliament and delayed passing of Bills in 2020 as the summer session deliberated only the annual budget for the fiscal year 2020-21.

The third session of the National Assembly which began on January 15 and officially concluded on June 17 of 2020, was the longest in the Bhutanese Parliament’s history.

The session was supposed to conclude on March 6, but it was deferred after the country detected its first Covid-19 case on March 5. The session resumed on June 1 to pass the annual budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 and the ongoing fiscal year’s supplementary budget.

The 2020 summer session of the National Council was also its first extraordinary session.  The Upper House had its closing session concluded on March 5, unlike the National Assembly.

The year was frustrating for the National Council since the Impeachment Procedure Bill and the Minister and Minister’s entitlement Bill originated from NC,  were rejected by National Assembly without deliberating.

For the first time, the summer session of both Houses did not consider any other Bills besides the Budget Bill. This meant that Parliament would not have convened if there were no urgency to pass the annual budget.

Prime minister normally presents the State of the Nation report, highlighting the government’s legislative plans and the annual plans and priorities, in the summer session. For the first time, however, PM presented the report in December.

The Covid-19 pandemic left most Members of Parliament without much to do except during the two brief sessions held after the country recorded its first Covid-19 case. Members did not visit constituencies to divert the TA/DA budget to the Covid-19 fund and social distancing rules.

According to the parliamentary rules, a member should visit their constituency at least once after every session.

A joint parliamentary committee comprising three members from National Council (NC) and four from National Assembly was formed in March to advise the government on managing the Covid-19 pandemic. But the committee remained mostly idle.

The fourth session of Parliament which began on November 26 and concluded on December 14 was one of the shortest sessions. The session was mostly fruitful in terms of Bills and international agreements passed.

A close observation of Parliament debates showed that lengthy speeches were a problem, while some MPs rarely take the floor. As the trend has been, the same MPs contributed to most of the debates.

In one of the highlights, Dagana’s Drujegang Tseza MP Jurmi Wangchuk found himself at the receiving end when he could not correctly state in English what LGBT stood for during the debate on Penal Code (Amendment) Bill. Many people took social media to criticise him as his video clip went viral.

Legal questions raised about the government’s decisions to allow the Bhutan Duty-Free Limited to sell tobacco products and reduce civil servants’ daily allowance. But Parliament remained silent on the issues.

For the first time, members received an iPad each as part of Parliament’s digitisation programme. The initial plan was to install the device in the members’ desk.

One of the critical legislative issues discussed was the Mines and Minerals Bill, which has now become a disputed Bill. The main dispute between the two Houses is whether or not to give all mines to state-owned enterprises (SoEs).

The National Assembly is adamant on allowing the private sector in the non-strategic mines, while the National Council wants all mines given to SoEs.

Other important Bills passed in 2020 include the Framework Agreement between Bhutan and European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Bill.