Sunil Sethi: Is Bhutan ready to rock?

Business Standard,29 May 2010


Sunil Sethi: Is Bhutan ready to rock?

Things are changing in Bhutan. There is a young king at the helm and parliament has been in place since the first democratic election in 2008. Even as growing numbers of Indian tourists flock to savour the beauty of its unspoilt mountain landscapes, the kingdom is aiming for a higher profile in the subcontinent and the world.

In April it hosted the 25th Saarc summit; and this month it put together its first literary festival with writers at diverse as filmmaker and poet Gulzar, the cult novelist Chetan Bhagat and the biographer Patrick French. The four-day event was called ‘Mountain Echoes’. Held under the aegis of Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, Bhutan’s charismatic and outgoing Queen Mother who was a star guest at Jaipur’s literary festival earlier in the year, it was promoted by Pavan Varma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan who is an established author.

Thimphu, as a result, was brimming with public events and foreign flavours — perhaps not so foreign, given the way Bhutanese matrons and parties of schoolchildren, in colourful formal costumes, mobbed Gulzar and Chetan Bhagat for autographs and pictures. As another diversion the festival organisers decided to invite the Shillong-based blues band ‘Soulmate’ for a concert and held the gig in the large amphitheatre in the town’s main square. A couple of thousand people turned up and lustily cheered on the band into the chilly night. It was a scene that seemed light years away from the country’s tranquil monasteries and soaring dzongs hidden in the folds of mountain passes, fast-flowing rivers and alpine valleys where the pervading sound is of Buddhist chants and fluttering prayer flags carried by the wind in coniferous forests.

Is Bhutan ready to rock? Some years before he abdicated prematurely at the age of 51 in 2006 in favour of his 26-year-old son, the country’s fourth monarch Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, famously coined the phrase Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an ideal of justice, social development and economic progress. It is not precisely clear how the delightful concept of GNH over conventionally mundane GNP to measure growth caught on but, over the years, it has mutated to become Bhutan’s overriding development philosophy.

For those who may argue that happiness is essentially a human abstract, indefinable and evanescent, the idea has been cast in a superstructure of four pillars of public policy — sustainable socio-economic development, preservation of culture, conservation of environment and good governance. These are elaborated in indices and maps of happiness: for instance, a 2005 survey that shows that 45.2 per cent of the population was ‘very happy’, 51.6 per cent ‘happy’ and only 3.2 per cent ‘not very happy’. There is also a coloured map of Bhutan’s 20 districts to geographically indicate ‘more happy’ and ‘less happy’ regions and, inevitably, people in urban areas, with greater access to amenities, are ‘happier’ than those in rural parts.

Whatever the merit of such GNH surveys, it is true that Bhutan boasts of some the highest social indicators in the sub-continent and it is increasingly well-off materially. (Although it imports everything from tea to taps from India, its trade balance is far surplus on account of the hydroelectric power it sells to India at highly subsidised rates.) Parliamentary democracy is also ushering in a wider, more accurate representation of people’s problems.

Many of Bhutan’s new fleet of MPs are young, foreign-educated and articulate. Sonam Kinga, MP from Trashigang, the largest, far-flung rural constituency in eastern Bhutan (he comes with an Eng Lit degree from Canada and a Ph.D. on ‘Society, Kingship and Politics’ submitted to Kyoto University) told me that the chief problem his province faces is of urban migration. Urban legislators are vocal about issues of illegal squatters, unemployment and the plague of alcoholism and drug abuse amongst the young.

As the subcontinent’s sequestered kingdom — and the world’s Shangri La — gradually opens up to tourism, international summits, lit fests and even the occasional rock concert, how will its measure of Gross National Happiness bear up?