Bhutan, the birthplace of the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness, is often perceived as one of the happiest places on earth. However, like any other country, Bhutan has its share of problems and challenges. So, Bhutan may not really be the happiest place on earth.
Yet, Bhutan is definitely a country like no other. It has no traffic lights or McDonalds, but make no mistake – Bhutan has fully embraced modernity with almost all modern amenities that make life convenient available in its most major cities and towns. But that is not one of the seven things in my list that make Bhutan unique and special.
The seven things that make Bhutan really unique and especial in my opinion are as follows.
1. The last surviving independent Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas
The Himalayas at one point of time had quite a few independent Buddhist Kingdoms from Tibet in the north, Ladakh in the West, and Mustang in the middle to Sikkim and Bhutan in the east. These kingdoms shared the same kind of religion and had cultural similarities, although each also had its distinct traditions and customs. Today, Bhutan is the only independent Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas, and is therefore the last bastion of this unique Himalayan Buddhist culture.
Thanks to the importance given by our leaders to the preservation of our culture and traditions, we still have most of them intact today. The fact that Bhutan was never colonized also ensured that the continuity of our cultural heritage was never broken or disturbed from the past till today. So, Bhutanese have great pride in their culture and identity.
2. Deeply spiritual but in an unintrusive way
Bhutan is a deeply spiritual country with temples, monasteries, chortens and prayer flags everywhere. You see people circumabulating the Chortens or temples. Yet, this deeply pervading spirituality has an unintrusive character as the focus of spirituality in Buddhism is on taming one’s own mind rather than believing that this is the only right religion and others should convert to it. So everyone feels welcome and become self-reflective on their own spirituality when they are here. There simply is no need to fear that someone may judge his or her beliefs and try to convert him or her.
As one of the most respected reincarnate Lamas from Bhutan, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche says, there may be many places in the world that are more beautiful than Bhutan, but what makes Bhutan really special is this pervading but unintrusive spirituality that you can feel here.
3. Land of one of the most flexible and tolerant people
I do not want to sound like blowing one’s own trumpet, but many visitors to Bhutan are impressed by the open and friendly nature of the Bhutanese people. Bhutanese are generally very flexible and tolerant people. After living overseas, I have been surprised to observe Bhutanese’s nonchalant attitude towards some issues on which others would fervently debate and pass judgment. For instance, Bhutanese do not make much fuss over issues of sexuality, divorce or relationships with the opposite sex before marriage. Recently, there were cases of gay and lesbian people coming on national television and talking about their sexual orientation. Nobody seemed to be bothered much about it or pass a moral judgment. I think it is this kind of moral flexibility and tolerance that make Bhutanese generally a happy and accommodating lot.
This attitude may have to do with our Buddhist conditioning. While theistic religions enforces external moral rules supposedly passed down by God, the Buddhist view is that there are no moral absolutes.
“There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. …..When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation–whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion–and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha’s teachings”, says Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Buddhist nun and professor of Buddhist philosophy at the University of San Diego.
4. A land of rich natural bio-diversity and pristine environment
The Bhutanese have always had a deep respect for its natural environment and have lived in harmony with nature for centuries. This is reflected in our architecture, way of life and our policies. Today, Bhutan boasts of a rich biodiversity and pristine environment with some of the last remaining unclimbed mountain peaks in the world. Even when the planned modern economic development started in the early sixties, our Kings have been wise and far-sighted enough not to trade our pristine natural environment for short term economic gains. Hence, today, we have more than 70 percent of our land under forest cover and 26 percent under protected areas. As our Prime Minister has claimed in his now famous Ted Talk, we are not only carbon neutral, but the only carbon negative country in the world. On top of this, our constitution requires that a minimum of 60 percent of Bhutan’s total land should be maintained as forest for all times.
5. A place where people hesitate even to kill mosquitoes and cockroaches
Bhutan may be the only country where most people would hesitate or refrain from killing even mosquitoes and cockroaches. Normally, Bhutanese people would normally take pains to catch the cockroaches and houseflies and safely throw away outside rather than crush them and kill them.
This is because of Buddhists’ aversion towards killing or taking life. All lives are valued in Bhutanese belief, even that of an insect like mosquito or cockroach. Says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “..even today in the modern day Bhutan, I am sure, before one of the modern Bhutanese and he maybe not even a, you know, sort of a proper Buddhist practicing Buddhist but before he kills a cockroach in his fridge, he thinks twice, right? .. And that is such a unique thing that we in Bhutan have and this is something we have to really cultivate”.
6. Blessed with benevolent monarchs
With the first King of Bhutan enthroned unanimously by the people of Bhutan in 1907, Bhutan was a late entrant among countries that adopted monarchy. However, Bhutan definitely gained a lot from the monarchical system as it was blessed with benevolent monarchs who worked tirelessly for the welfare of their people. Bhutanese monarchs have provided exemplary leadership and have transformed the country into a modern progressive nation in a matter of just about 100 years. Their praises are sung not just by Bhutanese, but by the world at large because their accomplishments are big though our country is small. The present King of Bhutan, His Majesty the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, is popularly known as the People’s King because of his deep love and concern for the welfare of his people. The people of Bhutan have been blessed to have such great leaders.
