The two recent issues of Bhutan Post’s controversial procurement process of city buses worth Nu 44 mn and the defunct domestic airports bring to light again the inherent flaws in our procurement system.
While the former is an alleged case of not following procurement rules to favor one party the latter is a case of poor monitoring and implementation after the tender has been awarded.
Another recent example is also the multibillion Road Network project where national highways are being built in the eastern and southern Dzongkhags. Here government appointed engineers who are supposed to monitor the quality of our highways have instead been threatening Bhutanese contractors with dire consequences if they don’t pay hefty bribes to them.
In return for bribes these engineers are willing to overlook the quality of roads and also inflate bills causing a loss to the exchequer as shown by an ongoing ACC investigation.
All of the above among many other cases have come after the reforms carried out in Bhutan’s procurement laws with a new tender document of 2009.
The tender reforms were brought in after huge loopholes were found in the tendering process with the Ministry of Health procurement scam, Ministry of Education procurement scam etc.
However, what is increasingly becoming clear is that it is not so much the tender laws and rules that are flawed but the implementation process and system which is the main problem. Despite the new tender rules evidence on the ground indicates that corruption in the procurement system both at the national and Dzongkhag level is rampant and increasing.
One of the main causes of the problems is a clear lack of political will at the higher levels either because there is a need felt to avoid negative press or that the bidders could be related to or have close links with influential political or business families. The government is also seen to be selective in its approach as evinced in the Trowa theater case where the National Council has asked for an ACC investigation.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to allow a question on the Bhutan Post city bus procurement and his dismissal of it as a ‘petty issue’ during meet the press demonstrates this very lack of political will.
Once it is clear that there is little or no action at the higher levels other agencies down the line follow suit and establish their own fiefdoms. This creates a pyramid structure of corruption where it starts at the top and then flows down the entire pyramid right down to the geog and chiwog level.
This is the similar path taken by corruption in India where it flowed from the top of the pyramid going down the system till corruption became virtually institutionalized in almost every system.
Procurement scams are still rampant and some civil servants concerned with procurement are still getting rich and are also promoted up the ranks. It is time we take a closer look at their assets and also who is protecting them.
Procurement issues are already having an impact on the quality and cost of many of the government’s key development projects like rural infrastructure. Ultimately the government will have to realize that corruption in the procurement system will harm the nation and its citizens at the cost of a few getting rich. The bigger danger is that a process of corruption will eventually become subsumed into governance until asking for or giving a bribe could become the norm rather than the exception.
The signs as of now are discouraging. Apart from a clear lack of political will, the Anti-Corruption Commission is facing heavy pressure and criticism for simply doing its job, the media is being muzzled from doing critical stories using various pressure tactics and the right to information law is still not in effect.
The ‘zero tolerance policy to corruption’ slogan should now be renamed as a ‘zero tolerance policy to honesty’ to reflect the current ground realities.