In a compound in a clearing on a hill, about ten minutes drive out of Thimphu, sits a newly-built and imposing statue of the Buddha. Though sealed off at night the spot still attracts cars packed with youngsters once the revelry in town gets over; the view down over the scattered lights of the valley is spectacular and there are no neighbours to complain about the noise. The Buddha Dordenma is 51.5 metres tall, made of gold and bronze, and filled with over 125,000 miniature replicas. Despite the universal Buddhist aspirations, the statue is primarily a domestic symbol, embodying both Bhutan’s image as a spiritual idyll and its own aspirations to serving as the ground for better ways of living and governing.
Back down in the city at 9 am, small groups of college graduates dressed in smart kira and gho cluster in front of the main gate at the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. Inside, portraits of the royal couple look down over the bureaucrats who control one of the gateways into the elite cadre tasked with negotiating Bhutan’s cautious path to ‘modernity’. Abroad, this path is represented by a collage of spirituality, the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the most photogenic Himalayan royals since Hope Cooke and Palden Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim. At home, a far less exciting fixation with bureaucracy and civic life, fuelled by decades of aid and support from India and other foreign donors, has taken root. The famous experiments with happiness are taking place in what is probably the most bureaucratised corner of Southasia.
The civil service is “almost saturated,” according to an employment guide published in 2015 by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. It remains, however, the most popular route to the bright lights of Thimphu for an educated and young workforce that has less and less interest in working the land. In the capital, one in eight inhabitants is a civil servant. There are also spellcheckers for the city’s commercial signboards but few other attractive employment options are available outside of the government. “Bhutan’s primary goal today is to achieve self-reliance,” wrote H N Misra, an Indian academic who visited in the late 1980s to collect data on its economy and national planning. The deluge of foreign aid has made achieving this self-reliance unnecessary, and allowed generations of young Bhutanese to aspire to the white-collar jobs of planning and governing the nation, while foreign workers (generally from the Indian states near Bhutan) build most of its infrastructure. As recently as 2010, almost 50 percent of graduate applicants from Sherubste College, the largest in the Royal University of Bhutan, were making it through the ‘General Category’ entrance exam (taken by the majority of applicants) for the civil service.
Exporting hydropower to India has offset some of the costs of this civic bonanza. A recent lull in new projects coming online however, is raising old concerns at how much Bhutan’s economy relies on its dams. (Bhutan has accrued the worst debt to GDP ratio in Southasia, in large part thanks to the high costs of building these dams). A youth unemployment problem that refuses to go away, and a private sector still struggling to make a meaningful contribution to economic growth are other symptoms of the modern Bhutanese state’s obsession with itself, which is beginning to cause concern. A recent editorial in the Kuensel newspaper criticised the secretive way in which bureaucrats conducted the mid-term review last March. “Planners, policymakers and politicians are holding back what needs to come out in public for the benefit of the people,” read the editorial, which went on to demand that ordinary citizens be “pulled into the circle.”
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Dual honours in Dzongkha and English is the best degree programme for civil service aspirants, according to the website of the School of Arts and Humanities at Sherubste, possibly because it encompasses the traditional-modern combination that the civil service is all about. Many of the short essay questions from test papers from 2005-14 give examples of worldwide problems like climate change, mass consumerism and the erosion of privacy and culture, and ask candidates for their ideas on how Bhutan can buck these trends using practices inspired by traditional knowledge and practices. There is a strong focus on the knowledge of international organisations expected from a donor darling, although unlike neighbouring Nepal, Bhutan has managed to keep the in-country presence of INGOs to a minimum, and the government as the most desired employment choice for bright young people. “Most of the current successful private sector proprietors, consultants, and more recently the politicians,” are former civil servants according to the foreword of the Civil Service Rules and Regulations 2012. The handbook itself grew from 223 pages in 2006 to 438 in 2012.
Questions testing more local knowledge ask candidates to explain the significance of the new turquoise kabney (ceremonial sash) in the Supreme Court, or whether they believe the Thimphu City Corporation had been over-zealous in its policing of the spelling and grammar of the Dzongkha commercial signboards around town. There are some outdated précis exercises, but far fewer of the 1950s idioms that still crop up in the exams for the Indian Administrative Service (which in 2014 was still asking candidates to expound on maxims like ‘Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, but knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful’). The blueprint is a self-consciously Bhutanese cosmopolitanism, at home with international protocol and confident that Bhutan’s unique history and social and religious institutions can provide a base for the country to set new examples in governance and sustainability.
