The draft National Decentralisation Policy, if adopted, is expected to resolve existing LG issues

Tashi Dema

After deferring twice in the past Parliament sessions, the Local Government (LG) Bill was withdrawn from Parliament earlier this month. It is not clear when the Act will be amended, but those aware of local governance say that there is no need to amend the Act if provisions of the Act and existing rules and regulations are implemented.

An official said all existing issues related to local governance would be addressed if the LG Act and Rules and Regulations (RR) are implemented. “Not even 30 to 50 percent of the provisions of the existing Act and the RR are implemented today,” he said.

While a concern among successive elected governments was LG not being accountable to the central government, the official explained there are many provisions in the LG Act to promote social accountability. “Section 142 of the LG Act mandates LGs to publish their five-year and annual plans, including annual programmes and budget and make it public.”

He added that LG plans mandate a community scorecard, where communities could rate activities based on its benefit. “Instituting social accountability and community scorecards would keep the LG members on their toes.”

The need, according to officials, is strengthening the process through strengthening policies. One such  policy is the National Decentralisation Policy 2019, which is with the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC).

“The decentralisation policy gives direction for strengthening and improving LG. It would also address most of the issues related to LG,” a source said. He claims that all the existing inconsistencies between LG Act and RR will also be resolved through the policy.

However, with the government asking the Department of Local Governance (DLG) to relook into the policy and incorporate strong linkages of connecting central and the local government, it is not clear when the decentralisation policy would be implemented.

A source said the overall theme of 12th Plan is just, harmonious and sustainable society through enhanced decentralisation. “One of the  national key result areas of the home ministry is enhancing democracy through decentralisation.”

However, more than two and half years into the Plan period, the decentralisation policy is still in its draft form.

It was learnt that the policy that is with GNHC was developed after 36 rounds of consultations and the committee of secretaries met three times to discuss it. “But we were told the policy is broad and it has to be specific,” an official said.

With the LG elections around the corner, officials say it was the right time to focus on LG and sort out everything so that the new team could take over the new RR and policy. “But it will depend if the government could take a stand and adopt the policy,” a source said.


Accountability of LG and qualification

On the issue of LG having too much power without accountability, sources said that it was a misconception that arose from the lack of proper implementation of the LG Act and rules. “There are issues with some LG functioning processes that could not be strengthened,” an official who worked with LG said. “Few stray cases have made everyone cautious to talk about decentralisation.”

He cited the example of Zhemgang dzongkhag tshogdu’s decision mandating everyone to wear gho, road blacktopping issue in Sakteng, Taktsang timing in Paro and decision on mines in Samtse.  “It was never an issue of decentralisation, but a process that went wrong,” he said. “Zhemgang’s decision was led by one gup. Paro Taktsang timing came from dzongkhag. We can’t blame LG for such cases.”

What is seen as a thorny issue, qualification of elected LG members could also be looked into without having to amend the LG Act. Officials said that government machinery like the Election Commission of Bhutan and Department of Local Governance could resolve the qualification issue.  “If we really believe that gup’s educational qualification should be higher, we can do it by raising the standard of the functional literacy test (FLT),” the official said.

He explained that if gups should be familiar with laws, there has to be questions based on that. “DLG and ECB should set a competency framework for gup and set questions based on that. We don’t have to touch the legislation.”

The official also said the FLT standard should be different for gup, mangmi and tshogpa. “Setting qualification is not justifiable on the principles of democracy. Through international experience and local context, there is no link or co-relation between qualification and improved gewog performance.”


Authority in the gewogs

On the issue between members of Parliament and local leaders, officials said that there are enough provisions to strengthen parliamentarian’s oversight role in LG in the existing Act and rules.

While the Constitution clearly distinguishes MP’s role as legislative and LG as implementers of developmental activities, MPs could attend gewog tshogde and dzongkhag tshogdu. “MPs could also question LG members during constituency visits. If a MP feel there are some urgent needs in their constituency, they could talk with their tshogpa and gup and route that agenda through GT.”

He explained there are enough tools from the planning framework and guidelines in 12th Plan, which talks about utilising the budget. “So if a MP prioritises an activity, he or she could talk to the people and let them raise it through the tshogpa in chiwog zomdu.”

He said the MP might not have anything to show but people will get what they want. 

“If the MPs want to facilitate, it will be done. If it is for power, it will not be there.” He reiterated there is no problem with the legislation, but a problem of implementation and when there are gaps, people assume there are problems in local government.