The Middle Path to Development: Lessons from Bhutan’s environment policy

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

If there is a place which can make a traveler feel intimate with it in the shortest time since her arrival, Paro would be it. A gushing river of clear water and a fort marks the entrance to the town. The air is an invitation to inhale deep and a reminder that this is not usual for a traveler from any other part of the world – to breathe deep! Two main thoroughfares encompass the town- its houses, shops, parks and public spaces. Sitting on a ledge at the Taktsang Monastery waiting for the monastery to re-open after lunch break, a chance conversation with an officer of Bhutan’s Forest Services served as the early hints of ‘the middle path’. The place couldn’t have been any more momentous. The ‘middle path’ in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path is also how the environmental policy of Bhutan articulates the way forward.
High in these mountains of Eastern Himalayas, the remarkability lies in the relationship between the people and environment. Does it hit the sweet spot of ‘sustainability’? Not quite. Yet, there is something of great value that the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan offers in thinking about the environment. The National Environment Commission of Bhutan was born in this town after the 1990 Paro Workshop on Environment and Sustainable Development. The NEC’s responsibility was to draw up a ‘national strategy to ensure that environmental concerns become an integral part of the development agenda’. The ultimate goal of the National Environment Strategy (NES), a report of the Commission explains, is to ‘minimise or mitigate the impacts that are likely to result from the development process’. This is where Bhutan’s remarkability lies. The NES, which is a policy document, articulates, with remarkable honesty, the kind of challenge the country is likely to face in the future.
The following quotes from the NES document of 1998 illustrate the environmental potential of a political system. Formally, this system is a constitutional monarchy currently, although at the time NES document of 1998 was written Bhutan was a monarchy. The democratic reforms are of very recent origin. The members of the National Assembly have mandated the country to maintain a forest cover of more than 60% (National Forest Policy, 1974) at all times. Forest cover stands at more than 72.5% of the country. The document on NES, 1998 states,

The Middle Path-National Environment Strategy for Bhutan aims to highlight issues, potential problems and constraints, and choices that our country has to make in order to ensure the conservation of our natural resources while pursuing economic development.

There is a certain kind of policy thinking that this statement reflects – one in which problems are articulated and acknowledged in the barest form of honesty. Problem recognition in policy making is regarded as the first step towards effective policy making. Further, examine the questions that the NES, 1998 posits to itself and seeks to remedy,

Can we adopt modern development while still maintaining our traditional values?
Can we accept the need to develop industries, social infrastructure and markets, while still recognising that development is not material development alone, but the enhancement of knowledge, spiritual and cultural development? Can we maintain our traditional values and sustainable livelihoods in a changing global environment? Can we raise the living standards of the present population without compromising the country’s cultural integrity, historical heritage or the quality of life for future generations?

These questions reflect a searching intent in the policy thinking of Bhutan’s political system. Another instance is use of the word ‘spiritual’ in a policy document which stands at odds with the positivist and objective traditions of policy science. This is the variety of progressiveness which is yet to be seen as a norm in policy thinking. The intent of this piece has been to highlight how political systems do hold potential for environmental consciousness and factor in sustainability in their development process. Does Bhutan have these answers? Why don’t we see political contestations in Bhutan over different interests as one might see in India? Ethnic homogeneity in the Bhutanese society seems to be advantageous on this front. In addition to it, democracy is nascent in Bhutan and this perhaps explains the absence of dissenting voices.

In 2012, Bhutan announced its decision to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The country has been known as a model for proactive conservation initiatives and has received international acclaim for its commitment to its biodiversity. This is a testimony to the fact that Bhutan’s policy thinking is in a direction that other countries can take a leaf from.

Take a Ride and Be Happy – Experiencing Happiness in Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

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.

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

Intrigued by the road signage. It has a caricature of a man wearing gho, Bhutan’s traditional wear. Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

A view from the road of Thimpu's many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

A view from the road of Thimpu’s many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Thimpu is said to be the world's only capital city without traffic lights

Thimpu is said to be the world’s only capital city without traffic lights

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.

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, Bhutan

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, 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. 