If a candidate passes the entrance exam and the subsequent interviews, there is a one-time offer to work in the civil service. Turning it down or resigning before retirement means disqualification from ever working there again. The starting salary for a graduate is around Ngu 8500 (USD 127) per month. Skilled workers like carpenters, electricians and mechanics, meanwhile, can earn a maximum of Ngu. 324 (USD 4) per day according to government guidelines. Healthcare and maternity benefits are generous, as are opportunities for secondments or studying abroad. Civil servants of rank P3A and above are entitled to import an Indian or foreign-made car once every seven years and don’t pay customs duty and sales tax if the car costs less than Ngu 800,000 (USD 11,985).
Government employees also dominate the tiny output of literary writing, with an ex-policeman, a university lecturer and a district administrator all authoring novels recently. The national school curriculum (written by civil servants, in the Department of Curriculum Research and Development) holds the civil service in some esteem. In a paper examining 27 textbooks, Dasho Karma Ura (one of the chief GNH ideologues, although also a translator, scholar and painter, among other things) found that: “Values such as social conformity and respect for hierarchy are emphasised. In fact, hierarchy is emphasised too much, in the sense that there seems to be an excessive detail about high post holders such as dzongda (district administrators), thrimpon (judges), ministers and their ceremonial attire like kabneys (scarves).” He went on to comment: “In my opinion, the textbooks have built up the importance of civil servants excessively in the eyes of students… In fact, going by news reports, as well as the perceptions of the people covered in the GNH 12 survey, they are not the most respected members in society, in contrast to the textbooks’ portrayal of them.”
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“At the moment we’re in a big crisis,” said Dawa Wangchuck, 26, from Phuntsholing, when we met in Thimphu in 2015. Wangchuck studied Information Technology (IT) in Kolkata but is now training to become a guide after two fruitless years searching for a job in the IT sector in Thimphu. “The number of graduates is getting bigger each year and the number of government jobs is not growing. So the government is trying to steer us towards business.” Tourism (heavily regulated by the government) has emerged as one of the most popular alternatives to the civil service, and competition to become a guide is also fierce. I met Wangchuck with three of his friends, who were all guides, or were in training to be one. Two of the group had taken and failed the civil service entrance exams. “I thought Thimphu would be more developed and there would be more employment opportunities,” said Karma Namgyel, 25, who came to the city from Trashigang in east Bhutan for his BA degree. He had just finished a Japanese language course to increase his prospects of being hired after his final exams. He is married, and lives in Thimphu with his wife. Wangchuck, commenting on Nangyal’s situation says, “It’s a tough time for him now. With no job, he has to wait until he has children.”
A couple of streets over, just down from the Memorial Chorten, another ornament was being added to Thimphu; a commemorative gate, being built by Indian labourers. The cities of Thimphu, Paro and Phuntsholing are going through construction booms but very few Bhutanese are involved in the construction work. There were an estimated 30,000 foreign workers in the hydro sector alone according to an official at the Ministry of Human Resources in 2015, not counting those who were working in other construction projects. Government rules allow for the presence of up to 45,000 foreign workers in the country at any one time, but according to a Kuensel report, 48,675 foreigners have been issued with work permits this year. Most of these workers are Indians who only require a work permit (valid for a maximum of one year) and not a visa to work in Bhutan. The government is trying to replace these with Bhutanese workers and over the past fifteen years has expanded the number of Technical Training Institutes in the country. These teach handicrafts and trades from heavy vehicle maintenance to welding, plumbing and carpentry, but they do not seem to be catching on. According to the official these centres currently produce “around 600 new skilled people every year. Ideally, we would be able to produce 5000.”
