“Experts infuse GNH values”

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Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation wedged between giants India and China, is pursuing a policy that does not merely increase the gross domestic product (GDP) but, instead, favors an inclusive, holistic development model that stresses on what it calls gross national happiness (GNH), writes Sudip Mazumdar after an interview with Bhutan PM Jigmi Thinley in Thimpu.

PM Thinley

For nearly 30 years, the predominantly Buddhist kingdom that moved toward democracy in 2008 with an elected government, has worked on general well-being of its citizens where material development is balanced with innovative policies that uphold sustainable development, psychological well-being and ecological protection. Bhutan now tops Asia in the United Nations’ just-released first World Happiness report.

Earlier this month (April), Bhutan convened a conference under the UN auspices in New York to nudge the world toward a development model that does not only emphasize maximizing profit through competition. Jigme Thinley, the American-educated prime minister of this nation of less than 800,000 people, told the global audience that the concept of gross domestic product be replaced by gross national happiness “if the mankind is to avoid its current unsustainable and self-destructive course.”

Encouraged by the response from the world leaders, Nobel laureates and economists, Bhutan is now going full steam ahead with its GNH model of sustainable development. But there are challenges aplenty. To discuss them, Prime Minister  Thinley sat with Sudip Mazumdar recently in capital Thimphu.

Excerpts:

Why should the world listen to Bhutan’s pitch for the GNH model of development? What made Bhutan take the lead?
Bhutan has never sat on a moral pedestal or gone outside its borders to preach to the world. After the concept was introduced by the Fourth King (Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1970s) Bhutan never talked about it outside the country. It was only in October 1998, Bhutan was persuaded and cajoled to take the concept out by the United Nations, particularly the UNDP, which had organized a millennium summit in Seoul for the Asia-Pacific region. The whole world was in a mood of listening. At that time GNH was a refreshing idea. Later through research the idea was further refined and a set of indicators developed to measure happiness.

The reason why the world is now taking interest (in GNH) is because economies are collapsing within an unstable environment and we are faced with all kinds of social problems. The biggest and most rapidly rising malady today is mental health disease. There are so many maladies and there are no solutions. That is why the countries are looking at Bhutan’s GNH model as an alternative development paradigm. Great minds assembled there (at New York in April) and showed great interest (in the deliberations).

Critics say the GNH concept is utopian and not practical. How do you respond?

PM Thinley

I think this question has been resolved quite sometimes ago. Firstly, happiness itself is the most fundamental and most important of good that every individual seeks in life. This is already established, particularly of the kind of happiness that we talk about that is not this fleeting, ephemeral kind that arises out of sensory pleasures, external stimuli. Scientists have shown how the brain matters change according to the conditions of the mind. It has been shown that how a happy, meditative mind can be productive and emotionally and psychologically positive. We now know there are specific conditions that can lead to happiness and that are necessary to happiness.

Here in Bhutan we have now determined nine domains that can condition the mind to feel happy. These have been identified and these nine domains can in turn be verified with a set of variables encompassing as many as 72 indicators relating to physical, economic, psychological, time use etc. There is now a multidisciplinary approach in developing this model.

There are clear signs of growing disparity in Bhutan. There are flashy cars and expensive shops on the one hand and many still living in less than a dollar a day on the other. How is this compatible with the GNH approach?
Yes, you are right. And we are not happy with that. The government has seriously endeavored to ensure that the fruits of development are shared equitably among all the people. This (disparity) is inevitable, it seems. We are trying to generate mindful pursuit of GNH. Until recently, majority of the people in Bhutan didn’t know about GNH. It was a top-down approach. We never said ‘contemplate GNH’. At the same time, vast majority of the Bhutanese people are spiritual. In the urban settings, people are becoming more materialistic. We have realized that people should consciously and mindfully pursue GNH against the pressures and aggression of materialism. We have introduced GNH in school curriculum. On our part we are encouraging mindful living and also aggressively pursuing (policies) so that certain sections of people don’t fall behind.