7. Free healthcare and education
In Bhutan, the Government provides free healthcare and education. The healthcare is totally free within the country. Even for referrals outside, the Government bears the cost of travel as well as treatment if the treatment is not available within the country. This is as good as saying that all Bhutanese have comprehensive health insurance by default. Education is free for all students up to Class X. Beyond class X too, education is free in Government high schools and colleges if the students are able to score more than the required cut-off marks in their Class X or Class XII examinations.
The above seven points make Bhutan a truly special country in this turbulent world.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and should in no way be attributed to that of the organization that he represents.
In view of the various misunderstandings that seem to be floating around regarding the IT Park project, I felt that it is necessary to make a few clarifications because correct information is vital for healthy public discourse and understanding.
First of all, the IT Park is one of the three components of Bhutan Private Sector Development Project which was conceptualized and initiated by the Royal Government of Bhutan in consultation with the World Bank way back in 2006, about two years before Bhutan’s first democratic elections in 2008. Given the difficulty we face in coming up with practical and sustainable solutions to the current state of our economy and the rising youth unemployment problem, the IT Park project is a visionary initiative which was started with the main objective of supporting “private sector-led economic growth that is capable of combating rising youth unemployment, and help to further diversify the economic base of the country”.
This is also timely and in line with the changes taking place globally following the ICT Revolution. To step back and simply watch what is happening in other countries is to be deprived of the opportunities this revolution offers our small land-locked country and to be forever left behind – economically and technologically.
Secondly, it is important to understand that the IT Park Project is executed on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model and therefore the pressure on the Govt.’s resources has not been as heavy as it would have been otherwise. Under the PPP model, the Govt. has provided the land on lease and ancillary facilities like the road access, water supply, fibre-optic connection, power line connection etc. with the World Bank’s project-tied assistance, to the private developer – Thimphu TechPark Pvt. Ltd. (TTPL), which is a joint venture between Assetz Property Group (APG) of Singapore currently owning 70% of the shares and Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) owning the remaining 30%.
In keeping with the PPP best practices, the pressure on the Govt.’s own funds is minimal. TTPL financed the construction of the IT Park infrastructure at a cost of around Nu. 300 Million, and was completed on 30 April 2012, in a record time of less than two years after the ground-breaking ceremony held on 18 May 2010. TTPL owns and will operate the IT Park for 30 years which can be renewed twice on mutual agreement according to the PPP contract. Hence, the operational expenses of the IT Park are also borne by TTPL and there is no direct running cost for the IT Park on the Government as some people think.
Thirdly, the operation of the IT Park began only from the beginning of May 2012 and so it has been in operation for only about two years till now. Within these two years, TTPL, with the support of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC), has been able to rope in two international tenants and support a number of Bhutanese entrepreneurs within the Government owned incubation centre inside Bhutan Innovation and Technology Centre on the ground floor. A third potential international tenant is piloting from the IT Park at the moment. Currently, around 250 people work from the IT Park every day.
When has another project created 250 white-collar jobs (which our youths prefer) within a span of two years with an investment of around Nu. 300 million only by the private sector? On top of that, the salary of most of these people come from abroad helping Bhutan prop up its meagre foreign currency earnings and ease the ‘rupee crunch’ at least a little bit. In addition, the IT Park has created spill-over effects like the increase in the overall internet backbone speed, reduction of internet leased line costs and improved reliability of Internet connectivity in the country owing to the demand for better service from the international tenants at the IT Park. Above all, it has helped project Bhutan to the world as not just a Shangrila for tourists, but also an investment destination for investors looking for opportunities in new locations.
TTPL is currently in close touch with a number of potential tenants and we believe that we would be able to rope in some more tenants soon. The IT Park is also open to domestic IT/ITES companies and the rent is very competitive with the local market rates (it is not Nu. 45 per sq ft as was reported in the media) despite having a host of facilities like the state of the art fire protection system, HVAC and DG power backup and common security and facilities.
However, it is by no means easy to attract foreign investors as moving to Bhutan has to make a real business case for them. Many countries in the world give enormous incentives to woo investors. Our Government too has offered some incentives to the tenants of IT Park such as support for training employees and tax holiday for 10 years which some people believe is doing too much. What we offer is actually quite modest compared to what other countries offer. Hence, I think we need not be alarmed by this at all.
Fourthly, some recent media coverage on the discussions between the JV partners APG and DHI for the possibility of transferring shares from APG to DHI has given rise to some speculations. The discussion is based purely on business decision on the part of the partners involved in line with their strategic business interests and has nothing to do with any other factors. As far as the operation of the IT Park is concerned, it will continue seamlessly regardless of any change in the shareholding pattern. Last but not the least, the IT Park is a boon, not a burden for the country as we are already reaping its benefits. The IT Park is not any one organisation’s or any one company’s investment, but Bhutan’s long-term investment for Bhutan’s future. Hence, besides the MoIC and DHI, all stakeholder agencies would need to work together to help it achieve its vision and full potential of creating more employment opportunities for our youth and strengthening our economy at the same time.
This article appeared in Kuensel on Saturday, 3 May 2014 under the title ‘IT Park – the Real Picture’.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author himself and not necessarily that of the organisation he represents.