“The Bhutanese don’t like work like this,” a builder from Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal told me in Paro. “They’ll work for 2-4 days and then say ‘enough’. And they don’t have the skills, they don’t do a good job… But it’s good for us; the money is better here. I’m saving up to get married, and I get to go home three, maybe four times a year, with a long break in the winter when it gets too cold and the cement doesn’t set.” That afternoon Paro’s city centre was packed with off-duty construction workers buying vegetables and chatting in the sun while the local high school football team paraded victoriously through the streets and demanded prize money from shopkeepers. Early next morning, trucks packed with Indian workers rattled out to the road upgrading projects and construction sites outside of Paro. Further down the valley, on the path up to the famous Tiger’s Nest came the sounds of an Indian army firing exercise; the thuds and explosions leaving a more sinister reminder of Bhutan’s southern neighbour’s omnipresence in the morning air.
“The government provides free education up to 10 standard. Why would we want to do these jobs after that?” is the reply of Dawa and the others. A more blunt response was given by a youth participant during an episode of the ‘People’s Voice’ TV programme in 2014: “I sold my last cow to get my education… I’m not going back to the farms.”
The government has struggled to make agriculture – mostly subsistence agriculture, and still the country’s largest employer – more appealing by integrating it with the cash economy. Bhutan’s climate means it is well-positioned to export fruits like mangoes and litchis to the sizeable markets of Bihar and West Bengal during the off season there. But, as a 2013 report by the Chambers of Commerce and Industry noted, the majority of Bhutan’s wetlands and orchards remain fragmented into small holding of five acres or less, meaning it is difficult to grow cash crops on a scale that would be profitable. The current Land Act is also “very restrictive about [the] interchangeability of land use and land conversion,” claimed the report, which also listed other reforms wanted by the business community and promised in the last Five Year Plan, but currently held up in parliament: an Industry and Investment Act, a Competition Act, a Foreign Investment Promotion Act and a Trade and Development Act.
Filling up with civil service hopefuls and young people fleeing the boredom of the districts, more than half of the recorded crime in the country happens in Thimphu. Confusingly, the urban areas of Bhutan also reported higher levels of ‘happiness’ in the last GNH survey. New arrivals live with family members or find flatmates. Wangchuck lives in an apartment with three and sometimes four friends, depending on who is in town and needs a place to stay. Each has a bedroom, while the bathroom and kitchen are shared, and housemates take turns to cook, he says. A new property app and website gives an idea of how expensive living can be (a one-roomed, shared bathroom apartment in central Thimphu can cost between Ngu 8-10,000 (USD 119- 149 per month). Home Shangrila, a recent novel, begins in Thimphu with a recently-arrived young graduate competing with his batchmates in the civil service entrance exams, and then for the handful of jobs and foreign scholarships that are available. It is tough going in the capital for Rinzin: “wandering aimlessly from employer to employer with no idea about the new direction of my life.”
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Gross National Happiness is Bhutan’s claim to fame: a development philosophy concerned with increasing national wellbeing by following a ‘middle way’ between economic growth, the preservation of the environment and the promotion of local culture. Picking apart how it is formulated and applied is to find out that the praise (that GNH is a radical way of rethinking how we live with each other and our environment) and criticism (that it is woolly and expensive) are both misplaced.
With foreign exposure very much in mind, volumes of GNH material – conference proceedings, papers, indexes – are online and easily accessible to the interested English-speaking reader (Dzongkha, the national language, is apparently an unsuitable vehicle for the concept). International Conferences on GNH bring together the more esoteric elements of the global development elite to gush over GNH and Bhutan and report on their pseudo-academic imaginings of a place and society somewhere between Boulder, Brooklyn and the simplicity of a Himalayan village. Of the 114 papers given since the first conference on GNH in 2004, only one sets out to explicitly examine GNH from a layman’s point of view. Far more common are papers with titles like ‘Trade, Development, and the Broken Promise of Interdependence: A Buddhist reflection on the possibility of post-market economics’ or ‘The Semantic Structure of Gross National Happiness: A view from conceptual metaphor theory’.
Encouraging GNH in daily Bhutanese life is the task of the GNH Centre, ‘effectively a local NGO.’ according to its website. Over the past few years its activities have consisted mainly of organising walks, seminars and mindfulness retreats, holding workshops around Bhutan and making connections with institutions and colleges abroad. Since 2013 it has held a ‘Know Your GNH Basics’ course so that guides can explain the concept to interested foreign visitors on the drive from the airport at Paro to Thimphu. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research conducts the GNH Index surveys and studies on the concept. The combined staff of these bodies – the only two whose exclusive focus is GNH – number just under fifty, according to their websites – slightly less than that of the National Seed Centre.
