“Happy” Bhutanese throw their govt out of power

It all started when Workers’ Party’s member of parliament Sylvia Lim, while participating in the debate on President's Address on October 17, 2011, called on the Singapore government to elaborate on the “indicators it intends to put in place to measure whether Singaporeans as a whole are achieving happiness and well-being”. She argued that earlier that year, on Bhutan's initiation and co-sponsorship by 66 countries, UN General Assembly adopted a resolution - Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development. “Since Singapore was a co-sponsor, may I ask the government to elaborate on what will be the practical effect of the resolution on Singapore?” Lim had said then. It drew a quick rebuttal from the National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who based on his personal experiences claimed that “Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth”. Since then, during the last two years (almost), arguments  from both sides have tried to sway the public opinion in its favour.

Since happiness is such a fuzzy and abstract concept, who is happier - Bhutanese or Singaporeans? It is difficult to gauge. But, Bhutanese were certainly not happy with their last government. In a major upset, Bhutan's main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 32 of the 47 seats in the national elections held in July. The incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) was reduce to only 15 MPs from the earlier 45 suffering a heavy defeat. Even postal ballots that usually are from armed forces personnel, corporate employees and civil servants, who usually favour the government of the day, went mainly to the PDP.    

So what happened? 

Firstly, the state of the economy in Bhutan. The twin Rupee and Credit crisis, growing trade deficit, struggling private sector, rising youth unemployment, inadequate road network, withdrawal of kerosene and LPG subsidy, and stagnant agricultural growth due to shortage of irrigation water, all angered the voters against the DPT government, which was already tainted by numerous corruption scandals. In the infamous Gyelpozhing land scam, the DPT even undermined the Anti Corruption Commission openly to prevent its politicians from any prosecution making a mockery of its 'zero tolerance to corruption' policy. 

The DPT's lack of consultation in implementing public issues such as declaring Tuesdays as Pedestrians' Day in town centres with no vehicles allowed during business hours; or banning sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers to make Bhutan the world's first wholly organic country; or the even more draconian Tobacco Act that has led to rampant cigarette smuggling; was also one of the factors. 

Importantly, while DPT relentlessly promoted the much touted Gross National Happiness (GNH) index during the election campaign, rising social problems such as crime against women, alcohol and drug abuse, and youth delinquency, did little to help its claims. 

The Economic Development Policy (EDP) formulated by the DPT government in 2010, was heavily influenced by the GNH philosophy and was aimed at building a green, organic, environment friendly and sustainable economy. Bhutan was to be developed as an education, health and financial hub. Businesses not in sync with GNH such as weaponry, porn, plastics, chemicals, and fast food chains were not to be allowed in the country. 

Bhutan declared itself a “carbon neutral country” meaning that it would never produce more carbon than its forests can consume. The government also introduced a GNH screening test where all the 33 indicators of GNH were summarized into 22 measurable variables or tools. All major policies had to go through this test before being implemented. Bhutan did not join the World Trade Organization (WTO) because it failed the GNH test.   

All this looked very good, almost saintly, on paper. But what about the ground reality?

Bhutan health hub dreams are in tatters with the sector failing to cope with its own patients. Organic farming is unable to provide even subsistence agriculture. The Education City and IT Park projects are being questioned for  their viability, and the country is not going to be a financial hub any time soon due to GNH concerns of money laundering. Even on the FDI front, investors have not really queued up to invest in Bhutan. There has been more than 100  investment proposals which have failed the GNH screening test, raising questions on the negative impact of the DPT government's GNH initiatives. 

Already, the new PDP government is thinking of reversing Bhutan's stand on being a “carbon neutral country”. It has abolished the Pedestrian Day, which according to Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) was resulting in a loss of 52 working days annually. Investors are also advocating Bhutan to join WTO as soon as possible to generate market confidence and attract investments. 

Thus, the 2013 election verdict clearly point towards the failure of the previous DPT government's GNH initiatives. What remains to be seen is whether the Himalayan Kingdom succumbs to electoral politics and the present PDP government embarks Bhutan on a GDP-based growth model, like the rest of the world.