While here in the urban areas we carry on the norms of democracy by expressing our views, criticizing the government, holding it accountable and asserting our rights, the story is very different in the rural areas.
A close observation of rural life will lead many to conclude that democracy is still yet to take strong hold among the grassroots. While democracy in the form of rural voters electing MPs to parliament is present there is still a lot left to be desired in terms of democratic culture and practices in rural areas.
Though without any legal basis, it is still common place for local government leaders to summarily ‘fine’ those who fail to attend zomdus which is often held to even discuss petty issues.
Ad hoc collection of money for various purposes many of which serve no real public interest is still ‘compulsory’ in many rural areas. In most cases proper accounts are not maintained as money often makes its way into the pockets of a few influential local people.
Most rural people have no idea about the 11th plan and as in many cases they are not properly consulted by the local Gup’s office.
With decentralization and budget being allocated directly to gewogs the rural people often have no idea of the developmental projects and the budget sanctioned for it. There is, therefore, a lot of intransparency and the quality of developmental work leaves a lot more to be desired.
The Gup, Mangmi and Tshogpas still have tremendous powers over the life of rural citizenry from official work to ad hoc woolas. There is little or no accountability and rural folk are fearful of attracting the ire of local government officials who control everything from their census records to timber permits.
It is also an open secret that there has been and there still is rampant corruption in the local government level be it on misuse of government funds or other matters like grabbing government land.
The blame for all of the above must be laid at several doors but especially at the government and the local government level.
The ruling party has confused democratizing local governments with empowering their own MPs and government structures.
Decentralization stands at the core of a successful democracy and direct central control, no matter how efficient, cannot be a substitute for local self government. However, it also does not mean leaving the local government to its own ignorance, lack of capacity and backwardness.
The ruling government has not taken any concrete measures in the last five years to strengthen the capacity of the local governments. The ruling government has also failed to satisfactorily inculcate a democratic culture and spirit in the rural areas.
Transparency and good governance laws like the Right to Information which would have empowered the rural citizenry to get information and thereby hold local governments accountable have been ignored.
The government has to realize that the story of Bhutan’s democracy does not start and end with general elections held every five years but it has to move beyond that as well.
The ruling government apart from governing as the executive and making laws in the parliament has both a moral and democratic duty to bring the democratic culture to the grassroots.
Democracy beyond empowering MPs, party workers, Gups and tshogpas must instead focus on empowering the people.
The local government must also realize that gone are the days when Gups held much power and little accountability. The local government which is often tainted with corruption scams and inefficiency must wake up from its semi-feudal past and take part in a modern and democratic Bhutan. It can no longer treat people as feudal subjects but instead must treat them as citizens. This is especially when His Majesty the King himself demonstrates more humility and kindness to the poorest and weakest sections then most local government heads.
Local governments must be more transparent and democratic in their functioning and not let outdated local norms triumph over the constitution or other laws.
The Election Commission beyond holding successful local and general elections must use the interval five years to aggressively make people in the rural areas aware of the larger rights they enjoy in a democracy.
The local Dzongkhag office with the Dzongdas and Dzongrabs must ensure that local governments function within the purview of the law especially when it comes to money and woola.
The Media which is largely urban based due to limited resources should try and also focus on injustices, in transparency and corruption in rural areas.
Bhutan’s transition to democracy will only be truly successful when the rural majority enjoys the same democratic privileges, rights, awareness and powers that their educated urban cousins do.