By Uma Sudhir
Purely by accident rather than design, I caught up with the film `The Pursuit of Happiness’ on a flight from Hyderabad to Delhi, on my way to Bhutan. No single definition perhaps can fully explain that ultimate feeling that we universally strive for and yet, it is a small sparsely populated country, sandwiched between the two most populated nations in the world, that must get the credit for officially making Gross National Happiness (GNH), rather than GDP, the most important goal, worthy of an entire nation’s pursuit.
Once on Druk Air, the official Bhutanese airline, I woke up early morning on the flight after a short nap, to the sight of ice-capped Himalayas, as streaks of sunlight opened up the cloudy curtains. The ecstasy of catching my closest-ever glimpse of the Everest certainly was a happy beginning. Flying between mountains, we landed at Paro. The airport looked pretty picture-perfect and as someone joked, wouldn’t be surprised if we took ill after suddenly being exposed to such fresh, clean air considering the gas chambers we breathe in back home.
After taking in a few sights and sounds of this virgin country, unspolit by the spoils of `development’, later that evening, when Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley shared his country’s much-talked about dream and vision, of controlling change and development rather than being controlled by it, somehow the images that conjured up in my mind were of Planet Calypso from James Cameroon’s Avatar. Set as though in another time and space, seeking to be a serene island of `Happiness’, in a mad world galloping towards self-destructive `development’.
The Prime Minister explained that GNH is not a guarantee of happiness by the government, unlike, say the Fundamental Rights promised by the Indian Constitution. Rather the government takes the responsibility to create the right environment for people to seek happiness. So only those projects and policy would be allowed that would support equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development, environment conservation, preservation of culture and promotion of good governance. The idea being that material enrichment cannot make you spiritually impoverished, it must address emotional, ecological and social needs as well.
Wow, is that really plausible, I wondered. Curiosity drove me to ask questions. Pat came some statistics, quoting a 5-year-old survey that claimed that an overwhelming 97 per cent of Bhutanese are happy, of which 45 per cent are very happy, 52 per cent happy and the remaining three percent “not very happy”.
And it is not just GNH where they score but GDP as well. Riding on hydroelectric surplus, Bhutan’s per capita GDP at US $ 1414 is more than India’s US $ 1070.
The propaganda against consumerism and greed being bad words combined with a spiritually inclined population rooted in tradition that has been kept insulated from the outside world for long has of course helped. But for how long will it withstand the onslaught of the temptations of the world outside now being beamed into their homes through 40 satellite channels that come in from across the Indian border. There is the lure of the new world and the so-called `fruits’ of development from the `real’ world, like the flashy cars on the roads of Thimphu indicate.
There is of course, concern about the growing trend of urban migration, breakdown of the traditional family, unemployment, crime, drugs and suicides. A young Bhutanese reporter concedes that liquor addiction is a big cause for concern. He tells me about his mother who went to a rehab centre to cure her addiction. But it didn’t work and she died an addict, he adds, matter-of-fact. But there is no being judgmental there. There is a cultural tradition of consuming intoxicating brew, he explains.
“Three days a week is party-time for youngsters in Bhutan. Women get free entry at discotheque-cum-bar every Wednesday.” Certainly explains the national gross happiness index, joked an Indian friend !
To someone like me, used to hearing voices of disappointment with elected governments and leaders, it was touching to hear the faith of the Bhutanese people in the monarchy and their king. The new media entities, newspapers and TV, are they allowed to criticise the king, I ask?
But where is the need or reason to criticise him, they counter. After all, the benevolent Jigme Singye Wangchuk, conceived the concept of gross national happiness that they are very proud of, and went virtually door-to-door campaigning for a shift to an elected democracy from a monarchy, explaining to the people why it was required. Such a king could do no wrong. “No ruler has worked so hard to displace himself ” was the consensus.
I don’t know if they are deluding themselves, creating an illusion of happiness. If it is all too much preaching, too many words that may end up meaning nothing. But to me it is a road less taken that could show the world an alternate way to be and for that it is worth closely watching this country that, considering its size and population of a mere seven lakh people, seems more like a pretty toy kingdom.
You can also find Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir’s blogs at http://www.thesouthreports.com