The Prime Minister in a press release (full version on page 3) defended himself and his minister’s on the Gyelpozhing land grab case which is currently under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Bhutanese, however, found that several of the arguments put forward in the press release did not match with the ground reality and the relevant laws. The press release also posted documents which in places contradicted the Prime Minister.
The press release said that the Royal Kidu issued in 1987 stopping unilateral urban land allotment was lifted gradually with the 1991 Circular of Late Dasho Dorji Tenzin of Ministry of Social Services (Works and Human Settlement) first. This was later followed by a verbal Royal command issue to Mongar Dzongda Dasho Karma Dorji in August 1998 in connection to allotment of plots in Mongar. In both communications Dzongkhag committees could allot urban plots land based on certain criteria with the final approval coming from the government. It also says that if Gyelpozhing land allotment is declared illegal all townships in the country will become illegal.
This paper, however, has found that the 1987 Kasho is still found to be in effect because the 1991 Circular and the 1998 Royal order pertains to allowing the Dzongkhag committee and the government to allot urban plots based in proper rules and criteria which were violated in the case of Gyelpozhing.
Once proper government rules and procedures were not followed in Gyelpozhing and plots were allotted in an ad-hoc manner the 1987 Royal Kasho on land prohibiting ad-hoc allotment of land was automatically violated. Only His Majesty the King can allot land outside normal government procedures as Kidu land and any allotment not respecting this is a violation of Royal Kashos.
In the case of Gyelpozhing when allotment was done from 2001-2003, both the 1991 Circular of Late Dasho Dorji Tenzin and the 1998 Royal order were violated.
The covering letter of Late Dasho Dorji Tenzin’s circular acknowledges that the late secretary received a letter from His Majesty the King about the allotment of commercial plots and township development. The late Dasho Dorji Tenzin says that he is attaching a circular as per His Majesty’s command. He says the public should abide by it and all work should be done as per the circular.
However, In Gyelpozhing all three provisions in the circular pertaining to plot allotments were violated which directly violated Royal Command and also the 1987 Kasho.
The circular says, “Preference for the allotment of commercial plots within a township should be given only to those persons who own and operate legal shops in the given township.”
None of the influential beneficiaries owned or operated legal shops in the township area. Far from having a shop in the area, they did not even have business licenses. This is while many local businessmen with valid business licenses could not get plots in spite of having applied for it.
The circular also says, “Should there be more than one competitor for a particular plot, the allotment of such plots to any of the individual should be decided on lottery basis.”
In earlier interviews to the Media, residents of Gyelpozhing claimed that of the three phases for land allotment in Gyelpozhing town, only the first phase was allotted through a lottery and that too in a controversial manner.
The people claim that the second and third phase of allotments never happened though people with business licenses applied. They say the plots were instead allocated directly to influential people.
A former tshogpa, Tshering, who was there during the land allotment, said that during the initial first phase of land allotment, a lucky draw was done in public. Based on the lucky draw, 24 prime plots were then distributed to the people that had business licenses. However, soon after allotting the land, the government officials took back the allotted plots. The same plots that had already been allotted were again put up for another lucky draw. To the surprise of many, in this redone lucky draw, business people and residents who had earlier received prime plots near the road saw their plots being taken away. They later found that these plots were given to influential people.
As additional evidence of foul play a BBS interview done on 15 September 2011 quoted the former Mongar Town Tshogpa and land allotment committee member, Tshewang Rinzin, saying, “We were just asked to sign on a pre-prepared list of names and plots. We were not told who will be getting the plots and on what criteria they were being given the plots.”
The circular of the late secretary also says, “Construction works for commercial buildings should start within a period of one year from the time of allotment.”
However, except for the former Dzongda Karma, none of the influential people had started construction even after 10 years since they were allotted the plots. Local people who got plots were asked to start construction within six months.
The circular of the late secretary based on royal command does not have any provision in it which states that the Royal Kasho of 1987 has been withdrawn or over-ruled.
A copy of this circular was sent to the Zhabtog Lyonpo (MoWHS Minister), all Dzongdas, all Thrompons and the BCCI. It was based on this circular that land was allotted fairly in Khuruthang in 1996 and in Mongar town in 1998 both before Gyelpozhing.
In Gyelpozhing rules were not followed despite the 1987 Kasho, 1991 circular and five letters sent by the former Director General of DUDES, Tshering Dorji, to the Mongar Dzongda Jigme Tshultim saying that the allotments were illegal, violated government procedure and the 1987 Royal Kasho.
In the case of 1998 Royal order and allotment of plots in Mongar Town by Dasho Karma Dorji the proper criteria similar to the one in 1991 was followed whereby Kasho cases and people with valid business licenses were given plots.
