August 22, 2011

Over Coffee with Kinley, the Proprietor of Cafe Klein, Thimphu

Today I had a fascinating conversation with foodie and Klein Café owner Kinley. He’s another of Thimphu’s Gross National Happiness critics, but by no means uninformed or apathetic.
Although not in opposition to Bhutan’s low volume, high value tourism policy, he disapproves of the way it is conducted because the centrally set itineraries tend to concentrate profits in a few hands, benefitting certain individuals in the service rather than many providers. He believes that this disadvantages small food and beverage businesses like his own that are well equipped and undoubtedly qualified to cater to tourist clientele. Kinley himself is a perfectionist, trained in the Netherlands, and he offers his customers a varied and delectable selection of food from all over the world. He points out that in allowing for tourism monopolies, be they select hotels, restaurants or handicraft stores, the government, although more efficiently controlling the influx and quality of tourism, is doing Gross National Happiness a great disservice by favoring the few over the many, not only creating baseless socio-economic disparities but also discouraging other entrepreneurs and making for a loss of domestic profits as richer people are likelier to use their money to purchase goods produced in other economies and send their children abroad, making for a deficit in the current account in Bhutan.
Kinley believes that policies, although well-intentioned, are badly carried out and believes that there should be better deliberation procedures in parliament rather than appealing to notions of the good and nationalism, focusing more on analysis of the means rather than the ends. He believes that the way policies like the anti-tobacco laws are enforced are wrong, making for a police state enforcement, although he does admit this is hyperbolic and more for metaphorical effect.
Kinley highlights the failure of GNH on the ground to address unemployment among youth and outlines two main reasons: 1) highly skilled unemployment whereby most youth study until their master’s level and find less jobs that can accommodate them 2) the lack of perceived dignity of labor whereby Bhutanese do not seek manual laboring jobs, choosing instead to import low-skilled labor from places like India. He believes that the government should try and be less revolutionary in commiting resources to bring about value-based outcomes and address the reasons for macroeconomic difficulties.
Kinley believes the Bhutanese economy is inflated as the three main sectors are tourism, construction and electricity, outside which little significant industry remains. He believes that domestic production should be encouraged but is still heartened at the same time that Bhutan doesn’t focus on purely economic indicators like the number of cars someone has being descriptive of their success. He does not believe that Bhutan should subsidize electricity to India through their dams and still have to buy the same power back during lean seasons at a premium.
He believes that the government should not super-specialize in its concentration on certain sectors to the detriment of others as it leaves the country dependent on imports, as seen in grocery stores selling primarily Indian and Thai products and less Bhutanese-produced goods. We spoke of the infant industries argument and he insisted that Bhutanese productive capacity needs to be built. Even books in bookstores are very expensive here, demand and supply both being not very robust.
Kinley is concerned about statistics on Bhutan’s successes and calls for a more probing analysis beyond the heartening claim that 80% of foreign aid makes it to those concerned. He believes that government officials must teach by example and live within the means of their country by foregoing the import of Prados and Landcruisers themselves too instead of charging laymen 50% of the value of these vehicles to price out demand in the interest of reducing imports in relation to Bhutan’s meager exports.
Kinley likes the fact that there are seminars in order to train young entrepreneurs but does not like how they are only once a year and under-subscribed. He also believes that government officials should travel less for seminars and spend more of their budget on fulfilling the aspirations of their constituents, i.e. prioritizing their needs as opposed to furthering their own skills and interacting with their international counterparts.
Kinley laments the loss of traditional values and the shift from joint families to nuclear families as this puts the elderly in difficult positions as they no longer have a traditional support system to fall back on. He believes that Bhutanese people have too many children and that this is because they are making up for the loss of living with their kin in extended families.
Kinley hopes that his country will slow down, solve newly emerging urban problems like gang violence and take stock of and develop the country’s productive capacity.
I was fascinated by my conversation with Kinley and it made me want to look more carefully into the running of Bhutan’s economy to ascertain whether it can sustain its undoubtedly powerful worldview.

August 21, 2011

My After–Dinner Conversation with Jurmi Chowwing, Editor–In–Chief of the Journalist

After eating a light dinner at Musk, a restaurant near the Clock Tower in Thimphu, my Oxfordian friend Manju, introduced me to Jurmi Chowwing, Editor-In-Chief of the Journalist. In what was a rather informal conversation, Jurmi told me his views on Gross National Happiness as a mandate of state and his views on many common themes of public discourse.

Jurmi, hearing about the apathy and scepticism of some Bhutanese youth regarding Gross National Happiness, remarked that he would much rather have the government consider Gross National Happiness and pursue a vision for the normative good for the country, rather than have wellbeing as a tacit or discreet intention which may or may not be the goal of policy. He felt that it was more effective and heartening for wellbeing and Gross National Happiness considerations to guide policymaking.

