Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between two super powers India and China, has gained popularity after introducing a new development measure, Gross National Happiness (GNH), in recent years. The fourth monarch of Bhutan, Jigme Singey Wangchuck, introduced it in the early 1990s along with his vision of establishing good governance, promoting sustainable development, conserving natural environment and promoting cultural values that created interest far and wide in this exotic country. The popularity of Bhutan rose further when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2011, known as the ‘happiness resolution.’
When we talk about GNH, it is worthwhile to dig into the survey questionnaire which is instrumental in collecting data. In the GNH Survey Questionnaire, the rating of happiness is measured on a scale of 0 to 10 — zero being not very happy and 10 as the happiest. But what is it really measuring? Many critics have cautioned that happiness is an intangible and subjective concept that is hard to measure. Let us say a person scores 10 for being the very happiest person. Can we say that he is twice as happy as the person who scores 5? Is happiness a constant entity? Doesn’t it change with time, space and mood? The other flaw one can notice in the questionnaire is the cultural bias. The government has strategically glorified the festivals of tshechu, kharam, lha, roop, kharphu, chodpa, zhungdra and boedra, Tsangmo, lozey, the blended culture of the followers of Mahayana Buddhism and Bonism (religion worshiping nature).
It has systematically ignored the rich cultural aspects of other ethnic minority groups such as the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, who have been in the country for generations. Does it suggest that the GNH is inclusive? Who actually is the happiness for? Is it only for the palace and the government or for the general public who are simply dictated about GNH?
According to Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBCS), still over 23 per cent of the total population lives under the national poverty line, over 44 per cent are illiterate where over 60 per cent of the rural people and 32 per cent of the urban people never attended formal schooling in the country of GNH. Still the prime minister of Bhutan does not hesitate to brag about the so called GNH.
On September 15, 2010, Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Y. Thinley, speaking at the Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, stated that even the street canines are smiling in Bhutan – enthralling the entire array of luminaries in the forum.
He overlooked the exclusion of one-fourth of the total population who were forced out of the country to live the most pathetic refugee life in eastern Nepal for over two decades.
Similarly, the other absurdity is that when the leader of the People’s Democratic Party, Tshering Tobgay, called on the government to provide a complete public account of the expenses incurred to campaign for the UN Security Council seat in which Bhutan had secured only 20 out of 192 votes on October 18, 2012, the prime minister termed the opposition leader ‘disloyal and unpatriotic’. Is it a new form of good governance that the pundits of GNH envision for?
Further, when we look at the unemployment rate in Bhutan, it is annoyingly dismal. Many of the youth are forced out of service as the number of jobs in the country is dwindling. The 2012 Labour Force Survey Report, published by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR), indicates that unemployment among youth is still 7.3 per cent. The government of Bhutan has asserted that youth unemployment in the country is improving. According to the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) president, Lily Wangchhuk, the rate of unemployment, however, has not dropped from 7.3 per cent despite the government claim. According to Wangchuck, there are more than 3,500 university graduates and over 20, 000 youth still unemployed in the country.
The youth in Bhutan are increasingly plunging into drug and alcohol abuse, which has posed a serious concern to the general public and the nation as a whole. Use of marijuana is a growing issue among them.
The authority blames the open and porous border with India for easy trafficking of drugs into the landlocked country.
According to the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), there were 231 domestic violence and harassment cases registered in 2012 alone. A total of 3,487 cases of crimes were recorded in Druk Yul in 2010 and 2011 and 1,061 cases were reportedly committed under the influence of alcohol in 2010 and 2011, the RBP claimed.
Similarly, on January 25, 2013, The Bhutanese, an online news portal, reported that a 39-year-old tour operator in Paro, who was drunk, attempted to assault and sexually harass a 29-year-old female tourist from Melbourne, Australia. Obviously, this did send a negative message to the tourists around the world who are passionate about enjoying the pristine nature and innate hospitality of Bhutan. This sexual assault a tourism entrepreneur, indeed, posed a serious threat to safety and security for tourists and the entire tourism industry that has over six per cent share to GDP – the largest convertible currency earner in the country and second highest revenue generator after electricity in Bhutan.Reports of abductions and kidnappings at gunpoint in broad daylight are increasingly rampant especially along the southern border. Editorials in the government’s mouthpiece, the Kuensel, frequently warn readers that the country faces a shortage of doctors and teachers. Paradoxically, urban areas are crowded with doctors while many in the countryside die without even seeing a dispensary. It is not because of doctors themselves but because of poor planning, distribution and coordination on the part of the government.
Another serious problem the country is facing is the border encroachment by China in the north and the west. So far Bhutan has lost 495 square kilometers (Jakarlung Valleys and Pasamlung) in the north and 269 square kilometers (Dramana, Shakhatoe, Sinchulung and Doklam) in the west (Rizal, Govinda. “Bhutan-China Boarder Mismatch.” Bhutan News Service, 1 January 2013:1 Bhutan News Service. 13 February. 2013). It is an issue of national sovereignty, but neither the palace nor the government showed any interest in protecting the territory of Bhutan. Is this how the GNH flourish in the country? This is the biggest jolt being experienced by the people after the introduction of the so called democratic government in the dragon country. If this trend keeps continuing, one day Bhutan would be either one of the provinces of China or one of the northern states of India.
No one but the Thimphu heavyweights and administrators, who claim themselves the custodian of human rights, have grossly violated human rights. People who requested the establishment of human rights in the 1990s were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality, put in jail or expelled from the country.
Over 100,000 southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin, including a substantial number of Sharchops from eastern Bhutan, were ejected and made refugees. Sexual violence and other abuses against girls and women is still unchecked and unreported. A report of Centre for Victims of Torture, Nepal (CVICT) mentions that during the 1990s human rights and democratic movement in Bhutan, at least 2,400 families were tortured. Gang rape was a common means of torture used by the government in the movement, where females between the ages of eight to 81 were sexually assaulted. Over 300 cases of rape were reported, while many went unreported.
Similarly, some minority groups that managed to avoid expulsion in the 1990s are facing persistent discrimination and threats to their citizenship status and daily lives in education, health, employment, and land ownership in Bhutan. They have begun feeling “stateless” in their own country. There is a growing fear among people that they will be forced out of the country sooner or later, given the atrocities growing each day.
The government needs to prepare, plan and come up with sustainable solutions for the real problems Bhutan is facing. It is paramount for the government to address the problem of unemployment. The University of Bhutan needs to develop attractive academic programmes. Let graduates sell their skills after they gracefully graduate from the colleges and support themselves and the country.
Most importantly, the government, political parties in Bhutan and particularly the palace need to come up with a resolution to the refugee imbroglio. It is an opportunity for these three key players to print their names with golden letters in the history of Bhutan by solving the mess caused by the fourth monarch. And for this to happen, they need to present themselves with utmost honesty, true zeal and enthusiasm to recognise these long-lost patriotic and peaceful citizens of Bhutan who were once expelled and forced to take refuge in different parts of the world. They need to acknowledge their importance for the long-term development of Bhutan. It is for the greater interest and benefit of the country resulting in true Gross National Happiness, for the country to value human rights and inclusive democracy.
Above all, to maintain the balance of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in the tiny Himalayan kingdom, the aforementioned three forces need to work constructively on rebuilding the strained relationship with these true but refugee citizens, and seek support from them in all avenues possible by redefining the constitutional role and responsibility of the people and the palace in the greater interest of peace, security and development. Mere rhetoric statements cannot transform the concept of Gross National Happiness into reality for any nation on earth.