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.

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Road to Hampi

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Time is slipping by way too fast lately. Between school, university and work travel has suffered. While I am still processing my earlier experience, another ride is being considered.

Sitting on a bench at a tea stall in the bazaar area of Hampi I tried making sense of the cluster of shacks, huts and small houses that appeared scattered around grander looking structures of the past. There was a massive temple gopuram towering above everything else around which sat very small houses huddling as though they still retained the class order of the fallen Vijayanagara kingdom. I had spent a night in one of these houses, in a lane off the Virupaksha temple. Many of these houses offer rooms on rent. These rooms are annexed to the residing family’s quarter and looks like one of the main sources of income for the families living here. These make the bulk of guesthouses in Hampi. You’d take one if you are on a budget and a scrape-the-bottom kind of traveler.

The previous night, after riding into the town and settling in the room I read Satish Chandra’s account of Vijayanagara and Bahamani Kingdoms. It was a quick overview of the history of the very place I was sleeping in. 500 years back I would have been sleeping amidst the people of the most powerful empire in the Deccan and would have bowed to Krishna Deva Raya.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren't up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren’t up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

Later, I read Edward Carr’s What is History. Particularly the chapter on history as progress. After that, I read a bit of Pico Iyer’s Lonely Places – Falling Off the Map. He talks about how ‘lonely’ may not always mean physical loneliness, but that it could set-in, in spite of being a part of the greatest crowds or bustle of things. I found myself readily agreeing with it because this place is one of that kind. Loneliness, would at best be a state of mind. (Some would remark, of course!). I agreed with it because the Hampi ruins are almost unreal at one level. The people here seem to be oblivious to the rather heavy weight of history that this place carries and which travelers (and riders and backpackers) come seeking. They appear to be looking for the remains of a mighty empire which had a lasting impact on this part of the world in 15th and 16th century. Whereas, those who live here seem to go about their work and daily life with an obliviousness or perhaps indifference. I don’t know!

Every apart of this erstwhile city, which once had a perimeter of over sixty miles as Nicholas Conti, an Italian traveler reported, continues to be inhabited. They farm, they live and they carry on with their lives here leaving the ruins not to themselves but embedding them in ways which are quite functional. These are, so to speak… living ruins, in my opinion.

This is such a contrast to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. May be not in the scale of construction but in terms of beauty and elegance. Hampi is way too rich in the experience that it stands to offer to a visitor and the way it situates itself in an interesting integrated manner with the local people. Yet, Angkor gets over two million visitors annually whereas Hampi doesn’t even see 80,000 visitors in a year.

Visiting Angkor I felt it has this ghostly feel to it. A sense  of abandonment and extreme loneliness overcomes the visitor (an Indian visitor at least who comes from such thriving and populated places of history from Gulbarga to Hampi). Hampi, however, is festive. It drives in a sense of continuity of history, as I felt visiting it for the first time. Although, one might find the state of maintenance of most structures inadequate.

Here is once instance where I see a contest for physical space happening in perhaps most of the inhabited spaces across the world. Projects in conservation and preservation of heritage continues to fight this contest and the only approach it seems to be adopting often is to sanitize the space occupied by heritage structures and monuments, cordon it off and in a way, keep them in a frozen state. This often ends up aggravating the contest. An interesting project which moves away from this idea and is seeking to create a ‘living space with heritage’ is Aga Khan Foundation’s work in conservation and restoration of Nizamuddin basti (with Humayun’s Tomb) and space around it, in New Delhi. I heard the project team’s Ratish Nanda give an elaborate presentation on the project a couple of months back at NGMA Bangalore.

This, I feel is the direction heritage conservation in India should move in and not the European style of preservation which is akin to deep freezing. Even as Hampi gets a substantial fund from Government of India towards its conservation, I hope it learns from the Nizamuddin Basti program and not fall prey to the European and American experts on conservation of heritage. I am certain that there is an Indian approach and style waiting to be developed in this space!

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.