I n Bhutan, ministers, senior bureaucrats and constitutional post holders often get the official and media limelight – given their nature of work and responsibility.
Members of Parliament (MPs) have not figured much, so far, leading some to ask the question if our MPs are doing any real work at all, apart from sitting silently in the Parliament session, and blindly following party lines or party leaders.
However, the National Assembly’s Legislative Committee lead by its Chairperson Lekey Dorji is a strong and welcome exception.
It is clear that the nine members of the Committee, cutting across party lines, have applied themselves and done their homework on the RTI bill.
This is clear from the several new amendments and new clauses proposed to the old near defunct RTI bill.
The Legislative Committee has not only given life to the RTI bill – by removing several restrictive clauses, but it has in the process strengthened Bhutanese democracy and showed a true understanding of fundamental rights, like the Right to Information.
The new amendments, proposed by the Legislative Committee, remove several exemption clauses, take away the appellate authority from the MoIC, and it does away with need to give reasons and penalty provisions for misuse of sought information. It also does away with indefinite time extensions and introduces penalties for non-compliance by agencies.
The work of the Legislative Committee and its Chairperson was clearly visible as they consulted a range and cross section of Bhutanese stakeholders making, perhaps the RTI, the most consulted bill in Bhutanese Parliamentary history.
The Legislative Committee has recognized that though some powerful and vested interests among politicians and senior bureaucrats want to deny citizens a fundamental right, most Bhutanese people support the RTI and what it means for them.
The Legislative Committee and its Chairman are not only serving their constituents well by doing this, but more importantly, the nation and its people.
RTI, in short, is the only law that actually belongs to the people. Every other law outlines the power and authority of agencies over citizens. RTI is the only law, whereby, the true masters in a democracy get some degree of say and involvement in governing themselves.
The Committee has done its work, but there is still a long road ahead as the bill has to pass through the NA and then the National Council before becoming an Act.
While the role of the Legislative Committee must be appreciated, there is an increasing tendency of ministers to develop cold feet, especially on the negative feedback of senior bureaucrats who want to remain in their ivory towers and not become a part of the democratic process.
The ministers must remember that it was not long ago that they were brought to dizzying heights of power on the platform and promise of change and not misplaced advice of senior bureaucrats. If the current elected government considerably weakens the Act and is not able to translate their slogan of change – then it will show that they have become a part of the status quo.
It is an open secret that senior bureaucrats are the strongest opponents of the bill because more than anyone – it makes them accountable. Bhutan’s unique democratic system has created a situation where senior bureaucrats have become virtually independent power centres that can run a parallel system from the minister and even undermine elected leaders. Also, ministers and politicians will get changed every five years, but senior bureaucrats stay on for ages.
Some ministers are under the assumption that a ‘majority’ don’t want RTI or that there are equal numbers on both sides of the debate. They are mistaken in this assumption because rough polls and surveys including those done by media houses have shown tremendous public support for the RTI bill – in both urban and rural areas. Some ministers have gathered this wrong assumption as they are surrounded by senior bureaucrats who for obvious reasons are mainly concentrated in Thimphu and that too mainly around ministers.
But apart from all the poll numbers – both now and in 2018, the real reason to pass an intact and strong RTI bill, as proposed by the Legislative Committee, is that RTI is a fundamental right already guaranteed under the Constitution. The only question now is – if that fundamental right will be respected so that the entire citizenry and system benefits, or other short-term perceived benefits, vested interests and misplaced fears triumph.
“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle,
there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” -Joseph Pulitzer