The Bhutanese, in an investigation has found that the former Education Minister Thakur Singh Powdyel’s wife Bhakti Maya Powdyel had bought 50 decimals of land right next to the Education City site in June 2012.
The Education Ministry is one of the key stakeholders in the Education City project responsible for helping to facilitate and get foreign Institutes and also ensure a quality check on the institutes coming in.
The paper has also found that the former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley owns around seven acres of dry land in Selekha which is opposite the Education City site. He had brought the land in 1978 from a local farmer.
A few meters below the Ex-Prime Minister’s land, the former Works and Human Settlement Minister Yeshey Zimba’s wife Thuji Zam owns 14 acres of apple orchard land. The land in question is her own ancestral property inherited from her parents who were a prominent family in the area.
The former Speaker Jigme Tshultim owns 7.40 acres of dry land next to the Education City site which he had bought in 1978.
The Education Secretary Sangay Zam owns 2.70 acres of land right opposite the site with the bridge to the City starting from near her land. In her case too as the sister of Lyonpo Zimba’s wife the Education Secretary inherited the property from her parents.
Increasing land prices
Land prices in and around the Education City site have been shooting up over the last few months with the start of the project commencing with the ongoing construction of the access road and bridge.
Local landowners said that in the area where the Education Minister’s wife brought the land the initial prices of Nu 20,000 to 25,000 per decimal a year ago is now up to Nu 40,000 per decimal. Prices are expected to shoot up dramatically over the years in all surrounding areas due to the huge size of the project.
Ex-Education Minister’s wife admits to buying land
In an interview with the paper the Education Minister’s wife admitted that they had bought the land at Nu 25,000 per decimal in around June 2012. She said that due to restriction from the National Land Commission on transaction of Thrams until the final Thrams are issued she had signed a legal agreement with a local farmer Tshering buying the land. “We have already paid Nu 400,000 is advance which is around half the amount.”
She said that her husband knew that she was buying the land and he had gone and taken a Nu 500,000 loan from Druk-PNB for this purpose for which they were still paying the installments.
She said that a cousin of hers told her about land being available there. She also said that both her family and the former Minister did not own any other property in Thimphu and Paro and there were concerns on what they would do after his retirement.
When contacted by the paper on Friday afternoon the former Education Minister initially said that neither he nor his wife owned land at the site. However, when he was informed of his wife’s discussion with the paper the former minister said that his wife and her friends had gone to see a site looking at the possibility of buying land but all he knew was that the transaction was not complete.
Denials made Earlier
A day earlier on Thursday the Education Minister Thakur Singh Powdyel in a common forum debate broadcast live from his constituency denied that either he or any other minister’s owned land anywhere near the Education City site.
Prior to this the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa also declared that no minister owned land in and around the Education City site. This was in response to an unverified and anonymous social media website Bhutanomics alleging that some ministers and a few others owned huge tracts of land right next to the Education City.
The Bhutanese, found that though ministers do own land near the site Bhutanomics had exaggerated the size of private land, its location and had also named individuals who did not own land there.
At the start of the DPT’s political campaign the Party President Jigme Y Thinley referring to the website had refuted allegations that he and some of his colleagues owned land around the Education City site. He had said, “We’ll willingly give away the land we’ve been alleged to have to people if it were true.”
Landowners role in the Education City Project and Site Selection
The Bhutanese, has found that except in the case of the Speaker all other landowners in the site have had major roles in approving the project, finalizing the Education City site and also the Nu 479 mn government budget for infrastructure works.
The Ex-Prime Minister, Ex-MOWHS Minister and Ex-Education Minister’s as members of the cabinet gave the green light on the entire Education City project.
Yeshey Zimba was the Chairman of the initial Empowered Group set up for the project with government secretaries including the Education Secretary Sangay Zam as its member. This group had approved the joint bid of ILFS and Infinity for the Education City.
This Empowered group based on a set of options and recommendations from DHI Infra had also selected the final site as the current site.
DHI Infra’s General Manager of project, Dr Karma said that DHI had looked at several sites based on factors like distance from the airport, distance from Thimphu and slope of the land. He said many of these requirements were those expressed by potential investors in the project.
DHI Infra’s Kapil said, “The Education City Project office was under DHI at the time lead by Project Director Kinga Tshering (now DPT MP from North Thimphu) and we did an initial study with the National Land Commission looking at where land was available across the country.”
