Recently the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced that it is giving USD 24 mn in loan and USD 6 mn in grant for 1,000 units’ low cost housing in Nganglam, Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar, Samtse, Thimphu, and Trashiyangtse.
However, as soon as the announcement was made many people came online to say that these ‘low cost housing’ will probably end up in the hands of those who are well off or those who have backing.
They pointed to the 700-unit Changjiji low cost housing complex where the rental is around Nu 3,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, but people alleged that the well off and senior officials were staying there.
Nima Wangchuk wrote, “For Low to middle income people? Please don’t joke. Go and check who is currently residing inside those rental houses meant for low to middle income families. It’s all a different ground reality.”
Tshering wrote, “Hopefully the system is not like Changjiji housing colony, because Changjiji housing colony is built for low income people, but we can see many high income officers as well which is fully corrupted.”
Tamang D. Pasang the project would be affordable only for ‘jindas.’
The Minister for Works and Human Settlement Dorji Tshering acknowledged the above sentiments.
Lyonpo said, “I think this is correct, but while saying it is correct it is like the flying squirrel story. When a cat comes he takes out his teeth and claws to look like a cat but when a bird comes he takes out his wings. So he is qualified in both the bird and cat family.”
Lyonpo said those staying in Changjiji get qualified in two categories.
He said sometimes unofficially the people are from a rich family with assets like land and even buildings in Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar etc, but officially they can be qualified as poor and low income family based on their job and grade.
He said some more senior people may be staying in the name of the spouse when the spouse has a smaller grade.
“So can we go after each and every person with such detailed personal information. It cannot be done,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo said that the NHDCL has announced and requested several times that those who have their own homes should not stay in government quarters.
“Some of the people have buildings, but they still continue to stay in government quarters. This is not only Changjiji, but also in the houses above the BBS and swimming pool and other areas,” said Lyonpo.
“They were requested in moral grounds by the government that if you have a house, do not stay in these quarters, but I do not know how many people have their own building and they continue to stay. So I cannot say beyond the moral responsibility,” added Lyonpo.
Lyonpo said the past is done now, but given their experience they should be very careful with the future allotments.
“Right now we do not have an allotment Terms of Reference as the project is two to three years down the line, and though we may not be able to stop 100 percent as some will show wings and fangs or dodge the rules, but to a large extent we will solve it,” assured the minister.
The minister said that ineligible people should not be given government housing in the new low cost housing ADB funded project.
Meanwhile, a senior National Housing Development Corporation Limited (NHDCL) official said that they have all the data of all the 700 units in Changjiji to show that only the eligible people have been given the housing on a first come first serve basis.
The NHDCL senior official said, “Anyone from grade 10 and below down to the ESP are eligible and even if two people apply on the same day we record the exact time they applied at so the one who applied first gets preference.”
On the issue of senior officials staying in Changjiji due to a spouse qualifying the official said that there is currently no policy or rule whereby NHDCL can deny a unit to an eligible person only because their partner holds a higher grade.
The official said that they also have no rule or policy to deny housing to a person who may be from a better off background or have a lot of assets as this would violate their rights and be discriminatory.
The NHDCL official said currently they only cross check the asset declarations made by the Executives in the civil service when they apply for one of the 35 government cottages in the heart of Thimphu to check if the executives have a house in Thimphu or not.
However, here the official said that since government secretaries are eligible for housing as per their entitlement they get the first preference among civil servants for cottages even if they do have houses in Thimphu.
The NHDCL official admitted that in the last three years they investigated and detected around 50 cases of people who are not eligible staying in Changjiji.
These cases were mostly to do with officials who had been transferred out of Thimphu, but still retained their houses and either let their family stay there or even sub let it to others on rent.
The official said they have no comments on how Changjiji was managed when it was under the MoWHS in the past, but since the Corporation took over things have been done in a systematic manner.
The official said that from 2014 onwards the NHDCL had made a new rule that allotments will only be given for 10 years so that even other low income people get a chance.
He cited the recent allotments of 506 affordable units in Phuentsholing where low income Bhutanese families staying in Jaigaon were given preference. The official said this went off very smoothly and there were seven layers of screening done to ensure that only the eligible people got the housing.
The NHDCL official said that the only effective way of preventing people with existing houses to take low-cost housing is if Bhutan has a Registry Act under which people are supposed to register their deeds to immovable property.
He said the RCSC and government agencies send copies of retirements and transfer orders to the NHDCL and in addition to that they have been able to tap the RCSC data base on civil servants with help from DITT.
The NHDCL has 2,500 units and structures across the country with the majority of them being concentrated in Thimphu and Phuentsholing.
When asked why the NHDCL was not taking loans from the liquidity rich local Financial Institutions to build more low cost housing the official said that the rents from the housing would not be enough to meet the loan repayment obligations due to the higher loan interest.
This is why NHDCL has gone for much lower loan interest foreign loans from ADB along with a grant component.
Also, on being asked why the NHDCL is not demolishing single cottages that occupy acres of land in the heart of Thimphu, and instead make multistory buildings there, the official said that such open areas should be preserved instead of heavily building up the core areas.