Opportunity towards deeper decentralisation of democracy

Kuensel reported that “behind closed doors and out of the notice of local leaders, the Local Government Department has been busy during the Covid-19 pandemic” – which means local villagers; their village heads and Gups are kept in the dark about how they see their role in democracy and development! “Decentralization of power and devolution of authority[1]” has been the essence to Bhutanese governance since the Third Kings reign when His Majesty devolved powers to a large, primarily rural, elected National Assembly. This royal command of citizen involvement in Nation Building was taken further by the Fourth Druk Gyalpo right from the Coronation Speech. It took decades of royal endeavour to build the DYTs and then GYTs in building the foundations for a broad based participation and decision making Nation. Steadily His Majesty King Jigme  Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is revered as ‘Peoples King.’

The royal vision was that such a wide administrative set up would allow even the smallest, poorest villages to have a say in the drafting of local and national plans and policies. His Majesty understood that it would be difficult for the weaker sections of society to make them heard in the alien settings of modern dzongkhag offices. Reaching Thimphu was a pipe dream for most Bhutanese. This meant the government organizations had to have branches as far rural as possible. This royal vision resonated with the people. Its importance to the general population meant that democratic elections brought elected governments that have come to power with mottos like ‘Wangtse Chhirphel’. DNT’s motto ‘Narrowing the Gap’ is the same idea with an economic overtone. These mottos milk the royal vision and people’s desire for broad based decision making in governance. It is in this light that the government initiative to reduce gewog numbers drastically should be viewed.

 ‘Paring down the number of gewogs’ according to media reports is another caption. How will reducing representation enhance inclusive governance? Decision making powers, wealth distribution and employment or economic opportunities are all widely skewed in favour of large cities and towns in certain regions. Instead of addressing this, through measures like enhancing regional tourism, the government has decided to play around with gewog maps. How will changing the shapes and names of gewogs bring economic equality? It is more likely to worsen the political and decision making imbalances, as villagers become more distant from their elected representatives. Although as stated in media reports “5 elected leaders for just 210 people” does sound irrelevant. If it is important to have a higher percentage of doctors or teachers in the community, it is also important for the community to have more people speaking on their behalf. Noble vision of our Monarchs for the citizenry being involved in National development is exactly about giving a voice to the weaker, remote and rural people of Bhutan.

To reduce gewog numbers seems to be like re-centralizing powers. A smaller number of gewogs to be administered by a single department in the government! Ethically speaking, conducting this huge exercise ‘behind closed doors and out of the notice of local leaders’ is the opposite of the age-old traditional cultural values of consensus. The present democracy, GNH philosophy and administrative setup including the 205 gewogs are a result of a benevolent monarchy and Bhutan’s age old values. It is amazing that as an absolute monarchy this tradition was held high and today in the early stages of democracy; of all the possible solutions to improving governance, economic equity and political equality, only the reduction of gewogs and elected representation of communities has been identified! Numbers of ministries, civil servants and MPs aren’t considered. Shifting location of government ministries, offices and projects aren’t considered. Nothing more than gewog reduction and the cost saving from having fewer local officials, is required. Imagine if efficiency or transparency were some of the criteria. In this case, corruption at local government levels is miniscule compared to even small departments in the bureaucracy!

“Life is not a destination, but a journey.” Within a democratic setting everyone should be on board on this journey. Only then will we travel in the right direction. If the 100 years of monarchy could practice it, a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy should surely not just preach, but practice it. Involvement of our rural populace (now more literate than before) to this journey of mainstream development is important. Our Kings, who are embodiment of both spiritual and temporal values, are indeed right when HM the King defines GNH as simply “Development with values”. No unnecessary jargon. Development based on the foundations of Buddhist values of ‘tradition of consensus2’ which are core to our Bhutanese ethos and character.

Using scientific tools for such things as land measuring and utilitarian planning are welcome. However, modern tools cannot account for local mindsets, insecurities, cultural differences and rural peculiarities. Human values and ethos of each gewog or village or community shouldn’t be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucratic righteousness. One of the major blocks in our planning system has been duplication of works by different organizations and institutions, hell bent over their own visions and motto or more so annual goals and work objectives. For a small country like Bhutan, can we carry on going to do this in a manner that serves institutional goals? It is a department to assist Local Governments and enhance local governance. It does not command local governments.

As food for thought, it might be better for the present DNT government to study Thromdes. This is a new thing that came in with democracy recently. By all measures, it has failed. A drive around Thimphu or trying to find water in taps in S/jongkhar (Class A Thromde) will tell you what every resident knows. Big towns need a full governmental support not one elected Mayor without experience, without resources and without any powers. Thromdes and Thrompons sound modern and yet Bhutans bigger towns and cities yearn for ground reality development. The creation of more will be terrible. Leave the tried and tested royal visions alone, and address problems that we stand to face from new policies within a democratic setup.

In conclusion, it seems that as a young democracy, the elected government and bureaucracy feel they have to make large and dramatic changes. However, it is not enough to look at a patient from a distance and administer medical advice. One cannot look at the country just work on the number of gewogs. It will require a much deeper CT scan or an X-ray to see how the present system is functioning. This in-depth scan of Bhutan will show that it is our visionary monarchs’ benevolent and farsighted revered vision that has got us this far in sync with our very own developmental model. We need Royal visions like the Gyalsung program which will address key priorities of Nation building in the future. We do not need political or bureaucratic fiddling with gewog numbers without any concrete benefit to the Nation.

[1] The Politics of Bhutan: A change in Continuity – Thiery Mathou

[2] The Politics of Bhutan: A change in Continuity – Thiery Mathou.

Contributed by 

Kinchho Tshering,

Blogs at kinchhotshering.wordpress.com

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