Topical issues confronting national debt, economy, artificial intelligence (AI), block chain, public service delivery and carbon trading, amongst others, were the crux of the debate as the five political party presidents went neck to neck during the primary round of the Presidential Debate for the National Assembly (NA) elections 2023.
The President of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), Dorji Wangdi, when asked about public debt and national economy, said that there are two types of debt, hydro debt and non-hydro debt. He said that if the external borrowing is for hydro, there isn’t much to worry about and vice-versa if the debt is non-hydro.
He underlined that additional external debts contacted by each ruling party of the past three government accounts to Nu 67 billion, Nu 86 billion and Nu 114 billion respectively. However, it is not an awkward situation since the debt is related to hydro.
Setting Tala hydropower project as an example, Dorji Wangdi said that the country has paid all the borrowed money with an interest and today it generates and contributes revenue to the country and also highlighted on how Mangdechhu hydropower project helped the country during the pandemic time. “If the external debt is accumulated for a useful purpose, the economy will also definitely grow.”
The President of DPT also shared that it is also important to generate domestic revenue and use it for those non-hydro projects in the country and plan accordingly.
Similarly, the President of Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), Dasho Pema Chewang, when quizzed on the disruption of public service delivery due to civil servant attrition, said that there are many factors contributing to the retirement of civil servants including unfriendly Pension Policy, Individual Work Plan (IWP), and dictatorship, amongst many others.
Regarding the issue of Bhutanese emigrating despite the salary increment, Dasho Pema Tshewang said that it is important to create a good working environment for the civil servants in the country and take advantage of modern technology including AI.
The President conceded that the government has no right over civil servants resigning, other than seeking solace in imported expats. In order to retain and preserve highly learned people, he reiterated that the government should trust the civil servants and make conducive working environment, lashing on the infamous IWP. Pension policies will also need to be revamped according to the President.
Reflecting on the enormous advantages of a country graduating from the LDC category, the President of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Dasho Tshering Tobgay said that economic opportunities has to be created and given by the government to present and coming generations.
In addition, he said that Nu 15 billion has been allocated for an economic stimulation plan and also form an economic development board to create those economic opportunities. “People will have better opportunity to work even harder in improving agriculture and dairy products, and increase in production of import substitution products after graduating from LDC.”
The President said that while there will be some disadvantages such as loss of foreign grants and aids, unavailability of foreign loans at a low-interest rate, and grants to attend international conferences after graduating from LDC, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
Dasho Tshering Tobgay also shared that the party didn’t include digital assets in their pledge though digital assets such as bitcoin and crypto currency are opportunities. However, it is also a threat if one is not cautious.
Focusing on carbon trading and how it would help Bhutan’s economy, the President of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Dasho Dr. Lotay Tshering said that due to lack of expertise in the field of carbon trading, the country was not able to implement it in the economy.
For instance, Lotay Tshering shared that rather the focus is given on hydropower, tree plantation, professional forest thinning, and projects that can be registered and certified for carbon trading., amongst others.
However, he said that the consultation with the international specialists is in the process regarding what type of product to be produced and what kind of policy to be formulated.
Retrieving on the beneficial of carbon trading, the President said that it would have multiple economic benefits because of the comparative advantage of being carbon negative country.
“Proper consultation with the field specialist and studying the carbon market will benefit in generating greater revenue. The revenue generated from Carbon trading would have vast differences and benefits compared tot he revenue generated from hydropower and tourism,” the President said.
“Compared to other industrialized countries, the country also has an advantage in formulating and implementing carbon trading policies,” he said, adding that, the functioning of the carbon trading has been put on hold due to a lack of experience in the market.
“We are working on which projects can be registered, initiate projects that will contribute to carbon trading, with which private industries and countries to trade, and based on what morality to institute new projects.”
In the debate of using emerging technologies such as AI and block chain to help economy, Kinga Tshering, the President of Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa said that the party has included digital technologies in their Sunomics.
“In the country, currently we have not used much AI where hereafter we can use it in the schools and villages in line, where a person will have to function the AI and make the work much easier for the farmers, health sectors, education, amongst others,” he said.
In regard to blockchain, he said that the country as a project economy and with the rising corruption, amongst others, such challenges can be reduced by using blockchain.
He said that many countries have been benefited and likewise with the pros of using AI and blockchain. “There will be pros and cons, however, it will solely depend on the individuals using such technologies.”
The President said that currently there isn’t much risk in using such technologies rather it can be used in health, school, farms, amongst others and can reduce the human efforts where the current issues of attrition can also be addressed with such technologies.
However, the President said that AI will not be functional in the old age care as AI will not be able to function like the humans and this is the sole reason why the party pledges to buy hospital in Australia as it is one of the weaknesses of AI.
Meanwhile, the President said that if it is made into a good use then definitely there are more advantages. Setting Tala hydropower as an example, the President shared that with the help of AI, the hydropower plant was able to find the defects. “If it is to be done manually, it would have been very expensive and the process is also risky. However, with the help of AI, the work is done much easier than thought with the data collected by the AI.”
Sangay Wangdi and Tandin Tshewang from Thimphu