In May, 2013 I spent a week traveling in Bhutan. My primary destination was the Taktsang Monastery outside Paro (posted here – Insights at the Edge), after which I spent some time in the capital Thimpu. This is a post on some general observations that I made while in Thimpu.
The dense fog on the high mountain roads made the journey into the little kingdom as surreal as the colorful visions of life painted on the walls of the monasteries that I were to see in my journey in this land of happiness. ‘Happiness is a place’, said one of the advertisements in the day’s newspaper in Bhutan. With offices like Gross National Happiness Commission and Sustainable Development Secretariat the country seemed to be driving down a route which is much like its own high mountain passes – lonely and offbeat. In its enterprise, much of the world has only understood money and wealth in one form or the other. It takes a different normative universe to be thinking of spiritual path to life where the commonly understood idea of development remains tangentially relevant. A curious blend of faith, respect for cultural values (I find that respect for the values made the youth wear their traditional dress and not so much that they liked it) and pragmatism in dealing with ideas and influences of the world made for a striking public behaviour which I were to see across Bhutan’s towns, offices and public spaces. The city roads have an abundance of high end SUVs from Toyota and Hyundai. Yet the men driving them wear a gho which sits very loosely on the shoulders and has a skirt like lower portion matched with knee length socks and oxford model leather shoes. This is what I understand is their formal wear and official wear, having seen men in the government offices, Bhutan’s King as well as other dignitaries visiting countries abroad. Such a combination of men in ethnic wear driving these high end and stylish cars to me was striking. Perhaps, this is the outsider’s eyes view it. The SUVs could just be the need in the mountains, but then the Indian SUVs offer the same utility at a fraction of the price of a Toyota Prado.
From the newspapers that I read during the week when I visited Bhutan, I gathered that the government believes the country’s ‘collective happiness’ should be the end value of their development strategy. Walking around Bhutan’s capital Thimpu I noticed the tempered school like frenzy that the city reflected as the country was closing in on its second general elections. The contesting leaders were being introduced in on the television too as I watched the dinner time news. Some were young thirty-somethings contesting from their constituencies which weren’t any more than a cluster of 200-300 houses. What is interesting is the number of political parties that have come up in Bhutan since the first election back in 2008. The aspiring politicians are mostly educated in India, some of them with graduate degrees from USA and few from UK. Political scene gets busy hereon and will make for sociologically rich observations as in this country.
Unlike its neighbour Nepal, democracy is being handheld and brought in by Bhutan’s monarch himself. This could be seen as an intelligent move by the King himself or as a measure in time against the kind of fate that Nepal saw with a communist party coup and even before that the killings in the royal family itself. There is tremendous amount of admiration and love for the King among the Bhutanese and rightly so. His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk appears anything but a king in his public appearances, addresses to the public and from what I figured from his interviews. Oh and those adorable photographs of the King and the Queen in public spaces – parks, buildings etc. The country reflects a very friendly and welcome air. Although that extreme behaviour the government had shown to push out the Nepalese settlers in Bhutan is still a fair blot on Bhutan. That urge to maintain racial homogeneity I think may not work out very well for them in the future.
Even as the country experiments with democracy and more interestingly with the European Union’s idea of “good governance” Bhutan is set for interesting times. Sample this – the country is dependent on India for its petroleum, manufactured goods, finished goods, higher education and more importantly for skilled labour. Due to a constitutional provision to ensure a minimum forest cover of 70% industrial and economic growth is limited, which was already limited due to Bhutan’s difficult terrain. The problem that Bhutan faces is of employment for its youth as well as to raise its own industrial sectors other than only exporting hydroelectricity to India. This forms a major source of its earnings followed by tourism and international aid. Tourism is an earner due to its strict control and high tariff of USD 200-250 per day imposed on tourists (excluding Indians) visiting Bhutan.
The tiny nation has its human, ethical and spiritual character very well in place. It is a pure delight to live among the Bhutanese people and see the country go by its work smiling, taking it easy. But as a visitor I see that the government’s present policies would no way help it come out of its least developed country (LDC) tag even in the next two decades. The average Bhutanese youth is either a civil servant after having taken advanced degrees in India or elsewhere or is engaged in jobs and services inside Bhutan which are good as a livelihood but do not really yield high returns or value in the long run. There is very little enterprise in the country of its own apart from agriculture and livestock. With television and internet having already entered late in the country (in the mid 1990s as I know) the youth is watching, reading and listening the sounds and sights of the world. It won’t be too long before the less visible and commonplace discontentment of the younger Bhutanese population takes shape into a major national situation if the government does not keep pace with the aspirations of the country. This is a good possibility now than earlier times because the nation is slowly cutting its teeth into political organization, mobilization and rallying for causes. The natural progression of this is when the youth step in to harness this emerging political scene towards their causes and interests. It should be interesting to locate that happiness in the next decade or so of Bhutan’s experiments with politics and democracy set in the backdrop of evolving media and internet spaces.