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.