The Pedestrian day is the latest in a series of decisions by the government which has taken the Bhutanese public by surprise. The earlier ones would be the Tobacco Act, restricting rupee for vegetable imports, declaring Bhutan carbon neutral and etc.
The above cases demonstrate a need for policy makers in the government to consult the people more or set up a better mechanism to get public feedback.
The benefits will be obvious with the government not having to carry the risk of making decisions that will generate public backlash and also avoid unnecessary controversy. The people will benefit with decisions that they are aware about and also comfortable with.
While one of the positive aspects any government should aim for is the ability to make decisive decisions within a reasonable time frame, the other extreme is taking ad-hoc decisions.
Bhutan has been subject to some of these ad-hoc governance decisions that are causing some major problems for the populace.
To be fair the government in other instances has consulted and gone by popular public opinion on issues like civil service pay-hike, electricity tariff, junk food tax etc.
However, public consultation should also not be mistaken for lobbying. For example, the upward revision of the tourism tariff may have benefitted tour operators dealing in high end tourists but if McKinsey’s tariff liberalization plan was followed Bhutan would have higher numbers of tourists visiting us helping to address the rupee shortage too.
One aspect of some of the ad-hoc decisions like Pedestrian Day, Tobacco Act and declaring Bhutan carbon neutral is a thinly disguised need to please the international community.
The costs and implications of such big commitments, however, are at times not completely known by the decision makers.
Pedestrian Day for example is exactly just what the doctor ordered for many overweight people in Thimphu but it will lead to a dramatic decline in national productivity. The best example is the media industry. Since on Tuesday there is limited vehicle movement both collection of news and advertisement revenue suffers. The downward drop in productivity is around 20% since Tuesday is one of the five days of the week.
This would be replicated across various sectors of the economy with varying figures but the same result which is a productivity drop.
Declaring Bhutan as carbon neutral will also have considerable impact on the future of our industrial growth. One of the major reasons we have a rupee crisis is because we don’t manufacture enough neither for our own needs nor for export. Already tough environmental restrictions make it difficult for industries to come up.
Bhutan’s economic future cannot be given up in the applause of the UN General Assembly or be locked up as a meaningless award for good environmental behavior.
In numerous examples countries across the world that depend excessively on advice of foreign financial institutions, multilateral organizations, foreign governments etc. more often than not don’t do very well. By contrast South Korea in the 1950’s after the Korean War dumped advice from foreign multilateral financial institutions to ‘grow rice’ and instead went in for large scale industrialization turning a backward country into a tiger economy.
As a small country it can get very confusing for the leadership and policy makers especially with a flurry of information, success models and advice from international partners. However, it is also important for the leadership to take into account ground realities. Otherwise the result is already apparent in Bhutan with the failed NEP education system that was copied and pasted from a foreign country.
The Tobacco Control Act is also reminder of how things can go badly wrong when laws are clouded by ad-hoc law making, religious and emotional logic.
Another issue is also the much abused term of ‘stake holder consultation’ for laws, bills, projects etc. However, in many of these cases the feedback of stakeholders is barely visible in the final product with agencies doing what they want. This leads to bad laws and decisions which heads into the inevitable brick wall.
Therefore in the interest of having a healthy democracy and sound policies it will be important for the government to genuinely take in public feedback and also recognize local ground realities.