The focus of the current five-year-plan that ends in June of 2013 is on poverty alleviation and equity in terms of distribution of basic services.By December this year every home will have electricity. Every child is in school now. Except for in some two or three villages, every Bhutanese now have a mobile phone or have access to a mobile phone. Cowherds in deep jungles carry mobile phones now.

And now we are promoting e-governance. We want to turn Bhutan into an IT-hub. Our unique selling points are peace and stability, pristine environment and ecology, cheap, green energy and an interesting culture.

After years of isolation, Bhutan is fast opening up. How are you planning to deal with what some say the inevitable “temptations” of Western culture and “pollutants” of Western consumerism?
Well, it is very difficult. There will be certain administrative mechanisms put in place (to deal with that). But they can never be effective. Ultimately the filtration has to be in the individual mind. And that is why I talk about developing mindfulness and developing equilibrium between needs of the body and the mind, knowing what is the meaning of contentment, knowing what is enough. It is also the understanding that happiness arises out of a happy family, happy relationship with your child, with your spouse and also finding the time to spend with them. Again the family cannot be happy unless it has good relationship with the neighbors and so on.

What kind of initiatives the government is taking to generate wholesome living? I understand alcoholism, drug abuse is on the rise.
That’s right. They are on the rise. One approach (to deal with them) would be through the education system. We have introduced meditation in schools. We brought experts from all over the world to discuss how we can infuse GNH values in today’s education system. They decided they will make their schools ‘green’ schools, ecologically sustainable schools and they would generate zero waste. The program is being implemented successfully for the last two years. Schools are also teaching cooperation rather than competition.

Bhutan is also experiencing what some would call the “flowering” of the self in the pursuit of literature, art and cinema. There would inevitably more of “I, me, mine” in the Bhutanese society which is deeply influenced by the Buddhist ideal of altruism.

Or may be “contamination” of the self (laughs). Bhutanese films are good. We are the only country where the local film industry has succeeded in edging out completely Hollywood and Bollywood films from the big screen. Projection of the self or ego is becoming part of the modern democracy (in Bhutan). We are telling people to aspire to become leaders. So the “I” comes into play- I will do this for you, I am so and so, I can do this for you, and I have done this. We have now all these writers and filmmakers- it’s all about ego now, sadly.

What would be the biggest challenge before Bhutan as it opens up rapidly?
Democracy. My biggest worry is: will the voter learn, understand and know enough about the essence of democracy and how democracy must serve both the individual and collective interests of the Bhutanese people. How he or she can acquire the skills to be able to employ the ballot wisely and hold his or her representative accountable, and thereby ensure good governance. We are used to having good leaders for generations. We are not used to exercising the ballot. In other words, long-term sustainability of democracy is what I worry about.

Obviously, Bhutan is undergoing change in a fundamental way and some of the processes like access to Internet and satellite television can’t be rolled back. Where do you think the strongest resistance to change will come from?
No resistance, as of now. We don’t have the polarity of the conservatives against the liberals or traditionalists against the modernists. The Bhutanese are highly adaptive people. Sometime I wonder whether we are too flexible. But if there is resistance that would be natural because what we are going through are a liberalization process, a democratization process, and an empowering process. We also give tremendous importance to cultural preservation and conservation. We support the monasteries because we believe it is in the monasteries that the roots of our culture lie. They are a kind of an anchor. If the monasteries disappear then I think our culture will be threatened. We are taking a holistic approach to development and ecological protection is very important. Now, 80 per cent of the country is under green cover and many rare wild animals including tigers and snow leopards have come back.

Courtesy : South Asia Monitor, May 15, 2012

26644 COMMENTS

  1. Every human being wants happiness but very few people understand the real causes of happiness and suffering. Instead of trying to achieve happiness through acquiring material development, we should rather focus how to overcome sufferings. Once the sufferings are eliminated the happiness will appear by itself. Most of us encluding acadecians and so called political greedy leaders are desperately look for happiness outside oneself and these people spend almost all their time and energy adjusting the external world, trying in other words to conform to their wishes. In the process we all are busy destroying our very cause of existence. Most of the people claimed to be experts are only experts in destroying our prestine environment beyond repair. What a pity !