Jurmi said that the Gross National Happiness Commission was considered with practical policymakig considerations and implementation and formed the crux of government. He made a clear distinction between the plethora of happiness philosophies and individual conceptions and the practical aspects of happiness considerations in policy. He explained how the Bhutanese state pursues policies which makes the macropolitical situation more conducive to development and hence indirectly to individual happiness which differs from person to person. Bhutan is broken up into many village communities who elect their headman, who is apolitical, in order to help list their needs and wants so that the budget allocated to them may be used more democratically and for the good of its constituents. The headman, although elected, is apolitical in order to avoid bipartisan nitpicking. I asked Jurmi whether the headman was either a representative elected popularly who then made the decisions in the name of the people or whether he was elected and helped as an organizer of the people's wishes based on popular consultation and participatory decision making which was done in a manner written into law. He said that the situation on the ground was somewhere in between. The headman is chosen, based on his popular appeal and then consults with the people, formally and informally to make decisions based on what they want and also makes the decisions him/herself based on what s/he perceives they want. My purpose for drawing this distinction was that even though grassroots democracy is already underway in Bhutan a mere 3 years since it became a democracy, the participatory quality needs to be ascertained and assured. Devolution of power to local levels is by all means desirable but procedures need to be paid attention to in order to make sure that stakeholders have an actual, ascertainable say in policymaking and that representatives do not purely on their own make decisions for the collective who have no say but to vote them in or out once a year. This is in the interest of more substantive democracy.

Jurmi remarked that although a "wishlist" of all the villagers in the gewog's political and economic demands were noted, scarcity dictated that a hierarchy of needs and wants be established to determine what they could realistically have. This bespoke the need to create priorities. Although this seems a priori or self-evident in that infrastructure like electricity would be more important than painting a school for instance, there is a need to look into the vetting process and examine specific criteria guiding the process.

Jurmi was impressed by the "boldness" of political debate in media. Criticism is healthily rampant and outspoken, although it is not certain whether this channel of feedback finds its way into implementation. Bhutan has strict censorship guidelines to do with the preservation of culture like people in film having to wear Kiras and Ghos unless they have a good reason not to like friends of mine who work in the Bhutanese film industry have complained. However, Jurmi feels that although criticism is tolerated and people quite outspoken, there is "too much talk, and too little walk".

Jurmi and I discussed the draconian anti-tobacco laws whereby possession of illegal cigarettes that have not been legally procured with the intention of distribution can earn the accused three years in prison without bail. He believes that the poor and those without influence are disproportionately disadvantaged by this law. He told me about his conversation with the Prime Minister on the matter and how even though His Excellency agreed that the punishment did not fit the crime, in that it was too harsh and not commensurate, that it was a law adopted due to the collective desire of rural Bhutan. He claimed that the Prime Minister evaded his question on the methodology that was used to come by this alleged fact. The results of this policy seem perverse. The black market is booming, depriving the government of revenue when sin tax would have been more profitable and efficient in deterring the young and those for whom smoking isn't yet an addiction with a personal inelastic demand. Many people I know who have family and friends in prominent government positions also get their cigarettes from the black market. It also seems as though many smoke to rebel as the policy has no resonance logically to them. It seems as though many people smoke as social behaviour. Smoking perhaps could be lessened if the government of Bhutan were to stop it from being social behaviour, like in the UK where people are not allowed to smoke in public areas and it is relegated to designated areas to prevent passive smoking. Jurmi remarked that enforcement was wasteful as it distracts the police from tackling real crime and wastes time and resources like paper and ink for bureaucrats to control it.

Jurmi gave me realistic and an honest picture of Bhutan as he claimed to abhor the utopian version of Bhutan as espoused by those who do not know better. He is optimistic about Bhutan's emphasis on Gross National Happiness though he sees that there is always much room for improvement and an urgent ongoing need for it too.

August 18, 2011

Living My Research: Gross National Happiness in Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon!

Happy Indian Independence Day!

Anyone who lives their research will tell you that it is very hard to make time to write a blog about it, to synthesize the experience into that which can be recounted in a manageable amount of words, in an acceptable, shareable form, and this entry especially, is a humble but inadequate endeavour to record my attempt to understand Bhutan's Gross National Happiness and what I have come to call "Exporting Eudaimonia". Enmeshed in this will be a narrative of my journey a it unfolds in breathtaking Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

I landed into Paro International Airport on the 7th of August, 2011 and even that does not seem an adeuqate starting point so I do hope the reader forgives my patchwork narrative.

This is an excerpt from something I wrote on BlackBerry Memopad on my way to Bhutan.

