Author : Mihir Bhonsale

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 15, 2020
Bhutan: Governance amid Covid19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges to governance and impaired governability across the world. For smaller countries, the  challenges are even manifold, often putting the policy-makers in a dilemma over their choices. Governance refers to the process of decision-making and also the process through which decisions are implemented (or not implemented).

Bhutan ranks high in the governance category on the Bertelsmann Transformation Index of 2020, ranking 13th  among 137 countries in the Asia and Oceania region. Having successfully implemented quarantining, rigorous-testing and contact-tracing, Bhutan, led by the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and the Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering, have so far been able to check the number of Covid infections. Guided by the national philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), the nation has so far avoided any death due to Covid.

Lock-down and institutions

The maturing of institutions is the key to success of any democracy and Bhutan is no exception. Reckoning the threat that the virus poses to the Himalayan kingdom, the institutions in the country are faced with an uphill task of checking the growth of infections and arresting community transmission.

The different institutions of the state coordinated well ever since the first Covid-19 case was identified in March. As the key institution of Bhutan’s polity, the monarchy has a significant role in times of emergencies. And since March, the King travelled extensively, overseeing the preparations of the nation’s battle against the virus. The De-sung, a citizen volunteer service steered by the King, provided  valuable service during this crisis period. The Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu or grant, provided immediate relief to over 23,000 individuals who had partially or fully lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic.

Invoking his powers during an emergency, the King gave directions to the government to announce a nationwide lock-down. The positive case of a woman from Gelephu apparently triggered the imposition of the lock-down. The country went into shock-waves owing to the fear that widespread community-transmission of the virus has begun.

Bhutan resorted to lock-down late. By imposing a 21-day nationwide lock-down from 11-31 August, the nation demonstrated a high-level of cooperation with the authorities. A total of 111 positive cases were detected through surveillance during the lock-down period.

The maximum number of positive cases were detected in the town of Phuentsholing. Areas along Bhutan’s 699-kilometre-long international border with India, including the border towns of Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar and Samtse, continue to be in the ‘Red Zone’ and the restrictions on the movement of people still remain.

Institutional independence           

The King in general circumstance refrains from governance and policy-making, as these powers rest with the Parliament and the government. A demonstration of institutional independence of the government was the decision to do away with the prohibition on the sale of tobacco in the country. Tobacco products were earlier banned because of their health risks, besides these products being a taboo in Buddhism.

However, the government allowed the sale of tobacco products as a temporary measure to curb users from going outside and smuggling these products, thus increasing chances of virus-transmission. By legalising the sale of tobacco, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa government posed a challenge to the morals of the Bhutanese society. Hence, King’s non-interference in policy-matters as a feature of governance in Bhutan stands out even more.

Governance challenges

Since 1 September, the government has begun the unlock process in a phased manner. Labour-intensive sectors like construction, suspended during the lock-down, have resumed. However, there is a shortage of labour, as the migrant labour have gone back to their homes. The supply of materials required for construction has also been affected.

Similarly, the construction of the ongoing hydro-electric projects has been delayed due to the pandemic. The government is considering the reopening of critical works in the hydro-power projects, including Punatsangcchu I and Punatsangchhu II, by adhering to the Covid-19 safety protocols.

Tourism, which is the backbone of the Bhutanese economy, would take a few years to crawl back to what it was before the pandemic hit in March. More than 40,000 Bhutanese working in the tourism sector have been affected. Some of them have turned to farming to support their families. The Tourism Council of Bhutan is mulling over the prospects of reviving domestic tourism in a bid to resurrect the ailing sector.

Governability during the pandemic, especially in building economic resilience, is Bhutan’s real test, after having demonstrated steady epidemiological progress in checking the virus.

This essay originally appeared in South Asia Weekly

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Mihir Bhonsale

Mihir Bhonsale

Mihir Bhonsale was a Junior Fellow in the Strategic Studies Programme and Indian Neighbourhood Initiative of ORF.

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