It is a welcome development that a host of international experts are working on the New Development Paradigm (NDP) in Thimphu, an endeavor which has implications way beyond this small Himalayan Buddhist state.
Bhutan in many ways has the historical credibility and moral authority to propose and host such a meeting.
When His Majesty the Fourth King outlined the philosophy of Gross National Happiness in 1972, with its four pillars of Sustainable and Socio-Economic Development, Conservation of the Environment, Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Good Governance, it was all not only theorized but also practiced and implemented.
This is why Bhutan can boast of having ‘walked the talk’ more than three decades later with a forest cover of 72.5 percent, vibrant and rich culture, good Human Development Indicators coupled with growing per capita income and stable governance.
The above may indicate why Bhutanese are generally among the happier lot of people and why in 2008 even on the eve of elections people still preferred an absolute Monarchy.
In many ways it was GNH achieved for Bhutan then.
Now with an elected government at the helm Bhutan has been cajoled and pushed by the Prime Minister into a brave new international forum where it is at the center of efforts to provide an alternate development model to the world.
Now more than ever the elected government will have to demonstrate the moral and intellectual credibility to propose such an idea to the world and in many ways it has to ‘walk its own talk’. However, ground realities in Bhutan signal that this might not necessarily be the case.
As the democratically elected government hosts scholars, intellectuals and activists for an open and frank debate on the NDP, a website critical of the government and corruption in general has been blocked mysteriously by the state owned internet services provider.
This follows shortly on the heels of the governments decision to delay the entry of Bhutan’s first two private television stations ensuring the monopoly of Bhutan’s government owned and subsidized TV station. The reason given is that the government is worried about ‘politicization’ (read critical coverage) of the private TV stations with the upcoming general elections.
At the same time the government has ignored repeated requests from some in the state broadcaster to give it more autonomy by giving it a Public Service Broadcaster status with fixed funding and institutional independence like the BBC in UK.
Prior to this the Ministry of Information and Communication responsible for media growth issued an official circular asking government agencies to stop advertising with this paper after it ran investigative stories implicating the ruling party’s Vice President in a land grab case. This is in the context of Bhutanese papers depending on 90 percent of its revenue from government advertisement.
While the NDP is a lot about truthtelling to the world community it is ironical that a government that claims to be a truthteller cannot itself tolerate some basic truths.
While senior elected leaders advocate GNH and simple living to the world it is an open secret in Bhutan that the family members and supporters of these ministers are rapidly amassing huge business empires and projects facilitated and smoothened by their connections to them.
As the elected government asks the world to be accountable the same government has ignored a basic transparency law like the Right to Information Act which would have empowered ordinary citizens to demand accountability and transparency from the system thereby improving the quality of their lives and making them happier.
While the government goes around the world advocating sustainable economic development, the same government has presided over Bhutan’s biggest economic bubble made worse with monetary and fiscal policies that encouraged mass consumerism.
While this government railed against the ill effects of industrial development, Bhutan, has seen an unprecedented growth of poorly regulated mines during the term of this government.
Though this government has called on the international community to check pollution, Bhutan’s own pollution watchdogs like the National Environment Commission or Mining Inspectors are equivalent to papers tigers unable to effectively combat industrial and mining pollution.
The current elected government has a long way to go and a lot to clean up in its own backyard before it can credibly promote the NDP. The reason why NDP has not attracted much interest among ordinary Bhutanese or fired up their imagination is not only due to its complexity, but more so because it comes from a government that is yet to ‘walk the talk’.
By contrast most Bhutanese will support the basic philosophy of GNH with its four pillars as advocated and implemented by His Majesty the Fourth King who did ‘walk the talk’. This support is visible as most ordinary Bhutanese live and practice the four pillars of GNH in their daily lives. The same cannot be said for the government’s increasingly louder pronouncements that are flying high above many unimpressed and cynical Bhutanese heads.