The appointment of the new Labour Minister Karma Dorji has brought a unique situation of a first ever elected minister whose company (eDruk) is still executing a government tender from the flagship project of Digital Drukyul.
While the business license for eDruk is owned by Karma Dorji’s mother the minister as of now still owns 80% shares in the private limited company.
eDruk had won a Digital Drukyul tender of Nu 81 mn in September 2020 for laying internet fiber optic cables for 10 Dzongkhags in the West and South. The work entails taking the cable head from Gewog Centers who already have the fiber cable to all government offices like RNR centers, BHUs etc and also schools.
These institutions currently use Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell towers for internet which is not as reliable as cables.
It has finished work in Tsirang, Wangdue, Punakha, Haa and Paro and are doing works in Dagana, Gasa and Thimphu with the next two Dzongkhags being Chukha and Samtse which could not happen earlier due to the lockdowns there.
When the paper asked the new minister about this Lyonpo Karma Dorji said that before contesting the by election he asked the ECB if he can contest with such shares and the ECB had said it is okay as long as the business license is not in his name.
Lyonpo said he was not actively involved in running the company and before the by election he had resigned from the post of Advisor to the company.
He said it is not a very large company as the company had started with a capital of 10 million and he now owns 80% of its shares which is 8 million.
He said the company had started as a sole proprietorship owned by his mother and then it became a private limited company with him owning the shares.
Lyonpo said, “There is no problem with my share ownership, but now I am thinking and so it is in the process, and I am transferring the shares. As of now, the transfer procedure has not been completed.”
Lyonpo said he would be transferring the shares to his wife and other family members.
The company website of eDruk says, that eDruk Consultancy was founded and registered in the year 2004, with its office in Changzamtog Industrial Estate, Thimphu, Bhutan.
It says it was one of the first software firms in Bhutan. The site says the core expertise of the firm was web based application development and the first firm in Bhutan to undertake major G2C applications like Job Portal, LabourNet, Immigration Information System etc.
The CEO of eDruk till 2018 was Karma Dorji but he said that he resigned in 2018 before contesting the elections and after losing the elections he served there as an advisor.
In the company photo line of who is who, Karma Dorji’s photo is before the CEO.
Lyonpo said it has been a while since the the company got the tender and it has completed around 60 to 70% of the works but some works are still ongoing due to delays caused by the Pandemic.
The minister said that he is not the owner of the company as it was owned by his mother and once it became a private limited company he owns 80 percent of the shares, but the license is still owned by his mother.
One concern is that if his position in the cabinet would impact the government’s assessment of the project once it is completed.
Here, the minister said that on the assessment part there is step system where at every step the project is assessed and they have to complete the milestones and the last portion is remaining and so the verification is largely done. He said not everything is done at the end as earlier the equipment used, completion of works in Dzongkhags were done earlier and according to that the bill is released.
Lyonpo said that eDruk is one of the oldest IT companies as they had started in 2004 and had taken part in G2C projects.
The company currently has 12 permanent staff and 17 temporary staff hired for the project.
In 11 December 2020 the DPT had issued a press release titled ‘Opposition Party’s Assessment of Government’s second year in office.’
The press release went into various areas from the economy to private schools and one of the topics mentioned under the sub heading ‘Political corruption and public misinformation’ was this project.
The 2020 DPT press release said, “We believe that the government must be accountable to the people, transparent and fair. The government needs to make public the people involved in executing the Digital Druk Yul project, those involved in supplying electric cars and allied projects.”
In response to a question by The Bhutanese an Opposition MP on the condition of anonymity said that they were referring to eDruk getting the Nu 81 mn contract.
The Opposition MP asked how can a sitting cabinet minister’s company have an ongoing tender implementation and said there would be conflict of interest and check and balance issues.
However, the Opposition was unwilling to come out openly on this and in fact the paper was requested to not portray the Opposition as directly attacking the Labour Minister. The senior MP said the Opposition is already handling a lot of things.
The paper enquired with the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) on the Nu 81 mn tender and the DITT clarified that there had been an open tender process with multiple applicants and the eDruk was the lowest evaluated bidder to win one part of the project of 10 Dzongkhags while another 10 Dzongkhags went to a different company called Palden.
The DITT said that another company is supplying the switch router, switches and supply router.
DITT said the only tenders given directly on government order were to DHI or IT Park which is for Digital ID, Bhutan Integrated Tax and electronic Patient Identity System.
Lyonchhen Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering said the work of eDruk had been won in a tender long ago and he has no problems with that.
“They carry on with the same format. If we put in favorable conditions for him from now, then that is wrong. If we extend it beyond certain things and add in more components, then that is wrong. It was tendered out before so what is the problem,” asked Lyonchhen.
Lyonchhen said that having an active contract with the government is not a problem but creating a new contract is the problem.
“That project was tendered out and he got it as a Bhutanese and now if there are problems there then I have nothing to say. Now if he silently inserts some provisions to the cabinet saying something is not okay or he requires a time duration extension or there is a cost escalation and if we approve it then you can say he manipulated there,” said the PM.
He said he knows he won that contract but he thought it must be done already.
Lyonchhen said, “As long as he qualifies as an MP from ECB, I have no problem. My duty now as the Chairman of the cabinet is to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. In every cabinet meeting the third agenda is declaration of conflict of interest. I read out the cabinet agenda and when I spot something where there could be potential conflict, I point it out and ask if anybody has conflict and then only we go ahead.”
The new Labour minister said his two main priorities would be reskilling and creation of employment. Lyonpo said that it is his personal view that for employment creation the 21st Century Digital Economy would be quite popular.
When the paper asked Lyonpo on if he had chosen the Labour Ministry he said he did not have such a discussion with Lyonchhen as it is the prerogative of Lyonchhen.
However, the Prime Minister said that Karma Dorji had told him that he would be more comfortable with the Labour Ministry and so he asked Lyonpo Ugen Dorji if he would be okay with the Home Ministry and Lyonpo Ugen had agreed to it.
Talking about the formation of the DNT Karma Dorji said that after he did his Masters in Australia and came back and he met Dr Tandi Dorji and Tenzin Lekphell in mid-2009 in a momo shop in Hong Kong market. It was there where the idea of a third party came up given the existence of two sharply divided parties and after that they took it from there.