Olakha workshop operators accuse SC of siding with owners
After nearly three years of litigation in various courts, the Supreme Court finally ruled on July 20 that seven auto shop operators in Olakaha, Thimphu should vacate the properties.
The highest appeals court ruled that operators vacate the property within six months since the landowners own the buildings, prompting the operators to seek government intervention.
The operators said the court’s decision to vacate the workshops, initially set up by Thimphu Thromde through government intervention, would be detrimental to hundreds of workshop owners who operate on a rental basis. “The government should intervene at the earliest to resolve the problem,” said one owner.
The problem started after landlords were accused of charging exorbitant rents, which operators refused to pay.
“The SC ordered us to vacate the buildings within six months from the date of the SC judgement. More than 100 employees currently employed by them will become unemployed, affecting the very livelihood of employees, their family members and school children.
In 2008, the government moved all automobile workshops from Changzamtog to the current location of Olarongchhu. Following the move, shop owners invested in heavy equipment and machinery. “Rather than neutralizing and defusing the problem, the SC has further complicated the situation without involving the government in finding solutions to the problem,” aggrieved shop owners said.
The aggrieved operators said the courts decided with different results, illustrating that there are two laws in the country. For example, they refer to the decision of the Thimphu dzongkhag court of November 30, 2020, which ruled that owners of workshops leave the buildings within four months after the owners of the buildings have reimbursed all illegal rents collected from the respective workshop owners. They were asked to repay Nu 574,950 each.
This case involved four workshop owners – the Tee Dee Workshop, the Lungten Workshop, the Sangay Workshop and the Sangay Engineering Workshop. They then appealed to the High Court (HC), which overturned the lower court’s decision. On July 2, 2021, HC increased the amount and building owners had to reimburse workshop owners Nu 842,901 each while allowing them to run their business until the expert team from Thimphu Thromde assesses and declares buildings as unsuitable for occupancy.
Aggrieved by HC’s decision, a building owner appealed to SC. Contrary to the judgments of the lower court, the SC reduced the reimbursement amount to Nu 595,562 for each shop owner and ordered the appellant to pay within six months.
The building owners had asked the workshop operators to leave their premises because they wanted to renovate their buildings, extend them or let their children operate them.
The owners of the workshop said they were forced to seek court intervention after being given an ultimatum to either pay the revised rent or vacate the buildings.
They also appealed to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in July 2019 to investigate allegations of favoring landlords by Thimphu Thromde. The ACC then asked Thimphu Thromde to submit a full report on the “exorbitant” increase in car workshop rent by landlords and why it returned the pooled land to the landowners. “However, we have not heard the outcome of the investigations,” said one owner.
Appeal for Government Lands
Dissatisfied with the SC’s verdict, seven landowners on July 25 appealed to the Minister of Public Works and Housing to temporarily allocate them vacant government land on lease in Thimphu Thromde.
In their letter of appeal to the minister, they said that without immediate government support and intervention, it is certain that around 100 people will lose their jobs. They also stated that they are skilled and specialized and have been in this business for many years.
The owners of the workshop have borrowed money as part of running their business and owe money to various financial institutions. “Therefore, repayment of the loan is almost impossible without some reliable source of income and immediate government assistance,” they said.
In 2019, the owners, through the Association of Automotive Sectors of Bhutan (ASAB), appealed to the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Works and Human Settlement, and Economic Affairs for their allocate government industrial land for long-term lease. This, according to the ASAB, was to avoid an ad hoc increase in rent and an alleged forced eviction by the owners of the building.
They said there are traffic jams due to uncontrolled construction, narrow roads due to the large flow of vehicles and machinery kept for repair, noise and pollution in the current area, which is limited for growth . Other reasons given by the ASAB were the lack of potable water, as the majority of the employees resided in the area, the poor drainage/sewerage system and the absence of a waste treatment plant.
They said there is also a risk of fire, pollution due to the cramped workshops and the increasing number of residential buildings in the limited space while there is no possibility of expansion of the workshops and installation of the latest technology and security measures system.
When the workshops were relocated to Olakha in 2008, there were around 32 operators. Today, there are more than 100 operators in the cramped area of Olarongchhu.
Public Works and Human Settlement Minister Dorji Tshering had said the government was exploring options to move the existing auto workshops from Olarongchhu to Pamtsho or Namseling or even further.
Operators are still waiting for government land to operate their business and avoid conflicts with landlords in Olarongchhu.