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

Insights at the edge

Also known as the Tiger's Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

A recent trip to Bhutan only affirms how amazingly insular one can be. A world of possibilities exist, unfold and play themselves across the world yet we seem to believe that the world order as we know it is the only one which works. This was the a strand of thought as I spent my first night in the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing. That the country has a functioning monarchy was on my mind as I crossed the gates into the kingdom of Bhutan. The other was a sense of excitement to experience this country of happiness firsthand. This country was to impress me, surprise me and overwhelm me every single day that I spent here. From a chance encounter with a forest services officer while waiting outside the Taktsang monastery to a dinner table conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees to walking down the streets of Paro on a full moon night, I experienced a world unlike any other  that I am aware of.

Taktsang Monastery's dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

Taktsang Monastery’s dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

A year back, I chanced upon a picture of this great monastery which is also said to be an important center for those of the Buddhist faith. This was the Taktsang Monastery (or the Tiger’s Nest) towards which I was instinctively drawn, located on a cliff in the Paro valley. I didn’t care to ascertain why. The setting was so dramatic that I felt I must see it and trek up its holy steps. I had seen documentaries where people cried like babies as they entered these sacred buddhist complexes. There was the Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis crying inconsolably in one of the monasteries that he visits and then Pico Iyer writing about experiences in the company of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Open Road. I felt an urge to subject myself to such an experience and see some of these monasteries for real. As a Hindu, the belief system and the religious values that I was accustomed to offered no such mild yet profound experience which is not terrifying and which is not transactional in its nature. Deliverance for the Hindu (as I see it) is always a transaction with the higher powers. There is a vow and there is a bargain and there are ways to negotiate in case you find that vow a bit too difficult to keep. Buddhism isn’t so, as I read it in contrast. Not a very elegant way to look at it but works for me. The decision to head in Taktsang’s direction too, was as unconscious. It seemed as if there was an inner program unfolding in which I held the role of only performing the action. The rest was determined on a plane of which I knew little about.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

This monastery is an important center for those of the buddhist faith. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have brought Buddism to Bhutan had meditated in this place. “Takstang” means a tiger’s liar and he had flown to this location on the back of a flying tigress. For a moment this and other versions of the legend consumed me as I started from Kolkata on a bus run by the royal government of Bhutan. It took me to Phuentsholing from where Paro is about six hours drive. The entry into this fascinating kingdom was  a gradual lesson in politeness and a zen like patience. To my incessantly stereotyping mind, every Bhutanese looked like a zen monk to whom I must talk to with a slight bow borne out of admiration. The men and women almost everywhere wore their traditional dress. The men in gho and the women in that gorgeous kira.

I had heard it from a dozen people that morning, about how fortunate I am to be visiting Taktsang on the day of the vesak . It was a full moon night that day, also known as buddha purnima . This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha and is one of the most auspicious day around the world for all the people of this faith. It was good to take the steps towards this monastery with this feeling of having being called to this place on such a day. It was a solemn morning. The pine trees made it even more intense. It got surreal as I trekked those eight kilometers to the monastery. It was much like that moment when Frederick, that character in Herman Hesse’s story Within and Without comes across the words “Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within” in his friend Erwin’s beautiful hand. He doesn’t know it. Yet he is sure that these words would soon torment him to be not able to know why they hold his attention and why should they matter to him. They appear to be casting a magic spell on him. Just as this place and the surroundings that day were playing on me.

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

It is interesting how some of these places where you travel end up altering and shaping a person. And perhaps a traveler is a consequence of several such experiences. I loved the place and its people right from the point of entry into this lovely country and until that third day when I was in Paro, I was much at peace and content with each moment. Not much to worry about, nothing to take care of when I get back and thoughts like these. Every moment felt complete. This probably was heightening what I was experiencing on that trek and then further into the temple complex. I found happy, smiling faces all around. There were Bhutanese men and women, youngsters and children who had come in groups to offer their prayers at Taktsang on this day of vesak which was also a national holiday. Yet they appeared so few that the press of crowd that is typically felt in Indian temples or holy places was absent. What was without, I longed for becoming so within. It is one of the few places where I could hit a consonance between the outer and the inner states. Of being!