The death of a young baby in Dagana due to ‘lack of fuel’ in the Ambulance has caused much outrage and rightly so.
The District Health Officer in an interview to The Bhutanese said, ‘the budget for ambulance fuel is not enough because of the increase in the cost of maintenance and the distance.’
It is amazing that the budget has already run out in the first quarter of the budget year.
Now the first instinct is to blame the health officials in Dagana for not managing the fuel well or perhaps even misusing it.
However, the real reason could be much more systemic and many more may need to be blamed.
A few months ago I, representing the private media outlets, went to give a presentation to the cabinet in the PMO or Cabinet Secretariat -the highest office in the government.
To my surprise, the presentation room did not even have a computer to do the presentation and I had to run around asking for the facility.
An enterprising PMO staff unplugged an office computer of a staff who had gone home and he physically carried it to the room where cabinet ministers meet and connected it.
On enquiry, I heard the term I heard in many other government offices before -‘no budget’.
The truth is that since the advent of the elected governments in 2008 the government led by the Ministry of Finance has been cannibalizing itself to ‘save costs’ or ‘wasteful expenditure.’
As a result there has been either sharp cuts or only limited increases in office stationery, maintenance budgets, fuel and travel budget, advertisements budgets etc needed to run any agency smoothly.
These sharp and constant cuts which have been part of multiple ‘austerity measures’ by DPT, PDP and now DNT is hampering the efficiency of the government.
As the experience from Greece to Argentina has shown, blind austerity measures by the government can have hugely negative consequences on government service delivery, jobs and the economy but we have not learnt those lessons.
Now, the main reason why these ‘austerity measures’ or cuts are made in the first place is to be able to come up with resources for pay hikes of public servants or deal with the resource shortage caused by such large hikes.
Prior to democracy pay hikes were given as and when Bhutan had resources and it ensured a life of dignity for our public servants.
Post 2008 the pay hikes in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2019 have been deeply politicized with every party endeavoring to give well beyond available resources.
The shortfall is then made up by such deep cuts or not increasing the budget heads adequately.
One only need look at all the Pay Commission reports and see all of them recommending sharp cuts in government expenditure to make up for the shortfall in revenue.
The incentive for the Pay Commission made up mainly of civil servants is that the hike benefits them.
The incentive for political parties is that the pay hikes have become like bargaining chips to win the support of civil servants and public servants who are seen to be very influential during elections.
Note civil servants on social media openly threatening the government with electoral consequences when pay hike percentages don’t go their way.
The threats carry weight as the Election Commission of Bhutan’s postal ballot voting system makes it very easy for public servants and their family members to vote from their place of residence. This means higher voter turnouts from this large segment.
There were 102,363 registered postal voters in the general round in 2018.
The 2018 elections saw the power of the postal ballot in terms of how it influenced key outcomes.
One can even call it a ‘Civil Service Capture’ of the electoral system.
One logic of the cuts is that it will save money for the government and reduce the ever growing government expenditure, which is quite large.
However, a closer look at the annual budgets shows that the cut areas are only a small part of the budget with the real and biggest chunk of the current budget being pay, allowances, PF and pension.
The cut areas, amount wise, is not large but nevertheless it is cut to justify much bigger expenses like pay hikes.
The result is that the cut areas end up hampering the efficiency of the government. The government machinery is now spending much more on itself than the services it provides.
One external side effect of such cuts is the impact on the sustainability of the private media depending on advertisements, which will have a long term impact on democracy in Bhutan.
Ultimately, while public servants are supposed to serve the public, our public resources are increasingly being devoted to serve public servants due to politicization of pay hikes and public servants.
Note that the bulk of the Mangdechu project revenue is already dedicated to the civil service pay hike.
By Tenzing Lamsang
The writer is the Editor of the paper