Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Amendment of Electoral Laws

According to a report in the Kuensel of September 19, the National Council has initiated a discussion on the electoral corruptions that were reported during our last General Elections. I am happy that some of the Members of the Upper House have accepted that there were incidences of corruption and malpractices during our last General Elections. I offer those Honorable Members my heartiest congratulations. The first step to correcting flaws in the rules is to accept that they exist. There is no merit in crying over what could have been - a progressive society always looks forward and the way forward is to learn from past mistakes and ensure that they are not repeated.
There are a huge lot of problems with our electoral laws. They need to be amended. Having already gone through two General Elections, we are now fairly aware where the faults lie. I am not blaming the laws - I accept that they were made with the very best intensions but the fact that they were inadequate and failed the people miserably - only proves my point that I have always made:

How is it possible for a nation of people steeped in a monarchic culture - to frame laws and define processes - as to how democracy must function?

I wish I had the time to go into details of what needs changed - if I had I would have been happy to offer suggestions, as a concerned citizen. But for now, I do have to offer three suggestions:

1.  EVMs
2.  Language of Campaign
3.  Powers of the ECB as a regulatory authority

1.  EVMs

At the top of the list of what is wrong in our electoral process is - the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Our last election has proven that they stifle the voice of the people. EVMs are electronic devices that are slaves to the dictates of their masters – the programmers.

We should do away with them IMMEDIATELY.

Because of their proven vulnerability, not many countries around the world use them during elections - or have abandoned their use. They can be programmed to declare results that are pre-determined. Thousands of man-hours have been spent studying the vulnerability of the EVMs and one report among the thousands undertaken, reads as follows (I am referring to Indian experience since our EVMs are manufactured in India):

……. In recent years there have been numerous allegations and press reports of election irregularities involving Indian EVMs. It is difficult to assess the credibility of these charges, since there has apparently never been a prosecution related to EVM fraud, and there has never been a post-election audit to attempt to understand the causes. Nevertheless, they paint a troubling picture of election security in India.
…… Especially troubling are reports that when the voter pressed a button for one candidate, a light would flash for another, which could be explained by a simple attack on the EVM cable. Rao also relates reports from prominent politicians that engineers approached them in 2009 offering to fix elections through this method.
….. Despite elaborate safeguards, India’s EVMs are vulnerable to serious attacks. Dishonest insiders or other criminals with physical access to the machines at any time before ballots are counted can insert malicious hardware that can steal votes for the lifetime of the machines. Attackers with physical access between voting and counting can arbitrarily change vote totals and can learn which candidate each voter selected.
….. It is highly doubtful that these problems could be remedied by simple upgrades to the existing EVMs or election procedures. Merely making the attacks we have demonstrated more difficult will not fix the fundamental problem: India’s EVMs do not provide transparency, so voters and election officials have no reason for confidence that the machines are behaving honestly.
India should carefully reconsider how to achieve a secure and transparent voting system that is suitable to its national values and requirements. One option that has been adopted in other countries is to use a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), which combines an electronic record stored in a DRE with a paper vote record that can be audited by hand. Another option is precinct-count optical scan (PCOS) voting, where voters fill out paper ballots that are scanned by a voting machine at the polling station before being placed in a ballot box. Attacking either of these systems would require tampering with both the paper records and the electronic records, provided that routine audits are performed to make sure these redundant sets of records agree.
.…. Despite all of their known weaknesses, simple paper ballots provide a high degree of transparency, so fraud that does occur will be more likely to be detected.
Using EVMs in India may have seemed like a good idea when the machines were introduced in the 1980s, but science’s understanding of electronic voting security - and of attacks against it - has progressed dramatically since then, and other technologically advanced countries have adopted and then abandoned EVM-style voting.

2.  Language of Campaign

I have said this in one of my earlier articles - the party candidates must be allowed to campaign in a language in which he/she is skilled. To force the candidates to speak in Dzongkha defeats the very purpose for which election campaigns are conducted. Not many Bhutanese understand Dzongkha and not many speak it. Regional languages are as important as Dzongkha.

3.  Powers of the ECB
The ECB is too autocratic. Their powers need to be moderated. It has also become evident that there must be a democratic process to decision making. What we have seen so far is that the ECB is the absolute and final authority and they alone can decide - without recourse to an alternate view or dispute settlement.

