The National Council today adopted a new section under the Mines and Minerals Bill 2020 to allocate mines and minerals lease to state-owned enterprise (SOE). As of now, the mines and minerals extraction in the country is given to a private individual on lease which many parliamentarians says is against the provisions of the constitution.
The Legislative Committee, presented the Mines and Minerals Bill to the House yesterday. The committee proposed significant amendments, repeal and new insertions according to its findings. However, the section comprising of giving the lease to the SOE saw much deliberation within the member of parliaments (MP) in the House. While many approved the section, a few also opened up for the mining sector in a push for privatisation.
“The decision to give the lease to SOE is a very good decision. But still then like we discussed in section 8 states that the government should classify minerals. So if the minerals found are not strategic and if the minerals are not classified under priorities, the door should be a little open for private sectors. This way if we include the private sector in some ways, I thought it would be convenient for the government too,” the Trashigang MP, Lhatu proposed.
“I support Trashigang MP, for the country’s development there should be strong economic, and to promote economic, we should promote private sectors. And to promote the private sector, it is important for the government to give an equal business opportunity to private sectors as well,” added Tashi Samdrup, the Trongsa MP.
“We should not just think about now, we should think about the future as well. When the Bill becomes Act it should be in such a way that it can be used for many years. If private sectors can do it, we should give them an opportunity as well. Private is important, government and private should go hand in hand. See examples in foreign countries, if we need development in the country both government and private should work together. Government alone cannot do anything,” Paro MP Ugyen Tshering also added.
However, the majority of the House said that allocating mines and minerals to SOE is not nationalization but in fact granting the rights over mineral resources to every individual.
“When we say that we will give ownership to the state, it doesn’t mean that we are closing private sectors, which is not at all true. If we go through the content of the Bill, there are different topics like surface collection and quarrying, there we didn’t mention that it will really be handed over to SOEs. We all know the importance of the private sector and how they play an important role in driving the country’s economy,” said Phuntsho Rapten, an Eminent Member in the National Council.
Similarly, Eminent Member Dasho Tashi Wangyal said the allocation of mines and minerals to SOE will be convenient for everyone concerned.
“We did a study and looking at the data from 1999 to 2007, we all know that a truckload of sand from Punatshangchhu used to cost Nu 1,150 in 1999. As the years went by, the prices increased. In 2007, when it was taken over by the private sector, the cost of a truck of sand spiked to Nu 5,700 which shocked the people and concerned His Majesty. That very year, His Majesty issued a Kasho to the then National Assembly and was given the ownership to NRDCL. The price of sand was then brought down to Nu 635 thereafter. This affected the private sector but generally people across the country, and the government themselves benefitted,” added Dasho.
The decision to allocate mines and minerals to the SOEs was based on factors such as in respecting the provisions of the constitution, in recognition of the audit report of the RAA and report of the ACC among many others. The National Law Review Task Force 2018 also put up a recommendation saying that the Mines and Minerals Act 1995 must be amended particularly those provisions and rules which give mining rights to private mining companies so that there are no infractions of the constitutional provisions.
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With many farmers starting commercial farming and producing on a large scale over the years, the issue of sale and export of the produce has been persistent. And in this session amid the pandemic, the parliamentarians of the National Assembly questioned the Agriculture and Forests Minister on plans and strategies to improve the sale of farm produce.
Choida Jamtsho, Member of Parliament (MP) of Nganglam asked the Minister for Agriculture and Forests about the government’s plans to ease the export of mandarin.
“In 2019, Bhutan exported around 15,000 metric tonnes of mandarin worth Nu 530 M. And in 2018, 11,000 metric tonnes of mandarin worth Nu 355 M was exported. Likewise, the season of mandarins is here but because of COVID-19 restrictions, people are worried about the mandarin export business.”
To this Agriculture and Forests Minister Yeshey Penjor said there is no problem in selling the agriculture produce.
“Despite some issues in export due to the location, there is no major problem in the export of any agricultural produce caused by the pandemic. We have plans and strategies in place with neighbouring countries which made import and export easy. But the Ministry is rather worried about the quantity and quality of the produce,” said Lyonpo.
