Following the signing of MoUs with local shoe and socks manufacturing firms

Assembly: The opposition party questioned the government on if the education minister Norbu Wangchuk had breached the Code of Conduct by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with local shoe and socks manufacturers in September this year.

Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi, during the Question Hour session in the National Assembly yesterday, asked whether the education minister signing an MoU with Dodo and Druk Shoes and socks manufacturer Tshesang Norlha Plants wasn’t a violation of the code of conduct. The local manufacturers under the MoU agreed to supply shoes and socks to Central Schools.

“The question is not about the individual business entities as we have great regard for their initiatives but about the government’s Code of Conduct,” Dorji Wangdi said.

The Panbang MP said that clause 10 under article nine of the Constitution states that the state shall encourage and foster private sector development through fair competition and prevent commercial monopolies.

Also as per the existing rules, it should have been procured through open tender as per the procurement rules and regulations, he said. “Based on these reasons, singing an MoU with individual manufacturers, the opposition felt wasn’t the right thing,” Dorji Wangdi said.

The MP also questioned whether the education minister’s MoU signing with manufacturers has not set a wrong precedent. “Today, its shoes and socks,” he said. “If tomorrow someone comes with a proposal to supply computers to all schools saying its assembled in the country, would the government accept it,” he asked.

Similarly, if another citizen comes seeking a MoU with plans to supply locally manufactured uniforms and furniture to Central Schools, would the government approve it all, he asked.

Dorji Wangdi said that though the education minister reasoned the move as promotion of local products to reduce imports and offset INR outflow, the benefits are however insignificant. “Is the government going to go against the Code of Conduct contravening the Constitution and procurement rules just for meagre economic gains,” the Panbang MP asked.

Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk said it’s been 50 years since  Bhutanese first started wearing modern footwear. “After 50 years of wearing imported footwear, Bhutanese should be proud when someone is manufacturing in the country for the first time,” Lyonpo said.

Initially, the ministry doubted the quality and price of both shoes and socks, but upon assessing both were found satisfactory in terms of quality and price. “It was also found during price comparisons that the price of the local socks was cheaper on average than the imported one,” Lyonpo said.

The minister also pointed out that such preferences should be given to Bhutanese even in the future to enhance home production if the products are comparable to imported goods in terms of price and quality. “Even for uniforms, if the supplier is a Bhutanese, the government believes they should be given preference,” he said.

Instead of saying its not permissible by laws, the government should facilitate such initiatives said the minister.

Lamgong-Wangchang MP Khandu Wangchuk also told the House that since the precedent has already been set, the education minister must also accept to buy local rice in future if villagers wanted to market it to the schools. Similarly, the ministry also must sign an MoU in the future if someone tailored uniforms in the country to supply to the Central Schools.

He said that it wouldn’t be right on the government’s part if opportunities are given to some and others are denied.

“If anyone offers to supply goods or rice to a Central School in the future through signing of an MoU, the government must pledge to accept it,” Khandu Wanchuk said.

Defending the government, the foreign affairs minister Damcho Dorji said if the Code of Conduct must be deliberated, it should begin with the former government’s Education City project. He added that the former government should be questioned on the import of city buses from China and the awarding of work to an Indian business tycoon for the Dagachhu Hydro Power Corporation.

Lyonpo said that as far as possible the government must try to promote local products and the private sector for realisation of self-sufficiency. “If there were five socks manufacturers and it was given to one of them then it is a breach of Code of Conduct,” he said.

“Giving the opportunity to one local manufacturer to offset import is not a violation of the Code of Conduct,” the foreign affairs minister said.

But despite the two ministers’ explanations, MP Dorji Wangdi said that the education minister did not answer his question. “My question wasn’t about not supporting the enhancement of local manufacturing companies and the private sector, my question is on the minister breaching the Code of Conduct,” the Panbang MP said.

He said that while local manufacturing companies should be supported, it should be routed as per the laws. “Our question is of a minister bypassing procurement rules, contravening the provisions of the Constitution by signing an MoU,” he said.

Dorji Wangdi also said the operational guidelines for Central Schools also states that the procurement of school vehicles, lab equipment, computers, uniforms, stationary, bedding and food shall be procured through standard procurement rules.

The debate however fizzled with the education minister deviating the discussion to the economic growth, the ruling government spurred.  The deputy speaker Chimi Dorji however had to abruptly cut short the education minister because the time allocated for the Question Hour had been exceeded.

Tempa Wangdi