The Education City project discussion in the Parliament saw many MPs saying the project should be in an area away from Thimphu which was already developed. Many MPs in fact wanted the project in their own Dzongkhags.
DHI’s Education City Project office looked at feasible areas in Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Bumthang, Paro, Thimphu Dzongkhag and Tsirang.
In Bumthang the project looked at a beautiful spot in Shingkhar followed by another area in Wobthang. In Wangdiphodrang the Khotokha area 30 km from Wangdi Dzong, which at one time had been identified for a possible airport was looked at.
In Punakha both Kabjisa and Limbukha were looked at as potential sites. In Tsirang the Tsirangtoe area was looked at as a potential site.
Kapil said that though all of them were potential sites in some cases the areas were either too far off or a lot of trees would have to be cut down. He said that given the requirements the two most viable options, which were Khotokha area with a nice lay of land not very far from the airport and the current site in Chuzom were presented along with all others sites. The Empowered group settled with the Chuzom site.
The Empowered Group after the passing of the Education City Bill was turned into the Bhutan Education City (BEC) Board with Yeshey Zimba as Chairman and several secretaries including the Education Secretary as a member.
The BEC board as per the Education City Bill is the government’s representative to deal with the project and its owners. The Board has extensive financial, regulatory and other powers given to it by the Bill.
Issues and Controversy with the project
The Education City project first came to light in December 2009 when the Infinity Group’s then representative in Bhutan Palden Tshering and also nephew to the PM said that a Calcutta based company Infinity wanted to start a USD 1 bn Education City project in Bhutan. In the interview with the same reporter in response to a question Palden revealed that the Prime Minister’s son Palden Thinley was also working in the project .
He said that in June 2009 the company had already approached the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The government had already authorized the setting up of an inter-ministerial committee under the MoEA Secretary Dasho Sonam Tshering.
On February 17, 2010 a cabinet website press release said, “The cabinet has approved giving about 1,000 acres of land to DHI to be used as equity grant in the proposal to build a knowledge city in Bhutan by the Indian-based company, Infinity Techno Parks.”
Soon after controversies followed the project as questions were raised over transparency in the project, the inherent conflict of interests, the capacity of the Infinity and the potential impact of the project.
Infinity was found to be just a Nu 10b company and their experience was is in information technology with no experience in education city or even colleges. Infinity’s 12 commercial projects mostly comprised of single or double multistory buildings in different locations mainly in and around Kolkata.
The government then announced that DHI would go on a ‘road show’ to attract possible bidders for the project. Ultimately the bid was taken by a sole partnership of ILFS and Infinity bidding together as a Consortium.
After the bid the government was no longer taking a 30 percent equity stake in return for 1,000 acres as originally planned. Instead a 2.01 percent of the revenue and a Nu 10 mn annual land lease fee were agreed too along with 50 acres of land to be given to the government as space.
In the midst of the rupee and credit crisis when the government was slashing expenditure everywhere the project was allocated around Nu 470 mn to be spent over the next three years in providing facilities like road connectivity and water facility for the project.
The project and the institutions in it have been granted a 100 percent tax holiday till 2030. By contrast Special Economic Zones in India give only a five year complete tax holiday with a 50% tax holiday for the next 10 years.
The Jigmeling Industrial Estate is planned on the similar lines as a SEZ like Education City. However in Jigmeling of the 733 acres the developer has to hand back around 300 acres to the government for free.
A key reason why many bidders did not come for the Education City bid was because of the refusal to change the 30% commercial and 70% institutional ratio of the project. Potential bidders wanted a higher commercial space of 40% to 50% and more to make shops, hotels etc but were refused.
However, the latest agreement signed between the ILFS/ Infinity consortium and the government gives space to the Bhutan Education City Board comprising of government secretaries, local government and headed by Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba to increase the commercial space in the future.
The failure of the IT Park, a project similar to the Education City, to attract investors and generate profit has renewed fresh concerns on the viability of the Education City project.
The project which is aimed at attracting numerous top notch universities and schools till date has not even been able to attract a medium grade college or school to the project.
A few non-bindings MoU’s that focus mainly in establishing short term courses have only been signed with no commitment to bring in whole institutes.
Tenzing Lamsang/ Thimphu