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.


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