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Bhutan’s experiments with happiness

Tucked away in the Himalaya to the north-east of India is a tiny country that has taken the world by surprise. About 40 years ago, Bhutan, then a medieval Buddhist kingdom, opened its borders and joined the modern world. But it did not lose the balance. Instead, it gained an almost mythical status, largely for its pursuit of an elusive concept—national happiness. So much so that an inspired UN General Assembly in 2011 adopted a resolution on happiness towards a holistic approach to development.

The nascent democracy—Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008 after the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred some of his powers to the people—has rejected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the only indicator of a country’s standard of living. Instead, it became the champion of a new approach to development, Gross National Happiness (GNH). ‘The Constitution of Bhutan directs the State to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness,’ the fifth king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk said at his coronation in 2008. ‘To me it signifies development with value.’ This model seeks to achieve a harmonious balance between material well-being and spiritual, physical, social, cultural and environmental health of people.

The underlying methodology of GNH is solid. It is based on four pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance. These pillars are supported by nine domains considered crucial for leading a good life.

These include often overlooked aspects like time use and psychological well-being. Keeping in line with the principles, the government has identified hydropower, tourism and agriculture as the bedrock of its economy. An estimate by Asian Development Bank in 2012 shows tourism and hydropower have helped Bhutan’s economy grow at 8.2 per cent between 2008 and 2012. Though agriculture has been the mainstay of its economy and two-thirds of its population depends on farming, only 2.9 per cent of the country is under agriculture. The government is not willing to expand farmlands by felling its abundant forests. Under GNH, it has pledged to ensure that 60 per cent of its landmass remains under forest cover in perpetuity; the current extent of forest cover is 71 per cent. There is no incongruity in this approach.

Bhutan’s pledge to protect its forests stems from the fact that agriculture is closely linked to the health of forests in this fragile Himalayan region. Forests also keep watersheds healthy that are necessary if Bhutan’s ambitious hydropower programme is to bear fruit. Both proponents and opponents of hydropower agree that it is crucial for the country’s economic growth. Culture and pristine surroundings are Bhutan’s selling points to tourists. A healthy natural environment also ensures that people are spared abject poverty and stay happy.

In GNH, happiness is not euphoria; it is a state of sufficiency, says Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the GNH Commission. GNH helps assess this state. ‘GNH captures the aspirations of people and is a tool to better design our policies.’ The commission uses 22 indicators across the nine GNH domains to assess whether a project or policy ensures happiness to the people. It must score a minimum of three points to be approved, else is sent back for modifications.

To guage the impact of its development approach, in 2010 the Bhutanese government conducted a survey. It shows only 10.4 per cent of the Bhutanese are unhappy. But has it been able to achieve the fine balance between economic growth, emotional contentment and environment protection after five years of following the principles of GNH?

With steep mountains, deep gorges and numerous fast-flowing rivers, Druk, literally the land of Thunder Dragon, has set its sight on becoming a powerhouse in South Asia. Bhutan has already proved its potential—hydel plants have lit up nearly every Bhutanese home, irrespective of their location in the rugged mountain terrain. In 1999, only a quarter of households had electricity.

‘It is white gold for Bhutan,’ says Chhewang Rinzin, managing director of state-owned Druk Green Power Corporation. With a potential to harness 30,000 MW from its rivers and streams, hydropower is now a great white hope for ‘green’ income from selling power to India.

Environmental conservation need not be an impediment to economic development, says Ugyen Tsechup, president of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. For this, Tsechup suggests, the government should improve monitoring and conduct environment impact assessments. There is also an urgent need to expand NEC, he adds.

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