President of Mongolia Kh.Battulga: Problem of smog should be tackled along with unemployment and poverty

President of Mongolia Khaltmaagiin Battulga gave an interview to the Mongolian National Broadcaster regarding timely matters. Read the complete interview below.

J.Altangerel: - Let's begin Interview Hour of the Mongolian National Broadcaster. This time, we have the President of Mongolia and Head of the National Security Council, Mr. Khaltmaagiin Battulga as our guest. As head of state, You proposed the Parliament that the fight against smog should be taken more seriously, as such, the issue needs to be considered as the reason to declare a state of emergency. You expressed Your position and asked the Parliament to study the possibilities of Your proposal. However, a working group appointed by the Parliament explained the issue of air pollution cannot be considered within the frames of the Law on Emergency. They explained that there is not enough legal motives, making it [declaring state of emergency] impossible. Is it Your view that fight against smog can become more effective, and actions, more tangible, with declaring a state of emergency?

President: - There are many pressing issues at the moment, but smog is the most critical and hazardous problem of all. It's not a phenomenon of only 2017 and 2018. The issue has been on the table for about 20 years now. Explaining the damage caused by smog may require numerous statistics, but the statistics have become a nuisance. I can tell you why we should consider air pollution on the level of emergency. First of all, exactly a year ago, the National Security Council called a meeting on air pollution. As a result, the Government, Ministries and the City Administration have been obligated to fulfill many tasks and quite a number of recommendations have been issued. Unfortunately, the issues we have been discussing are being brought up again and again without any outcome. Air pollution is taken seriously only between November and January of every year. I have submitted my proposal on declaring a state of emergency to the State Great Khural (Parliament) on the motives to reach tangible solutions and take actions in order to stop the destruction. I proposed this in order to address the problem in a different way. I attended the parliamentary session in person to give comments. After meetings of two standing committees, a “so-called” draft resolution has been issued.

- As the President, You have raised the question of dissolving the parliament, if the parliament should fail to take appropriate measures towards reducing the air pollution in the near future. Following Your statement, a circumstance might occur where the public divide and become vulnerable to political polarity. Do You think dissolving the Parliament can change the situation?

- The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) assumed 65 seats of the Parliament after the 2016 elections. Although the elections are rumored to have been rigged, claiming 65 seats in the [76-seated] Parliament comes with great expectations. The Parliament has been exercising its full rights for the past year and a half. Nonetheless, the parliament neither lived up to expectations nor it had fulfilled its promises. People’s trust has been demolished due to the growing stress caused by air pollution and increased tax. As the head of state, I have made proposals to the Parliament on several issues, none of which was considered by the Parliament. The issues involved the distribution of MNT 55.0 billion. This amount of money was distributed as a one-time incentive of MNT 300.0 thousand to each public servant. The incentive overlooked the physicians working in family health centers, who fight like a soldiers on daily basis. The initiative of dissolving the parliament came from the public. Also, a number of members of parliament spoke out about it.

- As you mentioned, the National Security Council called a meeting to discuss air pollution and issued recommendations, and accordingly tasked affiliated ministries. It is often criticized the recommendations by the National Security council only live on paper. On the other hand, the composition of the Council has undergone quite some changes recently. Is it your view that the security should be discussed again in order to reach new agreements and resolutions?

-If we do that, people will laugh at us. It is told that foxes have very short memories, so they often forget they were running away from a hunter while they hide behind a rock. Memory of our parliament and cabinet is as short as fox’s. The recommendations already remind them about the threats of environmental pollutions, mining, unemployment and poverty. What should be done when they do not accept the recommendations? Should we be renewing the recommendations? I think it is an indication of accountability crisis.

It has been six months since I took oath. I have reviewed all recommendations issued by the National Security Council since 1992. I have them with me now. For instance, these are the recommendations on Population, water source usage and protection of 1998, and on Measures for Reducing Desertification of 2009. There is not a single issue the Council has failed to consider. The water source, unemployment and poverty has been discussed over and over. Recommendations, issued over and over, but without any result.

What do You think is the key reason for the failure to realize the policy documents and major projects? Would You blame mindfulness of the government authorities or their management methods? Or is it the deficient financial possibility or the lack of tangible solutions to air pollution?

-The authorities have been finding ways to make profit out of the people’s misery rather than seeking solutions. By “authorities”, I mean some ministries, especially, the ministers and some officials who are often changed. Each year, new mischievous acts such as distributing heating curtains, heating floors, heat-preserving windows and so-called smoke-less [low emission] stoves, appear and flourish. Regardless, the smog gets worse.