'I was struck that every time I asked my friends in Bhutan what I should take them from India or the UK, their answer was a firm, "Absolutely nothing." The Bhutanese psyche seems such that diefies homo economicus and our material-guzzling, rabid consumerism. They appear to have the key to contentment, they simply do not desire much. I, on the other hand, travelled executive class laden with 30 kilograms of luggage, working out to a dramatic kilogram of material comforts a day, far more than I oculd use or require. Prior to this were my mother's phone calls to Benji, asking whether there were shampoos, conditioners, groceries and other small comforts, to which she too got the characteristic reply, "Don't worry, we have absolutely everything", this coming from someone from a place for which my Bhutanese boarding school mates described as having its shopping done at regular intervals in Bangkok as though Thailand was some downtown Marks and Spencer's! Everything took on a happier hue from the moment the strain associated with packing and travelling heavy was over.'

On Air India, Beleaguered but Beautiful Indian National Carrier

India has always enjoyed a special relationship with Bhutan. The Indian Army protects the State of Bhutan as interdependence is a big part of its Gross National Happiness-influenced Foreign Policy. On the flight I was priveleged to have met a colleague of my mother's called Nima Thapa who had been to Bhutan. Although declining a video recorded interview, Ms. Thapa confirmed that Bhutan was indeed a happy country with a lot of happiness to share in order to enrich the human experience. I was told a great many interesting things about her adventures in Bhutan as she spent a couple of months hiking around the countryside. Fishing is sustainably done, as is hunting, only during a few weeks of the year as Bhutan reveres nature and harmoniuos living in an age where we have all but forgotten in hubris our niche as a species within nature, though sometimes we live damagingly and self-sabotagingly, as though the cultural environment is separate from it. Nima told me of how her group was repremanded for camping on Royal Private Property and how their guide nearly lost his permit, suggesting everything and everyone has its order and place in Bhutan.

At the Indhira Airport in Delhi

After bidding my Air India Family adieu, I switched over to the terminal to catch my Druk Air Flight to Paro. I was stopped at the entrance by airport security along with an American Airlines pilot in uniform as the guards insisted it was not good enough to have an e-ticket number. However, being a girl and more importantly being extremely polite goes a long way in India. While the pilot had to have his agent frantically rush off to print his ticket, I managed to pursuade the guard to escort me to the Druk Air check-in point so that they could do the needful, which he did, insisting that it was a generational lapse and not his fault, which I agreed it was.

I met our family friend Dasho Peljor J Dorji, or Benji as we like to call him, and was immediately relieved that I was in safe hands with someone I have come to respect immensely not only because of his unassuming simplicity, but because he is indeed one of Bhutan's most formative architects as far as the environment, justice system and openness to the world goes, and God knows how much else because he does not talk about himself too much. We were upgraded to the First Class, an honour conferred due to no personal merit, but due to my association with him.

At the airport we met with the famous mountaineer who first scaled Mount Everist with Edmund Hillary Tenzing Norgay's son, his wife and his three young children, who were moving to Bhutan from Delhi so that their children could know their roots, an interesting fact considering his father was born in Kharta Valley in Tibet in 1914 before the unlawful Chinese Occupation of the country. This, and the many linguistic and cultural overlaps suggested that the Norgays were indeed going home as Tibet would have been very similar to Bhutan, had it not been occupied and systematically divested of its rich culture and pristine environment through rapid industrialization and the centrally coordinated Han influx. In many ways, having fought for Tibetan Independence, this was to be an extremely personal trip, one that tried to take with it a sense of this rare commonality shared between the two countries, but that which one was forcefully dissociated from, given the reports of cultural genocide in Tibet. I silently wished the Norgay children a rich and intimate orientation with a culture that many died to protect and conserve just accross the border.

Benji introduced me to Dr. Gepke Hingst, Bhutan's country representative from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). We exchanged cards and promised to be in touch. Meeting the lovely lady reminded me that mine was indeed to be a rather privileged trip and that I would indeed be studying Gross National Happiness and Bhutan from a priveleged lens and that I should reflexively account for that in my research so as to mitigate for positional bias. Dr. Hingst herself seems passionate about Gross National Happiness, as I saw for myself when she attended the demanding three day conference on Happiness and Economic Development co-chaired by His Excellency the Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigme Thinley.

The Landing

Descent into the Himalayas

Into the very lines on Gaiah's palm

Where we trace our desirous destinies

All marching in rank and file

Each of us elevated nobodies

Walking carbon shadows

Illuminated to bias at best

By dancing beams through foliage

Textures of Green

Beyond our mean appraisal

We are the lie that crawl

While an infant God sucks at her bossom

The landing into Bhutan's Paro International Airport touched a nerve deep within me. Having travelled widely ever since I was six months old, I believed that I was well exposed, especially to nature, since I went to boarding school in the Palni Hills. I was struck by the beauty of the mountains and how in comparison our plane seemed to melt into obscurity in a land where men and monuments seem devoid of hubris and do not assume a stature unbefitting of them. Here, the cultural environment truly is part of the natural.

