The land of scams

The DPT Vice President’s involvement in a 10-acre land grab in Thimphu reveals once again how a powerful few can bend laws to amass assets worth millions overnight. This is corruption pure and simple.

Questions now must be asked of the entire land administration system in the country. The fact that tampering of National Land Commission (NLC) records was unearthed by a special committee two decades later speaks volumes about accountability in the NLC.

There is a blatant conflict of interest in Chang Ugyen giving 2 acres of land to the then Land records Director Lhaba Duba, after the very land records in his care was tampered allowing Chang Ugyen to claim the 10 acres.

Though Chang Ugyen is still yet to give back the misappropriated land back, the NLC, it seems, has taken a vow of silence on the scam. The enthusiasm of NLC to withhold information on this case rather than be transparent could explain why this case has been kept away from the public glare for so many years.

This case is also the tip of a well-submerged iceberg. If such blatant land grabbing could happen in the heart of the capital with the connivance of the local government then what  must be happening in more remote areas of the country. It is an open secret that local government officials in Thimphu and other dzongkhags in collusion with other authorities have amassed acres of government and community land.

The oversight agencies like ACC and nodal agencies like NLC should undertake thorough investigations across the country on how 2 decimals can become 3 acres or how huge properties can be registered in the names of the powerful with no legal documentation.

These omissions can also be avoided if the land survey officers on the field do their jobs properly. In the recent cadastral resurvey survey officers have been made little lords especially in villages where the best food and gifts are lavished on them. A good code of conduct needs to be developed for officials measuring land especially on accepting gifts and lavish banquets as it is bound to affect their judgment especially in cases where there are disputes.

The tampered records also show that there must be greater check and balance in the maintenance of records.

The fact that there is no charge sheet on this land scam leaves questions to be asked of the government. When the High Court itself asked the Office of the Attorney General to charge sheet the criminal aspects of the scam in 2008 the OAG has still not done it. Is the OAG’s reluctance to take up this case a lack of political will on the part of the elected government?

The buck passing has started with the OAG putting the blame on the ACC saying that ACC has to put forward the case to them. A senior government minister’s reaction that this is ‘politicization of a personal issue’ shows the gap between the government and the public on issues of corruption. Corruption especially involving public property can never be a ‘personal issue’.  Reactions like these are more akin to the reaction of politicians in our neighboring countries.

These kinds of cases will keep coming up if the current state of affairs continues. By now it has been established that corruption is present in the Bhutanese system and so the system itself needs to be improved.

The government apart from handing cases to ACC should think of systemic solutions to the problem of corruption. One of the immediate and doable solutions is legislation that brings about transparency like the Right to Information Bill. With RTI even an ordinary villager can be empowered to get information and prevent the all knowing local Gup from taking over acres of community land.

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