MNT 147.0 billion is a great amount of money. Can you imagine how the smog could have been reduced if this money was dedicated to building apartments, as well as involving the citizens in the construction. In addition to the amount, USD 60.0 million was divided into many programs. Even a fund called “Fresh Air” was founded. However, the fund disappeared with the officials who embezzled money from it. Workplaces have been shrinking while taxes have been increasing. Businesses are not expanding. Citizens are already aware of the mischievous acts of authorities and a few companies that profit from air pollution and other problems.

A Parliamentary resolution, which is quite likely to be effective in tackling air pollution, was issued on June 25th of 2010. The heart of this resolution was the policy to promote development of localities and rural areas in order to reduce smog in urban areas. People are moving to the city only because life in rural areas is difficult. The recommendation suggested improving livelihoods in rural areas and increasing income of the people living there. Animal-origin products are the main source of income for locals. Mongolians collected 6,000 tons of cashmere each year. The amount has been recorded to have reached 9,000 most recently. This is almost half of the total cashmere on global market. The Cabinet of Coalition had been working to implement the policies. I was in the working group, led by S.Byambatsogt. Sadly, no cabinet and parliament put them into action.

Tackling air pollution is not only a matter of chimneys and coal. We need more people who take the problem seriously and substantially on the level of policy.

Do You suggest air pollution must be considered along with soil pollution and other environmental pollutions on comprehensive stage? You also address unemployment and poverty as the main causes of environmental pollutions?

-Yes. What use can a low-emission stove be of for an unemployed person? When is he or she going to have her or his own apartment? Universities and ministries should be moved out of the city. Why must the Defense Ministry headquarter in the city? It is not going to directly serve the community. The Ministry of Agriculture is also worth mentioning. It should be moved out to the countryside. Housing can be provided for the officials. I got acquainted with the Building Combinat of Erel LLC on January 9th. The factory is of high capacity. It is not wrong to say building housing apartments is no longer a problem. The only problem is to correctly identify the problem.

As you might remember, on the 1st of July 2008, citizens who were furious with the 2008 Parliamentary Election results, attacked the MPP building. You must remember it because you were there reporting. MPP Building was on fire. Re-construction worth MNT 10.0 billion was covered by the State Budget. The new building was commissioned within nine months. It isn’t too hard if you are willing, is it?

Re-structuring will mean freeing the city of Ulaanbaatar. During my time as the Minister for Construction and Urban Development, I studied the practices of tackling air pollution and traffic jam in other countries. I made tour through Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Jakarta and some cities of Kazakhstan and Europe. I recruited specialists who helped implement major projects towards reducing and eliminating air pollution and traffic jam in those cities. We worked with Korean specialists who realized 2-million Housing Apartment Project in South Korea. I remember them telling me “Assuming people’s land takes 40 years, whereas building 400 family-apartment takes just four months." In other words, it is harder to make people realize the problem than tackling the problem. There are all the right solutions in the Parliamentary resolution from 2010.

- Have you presented any proposals to the Parliament on commissioning of a satellite city? Have You ever discussed it with the lawmakers?

-I was the Minister for Road, Transport, Construction and Urban Development in 2008. After its regular meeting, the National Security Council tasked me to draft proper solutions to traffic jam, earthquake and smog. As such, the policy on dividing the capital city into satellites Nalaikh, Baganuur and Zuunmod. The policy development involved German architects who formulated a complete project.

At the moment, more than 80 thousand housing apartments are under construction. Among them, some 20 thousand were commissioned. The more families move into these apartments from ger areas, the better the city's air quality will become. For the past three months I have been asking the cabinet for making such action possible. They're being silent. In desperation, I reached a conclusion that the officials in the cabinet have some conflict of interest on this matter.

The policy is even easier to realize in localities. On one hand, let's say there are 3,500 family apartments, and on the other hand, there are many low-paid people such as family-health center's staff, teachers and police officers. Their problems should be solved at first. Their salaries can be taken as mortgages for apartment with references from the employers. As such, the sun would shine upon the country's construction sector which provides about a hundred thousand jobs. Some USD 3.0 billion preserved in this sector will start to circulate and the non-performing loans in the banking system will be paid. These are the baby steps. The results will only get better.

- Are there real possibilities for building another satellite city? I reckon the major construction as such would require grand investment and financial liabilities.

-If you are not willing, nothing is going to work out. As I said earlier in this interview, construction of a political party building was quite a success, wasn't it?

We have to address pollution with such dedication and willingness.

- Policy towards promoting housing has been implemented for the past several years. You have touched on the matter of coordinating the housing policy with decentralization. What actual financial or other regulations are required for the housing policy?

- The policy is directed not only to housing, but also to developments. Mongolia has a great space for infrastructural growth. Filling this space is what we call development. Infrastructural development creates great number of jobs. However, there has been no development in this area. Many initiatives have been presented. All the major projects approved by the Parliament are in stagnation. They need to be forwarded. In doing that, we need to tell people "You have to participate in the development. You will be well-paid." Unemployed can be divided into age groups, trained in Vocational Training Centers and then be sent to the field. As of today, our vocational training centers have trained excessive number of cooks and hairdressers who can't find a job. We are in a dire need of a policy that promotes expansion of businesses.

