Provisions of the legislative procedure state a disputed bill has to be put to vote

The government is preparing to move a motion to withdraw the controversial motor vehicle agreement involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) during the joint sitting of the Parliament next month.

To save it from being scrapped in the Parliament, the government had wanted to withdraw the BBIN agreement from a voting process. This decision to withdraw remains even as the government has informed the other member countries that once it completes the ratification process, Bhutan would join the group.

That the government is determined to ratify the agreement even on a later date indicates that it is not ready to scrap the pact. The agreement however needs a two-third majority of the members present for the ratification.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay earlier told Kuensel due process would be followed if the agreement would be withdrawn.

However, the government’s effort to withdraw the agreement that is already with the joint committee will be met with resistance as the Legislative Rules of Procedure (LROP) 2011 do not have provisions for withdrawal of a disputed bill.

Moreover, the LROP is more for legislative bills, and it does not prescribe provisions for disputed international agreements. In the case of a legislative bill, the joint committee can propose changes that are acceptable to both houses of Parliament. However, there is no room for the joint committee to propose any changes in an international agreement before it goes to Parliament.

The Parliament has been following the same procedure for both international agreements and legislative bills. The Constitution does not contain a separate clause for ratification of international agreements but treats both as “bills”.

National Council deputy chairperson, Tshering Dorji, said he respects the plurality of views on the issue. “But I feel that when it comes to what is clearly outlined in the rules of procedure, there is little room for difference in opinion,” he said.

Tshering Dorji, who is also the Council’s spokesperson said section 17 – 23 of the LROP, clearly spells out how and when to withdraw a bill. They prescribe the procedure for withdrawal of the bill, which happens before a bill has been granted Royal Assent for deliberation in a joint sitting after which a bill becomes disputed.

“It is too late to withdraw the bill,” the spokesperson had earlier said. The LROP states that the final report of the joint committee will not be open for further amendments at the joint sitting and after the report has been presented, “the bill shall be put to vote by the Speaker.”

If the bill fails to obtain the endorsement of the joint sitting, it will be declared a dead bill and no bill of the same substance will be deliberated in the same year. Section 30 of the LROP also prescribes, “No item placed on the final agenda for vote shall be passed without voting.”

However, despite these provisions of the LROP, members of Parliament from the ruling party who are in the joint parliamentary committee are persuading the opposition and Council members to agree on the withdrawal of the agreement during the joint sitting. The 12-member joint parliamentary committee was formed to resolve the differences and propose recommendations to the Parliament.

Should the withdrawal option not come through, the agreement will go to vote, in which case it is likely to be rejected. The chairman of the joint committee, Ritu Raj Chhetri, said the best option for the committee would be to propose a withdrawal. “It looks like it will be tough to get support from the opposition and most Council members,” he said.

Ritu Raj Chhetri said the government intends to withdraw the agreement but added that the committee had not taken any decision to that effect as of yesterday.

However, the Speaker told Kuensel in an earlier interview that he is willing to allow the withdrawal of the agreement amid confusions on whether such a move would be legal. Speaker Jigme Zangpo said a motion for withdrawal could be moved if no consensus is reached at the joint committee level.

He cited the deferment of the European Investment Bank (EIB) framework agreement as the precedent. The EIB agreement, which the National Assembly had passed but was rejected by the Council, was “deferred” for deliberation in a joint sitting in July 2016. However, in doing so, the joint siting had agreed that the deferment of the EIB agreement was an “exceptional case” and that it was not a precedent.

The withdrawal also breaches Article 13(8) of the Constitution, which states, “Where the House in which the Bill originated refuses to incorporate such amendments or objections of the other House, it shall submit the Bill to the Druk Gyalpo, who shall then command the Houses to deliberate and vote on the Bill in a joint sitting.”

The Council believes that ratifying the agreement, which aims to facilitate seamless cross-border movement of both cargo and passenger vehicles, will overwhelm Bhutan, the smallest country in the grouping. The opposition also argues that it will affect the livelihoods of Bhutanese transport operators.

The government argues that Bhutan’s interests will be protected while enacting protocols, which will be the by-law of the agreement. An opposition member said it could support the agreement if such assurances were incorporated in the protocols and presented along with the agreement in the Parliament.

The government has repeatedly stated that the agreement does not open the floodgates for foreign vehicles. However, the Council remains unconvinced because of the principle of reciprocity the agreement upholds.

Questions on if the agreement could be implemented without Bhutan have also been raised. Article XV states that the agreement will enter into force on completion of formalities including ratification by “all the contracting parties”.

The Article states that withdrawal from the agreement by a member will not affect the application of the agreement for the remaining members.  However, it adds, “any party may withdraw from the agreement at anytime after its entry into force.”

The government believes that implementation of the motor vehicle agreement, which is the first of any between the four countries, will open gates for cooperation in other areas. The government identified the agreement as the precursor to cooperation in other fields including connectivity, energy, trade and ICT.

The transport ministers of the four countries signed the agreement in June 2015 in Thimphu.

MB Subba