The annual general meeting of the Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industries is a good forum for the private sector to raise and discuss issues concerning them. It is here the sector, now hope of the government for employment generation, raises concerns of government policies that benefit or affect them.
Therefore, it was no surprise when members almost alleged that the government was interfering and taking away their business. The chamber elects a president, who is vocal and can influence decisions, if they feel it is skewed against them, in the corridors of power. The serving president made it clear that the government or Druk Holding and Investment owned companies are competing with them.
This is a valid concern. Private sector will never be able to compete with companies that have government backing. Worse, they will never be able to grow and fulfill the aspirations of the government. The government has pinned its hopes on the private sector to contribute to GDP, ease the unemployment problem, and thereby set the economy rolling. This hope, expressed decades ago, will still remain a hope.
If the government cannot help the private sector with sound policies and access to the much-needed finance, they should not take away their business. There is no doubt about this. Companies like the Construction Development Corporation Limited (CDCL), Wood Craft Centre and State Mining Corporations, like initially envisaged when they went under the wings of the DHI, should not be in direct competition with similar private companies. For instance, maintenance of thromde roads should be left to private contractors.
If such corporations can supplement the growth of the private sector, as thought initially, there is nothing like it. We need, for instance, trained carpenters, heavy machines for hire, and standards set for mining. In short, these companies should show the way. Professionalism in business is one area that is crucial. They should be the trendsetters.
The big question however, is if the private sector is being honest about its concerns. The concerns should not be to protect vested interests. Timber is a good example. If the quality is bad, price fixed by authorities are not followed. A proposed sawmill run by the natural resource corporation could set the trend. So is with the furniture industry. Most are imported or made by expatriates. Where is the transfer of skill or job creations?
The government had announced that companies, which employ a full Bhutanese workforce – engineers and workers – need not go through the tendering process to get contracts. This is a good motivation. Why should only CDCL get to build bridges that our private sector could easily build? The sector will have the bragging rights if they show the government what they can do.
As a developing country, the government needs the private sector as much as the private sector needs the government. There should be a way forward and such fora provide good discourse to find the way.