Much to the disappointment of many following the Mines and Minerals (Amendment) Bill 2020, the Speaker’s decision to decide the fate of the Bill in less than two hours came as a shock. What is surprising is the indefinite deferment which comes after extensive effort in framing the Bill, deliberations in both the National Assembly and National Council and after six meetings of the joint committee in two years.
NC had been vocal about their stand. They argue upholding the Constitution and ensuring that wealth from the mining sector benefits the people of Bhutan. Article 1.12 of the Constitution, which the NC refers to, vests ownership of the mineral resources in the State. It also includes resources that the NC is ready to let the private sector mine like stones or boulders.
NA or the government initially wanted the State to operate strategic mines and auction non-strategic mines to the private sector. There was also a proposal to divest up to 49 percent to private shareholders. Assembly members are unhappy that the media, swayed by NC’s narratives, is not doing justice to the issue.
The NA conducted public hearings in all mining sites and concluded that the affected community should accrue the benefit through public and equity shareholding. They didn’t want a state monopoly. NC’s proposal, however, also did not shut the private sector out of the mines and minerals business. Private sectors could participate in the operation of it. However, available data show that those in the mining sector are not representative of the whole private sector. Only a few are milking the benefits of the lucrative mining sector.
As a small country battling the widening gap of inequality, excessive wealth concentration in the hands of few is an emerging problem. Income and wealth disparity has an immense impact on social justice and harmony in the country.
The government was bold to table the Bill, but not in passing it. Allowing Parliamentarians to vote on whether the Bill should be deferred or discussed would have cleared many suspicions, including the perceived interests from lobby groups. Notwithstanding the outcome of a vote, the joint sitting session had the opportunity to vote.
A start had been made with the government already allocating a few mines to the State Mining Corporation Limited. What was it that the government, represented by the ruling party in Parliament stopped the Bill from discussing?
For the Department of Geology and Mines, the umbrella authority over the management of mines and minerals, the moratorium of not accepting any new applications for mining lease, the deferment of the Bill, if it is only for a year, might not make much difference.
Parliamentarians should use the time, as they referred to as the cooling period, to understand and ensure the important economic jewel benefits all citizens and not just a few. The two houses should be least bothered about who will take the credit for amending what has now become a controversial Act.
Legislation for the benefit of all Bhutanese, after all, is their primary duty.