Bhutan

Mid­dle Ground

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Fa­tima Si­raj Fa­tima Si­raj is cur­rently pur­su­ing a BBA de­gree at the In­sti­tute of Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion. She fre­quently writes on mar­ket­ing and so­cial is­sues.

Bhutan is well-known for its iso­la­tion from the world, both ge­o­graph­i­cally and cul­tur­ally. Its con­ser­va­tive ap­proach, punc­tu­ated by a fo­cus on the pur­suit of GNH (Gross National Hap­pi­ness) rather than GDP, im­pedes ‘too much’ de­vel­op­ment and re­stricts the way the coun­try’s nat­u­ral re­sources can be uti­lized. The prior- ity of the Bhutanese govern­ment has con­sis­tently been to de­velop the ru­ral ar­eas where the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion re­sides. Fur­ther­more, the con­sti­tu­tion of Bhutan states that 60% of the coun­try must be cov­ered by forests at all times.

Along with the need to ded­i­cate land to agri­cul­ture and cul­tural heri- tage sites, this strin­gent for­est cover re­quire­ment poses a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem for ur­ban plan­ning. While it would seem that the is­sue of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment only has to do with Bhutan’s con­ser­va­tive land laws, it should not go un­no­ticed that the nat­u­ral to­pog­ra­phy of the coun­try is also far from con­ducive for build­ing the kind of

in­fra­struc­ture that is typ­i­cal of ur­ban cen­ters. Only limited flat land is avail­able to the coun­try as steep val­leys and moun­tain­ous slopes char­ac­ter­ize most of Bhutan.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2005 Cen­sus, the to­tal set­tled ar­eas in Bhutan com­prised sixty-one towns. The min­i­mum pop­u­la­tion in one town is re­quired to be 1500 for it to qual­ify as an ur­ban cen­ter. As a re­sult, only twenty-five out of the sixty-one towns are clas­si­fied as ur­ban cen­ters - a mere 30% of the to­tal national pop­u­la­tion. Some 40% of the en­tire ur­ban pop­u­la­tion is con­cen­trated in the two largest cities -Thim­phu and Phuntshol­ing.

Cur­rently, Bhutan’s sit­u­a­tion is such that the ur­ban ar­eas gen­er­ate only a small frac­tion of its to­tal in­come. The coun­try’s ma­jor eco­nomic strength lies in the value gen­er­ated by its nat­u­ral re­sources; 12% of GDP com­prises the ex­port of hy­dro­elec­tric power to In­dia. Sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture forms 40% of the econ­omy, em­ploy­ing a stag­ger­ing 87% of the pop­u­la­tion. How­ever, Bhutan is un­der­go­ing a tran­si­tional pe­riod. It is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a 7.3% aver­age an­nual growth rate in its ur­ban pop­u­la­tion and its National Ur­ban­iza­tion Strat­egy pre­dicts that by 2020, more than half of the pop­u­la­tion will live in ur­ban ar­eas. Hence ex­perts are of the opin­ion that as more and more peo­ple flow into ur­ban ar­eas, the need of the hour is to fo­cus at­ten­tion on ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment.

Ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion is in­creas­ing at an ac­cel­er­at­ing rate. Ac­cord­ing to one study, the ma­jor pull fac­tor for young males is im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties while an­other study quotes ‘fam­ily move’ as the ma­jor rea­son for fe­male mi­gra­tion. Em­ploy­ment is also an im­por­tant fac­tor that pushes peo­ple to leave their ru­ral homes in search of well-paid jobs, most of which are avail­able in the pub­lic sec­tor ser­vices.

Rapid ur­ban­iza­tion has brought with it many prob­lems. Wa­ter short­age, air and wa­ter pol­lu­tion, traf­fic con­ges­tion, mu­nic­i­pal waste gen­er­a­tion and land degra­da­tion are in­creas­ingly preva­lent in Thim­phu and Phuntshol­ing. In or­der to pre­vent th­ese prob­lems from ac­cel­er­at­ing, the ur­ban­iza­tion strat­egy iden­ti­fies ob­jec­tives, which in­clude im­prov­ing the well-be­ing of poor ur­ban cit­i­zens, main­tain­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sta­bil­ity and bal­anc­ing re­gional ur­ban growth. It can be seen that de­spite its at­tempt to mod­ern­ize, the Bhutanese govern­ment is en­sur­ing that it achieves the ‘mid­dle way’.

