Workshop operators at Olakha accuse SC of siding with landlords 

Rinzin Wangchuk 

After nearly three years of litigations at various courts, the Supreme Court on July 20 finally decided that seven automobile workshop operators at Olakaha, Thimphu, have to vacate the properties.

The highest appellate court ruled that the operators vacate the property within six months since the land owners have the ownership over the buildings prompting the operators to seek government’s intervention.

Operators said that the court’s decision to vacate the workshops, initially established by Thimphu Thromde through government intervention,  will be detrimental to hundreds of workshop owners who are operating on rental basis. “The government should intervene at the earliest to solve the issue,” one owner said. 

The problem started after landlords were accused of charging exorbitant rents, which the operators refused to pay.

“The SC directed us to vacate buildings within six months from the date of SC’s judgment. More than 100 employees currently employed by them will become jobless, affecting the very livelihood of employees, their family members and school going children.

The government in 2008 relocated all automobile workshops from Changzamtog to the present location in Olarongchhu. Following the relocation, workshop owners invested in heavy equipment and machineries. “Rather than neutralising and de-escalating the issue, the SC has further complicated the situation without involving the government to find solutions to the matter,” aggrieved workshop owners said.


Different rulings?

Aggrieved operators said that courts have decided with different outcomes exemplifying that there are two laws in the country. For instance, they refer to the Thimphu dzongkhag court’s ruling  on November 30, 2020, which ruled that the workshop owners vacate buildings within four months after building owners  reimburse all the unlawful rent collected to respective workshop owners.  They were asked to reimburse Nu 574,950 each.

This case was pertaining to four workshop owners- Tee Dee workshop, Lungten Workshop, Sangay Workshop and Sangay Engineering Workshop. They then appealed to the High Court (HC), which overturned the lower court’s ruling. HC on July 2, 2021 increased the amount and building owners had to reimburse to workshop owners to Nu 842,901 each while allowing them to run their business until the Thimphu Thromde’s expert team assess and declare buildings as not fit for occupying.

Aggrieved by HC’s ruling, a building owner appealed to the SC.  In contrast  to the lower court’s judgments, the SC reduced the reimbursement amount to Nu 595,562 for each workshop owner and ordered the appellant to pay within six months.

The building owners had asked workshop operators to vacate their buildings since they wanted to renovate their buildings, expand, or let their children operate them.

Workshop owners said that they were forced to seek intervention from the court after they received an ultimatum to either pay the revised rent or vacate the buildings.

They also appealed to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in July 2019 to investigate allegations of favoring landlords by Thimphu Thromde. ACC then asked the Thimphu Thromde to submit a comprehensive report on “exorbitant” increase in rent of automobile workshops by landlords and on why it returned pooled land to landowners. “However, we didn’t hear the outcome of investigations,” one owner said.


Appeal for government land

Not satisfied with the SC’s verdict, seven owners appealed to the minister for works and human settlement on July 25 to temporarily allot them vacant government land on lease within Thimphu Thromde.

In their appeal letter to the minister, they stated that without immediate support and intervention from the government, it is assured that about 100 people will lose jobs. They also stated that they are skilled and specialized and have been in this business for many years.

The workshop owners have borrowed money in the course of running business and owe money to various financial institutions. “Therefore, repayment of loan is almost impossible without some reliable sources of income and immediate help from the government,” they stated.

In 2019, the owners through the Automobile Sectors’ Association of Bhutan (ASAB) appealed to the prime minister and ministers for works and human settlement, and economic affairs to allocate them government industrial land on long-term lease. This, according to ASAB, was to avoid ad hoc increase in rent and alleged forceful eviction by the building owners.

They said that there is traffic congestion due to uncontrolled construction, narrow roads due to heavy flow of vehicles and machinery kept for repair, noise and pollution in the present area, which is limited for growth. The other reasons ASAB stated were shortage of drinking water, as majority of the employees were residing in the area and poor drainage/sewerage system and  absence of waste treatment plant.

They stated that there is also risk of fire, pollution due to cramped workshops and increasing number of residential buildings in the limited space while there is no scope for expansion of workshops business and installation of latest technology and safety measure system.

When the workshops were relocated in Olakha in 2008, there were around 32 operators. Today, there are more than 100 operators in the cramped Olarongchhu area.

Works and human settlement minister, Dorji Tshering, had said that the government was exploring options to relocate the existing automobile workshops from Olarongchhu to Pamtsho or Namseling or even further.

Operators are still waiting for government land to operate their business and avoid conflict with landlords at Olarongchhu.