Tshering Choden, the Khar Yurung MP also questioned on the government’s plan to improve the buyback policy.
“It is our goal to realise self-reliance and to do so, the government has made a buyback policy. The government in its 120 days pledges as well promised to buy produce from our farmers at a higher rate than the market. The government has not been able to implement the policy properly to this time.”
Lyonpo said the buyback policy should not be the priority, instead, the government will be facilitating market within and abroad for the products. If everything fails, then the ministry will activate the buyback policy.
“Only if we have a problem selling the products within our country or export it to another country, then only the government will buy the product. This is called the buyback policy. But this should be the last resort. We have to rather focus on marketing and selling the produce first,” Lyonpo said.
According to the Minister, the government, during the pandemic, has bought Nu 24 M worth of perishable vegetables from the farmers.
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All tourists who paid for their trip to Bhutan in 2020 and have not cancelled their bookings will be offered USD 250 voucher by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) as a token of appreciation when they visit the country.
Bhutan hopes to safely reopen the country to tourists sometime in 2021, and according to TCB, the visiting tourists who have not cancelled their bookings can use the cash voucher either to extend their stay by a day or purchase Made in Bhutan Souvenirs.
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Supporting the government’s endeavour to bring about transformational changes in the country’s Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and TVET Reform Project Office signed a Statement of Intent last Friday.
The TVET Reform Project Office was established in March as part of the Prime Minister’s Office by the government to revamp the TVET system with a goal to address the mismatch between education/skills and jobs. It is also to improve the image of TVET to attract the youth.
The project office, under the aegis of the Department of Technical Education, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, is working to offer world-class courses primarily through international collaboration with reputed institutes like the ITEE and Nanyang Polytechnic of Singapore. The courses offered will be not only reflective of and aligned with the changing labour market needs in the face the COVID-19 pandemic but also job skills for the future.
According to a joint press release, the partnership will see the TVET Reform Project Office and UNDP work together to create an enabling, innovative and inclusive employment ecosystem through three main activities. The TVET Reform Project Office and UNDP’s Accelerator Lab team will work together with an international consultant to develop the concept and a strategy for the Bhutan Innovation and Technical Education (BITE) Hub.
The partnership is part of the UNDP-supported COVID-19 Response and Recovery project towards a Smarter, Greener and More Resilient Recovery through Innovation in Bhutan. It is funded by the government of Japan.
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Nganglam under Pema Gatshel now has a mini dry port to facilitate smooth imports and exports of essentials during the pandemic. The Eastern COVID-19 Coordination Office and Nganglam Dungkhag Administration constructed the port as an interim measure. It will also serve as the first layer containment area for imported goods for most of the eastern districts.
Located next to the Nganglam integrated checkpoint, the MDP will serve as a containment area with a place to rest, toilets and bathrooms. And then without having any contact with foreign drivers, goods will be transhipped to Bhutanese vehicles from the transhipment bay.
The transhipment bay has stocking yard and goods from four trucks can be transhipped at the same time. After transhipment is done, Indian trucks will leave for India within a few hours. Meanwhile, Bhutanese vehicles will be quarantined for about two to three days before allowing them to move to other parts of the country.
“People from Monggar, Pema Gatshel as well as from Zhemgang travel from here and now with this MDP, it will benefit six eastern districts as well as Nganglam. Before drivers had no place to stay but now drivers have a place to take rest,” said Ugyen Dorji, the Gup of Norboogang Gewog in Pema Gatshel.
“Till now we didn’t have a proper place to keep and tranship goods in Nganglam. So, many shopkeepers had problems taking goods from here. Now with this mini dry port, I think it will benefit everyone,” added Nima Dendup, the Nganglam Town Thuemi.
Loaders will also be put under self-containment area in the mini dry port. The government invested more than Nu 4 M to construct the port. The mini dry port is expected to minimise the risk and curtail the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nganglam. Nganglam has become one of the main gateways for eastern districts with the highway connecting Panbang, Gyalpoizhing and Pema Gatshel.