It re­al­izes the need to build a road net­work to serve the ur­ban pop­u­la­tion and strives to do it in an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly man­ner. This slows down the process of de­vel­op­ment but at the same time shows Bhutan’s con­sis­tent ded­i­ca­tion to­wards achiev­ing Gross National Hap­pi­ness, a large part of which is en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion and bal­anced de­vel­op­ment. This for­mula for achiev­ing mod­ern­iza­tion is sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent from the stan­dard pro­ce­dures fol­lowed by de­vel­op­ing coun­tries around the world. The strat­egy fo­cuses on de­vel­op­ment at a sus­tain­able pace, en­sur­ing the preser­va­tion of phys­i­cal and cul­tural re­sources in line with Bhutan’s gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy.

The vi­sion for the pro­posed national ur­ban­iza­tion sys­tem is, there­fore, based on the premise that ur­ban de­vel­op­ment must take place in a planned, so­cially ac­cept­able, eco­nom­i­cally sound and en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able man­ner with the fo­cus on strength­en­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in an at­tempt to pro­mote Gross National Hap­pi­ness. The govern­ment plans to adopt a pro-ac­tive ap­proach that com­bines pol­icy, fi­nan­cial and in­sti­tu­tional in­te­gra­tion to chan­nel­ize ur­ban growth into ‘Re­gional Growth Cen­ters.’ This con­cept aims to de­cen­tral­ize the ur­ban de­vel­op­ment process, shift­ing the bur­den from the two ma­jor cities and en­sur­ing more ru­ral ur­ban in­te­gra­tion. As the over­ar­ch­ing goal is to have bal­anced de­vel­op­ment in the na­tion, it is vi­tal that re­gional de­vel­op­ment be eq­ui­table across Bhutan. Since the western re­gion has the high­est ur­ban growth rate ac­cord­ing to statis­tics, the re­gional growth plan should fo­cus on the eastern and cen­tral re­gions to achieve its tar­get.

Bhutan’s steep nat­u­ral to­pog­ra­phy poses a chal­lenge to ur­ban plan­ning -- an is­sue that is fur­ther ag­gra­vated by po­lit­i­cal agen­das that seek to min­i­mize en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. While nu­mer­ous NGOs have been work­ing on ur­ban de­vel­op­ment projects, it is vi­tal that the coun­try re­lax its land laws to as­sist them in their cause. Rec­og­niz­ing the pol­icy con­straints, how­ever, the World Bank has de­vel­oped three pol­icy ‘pil­lars’ cus­tom­ized to match Gross National Hap­pi­ness re­quire­ments. The first pil­lar is in­creas­ing ac­cess to im­proved in­fra­struc­ture, mar­kets and so­cial ser­vices, which are par­tic­u­larly help­ful in de­cel­er­at­ing ru­ral ur­ban mi­gra­tion. The sec­ond propo­si­tion is en­cour­ag­ing pri­vate sec­tor em­ploy­ment and in­vest­ment, which would be ben­e­fi­cial in coun­ter­ing re­liance on in­come gen­er­ated from civil ser­vice and pub­lic sec­tor jobs. And the last of the three pil­lars sug­gests im­prov­ing man­age­ment of the pub­lic re­sources ded­i­cated to de­vel­op­ment.

How suc­cess­ful the ‘mid­dle way’ proves to be for Bhutan in an era where mod­ern­iza­tion is oth­er­wise tak­ing place at a rapid pace with large dis­re­gard for en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences re­mains to be seen. But the Bhutanese govern­ment deserves due credit for its con­sis­tent ded­i­ca­tion in ad­her­ing to its unique gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy de­spite pres­sures from those fa­vor­ing rapid de­vel­op­ment.

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