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The pensioner couple from Arkansas, US, on the Drukair flight from Delhi to Thimphu are excited about their first trip to Bhutan. “It’s the last Shangri-La on earth; we wanted to see it before it disappears.” But nothing annoys Bhutanese intellectuals in Thimphu more than hearing their country being called a Shangri-La. Unless it’s to hear their prime minister Jigmi Thinley claim that they are a happy nation. At the opening of Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival—Mountain Echoes—last fortnight in Thimphu, Thinley told a sceptical audience of Indian and Bhutanese writers and journalists that an overwhelming 97 per cent of Bhutanese are happy—45 per cent very happy, 52 per cent happy and the remaining three percent “not very happy”, citing an official survey conducted five years ago.
It’s a tall claim to make even for a little mountain kingdom that emerged after millennia of isolation with a brand new concept of development: Gross National Happiness (GNH). The concept was invented by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1972 to explain his alternative development strategy where material growth is balanced with cultural, ecological and psychological well-being. Now, GNH has not only triggered a worldwide movement but also become Bhutan’s greatest usp—advertised everywhere, from T-shirts to tourist brochures, fuzzily understood but much expounded. The problem with GNH, as Centre for Bhutan Studies president Karma Ura says, is that everyone has their own ideas about it—“from lamas, cut-throat businessmen, bureaucrats to mike-loving politicians.”
Monks at a Thimphu monastery
Ura, an Oxford-educated economist, has succeeded somewhat in turning the biennial GNH surveys into a more scientific measurement of Bhutan’s growth. His team uses 72 data points to measure Bhutanese well-being and happiness. The survey covers areas no government anywhere in the world has bothered with so far: psychological well-being, balanced time use, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, ecological diversity and resilience, good governance, living standard, health and education. “The idea is to pick up early symptoms by which to guide policy,” Ura says.
But rather than using GNH as a guideline for policy, the two-year-old government seems bent on curing the Bhutanese of what premier Thinley describes as the “greed” of the people. By introducing GNH into the school curriculum a few months ago, Thinley says he hopes to make “our children, our youth and ourselves conscious on a day-to-day basis that there are things more important than accumulation of material things, that happiness is important and can be achieved when you can control your desires and greed, material growth can be balanced with spiritual growth”.
The effect of this indoctrination appears a little strange to outsiders. For example, when Thinley summoned a few student leaders to report on the changes in their lives after GNH was introduced, one schoolgirl got up and said she’d stopped wearing the gold earrings she got as a birthday gift as she didn’t want to be “the cause of envy among classmates, many of whom couldn’t afford it”. Another said GNH had awakened his interest in his extended family, and now he makes his parents take him to the adjoining valley to meet his uncles, aunts and cousins.
There’s a danger of turning GNH into a “misleading discourse”, as Ura points out. “In the end, everybody likes money as a measurement of their empowerment. You can’t substitute other things for money.” But what the GNH debate has really done is to expose the wide gap between the reality of a rapidly urbanising populace embracing cars, TV and cellphones with eager abandon and Bhutan’s own self-image as a nation that values happiness over power and money. As opposition leader Tshering Tobgay admits, “All this marketing of GNH to outsiders will end up with us living a lie. After all, we are human beings—we too want commercial success and progress.”
Isolated? Dish antenna in a village on Thimphu outskirts
If what GNH has really done is to create a wall of happiness between the government and its people, beyond the wall the problems seem familiar: villagers, for instance, wanting to push their children out of the harsh and uncertain life of mountain farmers to one with more opportunities in the city. Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan’s national newspaper, Kuensel, recalls how when he was a schoolboy, his mother would show him her calloused hands to persuade him to study: “Do you want to grow up to be a farmer like me or have an easy life in the city sitting on a chair?” Nothing has changed since then, he says, despite the network of schools in villages and a national cadre of teachers to ensure a uniform quality of education. “We’re swamped with children from the extended family who want their children to study in Thimphu than in the village.”