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The National Assembly ratified the Convention on Framework Agreement between the Royal Government of Bhutan and European Investment Bank (EIB) Governing Activities in Bhutan.
The bank is a publicly owned international financial institution with the EU member states as its shareholders. The National Council rejected the EIB Framework Agreement in 2015 since it was not in line with the country’s external commercial borrowing guidelines.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly also ratified the Agreement between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) on the Privileges and Immunities of the Green Climate Fund.
The Green climate fund is the world’s largest dedicated fund helping developing countries reduce their greenhouse emissions.
The National Council will deliberate on the two agreements.
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The East-West highway widening works are expected to complete only by next one to two years. This was shared by the Minister for Works and Human Settlement during the question hour session of the National Assembly today. Missing several deadlines, the completion of the East-West highway widening project had always been a recurring question raised during every parliament session since the start of the project in 2014.
The Bartsham-Shongphu’s member of parliament (MP) asked the Works and Human Settlement Minister about the progress of the East-West Highway widening works.
“During the second session of the third parliament, the works and human settlement minister claimed that 96% of the east-west highway widening works have been completed. Likewise, in the third session, he said that the works will be complete by the mid of this year and by this year people will hear good news regarding the completion of the project. But till date, we have not received any such good news,” said Passang Dorji (PhD), the Bartsham-Shongphu MP.
Responding to the question, Works and Human Settlement Minister Dorji Tshering said the ministry is working on a 100-kilometre stretch from Ura till Lingmithang which will further extend the deadline of the project.
“The 96% that I mentioned last year was with regard to the works completed by the previous government. But in terms of the current government’s progress on the widening work, we have only completed about 10%. We are currently working on about 100 km road from Ura till Lingmithang which has been left unattended till now. That’s why, in one or two years time, if you are to travel to the east, the road will be as good as the current road condition from Thimphu to Bumthang,” Lyonpo said.
Lyonpo added, considering the importance of the road stretch, about Nu 700 M has been invested in the road so far. For now, eight different contractors are working on the project.
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People living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) said they face less stigmatisation these days compared to the previous years. Earlier, people living with HIV faced stigmatization and discrimination including from their own family members. They said less stigmatisation is attributed to awareness.
There are some 741 reported HIV cases in the country.
With the initiative of the nationwide awareness for years now, the stigmatisation of the people living with HIV has also reduced.
“The problem associated with people living with HIV is personal trauma and fear. The stigmatisation level has changed. One important thing is to focus on awareness. Her Majesty the Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck initiated the high-level advocacy programs and even Lhak-Sam created awareness. Whereby the stigmatisation level has reduced,” said Tshering Choden, a person living with HIV.
“I am happy and living peacefully at the Lhak-Sam community centre. Friends and family members also do not discriminate against us as they now understand about the illness. Even while looking at myself, I got the disease in 2006 and appeared on television in 2011. For now, I am healthy and can work as well,” shared Sithal Chhetri, also living with HIV.
“There is still a certain stigma in society but it has reduced drastically. Compared to the past, people don’t fear HIV and stigmatise those living with HIV,” added Wangda Dorji, the Executive Director of Lhak-Sam.
“I think there is definitely a certain level of stigma not just from the community but within the health system as well. So we are working very closely to sensitise health workers and care providers so that people living with HIV do not get stigmatised. This is an initiative that was going on for quite some time now. And have significantly helped in terms of reducing stigma within the health care setting,” said Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, while observing the World AIDS Day in Thimphu, today.
Though there is less stigmatisation in society, people coming forward to test still remains a concern. Health officials said there is inadequate knowledge of HIV/AIDS besides awareness. There are an estimated 1,300 people living with HIV in the country but only 741 have been detected till now. And testing comes as an important part to fill the gap to prevent HIV/AIDS.
Observing World AIDS Day, the Health Ministry also launched HIV self-testing and new Anti Retroviral medicine. Bhutan targets to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV, hepatitis and syphilis by ten years down the line.