In my view the weakest link in our democratic process has been the ECB and the absolute powers they have been empowered with.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Faces - Young and Old

It has been quite a while since I last posted an article on this Blog. There are a number of issues on which I want to write … but after the marathon series on Sino-Bhutan border issues, I seem to have drained of all intellectual juice - I developed a mental block. But some readers keep reminding me that I have been quiet for far too long. So here goes ……. Luckily, I am more fortunate than most - because when I run out of words, I can make up for the deficit by resorting to posting photos of which I have plentiful :)

I love photographing rural faces - there is so much character there. The first photo below of an old man was photographed in Punakha - on the way to Talo. I think he was herding cows.

The old man below was photographed in Khoma village in Lhuntse. There is something nice about the face.

This old man with a strange looking cap is a Sharchop - strange that I cannot remember where in the East I photographed him. I normally remember the location of every photo I shoot quite vividly.

The little girl below was photographed in Yadi, Mongar. I like that look of dangerous defiance in her eyes. She looks sooooo audacious!

This pretty little girl was photographed during Paro Tsechu some 8-9 years ago.

I caught the young lady below in Dungkar, Kurtoe in the Eastern part of the country. I love her traditional Bhutanese hair cut and the Koma Jabtha made of old coins. They are rarely seen these days.

The mischievous boy with a plastic bowl on his head was photographed in Dungkar school in Kurtoe. He was eating his lunch of pre-cooked noodles. The moment he saw me training my camera on him, he turned the bowl upside down on his head and gave me a genuine beaming smile that lit up his face. Those of you who have read the Mad Magazine cannot fail to notice the striking resemblance to Mr. Newman - the hero of the Mag.

The last photo shows an old lady and her multiple moods. I photographed her in Paro Tsechu some years back. As I watched her talk to her young companion, I noticed the fleeting change in her facial expressions. It looks like she is crying - she is not. Strangely the changes were not the result of her emphasis on whatever she was saying - but it was brought on by the words her companion was saying. This is the first time I noticed that a person’s facial expressions could undergo changes based on what the other person was saying.

PS: Double-click on the image to display a larger version of the photo.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Comments On The Proposed RTI Bill

His Excellency the Prime Minister has sought comments on the proposed RTI Bill that is due to be tabled during the upcoming Parliament session. It is my belief that Bhutan is not ready for the enactment of the RTI Bill. Thus, instead of discussing the clauses which I have not even read, I choose to offer a contrarian view as follows, which I have posted on the Prime Minister's Blog (http://www.tsheringtobgay.com):

Your Excellency,

As a concerned citizen and in an effort to help the government and the Parliament to look at the practicality and usefulness of introducing/enacting the RTI Bill in the upcoming Parliamentary session, I would like to offer my following views on the issue.

When a certain Bill or Act is considered for introduction in the Parliament for discussion and final enactment, it comes about because there is a NEED for such a Bill or Act. Therefore, the first question to ask is:

>  How did the need arise?
>  Was information denied?
>  What percentage of the Bhutanese population desires the RTI Act?
>  What do they understand about the benefits of the RTI?
>  Will it improve transparency and impartiality?
>  Is there a popular demand for the Bill from the people of Bhutan?
>  Was the requirement for such a Bill discussed among the people and does it

    find popular appeal among the respondents?
>  Most importantly, which segment of the Bhutanese society will the RTI Bill benefit?

Bhutan has too many laws that most even do not know they exist. Most often, we enact laws that we are unable to enforce - in some cases we have even failed to fix responsibility as to which agency should enforce those laws. It has also happened that some of our laws are donor driven and not necessarily appropriate to the times we live in. We enact laws simply because they look good on paper and render some bit of statistical opulence in the eyes of the visiting consultants. As a result, laws continue to be broken, ignored and unenforced - resulting in the famous Bhutanese lackadaisical attitude towards law.