The 1998 letter by Dasho Karma Dorji in the end says, “A list of allottees (Mongar Town) is attached herewith, besides the commercial plots the committee has also approved the allotment of residential plots…The list is attached herewith. We would now like to request you for conveying formal approval of the government.”
The above sentence shows that even after Dzongkhag committees allotted land as per procedure the criteria and allotments had to undergo a final clearance from the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement.
In Gyelpozhing the committee not only did not follow proper allotment procedures but also did not get clearances from the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement despite repeated reminders being sent.
The Prime Minister’s argument that all townships will be declared illegal if Gyelpozhing allotment is also declared illegal does not hold water. This is because the first major land allotment exercise carried out by the government following all proper rules was Khuruthang, Punakha, in 1996 and Mongar town in 1998. Both were done before the Gyelpozhing incident.
After the Gyelpozhing allotment, the next major allotment was done in 2008 for Bajothang where strict allotment rules were followed in consultation with MoWHS. Land was allotted only after clearance was given.
The Prime Minister in the press release said the allegation that many farmers were deprived of their valuable land and not given compensation is not true. He said that all 37 households who owned land in Gyelpozhing project area were fully compensated not only for land but also for structures and crops. He also said that the Dzongkhag had not received any complaints.
The Bhutanese found that no investigative story on Gyelpozhing ever alleged that farmers had not been compensated the then government rates for their land or structures. The complaint was that people who lost land and were eligible did not get their plots or lost out to influential plot holders.
The Prime Minister said that the land across the river belonged to the Kurichu Hydropower Project Authority which was all transferred to the Dzongkhag to build the new town.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Gyelpozhing case is that government land across the river which was no part of the Gyelpozhing town was acquired and allotted with 1 acre to Lyonpo Zimba, 50 decimals to Lyonchhen and 50 decimals to Lyonpo Leki among others.
The Bhutanese found that official town plans cleared by the government only included Gyelpozhing town proper and the land across the river was never meant to be allotted. The then Ministry of Communication and now MoWHS has never cleared a town plan that included land across the river.
In fact in a letter dated 12/10/2001 the Director General of DUDH expresses his inability to convey approval for allotment of few plots, “which have been allotted but do not appear in the Gyelpozhing Layout Plan.”
The former Dzongda Lhakpa Dorji who did the acquisition had not acquired this land as it was outside the town plan. Also in most town allotments the standard size of a plot is 11 to 13 decimals but the land across the river were not plots but given away in chunks.
As this land was not part of the Gyelpozhing town plan it fell outside the urban allotment area. Its allotment not only violated the 1987 Royal Kasho on land but all other Royal Kasho’s prohibiting land to be allotted in such a manner.
The Prime Minister said that he was not the Home Minister at the time but the Foreign Minister and hence exercised no administrative control over the Dzongda Jigme Tshultim.
The Prime Minister was the Foreign Minister from mid 1998 to mid 2003. From mid 2003 to 2007 Lyonchhen was the Home Minister. The Gyelpozhing saga dragged on mainly between 2001-2003 due to the controversial nature of the allotments and constant letters being shot by the then Department of Urban Development and Housing (DUDH) under the Communications Ministry calling the allotments illegal. In May 2002 the DUDH shot a letter to the Dzongda calling the plots illegal and asking for details.
When the Prime Minister took over as the Home Minister he was in the position to be aware of all the Royal Kashos and also undo the Gyelpozhing plot allotments. He chose not to do so. Even before that as the Foreign Minister the Prime Minister was a member of the cabinet along with Lyonpo Zimba and both were well aware of the Royal Kasho’s and also that land was being allotted in Gyelpozhing.
The National Land Commission also only recently had re-measured the Gyelpozhing plots under the cadastral resurvey and regularized them.
The Prime Minister in his press release said that he and other ministers were persuaded to apply for plots by the then Dzongda who hoped that ‘influential’ people could help influence others to return and invest in interior Bhutan.
However, far from bringing in investment the plots of ‘influential’ people are being blamed for slowing development in the town as most plots are vacant with the only benefit accruing to influential plot owners through speculative land value.
This is in violation of the government rule of the time that plots have to be built within one year’s time.
Except for the former Dzongda Karma, none of the influential people had started construction even after 10 years since they were allotted the plots. Local people who got plots were asked to start construction within six months.
The government which had maintained a stony silence on the issue in the last few months has come out with an aggressive media campaign after a senior election commission official on the condition of anonymity said that prospective candidates who have criminal cases registered in court or are convicted cannot contest in 2013 as per the election laws
However, what could come as bad news for the government is that the Anti-Corruption Commission, investigation into the Gyelpozhing land grab, has found, that most of the facts in the initial media reports on Gyelpozhing are true.