In the mid 1980s a special committee on land found several irregularities over land cases across the country involving land officials, influential people and judges. Two decades later, the High level committee report of 2003 covering only Thimphu found similar practices involving a similar set of characters.
This was despite numerous Kasho from His Majesty the Fourth King and the 1979 Land Act to defer to the laws of the country on land allotment.
It has been nine years since 2003 and even today if there is a review of the records than there could be even more serious omissions and commissions.
The land scam cases discovered so far are only the tip of the iceberg. However, the trend and pattern is a troubling one especially since, land in Bhutan is the ultimate asset prized by farmers and urban dwellers alike.
The land scams have shown so far a dangerous nexus of senior government leaders, influential people, bureaucrats, judges, land officials and local government leaders. These powerful few have been getting together with a level of coordination and cooperation that would put the concept of division of powers in a state to shame.
The land scams are simply not scams but are symptoms of a larger problem of governance and shows that a powerful few feel they can get away with anything. The naked and often crude abuse of power at various levels, many in defiance of royal Kashos, shows the seriousness of this problem.
The scams show that corrupt land officers have gone to the extent of tampering land records to change decimals into acres and create overnight millionaires. In other cases land officers have come under pressure from influential people to do what is told even though it is against the law.
The above cases show that there is a serious need to rehaul and revamp the entire land administration system. The need of the hour is more transparency, more checks and balances and accountability.
When people entrust their money in the banks they don’t expect to get robbed by the bank, the same should be the case with land offices in Thimphu and across the country.
With democracy coming in there has been some talk that elected leaders should also have a say over land Kidu to individuals. First of all, this notion goes against the Constitution as only His Majesty the King can grant land Kidu under the Constitution. Secondly, if the land scams have shown anything, it is a reaffirmation that land Kidu is only best entrusted to His Majesty the King.
Land scams are also a complete antithesis to the principles of GNH as it attacks all the four pillars of GNH. Good Governance becomes poor governance as the system is subverted and laws are broken. Economic development becomes skewed with increased gulf between the haves and have-nots. Environment and eco-systems are destroyed as land is also grabbed from forests and Culture is also affected as a corruption and abuse of power become accepted norms in society.
The scams also show that the ACC, RAA, media and civil societies need to do much more in the battle against corruption and abuse of power. There is now also a need more than ever for transparency laws like the Right to Information so that ordinary people also get the power of information to stop such corrupt practices at the grass-root levels.
There is also a need to maintain a strong system of accountability in local governments as many land scams have shown the active cooperation and connivance of local government officials. The judiciary as it evolves into a more independent institution should ensure that they become a part of the solution by clearly implementing land laws. In the past there are cases of judges passing land judgments that violated the Land Act 1979 and Royal Kashos in favor of influential people.
The elected government on its part has the most important role to play by enforcing its zero-tolerance policy on corruption.
However, what is of utmost importance is fixing accountability but this still seems to be a far cry as many guilty officials and judges have not been punished despite the High Level committee report asking for action against them.
Also, despite the report many of the excess lands are yet to be physically taken over by the Dzongkhags, Thimphu City Corporation and the National Land Commission. This does not reflect well on the system as it shows that the ‘big fish and small fish’ theory is true after all .