During end May, 2012, the Ministry of Information and Communications held a two-days Awareness seminar on RTI at Terma Linca - where I was a participant. Strangely, the tone of the seminar bordered on RTI activism - a far cry from being a seminar about imparting awareness on RTI. I was aghast at the fact that one of the resource persons was a well-known RTI activist! The entire two-days seminar emphasized the urgent need to enact RTI Act in Bhutan. I was the lone voice in that seminar opposing the visiting experts and their view that Bhutan is in urgent need of RTI Bill - to the point that during lunch break the World Bank representative offered to console me by saying that the seminar was fortunate to have my negative voice - to which I responded that notwithstanding the voices of the activists, as far as Bhutan was concerned, mine was the positive voice.

I bring up this issue because we need to answer one question truthfully:

Is the government and the proponents of the RTI Bill convinced that there is a genuine need for RTI in Bhutan? Who is demanding it? How many citizens are suffering as a result of lack of RTI Bill? Do stray incidences of denial of information warrant the legislation of a law the implications of which few are able to comprehend? Or, are some interest groups driving the RTI movement in Bhutan?

To be perfectly frank, I am wary because of the involvement of some outside organizations who are trying to decide that the RTI is good for Bhutan - without first allowing the Bhutanese people to understand if it is right for us. I request that the Parliamentarians exercise utmost caution in yielding to their pressure because only Bhutanese can determine what is good for us. They are driven by their own agenda - do not let them convince us, as opined by one of the resource persons during the awareness seminar under reference, that the window of opportunity is only minimal. As long as we have the political will and as long as we are ready for it, the window of opportunity is boundless.

The following are my views:

There are 196 countries in the world. Of that many, less than half - 93 countries to be precise - have so far adopted some form of RTI.

India became independent in 1947. Since then, she has taken 44 years to start the RTI movement in 1990. Thereafter, they debated the issue for 15 years - and RTI became law only in 2005.

So what is the hurry for Bhutan? We are not even 6 years into Constitutional Monarchy. Even more important, we are still in a state of confusion as to what constitutes freedom and what our responsibility is, in the exercise of that freedom.

Assurance of RTI goes beyond merely enacting a law - the delivery mechanism should be put in place before the law is enacted. This means that when information is sought under the law, information must be available in a deliverable format and at locations that are readily accessible. Do we have that? If not, how will the law work?

Therefore, to me it seems like the first order of things is to discuss in the Parliament not the RTI law - but feasibility of the creation of institutions and manpower and infrastructural set up to prepare for the enactment of the RTI Bill. If not, it will be a case of putting the cart before the horse. If the law is to be effective and useful, we have to first create the environment for it to be implemented and enforced. Thus, we should begin by first getting the Parliament to approve, if parliamentary approval is required, to establish the necessary infrastructure and manpower to assimilate the RTI culture among the people and the custodians of the information.

Appointment of IMO’s and support staff is the first step. Then comes their training in the use of specialized equipment to record, digitize, archive and retrieve the stored information. We have to decide on and standardize the medium of storage and retrieval system. We have to determine the most efficient method of gathering and compiling and encoding the existing information, which is mostly in hard copy, spread over the length and breadth of the country and stored away in files.

Creation of the facility as described above will require immense financial outlay. Do we have that? A budgetary allocation of anywhere from 200 to 600 million will be required - to train few hundred operators and IMO’s and to buy hundreds of devices for storage, scanning, microfilm, microfiche, readers, encoders, photocopiers, computers, printers etc. and software to implement them. Do we have that kind of money?

What about the legal aspect of the RTI Bill? Have we ascertained if our existing laws do not conflict with the spirit and the obligations of the RTI? What do we do – repeal/amend the existing laws to make way for the RTI Bill?

Given all the above, it is my view that we do not even look at the proposed Bill for now - but start by discussing the creation and affordability of putting in place the enabling conditions to assure the success of the RTI Bill - when it is finally enacted. If not, it will be one more law that is enacted but not enforced.

We have to remember that some laws are more effective when they are left ambiguous - then when they are enacted into law - with a hundred explicit clauses. My experience is that those well-meaning clauses can be used as a deterrent rather than as something stipulated to facilitate efficiency.

We Bhutanese are great hoarders of information - for how our mind works, please read my Blog article titled “RTI & The Bhutanese Mentality” posted on Thursday, April 7, 2011. It is filed under “Legislation http://yesheydorji.blogspot.com/2011/04/normal-0-false-false-false_07.html