ICT: It required a few retrials and redials. More than 50 people, most of them with radiant blue scarves and dangling patangs, gazed at the screen. Some frowned. The IT officials ran across the room, calling and fiddling with the remote control.

Suddenly the screen comes to life. Some sighed relief. About 10 gewog officlas dressed for tshechu seated in the Tangsibji gewog hall, with butter lamps lit in front of a kuthang, appeared and bow to the audience.

It was the launch of the virtual zomdu (meeting) at the National Assembly (NA) conference hall yesterday morning. NA member from Nubi Tangsibji and National Council (NC) member from Trongsa addressed the gewog officials over the screen.

At least in 41 out of the 47 constituencies, the parliamentarians can now meet people from their demkhongs for virtual zomdus over a videoconference.

Virtual zomdu uses existing infrastructure in the community centres, which have now been established in 205 gewogs. In 136 centres, fibre optic connections will allow high definition videoconferencing.

Speaker Jigme Zangpo said the virtual zomdu is a milestone for the NA.

“The virtual zomdu would enable more interaction between the MPs and the constituents, save time and costs for the government,” Speaker Jigme Zangpo said.

The representatives would become available for work in Thimphu besides increasing government efficiency and transparency.

Representatives from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which funded the project, were also present at the launch.

The virtual zomdu is expected to do more than just save time.

UNDP Resident Representative Christina Carlson said that for sustainability of the videoconference set up, the UNDP would train community centre staff, maintain infrastructure and develop guidelines.

“The virtual zomdu will help improve equity in participation- enabling constituents, regardless of literacy and location, to speak directly with their members,” she said.

Of the 166 countries in the democracy index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Bhutan ranks 104.

One of the factors contributing to the rank is Bhutan’s score in political participation.

“Increasing levels of political participation is also included in the 11th Plan, as being critical to political legitimacy,” she said.

Civil society and parliamentary assessments conducted by UNDP in 2014 outlined accessibility as being one of the major challenges for parliamentarians in reaching their constituents.

“Local community groups expressed difficulty in having their voice heard at the national level development discourse,” she said. “Virtual zomdu will help garner political participation regardless of literacy, gender or social status.”

The virtual zomdu is expected particularly to improve women’s participation in political discourse, especially in rural areas.

“Using virtual zomdu will help cultivate Bhutan’s culture of democracy, allowing all who are affected by a decision to participate in making it,” the resident representative said.

The launch was dedicated to the 60th Birth Anniversary of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

National Assembly secretariat officials said that within a year all constituencies would avail of the virtual zomdu. The virtual zomdu project is a joint effort of the gross national happiness commission, national assembly, national council, local governance department, Bhutan Post, UNDP, and DITT.

If budget is secured, the national Assembly will launch radio within this year at its office building for the MPs to broadcast.

Tshering Palden