Bhutan has witnessed a steady exodus of its public servants, with reports indicating a significant departure, particularly among the most productive mid-level professionals. This mass departure raises concerns not only about the functionality of key institutions but also about the immense pressure on the remaining public servants, who are now tasked with providing essential services without compromise. A recent directive from the Ministry of Finance on the requirement to carpool or avoid official travels adds another layer to this complex situation.

The notification urges public agencies to curtail official travels, enforce carpooling, and disable mileage claims for group travel through the electronic Data and Travel System (eDATS). This measure risks damaging morale of public servants. While cost-cutting motives are understandable, these measures overstep legal bounds and contradict national policies aimed at retaining the talent pool in public service.

The notification argues that travel claims should not be considered an additional income source, contradicting the principles enshrined in the Constitution and employment legal framework. The Constitution guarantees equal pay for work of equal value, and the Pay Structure Reform Act of 2022 and the Pay Revision Act of 2023 emphasize fair remuneration to maintain a decent standard of living and retain talent in the public service. The presumption that public servants are exploiting travel claims for personal gain is unfounded, as the compensation provided does not adequately cover fuel expenses, let alone maintenance costs. Expecting employees to bear associated costs and risks without compensation conflicts with employees’ social rights.

The directive appears discriminatory, disproportionately affecting mid-level and lower-income employees. Executives enjoy chauffeur-driven vehicles, and Members of Parliament receive Nu.1 million to purchase vehicles in addition to monthly fuel, driver’s allowance, and maintenance, highlighting a stark contrast in treatment.

Furthermore, the directive infringes on the private rights of public servants by mandating carpooling. Public servants often use their private vehicles for official purposes, such as attending meetings within the towns or nearby areas, saving substantial public funds. The state’s failure to acknowledge this silent contribution, saving billions in fuel, and its attempt to enforce carpooling without addressing potential costs like maintenance and repairs raise ethical and legal concerns.

The Ministry’s push for carpooling raises questions about the use of private property for public purposes. Mandating carpooling with colleagues forces the use of private property against owners’ wishes. Employers cannot make such demands ethically or legally. Refusal must be permitted as it is their property, and property owners have the right to decide who will travel with them, not their supervisors.

Questions arise regarding the equity of imposing restrictions solely on lower-income public servants. Would parliament members accept a proposal that only 1 of 5 MPs receives a driver allowance, fuel allowance, and maintenance allowance, while the others must ride along to the same parliamentary meetings during the parliamentary session? Similarly, would the Ministry mandate that 4 secretaries share one chauffeured vehicle for official meetings in Thimphu or joint travel to the same destination? If not, is it fair to apply this rule to professional public servants who execute government plans and policies? All public servants deserve appropriate compensation and resources to perform their duties.

Thus, fairly compensating private vehicle use could motivate public servants to perform better. Expanding office fleets could also decrease reliance on employee transportation. Revisiting policies constructively will strengthen public service, retain talent, and motivate productivity. At this juncture, boosting public servant morale is a critical step.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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