The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 14, 2003
Lead Article

What Bhutan can teach us
Reeta Sharma

Architectural controls

Pride in national dress

Restricted tourism

No violence against women

Gross National Happiness

What Bhutan can teach us

BHUTAN is the future destination of the world. Bhutan, a tiny country, is offering a lesson to the world. Despite pressures of globalisation and modernisation, it has consciously opted to remain in its centuries’ old culture cocoon. It has shunned the new-age materialism, consumerism and hi-tech weaponry.

Bhutan is not some sleepy country afraid to face challenges of the new age. In fact, Bhutan is, perhaps, the only country to showcase the positive effects of non-industrialisation, non-commercialisation, non-globalisation and a complete harmonious co-existence of humans with nature. Contrary to the general impression that Bhutan has missed the bus of hi-tech progress, its present way of life is born out of deliberate conviction and conscious national policies.


The credit for this unique country’s extraordinary achievements must to go to its present ruler, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. He had to take over the reigns of his mountain kingdom at the age of 17 and today, three decades later, he has chartered a definite destiny for his people.

To the almost crime-free Bhutan, where people neither lock their vehicles nor their homes, the King has given the motto of "Gross National Happiness" rather than "Gross National Product". This means that each Bhutanese has to achieve 'happiness within"—happiness of the mind and the soul instead of a materially luxurious lifestyle.

"Happiness has been mankind's pursuit for centuries. But somewhere man faltered and mistook materialism as happiness. But our King, though a man of this century, was blessed with a perfect vision. He always knew that materialism does not generate happiness. The spiritualism that Buddhism imparts is part of each Bhutanese soul. And our King has ensured that Buddhism becomes a way of life in Bhutan. A very controlled industrialisation and controlled tourism have saved Bhutan from materialism and commercialisation. We have reverence for our culture and as such nothing that may make any dent in it is welcome ," was the very firm declaration of the Minister of Trade, Commerce and Tourism, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.

The first and the most important initiative in this direction was taken by the King himself who advocated harmonious co-existence with nature. Hence, a National Environment Commission was set up under which logging was nationalised but the people were made aware of forest wealth. Today, each Bhutanese acts as a forest guard voluntarily. Thus, unlike India, Bhutan has succeeded in completely eliminating the vested interests of private contractors in forests.

The vision of the King has borne fruit. Bhutan has the highest forest cover in the world—73 per cent. The second best in this regard is Japan—61 per cent. Canada is third with 45 per cent. India has 19 per cent of its land under forests.

Of all the dynastic rulers of the world, Bhutan's King is the most unusual of all. A democrat at heart, he has not only decentralised power but is also working on a constitution for the past two years to pave the way for democratic rule in Bhutan. He has taken these initiatives on his own and not under any pressure.

The Government of India's role in building the infrastructure for its neighbour is visible throughout the country. All the four highways—eastern, central, western and eastern-western—have been built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) of India. India's first Prime Minister, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, had taken the initiative to visit Bhutan's then ruling King in 1958. These friendly ties were further strengthened when in May, 1961, the BRO was sent to Bhutan to build a network of roads with hundred per cent funding from the Government of India.

"Besides the airfield, the BRO has built nearly 300 bridges, two helipads, important buildings like Bhutan Broadcasting Station, the Indian Embassy, a residential colony, Bank of Bhutan, Sherubtse College, micro-wave station, Indo-Bhutan micro-wave links, 14 telephone exchanges, bulk pet storage installations, 201 km IBB fencing and so on," says the present Chief Engineer of the BRO, Brig S.M. Shah.

He further adds that Bhutan always had scope for hydel power because of its geographical location. "The first hydel power project was built in 1986-88 at Chuka, which produces 336 mw of power. Besides, we also built Kurichu (60 MW) and Wangde (60 MW). However, the future projects which are under construction are far more prestigious. These include Tala Hydel, which will produce 1020 MW, Punatasangchu (900 MW) and Mangdschu (500 MW). Bhutan's own domestic consumption of power is only about 100 MW. The entire surplus power is bought by the Government of India under an agreement with Bhutan," informs Brig. Shah.

Besides these activities, Bhutan surely reserves surprises for every visitor. Women have an extremely respectable status in the society. There is no practice of wife battering, dowry, infanticide or foeticide . There are no crimes against women, no rapes, no assaults on women, no sexual harassment either in the streets or in offices and no discrimination between girls and boys. There are also no laws relating to them. "No, there are no laws as such. It is the natural way of life for the people of Bhutan to respect women. No law can bring such results. Only inculcation of a value system can bring such results. What to talk of gender equality in Bhutan, women are rather a favoured lot because they are always the favourites of their parents," comments Policy Planning Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Information Officer, Phutnsho Norbu.

The second surprise is their centuries’ old dress that each and every Bhutanese, from the commoner to the King, continues to wear even today.

The third equally stunning impact on a visitor is that of Bhutan's architecture. The hand-painted outer walls, windows and doors with a definite style and structure will greet you even in the remotest and the highest areas of Bhutan.

"It is our national policy decision that we will preserve our architecture in its ancient form and hence the permission to build houses is given on these lines. Our old buildings have yet another feature that not a single nail has been used in any joint. Most of our old dzongs (a joint house of the administrative wings and monasteries) are built without nails", reveals the Minister of Tourism. Bhutanese architecture also has the chortens or stupas, which also house small shrines, where the sacred relics reside.

Another lesson which Bhutan imparts to the world is about tourism. It does not welcome tourists. Tourism is strictly controlled. "Along with money, tourists also have the capacity to invade and influence your culture, like it happened in Nepal. The onslaught of the hippy tourists not only introduced drugs but also largely affected ancient Nepalese culture and that too for the worse. We do not want any such influences, which are like slow poison, in Bhutan," says a minister.

So if you wish to enter Bhutan as a tourist, you have to deposit $200 per day as cost towards board and lodging, and transportation in advance before you get a permit. This again is not the last check. Throughout Bhutan, tourists are identified at every checkpost.

Like tourism their industry is also controlled. The King and the Royal Government of Bhutan are fully convinced that they do not wish to take part in the mad race of hi-tech industrialisation. A very limited amount of industrialisation is allowed.

Interestingly, a majority of the bureaucrats and ministers of Bhutan are highly educated people from universities like Stanford, Harvard, Oxford etc. Yet, there is no brain-drain in Bhutan. They all return after finishing their education to serve their motherland. Despite the western exposure they never desert their Bhutanese culture, including the national dress.

Buddhism is a way of life in Bhutan. Every dzong first opens to a monastery and then leads to administrative blocks. The impact of Buddhism can be gauged from the fact that the Bhutanese are very calm people. You will never see them screaming, shouting, abusing or indulging in fisticuffs anywhere.

Bhutan's per capita income is more than that of India. The mainstay of Bhutan's economy is agriculture and livestock, both contributing about 45 per cent to the Gross National Product. The contribution of forestry is 15 per cent and industry and mining 10 per cent. Over 90 per cent Bhutanese thrive on subsistence farming. Bhutan's farms are poetry in motion with the narrow terraces stretching like stanzas into hill slopes.

Photos by Surkhab Shaukin