One of the biggest changes in the Pay Structure Reform Bill 2022 passed by the National Assembly is that the MPs will be getting a 2,800 cc Duty Vehicle each, which will cost the exchequer around Nu 201 million (mn) to buy the vehicles tax free.
The likely vehicle of this category is a Toyota Fortuner currently given to Government Secretaries and Constitutional Heads, which costs Nu 3.48 mn without any taxes.
Of the total 72 MPs, the vehicle will need to be purchased for 58 of them as the PM, 10 Cabinet Ministers, Speaker, National Council Chairperson and Opposition Leader already have duty vehicles.
If a private citizen were to try and buy a Toyota Fortuner, it would cost more than Nu 6 mn with taxes. This move comes at a time when the government policy is aimed at reducing the number of pool vehicles especially with the larger civil service reforms.
The Economic and Finance Committee (EFC) of the National Assembly had inserted the duty vehicle, which was supported by the MPs.
The EFC Chairman MP Kinga Penjor said, “Actually, one principle of making the decision was that the government has decided there is no more quota and it will just be a history.”
He said the issue is not that they want a quota or a compensation for it, but the issue was earlier with Nu 1 mn and a quota, MPs could buy a decent car.
He said MPs could top up some money and get a bigger vehicle, and even if they don’t get to buy a new SUV, then at least the quota is given to someone and with that they invest in a second hand SUV.
“So the principle is that with the quota being removed, can we buy a car with Nu 1 mn? But these days we cannot even buy a bolero with such an amount,” said MP Kinga.
He said the EFC members were also conscious that it will be very difficult to procure 58 vehicles for the government, but they worked based on the principle.
The EFC Chairman said that another issue is that MPs have to travel frequently including when there is natural disaster.
“While going there, except for Paro, Thimphu, Wangdue, Punakha and Bumthang, if we go to far flung eastern Dzongkhags like mine then without a SUV you cannot even drive. In my constituency, we have to drive on four-wheel drive,” said Kinga.
He said right now MPs buy different brand and size of vehicles, and this is because they cannot afford.
He said it is not about pride or privilege, but performance and efficiency is better when the driver is there.
“With a driver, when you drive at late night, the driver will drive with care and you can focus on your points and what to talk, otherwise you have to instead focus on the driving and what might come up. Without a driver, we cannot plan and there is no efficiency,” said the MP.
“One is that while attending with a VIP, the VIP has driver but in the case of the MP, the MP is the driver and while we go together on the convoy, but while reaching there the moment the VIP goes out there is someone to open the door, but for us we can’t even find space to park the car. The VIP has left and so you have to leave the car with no proper parking and take the patang and Kabney and go,” said MP Kinga.
He said while driving late at night, MPs don’t get time to wash the vehicle and so when they reach the place their car is even dirtier and muddier than a villager’s bolero.
“When this happens, the MPs efficiency is compromised,” said the MP.
MP Kinga said that as per their principle, it does not matter they come or not again but when they look at past discussions, the talk was that MPs should be well facilitated and well paid as the reason was that then only will good people and people from humble backgrounds come forward. Otherwise he said good people may come, but with money.
He said there will even be those willing to work without pay as MPs as they will be well off and they may be capable, but the question is, if commoners can then afford to join, as the bottom line is that- it is all about survival.
He said if MPs are paid well and facilitated well then even humble people, without wealth but with capability, will become MPs and then the voice of the grassroots will be heard.
He said the duty vehicles was not about hierarchy, but about the MPs utility and performance. And further pointed out that 58 MPs would be giving up Nu 1 mn each, and it comes to Nu 58 mn every five years. Then they are giving up their Nu 10,000 driver allowance and Nu 10,000 fuel and maintenance allowance.
The amended Section 63 of the Bill now says, ‘A designated duty vehicle shall be provided to level EX3 and above including the Members of Parliament until reviewed and rationalized by the Government.’
The section also says, ‘However, the Members of Parliament who availed the vehicle import quota and vehicle purchase allowance under the Pay Revision Act of Bhutan 2019 shall have an option to opt for the designated duty vehicle upon reimbursing such proportionate amount as remaining until the completion of the five-year term.’
This means that if MPs pay back the quota amount and vehicle purchase allowance applicable for the next 11 or so months then they are eligible for the duty vehicle.
This means they can keep around 4 years and 1-month worth of quota and vehicle allowance money and also get a duty vehicle.
However, the wording of section 63 has given the government a little leeway in deciding when to introduce these duty vehicles as the word ‘until reviewed and rationalized by the Government,’ has been used.
MP Kinga said that review and rationalization of duty vehicles should be done by the Parliament, but here it has been given to the government to decide.
MPs have given up the Nu 1 mn vehicle allowance, Nu 10,000 driver allowance and Nu 10,000 for fuel and maintenance.
Finance Minister says no duty vehicles for now
This surprise move by the NA MPs has left the government red faced, as the government is in the midst of reforms to reduce the number of pool vehicles.
In fact, a leaked Clean Wage document which is linked to the civil service reforms was recommending to do away with pool vehicles in the second phase of the reforms. It says this service could be outsourced, utilization tracked digitally and expenditure hard capped.
The government is in damage control mode with elections just 11 months away.
Lyonpo Namgay Tshering said, “They (MPs) will not take it (Duty Vehicles) because of the fact that there is a wording which says the government will review and rationalize.”
He said in the near future, there is no way that the government can increase the number of vehicles.
Lyonpo said that it is not only about money but the duty vehicles are not required.
“Instead of giving a car, we can even monetize them and this would also be for the government civil servants. We can incentivize them to use their own cars. This is not DSA, but something that is being designed,” said Lyonpo.
“We are crystal clear from the Ministry of Finance and government’s side that the increase of population of the vehicles is not going to happen. Until this government’s term till October, there will be no additional SUVs bought,” added Lyonpo.
He said the duty vehicles clause should also not contradict the government policy to decrease pool vehicles.
He said with the increasing number of government pool vehicles, the maintenance cost will go up.
An official with a different view said if one looked purely at the money part, then the math is not too bad. MPs are giving up Nu 1 mn each for every term, and if the Fortuner is used for three terms then Nu 3 mn can be recovered from there. This is not counting the Nu 1.5 mn worth of vehicle quota every five years.
The Nu 20,000 MPs are giving up per month can be used for the driver’s salary and some incidentals.
Then in terms of fuel, it can be offset to a certain degree, as MPs can no longer claim mileage per km with a duty vehicle.
However, additional costs here would be the DSA of the driver, and also fraud in fuel and parts by drivers mentioned in the leaked Clean Wage document, which accuses drivers of colluding with workshops and fuel depots. Also, a question would be if MPs, by the third term, would accept a duty car that is 10 years old.
In 2018-2019, Nu 365 mn or nearly 1 percent of the total government expenditure was spent on maintaining vehicles. Nu 130 mn was spent on operating expenses of transportation and Nu 270 mn was spent on purchasing government vehicles.
This is a total of Nu 765 mn representing almost 2 percent of government expenditure.