This week, the Supreme Court’s decision to punish moneylenders and borrowers was welcomed and appreciated. The decision protects many vulnerable populations against loan sharks making who make profit at the expense of the desperation of the poorer sections of society. However, without better alternatives, this decision may further widen the gap between haves and have-nots. The Supreme Court should have qualified when it becomes criminal, not make every borrower or lender without licence as criminal. The negative consequences of this decision will be felt by those who can’t access the financial services through formal means.  

Article 9 of the Constitution mandates the state should “ensure a good quality of life for the people of Bhutan in a progressive manner, promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness and develop and execute policies to minimize inequalities of income, the concentration of wealth, and promote equitable distribution of public facilities among individuals and people living in different parts of the Kingdom.” This, in short, means ensuring the economic justice and access to financial service is key.

Lack of access to financial services has a direct impact on basic economic justice. Economic justice looks at the “gaping issues of hunger, unemployment, and poverty that disproportionately affect low-income” or poor people of the country.  Around the world, “economic rights have been and continue to be litigated in courts.” Studies have revealed that lack of economic justice seriously affects civil and political rights in any democracy. It is said “adhering to the goals of economic justice, government actions toward protecting human dignity transition from aspirational to productive.”

In Bhutan, now with the curtain on private money lending and making it a criminal offence for both the borrower and lender, the poor sections of the society are going to face economic hardships. Bhutan has culturally evolved through the barter system, and informal lending and borrowing are ingrained in the Bhutanese system. This is particularly useful in times of difficult times like death in a house, sickness, annual rituals, harvesting and cultivation time and economic desperation. These are common to many Bhutanese, and not everyone makes a profit out of such services or loan sharks. In such time, will licensed lenders and financial institutions be there to provide immediate financial assistance? 

Reports suggest that access to financial services in Bhutan through the formal banking system is limited to those with wealth and secured employment. On the one hand, banks can give millions in education loans without collateral to go to Australia, but those who are staying back can’t even get a hundred thousand worth of loans without either collateral or secured employment.   

The issue of losing hundreds of highly qualified and mid-level career and productive Bhutanese to Australia is largely triggered by economic reasons – low income and lack of access to financial services in the country even to start a small business.   With the decision from the Supreme Court, we may drive more Bhutanese to explore opportunities outside Bhutan. With disastrous outcome in clean wage decision and no possibilities on easing access to financial services, the window of economic justice is becoming narrower.  It is time that government must, instead of closing every door on financial accessibility, devise specific strategies even if we must sacrifice something for now to plan for the future, particularly among the young Bhutanese.  

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.