Over a year ago, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) government rose to power with an agenda of narrowing the gap, and about a month ago, it reviewed its programmes and efforts to do so. The UN Human Development Report, launched last week, also focussed on inequality.
These endeavours are admirable and deserve our sincere support. Beside thinking and talking about the big picture of equitable socio-economic development, it is important that we identify specific cases of inequity and help the government address them in order to narrow the gap. A mindful walk through the centre of Thimphu reveals some of things the government can do to reduce the disparity.
1. The green area of the golf course above Tashichhodzong is today used by a few golfers. It is about time this place is turned into a pubic park which everyone can access. This would certainly enhance the wellbeing of the residents of Thimphu, which is in dearth of green public space.
2. Walking down along Thimphu’s main throughfare, the Duty Free Shop stands currently an icon of inequality. Currently, only expats and Bhutanese officials on a director or higher level in the state offices enjoy the privilege of buying duty-free at this state-owned company. Other Bhutanese can only buy by paying prices including taxes which can be as high as 200 percent. If the government intends to narrow the gap, this privilege should be removed or all citizens should be given the equal opportunity to buy up to a certain value without duty. This may also help the state company increase its sales.
3. Going further down, one finds the Thimphu Thromde office on a shabby back street behind Norzin Lam. Its services are often said to be constrained by lack of resources, and yet the annual tax (set in 1992) for a square foot of land in core Thimphu is a measly Nu. 0.50 while the market price for the same is nearing Nu.5000. The tax for same area of land outside the commercial centre is Nu. 0.25 while the market value is hovering around Nu.4000. It is about time to revise the urban land tax to generate funds which can be used to improve the municipality services.
4. The vehicle showrooms in lower Thimphu reminds one of another inequality. Government employees above a certain grade can buy vehicle without duty every seven years while those outside the civil service do not have this privilege. In fact, many officials even sell their quota. Given the traffic problems, it is high time that this quota is either fully cancelled or all Bhutanese households, to be fair, are given a chance to buy the first car without duty.
5. In the past weeks, we have seen numerous friends in the civil service being decorated with medals for their service, but how do we recognize those who work equally hard, or even harder, outside the civil service? Public officials enjoy privileges even in remote parts of Bhutan.
During the 2019 Royal Highland Festival in Gasa, private individuals who travelled at no state expense had to pay a hefty Nu.6,000 per Bolero truck for two hours from Gasa to Koina. In contrast, vehicles of officials, some of whom decry inequity, could go all the way to the road end. In a fair society, there should be no such differences or priorities would be given to the disabled, old and ill.
6. Gaps exist not only between the rich and poor, and the between government employees and private citizens. There is also disparity between man and woman in state organisations which can be resolved with minor efforts.
For instance, according to the latest State Owned Enterprise report, on the board of 20 state owned enterprises, there are only 13 women out of 107, which is a dismal 12percent. Compare this to private banks with 19 percent female on their boards and civil society organisations with over 46 percent female board members. It is obvious that our women are capable of taking up decision-making positions, but the state organisations have failed to recognize them.
7. Another visible gap is in our treatment of people with special needs. Most public facilities in Thimphu lack easy access for people with special needs whether it is a wheel chair ramp or facilities for the visually impaired, deaf and illiterate. For instance, the organizers of the National Day could have included a sign language interpreter on TV for His Majesty’s address.
Systemic shifts may be required to overcome some inequities but there are many small ways in which we can narrow the gaps, if we don’t miss the trees for the forest.
Contributed by Dr Karma Phuntsho
Dr Karma Phuntsho is thought leader and writer, and teaches Buddhism and Bhutan Studies.