Everyone turns photographer in Druk Yul.

We are not truly acquainted with nature before we visit Bhutan.

Bhutan is a land that reveres its visionaries, the Kings of the 1907-elected Wangchuck Dynasty, who embody Plato's Philosopher Kings, having devolved power from an absolute monarchy and even unpopularly led the drive to democracy, despite their subjects' wishes. Every Druk Air plane arrives and departs under the watchful eyes of the five Dragon Kings or Druk Gyalpos, whose likenesses are superimposed on a billboard. They grace the wall above the duty free, overlooking immigrations, where friendly officers guard the kingdom's exclusive borders.

The Drive to Thimphu

Benji's son Tashi Namgyal picked us up from the airport. He is a 24 year old student of International Business in Bangkok who wants pursue photography after he graduates. Immediately, I was struck by his gentle, obedient manner with his Appa, characteristic of all the Bhutanese youth I have been fortunate to have known. Family values are of utmost importance in Bhutan and in many ways this cements social cohesion.

I found myself grinning like a fool during the entire journey, stopping to take pictures of old, majestic ruins that turned out to be traditional farms, streams snaking through ravines and suddenly, Bhutan seemed the richest country in the world and I wanted more than anything to be able to partake more permanently of the wholesome human experience that cities held no trace of with their manicured lawns and token trees. Suddenly, it wasn't a paradox that Bhutan, although so sparingly linked up with the world economy, had such a high standard of living.

On the way Benji regaled us with a rare string of stories about his role in shaping the country's macropolitical system.

Chief Justice

He told me that his servants

Worked for honour and not wage

This feudal lord possessed of all:

Noblesse oblige and a noble calling

And that with the King he had been in disfavour

A year for convicting His in law

Benji displayed all the traits of a virtuous citizen and Rousseau's ideal legislator, upright and uncompromising, even to his short term disadvantage in a highly heirarchical setting.

I asked Benji about the refugees of Nepalese Bhutanese origin because I was asked to take part in Warwick's Writing Wrongs project. It was through his eyes that I saw a very different story to that propagated by the Western Media. Armed with ascertainable facts he told me of the naturalization of all nepalese immigrants, the illegal ethnic-exclusive settlements obtained through corrupt means and the colonially incited ambitions to take over Bhutan as the Raj attempted to divide and conquer which intigated their voluntary exile until such time they could take overm, despite the King's pleas. He spoke of the UN's illegal institution of a refugee camp on Bhutan's borders which was unprecedented as it did not come about through a resolution and the negligent allowance of influx from Nepal, the criteria being, anyone who claimed to be a refugee, whether or not they were from Bhutan, was admitted and could claim redressal. Benji told us a story of speaking with an old alleged refugee woman who was on her way to asylum overseas, who who asked him where he was from and could not recognize where his Gho was from, despite it being the national dress of Bhutan, worn compulsarly to work and for official purposes!

The Youth

Tashi Namgyal, or Freddy as he is more commonly known, was kind enough to take me to an afterparty with his friends at Blue Haven. I was pleasantly surprised at how social and welcoming everyone was and how willing they were to partake of planning their country's future. People are comparatively less politically apathetic in Bhutan. It was a humbling experience to learn of the different, important roles that they played in Education, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Media and Social Services. They were unassuming but extremely erudite. It was heartening to see how very vibrant civil society was and its implications in making for a healthy, young democracy.

From Sonam Tshering Dorji, who works in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, I learned that all policies must be vetted in the light of Gross National Happiness and given a minimum scores based on various considerations, below which a policy may not be passed.

A girl working in Education remarked that young people sometimes tired of Gross National Happiness as it was too explicitly enforced, whereas it should be less overbearing and more implicit.

Everyone in Bhutan is an Artist.

There is something about Bhutan and its rich, mythopoeic culture and evirons that nurtures and refines people's artistic sensibilitis. I was fortunate to have spent the better part of my first night looking at Freddy's photography, and through it I spied an intimate, philosophical relationship with a culture from which happiness could be had. He showed me beautiful pictures of old people with faces with as much charater as the hills, robust, earthy and content, pictures of young monks, breathtaking landscapes, chortens (stupas) and even a picture of prayer sheets that were memorized and handed down through the generations. His vision was poetic, only a few words highlighted in a sea of memory, as though the entire practice of repitition and recitation was to instill few, profound lessons to live by.

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