The fruits of their research are brought to bear on legislation through the application of the GNH Screening Tool, that decides whether proposed new laws are up to the GNH mark. The form is wielded by the 15-member GNH Commission (made up of the Prime Minister, the Minister for Finance and secretaries from various ministries), and in 2009 scotched Bhutan’s application for membership of the World Trade Organization citing uncertainties over the impacts it would have on Bhutan’s economy. In much of the legislation passed by the government, however, GNH is absent. It is mentioned in the preamble of only six of the 19 Acts passed by parliament from 2011-2016, and then only in passing. The acts passed during this period focus much more on creating new bodies, boards and taskforces: an Education City Board, a Consumer Board, an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce for the National Disaster Management Authority, the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority, an Office of Consumer Protection, a National Biosafety Board, the Bhutan Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre.
Even interpreting GNH can be difficult, particularly outside of Thimphu. A PhD submitted to Guelph University in Canada in 2014 examined the implementation of the GNH aspects of tourism, media, roads and human-wildlife conflict policies, and found a host of problems, including a “general absence” of “GNH instruments that are directed at shaping policy implementation… In many cases, knowledge of the existence of these GNH specific tools did not even exist.” In the concluding section, the scholar wrote: “The findings clearly show that Gross National Happiness itself is often understood only superficially, not understood at all, viewed in isolation from any links to policy, or viewed as too complicated.”
The deluge of legislation from the capital is also swamping local practices that have (by the admission of most central planners) sustained communities for generations. In 2013 the government suspended all new community forest programmes following a series of complaints that the rules of existing ones were being broken by users and managers. A Swiss/Bhutanese paper looking at the problem found that the complaints, in many cases, were the result of local forest users breaking rules they did not even know existed. The management plans for community forests were only available in English; there was little or no awareness among locals of the rules, manuals and guidelines that governed each project. From the government’s side: “Weak coordination and collaboration between different forest services and functional divisions” further hampered the functioning of the projects.
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An out-of-the-way kingdom where an exclusive bureaucracy searches for happiness using figures and charts and drives expensive foreign cars could make for the setting for a Kafka story. Alongside the aspirations for Shangri-La, the golden age of the Thimphu bureaucrat is infused with more than a hint of the surreal. The lofty visions currently emanating from Bhutan are not religious or spiritual (the constitution promulgated in 2008 had declared Buddhism as the spiritual heritage of the country, but formally separated religion and politics), and perhaps will serve as a future reminder of the futility of entrusting the search for happiness to bureaucrats. Bhutan’s international reputation relies too much on its alternative development credentials for GNH to be formally dropped anytime soon however, although continuing bureaucratic encroachment may effectively accomplish the same thing. It is no secret that current Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is far less enthusiastic about GNH than his predecessor. The Fifth King recently defined it as a much less radical ‘Development with Values’.
There may be tricky days ahead for the government in Thimphu. The ambitious ‘10/20’ project which envisioned Bhutan exporting 10,000 MW of electricity to India by 2020 is now irreversibly behind schedule, and the rush to build dams has angered environmentalists. The government continues to plan for new projects though (despite the fact that it is rapidly running out of rivers on which to build them), because it has painted itself into a corner in which there are no other real options for raising big revenue.
Stretching the Kafka analogy further is the all-powerful presence operating behind the scenes according to its own inscrutable whims. So far Thimphu has chosen a much more obliging path than Nepal when dealing with New Delhi, and has subsequently enjoyed proportionately more aid and far more importantly, less interference with its right to transport and trade. If India remains benign and generous, Bhutan pliant and its planners infatuated, then the Thimphu bureaucrat will weather the hydro slump and continue its inexorable expansion as the happiest kingdom on earth.
–Ross Adkin is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.
More readings on Bhutan
Aletta Andre on Bhutan’s 2013 elections and the struggle of stateless Lhotshampas. (October 2013)
Reena Mohan on the challenges faced by filmamakers in Bhutan. (September 2013)
T P Mishra on resettlement and naturalization for Bhutan’s Lhotshampas. (January 2015)
Dawa Gyelmo on how collection of a fungus known as cordyceps, or ‘fungus gold’, generates both cash and controversy. (February 2016)
A short story from Bhutan by Gopilal Acharya. (September 2016)