The Permanent Government

The social media furor triggered by the recent pay hike for Local Government functionaries establishes, once again, that Bhutan’s social media is still largely an echo chamber dominated by civil servants.

This has been the same case with past online forums. The combination of education and knowledge of the system combined with some free time and access to a console makes them a social media force to reckon with.

In addition to their already exalted status within the government, this comparatively small group has been skillful at using online mediums to effectively intimidate any political government of the day, by making it seem any issue affecting them affects all other citizens.

The private business sector with around 30,000 registered licenses and many more people working it, or even the farmers tilling in the fields are far larger groups that actually decide elections.

Civil servants were mistakenly given excessive credit for shaping elections  by the old PDP in 2008, shocked by the results and looking for reasons to find out why.

This myth carried on with the first government with two pay unprecedented hikes for civil servants in their five year terms, both of them just before Bhutan’s Rupee crisis, which in turn was fueled by excessive imports of mainly consumer items.

At this rate all other non-civil servant Bhutanese need not be excited by the upcoming hydro projects, as civil servants have already called first dib on the project’s revenue by applying strong pressure for another hike which can only be financed once the new projects come online.

This is when there is an ever growing wage gap between government employees and the private sector and also the agricultural sector. It is also in the face of an ever bloating civil service that is starting to consume more resources in its upkeep and operations than on actual tangible projects on the ground. Civil servants have already enjoyed three pay hikes in around eight years in addition to their increments.

It will be very difficult to tell the country’s youth to not have a sense of entitlement and start taking up blue collar jobs when the country’s own privileged class of civil service are at the front of every line, demanding and often getting a lion’s share of the state’s resources.

The civil service in many ways is the ‘Permanent Government’, but it is frightening to have such a permanent government that cannot think ahead of its own nose.

It is well known that a civil service hike at the moment would bankrupt the country’s finances, but many of them don’t seem to care while at the same time making some hypocritical noise on Bhutan’s debt issues.

It is also a cause of concern to see the permanent government threatening the elected or people’s government with consequences if a hike is not given soon. This almost sounds like a combination of extortion and blackmail.

This is not to say all civil servants are the same as there are a good number of decent and dedicated ones, but they are being let down by their inflamed colleagues.

Civil servants already exercise excessive and often corrosive power at the cost of Bhutan’s budding democratic culture.

Consultations for bills and laws are called but the final draft is what a few senior civil servants want. There are needs in many sectors, but it is again these senior civil servants who actually decide the allocations and how it is spent.

Given how quickly even ministers get brainwashed by the  great wall of civil servants around them, it seems, at times, that the ministers and MPs are the figureheads and rubber stamps for this ‘permanent government’.

It is high time for the elected political leaders who have anyhow have limited five year terms to ensure that Bhutan is not defined solely by its civil services, and that the powers and resources of the state are shared more democratically.

I’m a statistic in a system that a civil servant dominates.
Billy Joel

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