MB Subba

The past year for Parliament, which coincided with the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) government’s first year, was largely significant given the money Bills passed and the issues discussed. 

The first and the most important task of the first session was to deliberate and endorse the 12th five-year Plan (Plan) with a total outlay of 310 billion (B). Members had assembled for the session just two months after the conclusion of the third general elections.

In one of the significant changes, the Parliament aligned Plan cycle with the government’s tenure so that electoral cycles do not affect development activities. 

The government had said that Plan period should go from government to government although now it is hinting at doing away with the five-year plan system. 

Except for the adoption of the 12th Plan and the ratifications two protocols – the Air Services Agreement between Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates and the Amendment to the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the Ozone Layer – the first session of the third National Assembly did not pass any important legislative Bills. The session lasted only 24 days. 

The second session of the National Assembly, which coincided with the conclusion of the government’s first year in office, saw heated debates. 

It was Dagana’s Drukjeygang Tseza MP Jurmi Wangchuk, who stole most of the limelight in the second session. He was, however, at the receiving end as a video clip of his personal attack on Panbang MP, Dorji Wangdi, went viral.

It was said that the Panbang MP had made a false allegation to provoke MP Jurmi Wangchuk. But the former’s comments were not circulated on social media.

The heated exchange between the two MPs was triggered by the decision of the human rights and foreign relations committee to withdraw the Police (amendment) Act Bill. 

Except for the Civil and Criminal Procedural Code (Amendment) Bill 2019, the second session of the National Assembly did not pass other legislative Bills. The session withdrew the local government (amendment) Bill and the Mines and Minerals Bill. 

The Pay revision Bill was the most significant Bill passed by the second session. But the Bill was not passed without controversies as the opposition stated that the pay revision had caused discrepancies and disgruntlements among civil servants due to the government’s decision to provide high allowances for a select section of professionals.

The government provided the highest share of allowances to clinical health professionals and teachers.

The Opposition said that it was inappropriate for the government to upload the Pay Commission’s report on social media, saying that doing so would allow different lobby groups to pressurise for increased allowances on various pretexts. But the government said that sharing of the report in the public domain helped them improve the pay revision report. 

The 22nd session of the National Council (NC) which commenced with the beginning of the government’s tenure did not introduce new legislative Bills. However, it reviewed issues related to harmful use of alcohol; and technical and vocational education training (TVET) among other issues.  

The NC’s 23rd session ratified the Amendment to the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the Ozone Layer and the Air Service Agreement between Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates, which the National Assembly had forwarded to the House.  

The House of reviewed passed Impeachment Procedure Bill and Minister and Minister Equivalent Post Holder’s Entitlement Bill in its 23rd session. In an unprecedented manner, however, the National Assembly this year refused to deliberate them and returned to the NC.

It was observed that debates in the last two sessions were generally issue-based. However, a need for improvement in the quality of proposed legislations and debates was felt, especially in the National Assembly. 

In what was also an indication of lack of homework from relevant committees and ministries, the parliament spent a significant amount of time pointing out clerical errors and mismatch between Dzongkha and English texts. 

Officials had said that members and ministries needed to dedicate more time in drafting of Bills and recommendations and review of issues. The secretariat lacked experts to assist committees. 

Another issue in parliament has been filibustering although some MPs rarely took the floor. The Speaker made efforts to stop long speeches that were not necessarily on the issue. 

As in the past parliaments, it was the same MPs who contribute to most of the debates. Some MPs spoke mostly on their constituency issues such as human-wildlife conflict but remained mute on policy and national issues.

In the National Assembly English was used more often in the first session but that there was a some improvement in the second session in terms of MPs’ ability to express in Dzongkha. 

The use of Bhutanese proverbs has been one of the features of the present parliament irrespective of one’s fluency in Dzongkha. Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering was one of the members who used proverbs almost every time he spoke and the secretariat said that the proverbs were recorded. 

During the first one year, Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel was able to carve a niche for himself as a non-partisan Speaker to a large extent. 

From reminding the prime minister about the need to carry debate materials in the House to voting against the Cabinet’s opinion, the Speaker has been candid in presiding over the proceedings of the House.

The Speaker cast the deciding vote for empowering a parliament committee to review State Owned Enterprises’ annual budgets after a rare tie of 20-20 in the second session. Members of the Cabinet had rejected the recommendation from the economic and finance committee due to concerns about encroachment on the executive power.

The ongoing session of Parliament, which began on January 15 and will end on March 6, is one of the longest sessions. It has been considered a crucial session for the government in terms of discussions on Bills that it believes would achieve the objective of narrowing the gap.

The Mines and Minerals Bill (MMB) 2020 and Money Bills, including the Goods and Service Tax (GST) Bill, are two of the significant Bills that are being discussed in Parliament. The parliament has passed the Tourism Levy Bill that will levy Nu 1,200 on each regional tourist per night.  

The proposed changes if passed are expected to set the tone for the government for the remaining three and a half years.