The failure of the IT Park to attract investors and generate employment is a matter of concern, not only for the economy and the government but also for the Bhutanese youth.
As with many things in Bhutan the IT park was planned and implemented with good intentions. On paper, the park made perfect sense as it would get much needed foreign investment which in turn would hire Bhutanese youth and professionals.
However, in reality there was no foreign investment and no job creation.
Foreign IT companies who held a retreat here in Thimphu, showed initial interest in establishing call centers and data centers but backed out when they learnt the ground realities.
On the infrastructure front, Bhutan is geographically very far from any major regional commercial center. An essential element to reduce this geographical distance which is high quality internet connectivity with minimum redundancy was not up to the mark.
In spite of the generous tax break offers the other main factor in foreign investors not coming in is the lack of skilled and trained local professionals.
A medium sized BPO that did come in has had to temporarily shut down operations after the quality of its work was not acceptable to its foreign clients. The company has already claimed Nu 65 mn in losses which is not an encouraging sign for any potential investor.
This is a wakeup call for the government in giving priority to developing modern, compatible and high tech infrastructure if we are serious about competing with our giant neighbors.
In many ways it is also a wakeup call for the Education Ministry and also the government. While Bhutan has made gains in mass education the focus now must be on providing an education that is in tune with both domestic and international job opportunities for our youth.
One irony of the IT park is that while the potential investors cite lack of skilled manpower there are scores of IT graduates unable to find jobs anywhere.
The IT park in many ways also shows why Bhutan has such high and growing youth unemployment. Most of these youth are educated but have not received the right skills from our education system.
One interesting complaint from local IT companies who could have set up shop, or invested in the park is that they were not consulted when the park came up and hence want nothing to do with it.
There is no doubt that this government has done a lot for rural Bhutan in providing the basics of roads, electricity and water supply.
However, in the long term the government must remember that the economic future of Bhutan lies in upgrading our economy to the next level. It is this new economy that will pay for future farm roads and water connections as donors withdraw support.
It is this new economy that will provide jobs to tens of thousands of unemployed and increasingly frustrated youth, and also productively channel their energies.
In that sense, the failure of the IT park to take off is a symbol of the failure of the government to take Bhutan’s economy beyond hydro projects, tourism and donor assistance.
With the IT park issue still not sorted out the government is heading for what could even be a bigger disaster in the controversial Education City project.
Already Nu 600 mn of scarce government revenue and 1,000 acres of scarcer land has been allocated for this project, which is essentially the brain child of a mid level Kolkata real estate developer with no experience in such projects.
The IT park projects exposes one more malaise of the current system is Bhutan, which is the fear of criticizing a boss’s idea due to the negative attitude of the boss towards criticism. Our system has to promote healthy criticism because even internationally the biggest economic disasters from the Great Leap forward to the Soviet Collapse happened as critical voices were not encouraged and sycophancy prevailed.
Our leaders have to realize that criticism and critical feedback of any kind, be it in their own organization, from the public or in the media will only help them in the longer run.
Ultimately when a project or initiative fails and when the system is unable to deliver it is they who will be held accountable by the public, not anybody else.
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”