Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bhutan counting the cost of wealth

THIMPHU - They say you cannot buy happiness - and Bhutan is finding that out, the hard way.
The tiny, mostly Buddhist Himalayan kingdom won a voice in the world for adopting a happiness index to measure its economy. But its Prime Minister says it promptly forgot its own lesson, and let a sudden rush of prosperity go to its head.
'Wealth creates increased desire,' Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley told Reuters during an interview in the capital Thimphu, surrounded by tree-covered mountains dotted with prayer flags.
Wealth creates increased desire... There are families with four or five cars. There are luxury vehicles being imported that can hardly drive on our roads and are made for far better roads than we have here.
- Bhutan's PM Jigmi Thinley
'There are families with four or five cars. There are luxury vehicles being imported that can hardly drive on our roads and are made for far better roads than we have here.'
Closed to foreigners until 1974 and only recently opened to the forces of globalisation, the country lacks the tools to cope with new-found economic growth and the wealth it has brought.
Debt-fuelled consumerism that far outpaces economic output has now led, inevitably, to a rude awakening.
The government has cut expenditure and is considering raising taxes on imported vehicles. The central bank, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan, has rationed the main trading currency, the Indian rupee, putting the squeeze on private businesses.
Youth unemployment is over 9 per cent and people are drifting away from the countryside, and traditional values, to the towns.
Worst of all, Bhutan's most recent gross national happiness (GNH) index, in 2010, found that only 41 per cent qualified as 'happy'.
Bhutan has tracked its GNH since 1972, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term.
The father of Bhutan's current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck had declared: 'GNH is more important than gross domestic product.'
Despite the boom in recent years, Bhutan remains one of the world's least developed and poorest nations, with 70 per cent of its 700,000 people living on subsistence farming. But economic growth has led to a surge in the imports of industrial and consumer goods from neighbouring India.
'We have been moving away from GNH values and, like many countries, becoming more materialistic,' said Mr Thinley.
He said the crisis highlighted the need to focus once more on the happiness index, which makes use of nine criteria: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, use of time, community vitality and good governance.
But it seems to be getting harder to convince people to put a holistic sense of happiness ahead of raw economic development.
In Parliament on Thursday, the government forecast economic growth of 7 per cent to 8 per cent next year and said it hoped to reach its target of cutting poverty to 15 per cent, from 23 per cent. The electricity grid covers 77 per cent of the country.
'It's sad but true that the roads we are building to take services to villages are the roads by which villagers leave, and some set up shanty towns around the cities,' said Mr Thinley, dressed in Bhutan's traditional knee-length, belted robe.
He said the government must prioritise policies that promote the appreciation of rural life and stop the drift into urban areas, which is decimating villages and making the country more dependent on imported produce.