Happiness and Development of Bhutan

Published on Feb 06 2011 // Opinion
By B.M Dhakal

In the most abstract term of Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom, is poised to measure the well-being of the people by labeling the level of happiness to communities. GNH is discussed and debated now across the globe, from Japan to Brazil where Bhutan’s prime minister is the main propagandist. The fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk is credited for declaring GNH as more important to Bhutan than GDP or GNP which appear to be accidental, for the king himself have never put efforts to prove it since then. Ironical to the youthful king’s declaration, the idea of GNH has long ago came to the theory and some volumes of books written by earlier thinkers. And, none of the Bhutanese had been known to discuss this concept when it was brought to light by the king himself in 1972.

The center for Bhutan studies has played a catalytic role to promote the concept when Jigme Y Thinley, the present prime minister, was holding the post of chairman. National and international level of conferences were held to sell the idea to the world community where the center is actively engaged.

Prime minister Thinley is eloquent enough on the happiness concept to tell about happiness in Bhutan to the media like al-Jazeera and the University students in USA to the European donors of Bhutan, far as much from Japan to Brazil as possible.

His remark that ‘even street dogs in Bhutan smiles’ is the farthest extent of a prime minister being liar.

The GNH Commission
The national planning commission of Bhutan first introduced in 1971 with Indian assistance is now christened as the Gross National Happiness Commission. The aim is supposedly to make the planning process tuned with the pursuit of happiness and achieve Gross National Happiness to the end. The planning commission, a heavy aggregate of the pompous Bhutanese bureaucrats and officials mostly the secretaries of government agencies, is upbeat in blowing horns in the name of GNH excessively applauding the fourth monarch for its inception.

The chairman and the secretary of GNH commission are more focused on delivering the lecture to westerners rather than making sincere effort to planned development in the countryside of interior Bhutan.

The tenth plan document have four pillars of development in the country, viz: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, preservation of culture, environmental conservation and good governance.

In fact the planning and implementing process is apparently deviated from the core concept of GNH based on four pillars.

Going by the local municipal election (thromde), it was utterly a poor performance to establish democratic local government. On one side, many town dwellers were excluded from the voters’ list citing their census registration in villages while on the other, too few candidates showed their interest to exercise the democratic practice of facing the ballot. The requirement of passing through the functional literacy test to run election made many aspiring candidates to drop the idea because of their poor educational background. Some of them even failed to get through it, being eliminated from the scene. When much of the expectations of fielding the flame-tested candidates withered, the election commission of Bhutan slated the dates for registration from November 26 to December 10, 2010.

Election was postponed to January 21 by ECB to procure a good time for the electorates and the candidates to prepare adequately. However there was a poor voter turnout in all four towns. As a part of election campaign the ECB has arranged the meeting of contesting candidates with the voters, but it was a ‘measly’ turnout. In Babesa constituency, only 30 out of 400 voters ventured to listen to the candidates. With such negligence, grass root democracy is by no means strengthened and no good governance will foster. Thus again, democracy is not built up from the bottom and is likely to continue as a top-down approach of yester years.

The implementation of the farm road construction, suspension bridges, irrigation channels, extended classrooms, resettlement of the northerners in the land of evictees, ban on tobacco and other narcotic substances, grant of ‘kidu land’ by the king himself have invited a scores of corrupted approach to development with misuse of funds, negligence of construction works, use of cheap quality materials in construction, no pay to the laborers and so forth.

Mid term review(MTR) of the 10th plan in some districts have shown that the development has taken place mostly in the paper and verbal reporting of the gups(village head) who fear the government for not using the budget allocated to the gewog(block). Public participation(stakeholders) in the review process have not been encouraged.

Development has neither been sustainable nor equitable. For instance, Chhuka district has the largest hydropower plants, but it is one of the poorest district.

