Thursday, April 7, 2011

RTI & The Bhutanese Mentality

I recently read a news item in Business Bhutan that a SAARC Group of Advisors on RTI was formed. Supposedly, this group will act as an informal forum where member states will exchange information and experiences to enable them to legislate and effectively implement RTI in their respective countries. Proponents of the RTI Act argue that its legislation and adoption will eliminate arbitrariness and corrupt practices in the government and public and civilian authorities. Some discussion on this issue has already taken place in Bhutan and while its adoption may be delayed for a variety of reasons, it is inevitable that it will finally come to be adopted.

RTI is a complex issue. The extent and scope of the Act will differ from country to country. What will be covered and what will not be covered will depend on a variety of factors and situations prevalent in each country. Bhutan, for instance, is a Constitutional Monarchy and thus, the RTI will include certain clauses that other countries in the region will see as irrelevant and decadent. Also, geopolitical realities will be a determining factor in the inclusion or exclusion of certain clauses that may be relevant and yet pertinent to be excluded from a written Law. No question, RTI will be a complex undertaking.

But in my opinion, the most daunting complexity will be the Bhutanese mentality and the manner in which we treat information. This stark reality hit me a week back when I tried to uncover some historical facts about Lingzhi Dzong. As ludicrous as it may sound, our public officials have this tendency to be secretive, even of matters that they are explicitly required to disseminate and propagate to the general public. This tendency is not limited to the big bosses of the bureaucracy alone, but is prevalent even among the workers in the lower rung of the hierarchy.

The following three incidences - more than two and a half decades apart - will demonstrate just how daunting the task of implementing the RTI Act is likely to be.

FIRST INCIDENT: Sometime in the mid 80’s, the Department of Revenue & Customs published the first ever written taxation rules of the country. For the first time in our history, there was a written and clearly defined tax rates and duty draw backs. The Forward to the Rules was authored by Her Royal Highness Ashi Sonam Choden Wangchuck, who was then the Representative of His Majesty in the Ministry of Finance - the parent Ministry of the Department of Revenue & Customs. Her Royal Highness wrote that the rule book was an important document and that it was important for the general public to understand it and follow the rules contained in the book. Therefore, she hoped that the book would be widely circulated among the general public.

On the cover of the rule book, a cautionary note was inscribed in bold that read: STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.

SECOND INCIDENT: This incident occurs one and a half decades after the one described above. One of my friends from the US wanted to organize an archery match between 12 American archers and a like number of Bhutanese archers. The Americans had heard so much about archery being the national sports of Bhutan and how good we were at the sport. They would come to Bhutan for the match and would follow the Bhutanese format in all respects. In order that they could familiarize themselves with our rules and conventions, my friend asked me to acquire a copy of the Bhutan Archery Federation Rules and mail it to him.

I went to see the Secretary of the Bhutan Archery Federation in his office and made my request for the issue of a copy of the Rules, either free or on payment of a fee. After listening to me intently, he declared that the rules were STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL and refused to give me a copy. I was dumb founded - how can rules and regulations that people are supposed to read and understand and adhere to, be confidential? Me and my American friend got so disgusted, we trashed the whole idea.

THIRD AND LATEST INCIDENT: The latest incident took place on 31st March, 2011. The posting of my photo on Lingzhi Dzong generated some vigorous interest on the historical background of the Dzong - who built it, when was it built, what was the purpose of building it etc. etc. So I began to hunt for information from various people and establishments that were likely to have some information on the Dzong. I spoke to 2 people from Lingzhi who are presently domiciled in Dechencholing. They had nothing to offer me. I then located the Lingzhi Gup who was attending a meeting here in Thimphu. He was clueless. I was then asked to contact Dasho Sangey Dorji of the DDC who offered some useful information derived from work done by late Lopen Pemala. Sangey Wangdi, Ex-Councilor from Dramitse suggested that I contact Lopen Kunzang Thinley, a prolific writer with the KMT publishers. He had nothing to offer but helped me reconfirm certain facts that I already possessed. I went and met Thimphu Dzongdah who is the administrative head of Lingzhi Dungkhag. He gave me the interesting input about how it was customary for the Dzong’s roof to be taken down every winter to prevent it being blown off by strong winds that batter the Dzong during the winter months.

Now, we do have a Cultural Division under the Ministry of Home and Culture. I decided that they surely ought to have some material on the Dzong; after all, they are supposed to be the depository for all information and material related to our culture and tradition. Upon visiting the office at lower Motithang, I was directed to meet a lady, the Head of the section being out of office - on maternity leave. This lady put me through a host of irrelevant questions but at the end, she implied that any information they possessed would be classified information and a national secret. I was aghast - a historical fact that concerns our culture being treated with secrecy? Damn! Either she was being ridiculous or the Division has no information whatsoever on the Dzong and she is trying to conceal that fact. Nonetheless, she took down my number and promised to call back after consulting her Head who was on maternity leave. Fives days went by and she still hadn’t called - so I posted my piece on the history of the Dzong on my blog without waiting for her to give me additional information. It is now eleven days since my meeting with her and she still hasn’t called me.