- Many project and programs on reducing air pollution have been implemented. As you have said, most of them turned into profitable businesses. It means great amount of money has been lost in the drain, and the expenditure is uncertain. Is there anything in Your authority as the President to influence this situation?

- It will definitely lead us back to a matter of the National Security Council. Recommendations are issued by the Council with presence of President, Prime Minister and Chairman of the State Great Khural. Authorities responsible for the recommendation's execution are idle. What else can there be?

There can be initiatives and demands by the citizens. The Citizens need to demand certain solutions to smog and other problems, they need to unite their minds and powers. Media should have strong support for their opinions. it seems as though people's protest have turned into social spaces such Twitter and Facebook. As such, importance of the social networks are becoming more and more significant for election results.

- The New Rural Area Project has been on the table for a while. You attached some significance to the New Soum Project. A stable policy towards localities are missing nowadays.

- Members of parliament elected from the rural areas are touching on the problems. Now, the voters need to demand from the MPs what they were promising during their election campaigns. As you mentioned, I administered renovation in two soums of Bayankhongor aimag. The renovation was the first to take place in 90 years. Buildings of the "new soums" have running water, and schools and kindergartens have access to modern toilets. A hundred remote soums need to be renovated in the same example.

It is also necessary to promote the development agricultural exchanges that protect animal-origin products which are the main source of income for livestock herders from dumping.

These are all management actions. For example, I toured through the public hospitals. Access to medical care in children's hospital is deficient. Solution to this is very simple. Whereas the district and children's hospitals are overloaded, the Military Hospital and Hospital for Public Special Servants are almost empty. Each hospital can add 100 beds to receive sick children. I have been discussing this with the Prime Minister.

I will demand the cabinet to do its job.

- The matter of promoting household income is being discussed on all levels. You have been talking about the children's benefit. There are families, the only income of which is their children's benefit. Has the Parliament officially responded to your initiative of children's benefit?

- Children's benefit is necessary in a country like Mongolia with such small population. The Democratic Party group proposed it and it had been realized. Children's benefit is not a welfare, it's a policy on promoting population increase. Therefore, cabinet, whichever political party is dominated should execute this. However, the policy had some stagnation recently. The policymakers decided to give the children's benefit to only 60 percent of the children. What should be done with the rest? We cannot discriminate children. So, I demanded the Parliament and the cabinet to look back on their decision and to reflect enough funds in the State Budget for all children.

There may be people who do not need the benefit. There can be regulation such as withdrawing the funds in case the receptor is not drawing the benefits from their accounts. It can go back into the social insurance fund.

-For instance, international organizations suggest targeted policy for vulnerable groups of the society instead of welfare policy like the Child Benefit?

- Well, every household has become vulnerable today. Poverty is an issue of more than 50 percent of the population, so is unemployment. The simplest example would be the long queue of our citizens wanting to work in the Republic of Korea whenever there’s registration. But then the Parliament extends its discussion on issues of no utmost importance and urgency at the moment. A 65-member group in the 76-seat Parliament is a big power that can bring about any change. Unfortunately, it seems as though they only have to step into matters that would benefit them.

-Let’s go back to the discussion of rural development. It appears that migration to the capital city won’t decelerate unless there are opportunities of employment and income in the provinces?

- It is quite clear. Animal husbandry is a major sector that’s carrying the society. Animal husbandry was there before mining. When I was working as Agriculture Minister, herders used to produce about 6,000 tons of cashmere per annum. It has increased to 9,000 now, which, as I mentioned earlier, makes about the half of the global cashmere production. All this resource must be converted into products. Moreover, we export about 15 million pieces of raw animal skin at a price less than MNT 500, but we must process them. If their income is satisfactory, herders will want to live in the countryside. Animal-origin raw materials aren’t valued, and the number of young people interested in life in the countryside is getting lesser and lesser. In order for the vast land of Mongolia to be fully occupied, life in the countryside must be changed for better.

- Do you intend to initiate a bill regarding this issue?

-Of course. I have met with manufacturers many times. Just before this interview, I met with representatives of the Mongolian Milk Association. Today, about 250 thousand children have afternoon meal at their schools. There is a chance to provide milk and yoghurt to these children through their afternoon meals. I am also meeting representatives of the knitting, clothing and cashmere industries to hear what they have to say.