Quantifying GNH
The Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University, Joseph Stiglitz was invited to Bhutan in May 2010. In an interview with the Kuensel, he hinted the possibility of quantifying GNH but has said nothing about its methods, tools and processes. GNH formula has been developed by using the variables such as time use, trust in media, governance, prayer recitation etc. which are among the 72 indicators of GNH, but it is a simple aggregate of those 72 variables scaled between 0 and 1. The center for Bhutan studies conducted a pilot survey of the happiness level covering 950 respondents of 12 Dzongkhag between December 2007 and March 2008 in order to get the mathematical figure of GNH called GNH index. The questionnaire developed for taking the response mostly expected answers like black or white, good or bad, far or near, yes or no, which merely give the head count of the respondents saying either of the answer. The more interesting outcome of the pilot survey by CBS is the higher value of positive and lower value of negative response for every question, indicating higher GNH index for Bhutanese in the survey areas. To an independent observer, this data deem more manipulated or misinterpreted, conducted with the preconceived notion of getting all positive values and showcasing higher happiness level. ‘Do the respondents have same happiness level in 2010 and 2011?’ is a question the answer of which need a further research on the procedure of getting GNH value. This will also prove whether GNH is relative or relational.

What may be the happiness level of a village man whose crops are destroyed every year by the wild animals and is not able to get economic return enough to support the family?

What is the index of happiness for a teacher or a health worker posted in remote part who has to make his make-shift hut in absence of residential quarter or good room for rent when he is on government duty?

GNH Conferences
National and international level of conferences are becoming the routine way of evolving ideas on GNH and operationalizing the concept. Five international conferences were held to discuss, analyze, test and verify the idea projected by Bhutan, but the philosophical underpinnings of GNH have not been able to influence the consumerism of the west. In most developed countries, GNH cannot measure the level of business turnovers, flow of economy in the self-regulated markets, and thereby the consumption pattern of the market-dependant consumers. But prime minister Thinley was talking about the happiness idea of Bhutan so much irrelevantly in Pennsylvania and Columbia University last year. He even used the same media as used by al-Queda to brainwash the outer world about the origin of refugees from that ‘happy country’ where he is leading a political party with shaky ground.

National workshops for the school principals and teachers to make school environment pro-GNH was not very much appreciated by the students. With sheer lack of basic educational facilities in rural schools, GNH is just an exotic species that cause damage to the indigenous system. The principals or the teachers might make the students learn GNH values by heart; they might declare their schools as GNH-schools; ask students to wear GNH dress or badges, yet the stark reality the students and teachers face in a rural setting is just not acknowledged by the propagandists. Students or teachers walking an hour to school through the leech infested bushes, crossing swollen streams during the monsoon and students who set out to school only after completing partial household chores do not get a sense in GNH classroom.

Extended classrooms in the hinterlands face acute shortage of proper housing of classrooms, a teacher teaching every thing to all age-group students, no attention to the children with special needs, no sanitary latrines for teachers and students among others. Any one who visit such schools can see the primitiveness of educational development much like that of sixties. This is how children are at the heart of development making GNH for the Dashos and Lyonpos of Bhutan.

Bhutanese media, both private and state-owned, has been doing commendable job in informing the public about the government functions and concurrently GNH values being put to practice. But the public has limited access to such informations at large, because;

a) information carried by the media is only in English and Dzongkha,

b) the distribution of the hard copies of papers is limited to few urban centers and administrative pockets,

c) a large portion of village folks are illiterate and not sensitized by the media to be the absorbers of news content.

It is therefore, ignorance is bliss for majority of Bhutanese.

A layman whose economic opportunities are dwindled, a child who has been forced to crush stones by the roadside, a village girl who fell victim to wedlock or an aspiring college graduate who is turned down by the employers and any farmer whose crops are destroyed by natural calamities are probably not the respondents to GNH questionnaire. Otherwise it would add to the list of unhappy people or negate the value of GNH index. These typical characters of GNH country might have heard and understood none of the brainwashing lectures their prime minister delivered to the international community posing himself a great GNH champion. Even if they did, what should they anticipate back home by the foreign visit of such liars?