More than ministers and Dzongdas the quality of life of the majority of the Bhutanese population are determined by the Gewog office consisting of Gups, Mangmis and Tshogpas.
It is the Gup and Tshogpas who put up proposals for rural infrastructure in the five year plans, organize local projects, gather woola, process a lot of paperwork from census to wood permit, settle disputes, decide the use of community resources like land and play many other roles.
For Bhutanese democracy to succeed it is absolutely essential that the office of the Gup is an efficient, transparent and independent one.
The government in the past has carried out efforts to strengthen this crucial local government institution through appointment of Gewog Administrative Officers, building modern Gewog offices, decentralizing budget and administrative powers, having new criteria of educated Gups and etc.
However, despite the progress Bhutan as a developing country still has to face three key issues which affects the office of the Gup. The first is capacity, the second is transparency and the third is democratization and politicization.
Despite having the GAO it is widely acknowledged that Gewog offices suffer from a lack of adequate technical and administrative capacity. Even simple tasks like record keeping of essential records like land, timber permits, accounts and etc is a challenge. In many offices computers, printing machines and Xerox machines are semi functional or defunct.
The need for frequent zomdu’s or meetings where discussions are haphazard and decisions even more so show a lack of administrative capacity. Often the gathering does not have enough information on the issue or the consequences of decisions that are being taken. Decisions that should be taken within a few days take’s months.
The high number of civil court cases from rural folk is also another indicator of administrative inefficency. All of this ultimately results in poor service delivery. Therefore, there is an urgent need in the 11th plan to upgrade these Gewog offices with adequate manpower, trainings and resources.
A major issue is transparency of Gewog offices at a time when the offices enjoy enhanced financial powers due to decentralization. A significant portion of the ongoing 10th plan budget is dedicated to building rural infrastructure in which local governments play an important part.
Ever since the Anti Corruption Commission has been established a large number of corruption cases have been found at the local government level usually involving the diversion of public funds. This is only a tip of the iceberg as the ACC only investigates government funds. A lot of the funds collected at the local government level are donations for various public works given directly as money or money in lieu of woola. Royal Audit Authority reports also show several irregularities at the Gewog level. In most of these cases corruption has been made possible as the Gups has budgetary powers but there is no legal mechanism for the local villagers to access information on the budget use. In that sense a strong Right to Information law coupled with stronger local oversight mechanisms would help facilitate transparency and good governance.
With the introduction of democracy the local government has the key challenge of respecting the provisions of the constitution and remain apolitical. Apolitical here essentially means being independent of party politics and hence direct political and central government inteference.
At a time when even powerful agencies are desperately looking for more autonomy and independence local governments should avoid the reverse trap of politicization and centralization. The constitutional provision of an apolitical and autonomous local government is at the heart of decentralization and good governance. It allows local communities to make local decisions without every decision having to be taken from Thimphu. Politicization of local governments will only lead to centralization and other unwanted influences that will override local concerns and realities.
Looking at all three issues the success of Bhutanese democracy and the welfare of the grassroots rides on the sucess of this key local government institution. It is with this wisdom that His Majesty the King has stressed on the importance of improving and strengthening the local government. This message is all the more relevant as it comes from a Peoples King who more than any other current leader, spends his time travelling, living and sharing the rural life first hand.