The National Security Council met on November 24, 2017, and instructed the Bank of Mongolia to take measures to reduce the interest rates of pension and salary loans so as to eradicate poverty and reduce unemployment. This has been realized, and the interest rate of pension loan has been reduced to one percent. However, the Parliament isn’t capable of comprehending bigger policy. Perhaps, they are driven by an obstinate attitude to reject everything I do because I was elected from the opposition party.

-What will be your move in the near future? The air pollution agenda is likely to continue on the Parliament and Cabinet levels?

-I have given interviews to two TV channels. I forwarded a specific proposal to the Ministers concerning apartments. Then I delivered a presentation on satellite city to the Cabinet. I will continue to address this issue with the Cabinet Secretariat.

-In particular, what legal arrangements are required for the establishment of satellite cities? Will you be initiating a bill?

-If we reach consensus on the policy, there is no need for me to propose a bill to the Parliament. If we all understand the significance of the policy, the Parliament and the Cabinet could initiate and adopt the bill themselves. All it takes is willingness.

Recently, I upset D.Khayankhyarvaa, Head of the MPP Group in Parliament by saying that I could work towards dissolving the Parliament. He appeared very uneasy just at the mention. My opinion of D.Khayankhyarvaa is very critical. Following the MPP’s loss in the Presidential Election, M.Enkhbold took the responsibility and stepped down from chairmanship. As the MPP group has been divided into two, the one in charge must take responsibility and resign. Nothing will work without responsibility.

Particularly, I have turned to the Prosecutor’s Office regarding an investigation on how the air pollution reduction budget was wasted. By doing so, we can prevent the same thing happening again.

-Air pollution reduction will require a huge sum of budget. The Cabinet adopted a national program. It has been calculated that about MNT 9 trillion will be needed to realize this program. Seeing as the State Budget doesn’t offer much, how should we generate proper financing mechanism and sources?

-I expect a little amount of fund can be allocated from the State Budget. The Ministries have their own budgets. If a war broke out, we wouldn’t just sit back and say we don’t have money. One way or another, we would solve it. If we all realize that air pollution is everyone’s problem, there are tons of solutions.

We need the courage to announce our big projects. We have seen what happens when people rely on foreign aids without taking courage in the last 27 years. 27 years is a long time. I have always been saying that we must reflect on our mistakes and move forward.

-Do you have authentic proposals on moving the big projects forward?

-There are projects based on realistic study that were formulated during my two terms as Minister. For instance, I can mention the 100 thousand apartments and the satellite city projects. The New Ulaanbaatar International Airport project was launched when I was Minister of Road, Transport, Construction and Urban Development. It would be a delight if the project wraps up this year. Moreover, there are more than 10 similar projects including a one on wool and cashmere processing factory. All the Cabinet has to do is pick them.

-Within the air pollution reduction agenda is the issue of civic responsibility and incentive mechanism. For instance, some MPs have been observed to express stances which suggest strict actions and penalties. Do you agree?

-Penalty is an option for a developed country where unemployment and poverty are low. What will we take from our citizens who can hardly afford their food? The households that they say should be fined aren’t burning tires because they are extravagant. Faulty government policy enfolded the private sector and left a few people in mining business rich and the people poor. This is why I am against letting those in mining business into the Parliament and the Cabinet. They cause trouble because they only care about their projects and business. Now they have begun talking about stove distribution again, with an excuse that the previous one didn’t work and this one will. This is a business.

-Is this possible to direct mining revenue to air pollution?

-It is possible. The Constitution says clearly that we have authority over our resources. The three Mongolian in the Oyu Tolgoi Board should leave by themselves. Decisions that won't benefit Mongolia have been repeatedly taken there. The three people were supposed to oversee such actions. On the other hand, the scene where donors of the party are appointed at Tavan Tolgoi and distribute money from there must come to an end. Such appointments must be transparent, and the positions must be given to those who won’t swindle money.

-The Parliament is discussing amendment to the Law on Air Quality, in scope of which a discussion on the establishment of an air pollution reduction find has arisen?

-There were two functioning funds to reduce air pollution before. Usually, a money bag is created in disguise of a fund, and party loyals are put in charge. Then the authority is switched after elections. Such corrupt management should be put to an end, all money-related decisions and expenses must be made transparent, and experienced and reliable individuals must be appointed with satisfactory wage.

Moreover, the Parliament must take a look at its attendance rate. When I proposed to declare state of emergency, attendance was about 51 percent. When the Parliament’s held a plenary meeting under a closed regime on December 15, 2017, I went in with a 53-page document and talked for three hours. Some MPs understood and some didn’t. That was when I lost faith in this Parliament. The Mongolian people must not be underestimated like this. I have repeatedly warned that people who make money off the people’s hardship have been elected.

-This was the Interview Hour of the Mongolian National Broadcaster with President and Head of the National Security Council Kh.Battulga. The President has addressed some issues regarding air pollution and ways to tackle it. Thank you for watching.