Royal Ascent issued to discuss Bill in joint sitting

MB Subba 

To the disappointment of many parliamentarians, especially National Council (NC) members, the Speaker during the joint sitting yesterday, deferred the amendment of the disputed Mines and Minerals Bill (MMB) 2020 indefinitely.

Parliament had received a Royal Assent to convene a joint sitting to discuss the Bill. However, in less than two hours after the National Assembly secretary general read out the Druk Gyalpo’s kasho granted as per Article 13(8) of the Constitution on the disputed MM Bill 2020, the Speaker decided to defer it without a hint of when it will be discussed again.

Article 13(8) states: “Where the House in which the Bill originated refuses to incorporate such amendments or objections of the other House, it shall submit the Bill to the Druk Gyalpo, who shall then command the Houses to deliberate and vote on the Bill in a joint sitting.”

Members of the NC and the Opposition Party expressed concerns on the joint parliamentary committee’s recommendation to the Speaker to defer the Bill. The joint committee met six times but did not present a report in the joint sitting although the Legislative Rules of Procedure (LRoP) requires it to do so.

NC Chairperson Tashi Dorji said that although two disputed Bills were deferred in the past, the legality of the provision in the LRoP should be discussed as members had raised questions. “Two wrongs will not make a right,” he said.

He said that years of discussions on the Bill would go in vain if it was deferred. 

The Chairperson said that it seemed that there was actually consensus among the parties as the government had already handed over mines to the State Mining Corporation Limited (SMCL) and that the economic affairs minister had said in the House that it would continue to do so.

A member of NC said that Parliament violated Article 13(8) of the Constitution and also did not respect the “Royal Message to the Houses of Parliament” issued in 2009 on the disputed local government and the royal civil service Bills, as per which that joint sitting was to deliberate and vote on the Bill.

The royal message stated: “If a Bill cannot be passed in a joint sitting then it should for all purposes be declared as a dead Bill as all steps for deliberation and efforts towards consensus have been exhausted. Such a dead Bill would then normally be withdrawn and reintroduced in Parliament as per the laws in force, and allowing for adequate consultation and stakeholder deliberations.”

The Parliament secretariat had allocated three days for deliberation of the Bill given its importance.

NC’s Eminent Member, Ugyen Tshering argued that there was no provision in the Constitution to defer a disputed Bill after presenting it in the joint sitting. Citing Article 13(8) of the Constitution, he questioned the legality of committee’s recommendation to defer the Bill.

The LRoP empowers the Speaker to defer a disputed Bill from voting and such bills may be reintroduced in future following due legislative process. The LRoP initially did not have provisions for withdrawal of a disputed Bill but it was amended in 2017 after Parliament faced a similar situation on the motor vehicle agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indian and Nepal (BBIN) and the European Investment Bank agreement, which were also deferred from the joint sitting.

However, Eminent Member Ugyen Tshering said that all rules and laws that are in contradiction with the Constitution are null and void.

Drametse-Ngatshang MP Ugyen Wangdi also said that the committee had failed to come up with a report despite several rounds of meetings and that the Bill should be put to vote.

The LRoP states that the decision to accept or reject such a proposal in the joint committee shall be done through a simple majority of the total number of members of the committee present and voting, in which the chairperson or the vice chairperson accused shall not participate.

However, the committee chairperson, Kinley Wangchuk, said that the committee did not resort to voting as the number of members from the Assembly outnumbered that of NC. The committee has seven and five members from the National Assembly and the NC respectively.

He said that committee could not present a report as members representing the two Houses continued to hold their grounds.

Views along party lines?

Opposition Leader Dorji Wangdi said that the Bill should either be passed or declared dead through voting and that it can be revived as a new Bill at a later stage. “We don’t have the option to defer a disputed Bill that has been put in the joint sitting,” he said, suggesting that the joint committee should reshuffle members and present a report in the coming sessions.

He said that BBIN agreement and the European Investment Bank agreement were deferred as a one-time measure on the second government’s request to Parliament given the sensitive nature of the Bills. “If the past decisions were wrong, we should correct them,” he said.

Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said that he had no conflict of interest over the Bill and that he was following the LRoP. He questioned why the LRoP was not amended in the past if it was in contravention with the Constitution.

Bongo Chapcha MP Tshewang Lhamo said that the Bill should benefit all including the private sector and that Parliament needed some time to decide. She said that there were no efforts to amend the LRoP if it was in violation of the Constitution.

Tshewang Lhamo said that it was important to uphold the LRoP adopted by Parliament and that there was no harm in deferring the Bill.

The National Assembly and the government want strategic mines to be operated by the state and non-strategic mines auctioned to the private sector. The “strategic” mines, according to Assembly members, are those that are limited in supply as well as those that have high value.

Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma said that the Bill gave opportunity for both state-owned enterprises and the private sector to participate in the mines and minerals sector. He said that he had expected support of Parliament to pass the Bill.

“The Bill should benefit the people and that there are provisions to ensure that all, including the affected community should benefit,” he said. The government has said that promoters of mines and minerals should float shares to the public to prevent concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

However, the NC states that operation of all proven mines should be operated by the state. Such a provision in the Bill, NC says, will make all the people of Bhutan shareholders of mines and minerals.

The Bill was introduced and passed by the Assembly in its second and third sessions of the third Parliament and presented to the Council for deliberation during its 26th Session.