The value of austerity measures

The latest draft 11th plan is around Nu 213 bn, of which around Nu 121 bn will be spent on current expenditure like salaries, TA/DA, vehicles, fuel, stationeries, etc., of the government machinery.

Only Nu 92 bn will be spent on capital or developmental works and socio-economic works like roads, drinking water, hospitals, schools, etc.

A look at the previous 10th plan will also show a similar break up with current expenditure consuming a bulk of the government resources.

Though simplistic in explanation, but more than 50 percent of the 11th plan will be spent on roughly 20,000 or so civil servants in terms of both pay and other service delivery costs like TA/DA, etc.

The consumption of such vast resources by the government machinery in a least developing country only means that we are far away from the concept of a ‘small and efficient bureaucracy’.

The figures do not even include the vast consumption of current expenditure resources by the government-owned corporate sector.

This is while the majority of 700,000 or so Bhutanese citizens live a very basic life in the rural areas as farmers, with a hand to mouth existence, and increasing challenges like access to drinking and irrigation water. In the urban areas, the biggest employer, the private sector has seen the living standards of its employees drop drastically, especially in the last five years.

This is while the numerically smaller, but more ‘elite’ bureaucracy and corporate sector have enjoyed one pay raise after the other, pushing up the cost of living for everyone else.

The way the resources have been distributed, so far in the Bhutanese government, shows a ‘me first’ and ‘citizens later’ attitude from officials.

Therefore, the stunning array of austerity measures that would make the Bhutanese Prime Minister and ministers the poorest in the region, in terms of both protocol and material access, is a refreshing change, and for once, reflects our ground reality.

There would be some cynics who would question the limited contribution this would make to the National Exchequer.

However, the important thing here is that tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, will be saved over the next five years- by trimming on expenses from everything like new Land Cruisers and Prados, to foreign travel to protocol costs.

What is more important is that such a move sends a strong and undeniable message to the whole bureaucratic and governance system that the people and service to the people come first.

In a time of such economic hardship, the austerity measures make not directly impact the ordinary people, but at least this gesture of solidarity and sympathy from the top policy makers help in making the crisis a little more bearable for ordinary people.

The breakdown in the walls of high protocol will not only mean saving on resources, but is in the democratic spirit and will help bridge the gap between elected leaders and their citizens.

A move as simple as the government ministers and secretaries not having to see off or receive the Prime Minister will mean a lot of time and resources saved. And it will contribute towards improving government efficiency.

In an era of rampant misuse of government vehicles by bureaucrats, the ministers refusing to go for new vehicles and using pool vehicles instead does come as another refreshing change.

At the same time, it is revealing that the former ministers got two servants each, provided by the State, while the former Prime Minister was given five servants, which the new government is doing away with. This is a welcome move because nobody in the public domain knew of such ad hoc allowances, and secondly it is unethical of the State to provide such facilities more reminiscent of a feudal era.

Such cost saving moves are, in essence – GNH in practice and also apt for a small Himalayan Buddhist country where qualities of compassion and humility are treasured by the people.

So far, the only leaders who demonstrated such compassion, humility, kindness, solidarity and simplicity with the people were His Majesty the King and His Majesty the Fourth King. It is comforting to know that our elected leaders are imbibing such golden qualities as well.

The important thing for the ministers is that after having shown great good sense and sacrifice- they should make sure that the bureaucratic system follows in their footsteps.

“A lot of people measure a man by what he’s got. I’ve decided to measure myself by what I can give up.” 
Geoff Nicholson

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