By Vipin Pubby
K-4, as the 4th King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck is called, had come up with a unique concept to measure a country’s progress and people’s happiness by advocating Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of the ubiquitous Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
He had advocated the concept shortly after he was coronated in 1975, when he was barely 20 years old, but it was introduced only in 2009, a year after he abdicated in favour of his son, the present King (K-5) Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Though a well-intentioned and sincere attempt to gauge the gross happiness index and the impact of development, the concept is coming under increasing challenge in the face of the advent of electronic media, internet and growing awareness levels.
The central tenets of GNH are; sustainable and sociology-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture and good governance. The level of GNH for the country and individuals is based on nine domains and 33 indicators like housing, household income, literacy, basic facilities, assets, living standards, spirituality, life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions etc.
Critics, however, point out that the concept is too complicated and subjective. Even the current prime minister Lyonpo Tshering Tobgay has expressed his reservations. He said it was a “complicating stuff for me” and has even added that GNH was a grossly ‘overused’ concept.
Visitors to Bhutan no doubt find its people friendly, smiling, helpful and cooperative. Among citizens of all Saarc countries, those of Bhutan appear more calm and disciplined. Vehicle drivers stop to let pedestrians cross roads, there is no honking or frayed tempers on the roads. People are spiritually inclined and show tremendous respect for the King and the royal family. Public and residential areas are kept neat and clean and signages in markets appear regulated.
The country is not just carbon neutral, it is carbon negative, as its prime minister proudly proclaims. Range after range of hills continue to remain completely covered with trees. Over 60 per cent of the land is covered by forests. The country has virtually no polluting industry and strict controls are in place to check pollution.
However, neither the concept of GNH nor the visible aspects of happiness and satisfaction can mask the challenges which the small, landlocked nation of 7,50,000 citizens faces. With the inherent disadvantage of not having direct access to any port and dependence on India for strategic and other reasons, the country has a tough task at hand. Its rulers and administrators have so far done a good job of insulating the country from the influences of modern-day world.
The country has hardly any exports worth the name. Its biggest export is electricity produced by hydro-electric projects built by India and almost 98 per cent of the total generation is exported to India ! There are few employment avenues since there is a lack of industries. The service sector too is limited. Agriculture and horticulture is barely enough for its own citizens.
Thus even though the projected happiness quotient is high, it cannot help to mask the huge challenges the nation faces in uplifting the standards of living. The Bhutan Poverty Assessment Report 2014 said that while Bhutan has made remarkable gains in reducing extreme poverty, sections of its population remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty. The report released by the National Statistics Bureau in collaboration with the World Bank said that in just “five years, from 2007-2012, the number of poor in Bhutan reduced by almost half – from 23 per cent in 2007 to 12 per cent in 2012”. The report also claimed that the percentage of those living below the poverty line, as per world standards, was only 4 per cent in 2010. That is quite an achievement in South Asia.
Bhutan has the advantage of small manageable population which averages just 18 persons per square kilometre. Almost 80 per cent of the population is based in East comprising the belt covering Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and the border town of Phuntsholing. It can thus afford to focus on a limited geographical area.
But, as prime minister Tobgay has pointed out: “There are four issues that can compound to make matters extremely bleak: our ballooning debt that if we’re not careful will not be sustainable; the big rupee shortage; unemployment, in particular youth unemployment; and a perception of growing corruption,” and added that these “four combined can make a lethal combination”.
With the large number of students graduating from the institutions in Bhutan as well as in India, besides those in the west, the country is headed for a major challenge. The youth educated and trained in various disciplines cannot find suitable jobs on their return. The country has very few job avenues in the absence of industry and private service sector.
With the advent of internet and electronic transmissions, the world has become a global village. It would be increasingly difficult for the government to keep its people, particularly the youth, insulated from the rest of the world. The onus on taking forward the country now is on K-5, the current king, who enjoys huge respect and has the capacity to take his country into the twenty first century.