Preserving Bhutan’s soul

There is a saying in English that the ‘grass always looks greener on the other side.’ Off late, for many Bhutanese, given our economic and other woes, the grass has started looking a lot greener on the other side.

For the first time, in a long time, Bhutan is not very sure of itself – and an increasing number of people are questioning our development model, work culture, philosophy to life, etc. In short – there is a level of discontent among people.

There is also a continuing backlash visible in part during the 2013 general election results against an old and conservative model of Bhutan personified in some political leaders of the former government.

While it is always healthy to ask questions and ask for positive change in a democratic set up, we should also know what we are asking for, know the international context and be aware where it could lead us if we are not careful.

While it is literally clear by now that business as usual cannot continue in Bhutan, it also does not mean that we give up our very collective soul in return for a few more Ngultrums at the end of the month, or a rise in the GDP rate.

The new establishment definitely has to solve pressing problems like youth unemployment, poverty, economic recovery, etc., but there are also different ways to achieve the same goals. To cite an example, we can either increase jobs and productivity by giving our youth real skills and encouraging entrepreneurship with government support or we can simply tear down mountains and pollute the air and water to achieve the same.

There is a growing and subtle message from Bhutan’s big business houses that the way out of the crisis would be going in for large scale industrialization, mining, etc., and making major concessions for business houses.

There is no doubt that the government can and has to do a lot more in improving the business climate and activities – starting from the very basics like coming out with the right policies to reducing complicated red tapes.

However, Bhutan should not make the mistake of copying the developmental model of its South Asian counterparts – where in many cases big business houses gain at the expense of the environment and state resources. It would also lead to the acceleration of divide in the income gap between the rich and the poor.

Bhutan should instead focus on an economic model of strengthening and increasing the number of cottage, small and medium businesses and industries. This model should also closely involve farmers who don’t just have to work harder, but with adequate systemic help can also work smarter.

To illustrate the point, Bhutan has around 30,000 business licenses but a lot of the government energy, policies and concessions usually go into only addressing the concerns or benefitting some top 100 business houses or companies.

Apart from the economy, there are so many areas and avenues where it would be important to ensure that while brining about positive changes, the essence of what makes Bhutan unique should be retained.

It is in this context that we must have proper understanding of the real nature of Gross National Happiness as propounded by His Majesty the Fourth King, which has been misunderstood by some and taken to unnecessary extremes by some people.

GNH, at its very core, is not about so many indicators and sub indicators, etc., which were added later but simply about the Bhutanese way of life, well in harmony with not only nature but also the nature of human existence. The only and surest way of knowing this for the doubters is to spend time outside Bhutan and then come back to Bhutan and note the difference.

Whether one travels to more hectic and chaotic destinations in the South Asian neighborhood or to more developed countries, when one comes back home – there is a heightened realization of just how indeed special and unique Bhutan is. This is one of the reasons why even legions of cynical foreign visitors and journalists with pre-conceived notions have come to Bhutan and most of them leave, deeply affected, as it is visible in their gushing articles or comments on Bhutan. A famous Hollywood actress once commented that she found a lot of spirituality in the people in Bhutan.

Bhutan is not a Shangri-la or paradise and has its fair share of problems like any developing countries around the world, but what draws Bhutan apart is how it had addressed these problems under the wise leadership of our Kings. We have not cut down the pristine forests to earn revenue, we have not polluted our air and water to increase the growth rates, we have not allowed governance to be chaotic and unaccountable, we have not given up our culture, faith and good manners, and we have not lost our self- confidence even while being surrounded by giants.

While change is inevitable and needed, we should not give up our nation’s soul in addressing challenges. The strength and stability of our core beliefs should continue to nurture the growth – into the future where all our children and grandchildren can feel rooted and secure.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Mahatma Gandhi

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