President of the Center of Bhutan Studies and one of the key architects behind Gross National Happiness, Dasho Karma Ura answers some critical questions on GNH in a series of in-depth interviews with The Bhutanese.
7. There is an increasing constituency in Bhutan that believes that Bhutan is trying too hard to please and impress the international community with GNH related policies like declaring Bhutan Carbon Neutral, Pedestrian day etc. What do you feel?
Karma Ura – On creating an impression of Bhutan, nothing could compare to the effects of the Royal Wedding and Their Majesties’ visits abroad especially Thailand and Japan. Their Majesties’ visit to Japan elevated the impression of Bhutan to a phenomenal scale and this led to doubling of tourist arrivals from Japan this year. The Japanese cherish His Majesty’s speech to the Diet as one of the most unforgettable, graceful, and moving in their memory.
The profile of our country internationally has been enhanced by Hon. PM Jigmi Y. Thinley partly through GNH in his distinguished career as diplomat and politician. He is an eloquent spokesperson for the country.
Their Majesties the successive Kings have spent immense amount of their leadership energy on Indo-Bhutan relations. The reputation of Bhutan in India and vice versa is overwhelmingly important, and our attention should be focused on it constantly. The international community consisting of donors and other friends is not unimportant but the magnitude and immediacy is not of the same order.
Financially, India is important because of grants for development and for security relations. Bhutan has four main streams of rupee inflow: grants, exports of electricity, exports of other merchandize, and credit. The interplay between these four factors determines the size of inflow from India. In 2011/12, grant was Rs 9.8 bn, equal to 14% of the total rupee inflow. The volume of annual grant may not increase substantially in real terms, and the assumptions we make about it has huge ramifications on the estimates of the fiscal position and rupee reserve. Outflow depends on imports, debt service, and remittances on Indian workers, expenditure by Bhutanese on pilgrimage and tourism, and on education and health services sought in India. When best estimates on all inflows and outflows are made, inflow of grants has to increase at an annual rate of 17%, to reach nearly Rs 30 bn by 2020, although this grant amount seems an unprecedented amount for India to give. We will be lucky if the annual outflow and inflow matches at around Rs 180 B by 2020. The scrutiny of Indo- Bhutan financial flows and correcting their imbalances will require more skilful economic management.
The most dispersed impression abroad of Bhutan is painted by the tourists. GNH dissemination has also rebounded positively as increase in tourism, a fact that any tourist guides, companies, officials and CBS will confirm from incessant inquiries on GNH they receive. In the context of image abroad, tourist tariff increase was the right decision. Lowering the tariff, which was an advice of McKinsey, would have gravely devalued the country’s brand image.
On carbon neutrality, I have not come across any analysis of practical implications of designating Bhutan as carbon neutral. Looking at the rise in fossil fuel use and particulate matters in urban areas, there is not much monitoring. Air quality around us should be of more immediate concern to all of us.
On pedestrian day, the government’s positive intention is two-fold: to slow down carbon pollution everywhere and improve air quality, and to improve physical activity and health in urban areas of a sedentary work life. Most rural people have more than adequate physical activity but substantial numbers of urban people have deficits. Living longer will depend on the purity of the air we breathe, the wholesomeness of food we take, positivity of our psychology, and vigor of daily physical activity that traditionally kept Bhutanese free from certain lifestyle disease.
There are several issues in sustaining physical activity level in this new move-for-health. First, a blue print for walking trails in all towns is needed. Trails should be away from the motor roads. If not, walking behind traffic, as we do now can actually make us worse off in terms of health by inhaling carcinogenic fumes. WHO has declared diesel fumes to be a cancerous agent. Second, in every town, we have to create more open public spaces, a bit away from traffic but like the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu which appeals to people’s cultural notion of prostration and circumambulation as physical activity. Third, adequate and efficient public transport should be introduced in all major towns, especially to ply children, sick, disabled etc., on Pedestrian Day. Cable car as public transport is clean and also most suitable because of our topography. All of these call for a different town planning, from a more holistic point of view.
It is a pleasing fact that the bussing issue is back. When we were in Planning Commission, in the mid 1990s two city buses were first introduced. The economic history of bank credit diverted in billions to import personal automobiles and fuel would have been different if the momentum on bussing were maintained; it was not, and hence there has been an increase in the extent and level of personal debt to the banks.
Entire stretches of selected roads should be just for walking on Pedestrian Day, where, everybody, including hopefully the PM, is found moving on their soles. Mixing at the ground level will bring community growth. Daily physical activity is the best daily medicine we need not pay, and everybody should take the prescription. Naturally, we should never place such constraints on the Royal family members, H.H the Je Khenpo, and the armed forces out of respect for the exceptional nature of their duties. Pedestrian day should not apply to doctors and paramedics; they are a scarce manpower who should attend to inconvenient calls. Slow motion is not desirable when responding to long queues of pain ridden people.
Also, one road leading to the hospital should be open for all vehicles. No one wishes for people to become more ill without medical attention because of Pedestrian Day. However, there are wider controversial issues to be weighed.
Pedestrian day means slowing down of businesses, construction, and industry all of which depends on transport, resulting finally in revenue and productivity lowered for 52 out of 365 days in a year. Much more detailed planning is needed to sort these out so that it does not distort incentives between sectors and groups.
8. One criticism of GNH in the current context is that it has made the government lose focus on ongoing problems with the economy like rupee crisis, credit crunch, rural urban migration, inflation, unemployment etc. Your view?
Karma Ura- GNH demands that some of these testing problems be resolved effectively because they undermine wellbeing and happiness. Inflation plus unemployment makes up what in the West is called the misery index. They should be tackled headlong for policies not to fail GNH. On rural-urban migration, it is not surplus labor moving to towns as in other countries and that is the main concern about this complex phenomena. An increasing fraction of rural houses in the peripheral villages of the East are empty. Overall, there is a trend of rural depopulation especially of the youth. The key answer to this is rapid decentralization of decision-making, public expenditure and location of offices and institutions. Creation of employment and business can then be more localized and migration can be decreased. Rural electrification and farm roads building, which are taking place, will play a big part in stemming migration but agriculture revival needs more attention.
Employment and self-employment are important beyond livelihood, for social esteem, dignity and psychological wellbeing. There has been progress in generating jobs, yet the unemployment threat looms large unless reforms in school and university education and a radical shift in public expenditure are not initiated. Radical shift in public expenditure, meaning absolute fall in budgets of some agencies in order to create new programmes, are unlikely to occur unless five year planning as a system changes.
Inflation of foods and other essential items is a cause of income loss and many other ills. There is a belief that imports from India determines all of it and nothing can be done about it. This is false, as non-traded goods determine a good part of inflation and domestic policies, including demand management, can lower them. Credit expansion and rupee shortages are a central part of the macroeconomic management, but space has run out here. Moreover, another article is being written on this pressing issue.