So, what do you think are the prospects that the RTI will work in Bhutan?


  1. Damn!!!!! I am Aghast. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that “HISTORY” of cultural significance is CONFIDENTIAL; I can’t believe that “Acts and Rules” are CONFIDENTIAL.
    To be frank I had to google what RTI was and after reading through, if I were you, I definitely would have pissed off from not letting “RULES” to read which in-fact was written to be read and known….as rightly pointed by you.
    I also went through the similar situation, but I took it for granted thinking that there might be some “implications” on sharing the data that I was asking from Gup’s office in Bumthang….the information requested has nothing to do with security issues of the country though.. (purely my thinking). I was asking only for the latest population and number of households in Bumthang, as I needed it for my research. I even had approval notesheet signed by the Hon’ble Secretary. Despite the approval, I was denied of the information…it was really discouraging.
    I know, it works similar all over the world, but denying the information even on acquiring the approval from Secretary shows pure DISRESPECT to the SIGNATURE….it was funny though!
    Looks like I am throwing my frustrations here, but I felt it was necessary to share similar experiences. May be RTI Act is needed but, how far will it work in a country like ours, where people are reluctant to accept new ideas and share fresh ideas.

  2. Dear Sangay,
    Frankly, I do not know at what point in our evolutionary process we got to be so secretive. It is strange that even those persons charged with the responsibility to share and disseminate information end up concealing information from the very persons for whom the information was intended.

    Given that mentality, I frankly do not know if the passage of the RTI Act will be useful or desirable. We may end up being faced with some strange and unexpected problems.

    Consider, for instance, in India, the annual budget is announced over the national radio and Television for the entire nation to hear. In Bhutan, the reverse is true. Ask the budget people for some figures on budgetary allocation in some specific sectors. They will tell you it is a national secret :)

  3. Yeshey, give the poor girl a break! (referring to your last experience). Have you no idea what a heavy burden it is to be sitting on these (highly!) "Confidential", "Secret", etc. stuff? I suppose the RTI Act would facilitate access to more information, but not ALL So the burden will get heavier for those fortunate or unfortunate ones holding significant, or rather, daunting, information. Sonam

  4. You know Yeshey, am not sure if the RTI Act is even needed as it is most likely to make the aura of secrecy even more enigmatic and baffling! Sonam

  5. Only time will tell!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences..

    Part of the mentality is the false notion of "Power" one gets by being the "Guardian" of such information.

    It is rightly said that information is power.. but the power should be given to the people in the interest of the nation. Not hoarded by bureaucrats who probably get off on the 'high' of refusing requests for information..

    RTI is absolutely vital for the nation's progress. The panel created to discuss RTI implementation in the SAARC nations have a heavy task.. but in the spirit of RTI they should be transparent and share their workings with interested observers. And they should be open to comments (as as your article) for them to gain an insight into the mentality that has governed our civil service since its inception.

    Information in Bhutan is still zealously guarded.. that is why i was so very pleasantly surprised to find copies of important acts (Tobacco act) and the Bhutan Penal Code, and most importantly the Constitution, available on government sites. I hope this culture of transparency and free flowing information will permeate into our civil service & society at large.

    What we DO require is an immense push in the form of education, publicity, awareness campaigns and so on to help inform citizens.. especially officials.. of the benefits of free access to information.

    Old habits die hard.. but with the huge changes happening in our nation, we can shoulder this responsibility and embrace that change in values as well..

  7. Confidential on the rules of income tax act of Bhutan?? hmm...must have been some kind of mistake. all i know is that manuals of the income tax is confidential not the rules and act.But government officials really need to work on public information and frankly speaking most of the officials really dont know their responsibilities and most of the time for simple information they need to ask their boss, their superiors...whatever...

  8. Dear Sonam,
    There is no two ways about it - the RTI Act will be enacted, sooner or later. So, these jealous custodians of the daunting information and national secrets, as you call them, will have to let go since the Act will no doubt empower the people to seek and obtain information without let or hindrance.

    Regardless, I can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding over this particular issue. On the one hand, as demonstrated by my post, we have people who, even while they are required to disseminate information as a matter of necessity, conceal it as something of a national secret. On the other hand, we have people who exhibit unbelievable irresponsibility in the exercise of their individual rights and freedom. These people are bound to overstep their boundaries and demand more than their due. And, in the ensuing fracas, there is bound to be a lot of blood letting and mayhem. The net result will be that the traditional courteous Bhutanese society as we know now will be history.