“What is authorised absence?” This was a question thrown at a journalist by a judge recently. Stunned, the journalist could only throw back the question. Both had no answers.
Whatever it means, ‘authorised absence’ has become the latest entrant into Bhutanese lexicon. There are more questions than answers. Loosely, it means an official is allowed leave with salary and all other entitlements when they are in conflict with the law or government, at least going by how things transpired recently.
The Royal Civil Service Commission coined the phrase as they were given the responsibility to deal with the three government secretaries the government surrendered to RCSC. It was a well-thought out, middle path decision. Granting ‘authorised leave’ was a fair way to treat senior officials while investigations were on.
A precedent had been set. The government picked it up when one of its ministers was entangled in a legal case. Today we have three public servants on ‘authorised leave’ for at least half a year.
There is some clarity coming. The RCSC will include it in the revised Bhutan civil service regulations. This is a good move. But there are no details, which we expect should come out soon. How long an official could be on authorised leave will be based on the circumstances and merit of the case.
Authorised absence is now an accepted form of leave. Therefore, it needs more clarity. Will it apply to only top-drawer bureaucrats? Will it also apply to members of parliament? How long may an official remain on such leave? Should they be entitled to all remunerations? These are issues that need to be clarified and specified.
The indication from the Speaker of the National Assembly is that Parliament would follow suit if a motion were moved. From the current experience, it has to be. And there is urgency. Laws shouldn’t be amended based on a single case or because of an individual, but new times are demanding change, and we should respond well to the changes as we evolve. Besides, this trend will continue.
In the fundamental principle of democratic governance, people have to be represented. The people of Shomphangkha constituency who celebrated having a minister as their representative are not represented in Parliament. We cannot go on like this, although it is not new in democratic Bhutan. North Thimphu didn’t have a representative for years during the previous government’s tenure.
There are critics that the government is wasting resources by keeping people on the payroll for months without any service. This may sound harsh, but harsh decisions, based on logic and reasoning, have to be made, and made fast.