With urban migration come the usual problems of community/family breakdown, unemployment, crime, drugs and suicides. Dorji recalls how he took some computers to hand them over to the community leaders in a slum, only to find there were no leaders. “Nobody wanted to take responsibility for the computers,” he says. Similarly, when his newspaper reported on juvenile crime in Thimphu, the police chief accused him of being alarmist: “There are only 30 juvenile criminals in the city, so why play it up?” Which made Dorji wonder: “Do we have to wait until there are 2,000 criminals before we declare it a problem?” He thinks there’s a tendency in Bhutan to be complacent because the numbers are so small—the country’s entire population is a mere 7,00,000.
Aware that the success of its GNH ideal—and indeed, its whole cultural identity—lies in preventing villagers from moving to cities, the government is now making a valiant attempt to persuade them to stay put. As Thinley told Outlook: “You can’t halt rural migration through laws and regulations. You can only halt it by giving the rural population the job opportunities that attract them to urban centres. We want to ensure our rural population has a big role in tourism by promoting farm stays and discouraging large hotels from coming up in rural areas.” Other programmes include scattering
colleges across the country instead of building them on a single campus and promoting Bhutan as an organic brand, giving Bhutanese produce a competitive edge. “We are looking at the growing middle class in India which is going to be discriminating about what it eats,” says Thinley. “We want them to say, ‘I’m going to eat Bhutanese produce because it is organic.’ And that means our farmers will have reason to stay on in their farms.”
So where does GNH come into all this? “If you are already living on a farm, where community is still strong, where family values still survive, where you commune with nature on a day-to-day basis, where you cannot survive without interdependence, there the chances of happiness are greater,” Thinley explains.
The single dilemma that Bhutan faces today is how to preserve its unique cultural identity against the forces of change. One way is to impose a strict dress code: wearing the national dress—the hand-woven gho (a knee-length gown tied around the waist with a belt) for men and kira (an apron-like skirt) for women—is compulsory. But even here, change is inevitable—young boys and girls sport denims and tees on Thimphu streets and even older women have switched to a modern adaptation of the kira, teaming silk or nylon blouses with an ankle-length wraparound skirt. In his insightful book on the changes sweeping Bhutan, Within the Realm of Happiness, Dorji recounts an incident when two women from the nomadic Layap community visited Thimphu as part of a cultural entertainment team. The Layaps believe that if their women stop wearing their kira, woven out of yak hair, they will disappear. But these two women “returned embarrassed about their traditional kiras because they were clumsy compared with the soft nylon kiras of the Thimphu women”, Dorji writes. “When told by a Thimphu official that the beautiful, unique Layap kira should be preserved, one of them retorted: ‘So you can send tourists to take our pictures?’.”
Leo posters at a shop
In a sense, the response of the Layap woman expresses the divide between the two sides of the GNH debate in Bhutan today. Those who want Bhutan to preserve its unique cultural identity and question the price of development are usually those in power, educated abroad. On the other hand, villagers experiencing the fruits of development for the first time in Bhutan’s history can’t wait to change their life, for better or worse.
“We can’t stop change,” says Dorji, “but we must try to preserve the values of the past as we move into the future.” And how do you do that with 40 TV channels beamed straight from Indian towns across the border into homes across Bhutan? “Even our concept of beauty is changing with TV,” Dorji says. For centuries, a beautiful woman was one who was strong, healthy, dependable, could sing well, cook and brew the local ara. “Then, within a span of seven years, this sort of woman is regarded as the wrong shape, wrong face, ugly—it’s frightening.”
But there are those who believe that it’s precisely because Bhutan isolated itself from the world for so long that it need not fear modernisation killing its identity. Thinley, for instance, talks of Bhutan’s “cultural patriotism” born of its vulnerability in the region, squashed between the world’s two most populous nations. Thanks to the long isolation, says Thinley, “we realise we have reasons to be proud of being Bhutanese.” That may well explain why Bhutanese youth sent abroad for studies return home in due course. Bhutan may be a small country, but its ambition is large: to show the way to the rest of the world on how to control change rather than be controlled by it.