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Bhutan: Small neighbour, big ideas

  By Vijay Darda | 26-04-2016

When the royal couple from Britain Prince William and Princess Catherine recently visited the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan they presented a new rose “Queen of Bhutan rose” to the hostess queen for her English garden. It was fitting tribute to a kingdom that is fiercely protective of its culture, festivals, monks and pristine environment. As a tribute to this environment, the royal couple also trekked for three hours to reach the cliff top monastery -Tiger’s Nest, some 10,000 feet above sea level and soak in some of the breath-taking greenery on the way.

Sandwiched between two Asian giants, India and China – Bhutan is a small country of the size of Switzerland with a population of just 700,000. But when it comes to ideas on eco-friendly sustainable development it is really into big ideas. Its civil servant turned politician prime minister Tshering Togbay is the most articulate exponent of the Bhutanese philosophy of relying more on gross national happiness index (GNH) instead of the usual norm of measuring a country’s growth by the gross national produce (GNP). But in the same breath, he is candid enough to admit that the country needs development to fight poverty.

While speaking to high executives from the Wall Street at an event organised by the non-profit organisation TED (Technology, Environment, Design) Tobgay delivered a message that went viral on the social media with more than a million viewers. This is a paradigm shift, as the big countries are now hearing what a small country has to offer by ways of its experience in fighting climate change. 

He recalled that when at the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, his country promised to remain carbon neutral for all time, no body heeded, no one heard. The governments were busy arguing with one another and blaming each other for causing climate change. But in 2015 in Paris when Bhutan reiterated its promise to remain carbon neutral for all time to come its voice was heard. “We were noticed, and everybody cared. What was different in Paris was that governments came around together to accept the realities of climate change, and were willing to come together and act together and work together,” says Tobgay.

Now for some interesting facts about Bhutan. It is a democracy that has been ordained by a monarch. As Tobgay says, “We didn’t ask for it (democracy), we didn’t demand it, and we certainly didn’t fight for it. Instead, our king imposed democracy on us by insisting that he include it in the constitution. But he went further. He included provisions in the constitution that empower the people to impeach their kings, and included provisions that require all kings to retire at 65.” The same king also mandated constitutionally that a minimum of 60 per cent of Bhutan’s total land shall remain under forest cover for all time. Currently, 72 per cent of Bhutan’s land is under forest cover.

Indeed, this mandatory constitutional provision is the basis for Bhutan’s sustainable ecological development. It is not only a carbon negative country, but it exports green power that cuts down emission in other countries like India. Energy is Bhutan’s top export, and India is the only buyer. India and Bhutan have for long had excellent relations and India has for decades assisted Bhutan in developing its hydropower. Bhutan earned `975 crores from selling power to India in 2012 — that’s nearly `13,500 for every citizen of a country of 0.74 million people. Bhutan has economically viable hydropower potential of 24,000 mw, of which it now taps only 1416 mw.

Thus unlike the oil-rich Gulf countries, which export non-renewable petroleum, mountainous Bhutan is rich in rivers and exports renewable hydropower. The first major project, the 336 mw Chhukha dam in south Bhutan, commissioned in 1988, was entirely funded by India.

But the more ambitious project for a sustainable environment developed is the Bhutan for Life joint collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and Bhutan that is based on the Wall Street ideas of generating a $40 million fund known as a project finance for permanence (PFP) deal. This fund will help the government of Bhutan transition over 15 years to where it can permanently finance the parks as part of its budget. 

It’s a single closing, bringing together the public sector, development agencies, banks, foundation and individuals in a single project—in this case to achieve conservation at scale. The money is released as the government checks off its deliverables (such as a non-green vehicle tax), or ensuring that any revenue generated inside the parks stays in the parks. The idea is to build a modern Bhutan built on the bedrock of traditional good practices, crafted by the principles of conservation and sustainable development, ensuring progressive convergence of nature, culture and economic vibrancy. It shall conserve Bhutan’s natural capital and address environmental challenges for sustainable development and healthy living.

However, more interesting than Bhutan for Life is the government’s path to national happiness. 

As Tobgay tells us education is completely free. All citizens are guaranteed free school education, and those that work hard are given free college education. Healthcare is also completely free. Medical consultation, treatment, and medicines are all provided by the state. It is this that propels Tobgay to believe that Bhutan for Life project can replicated as Earth for Life with every one joining hands to create projects that shall sustain our natural heritage, in order to contain climate change. At least in select forest areas that have to act as carbon sinks and contain global greenhouse emissions the practices developed in Bhutan can be replicated to restore the pristine character of forests in some areas and protect it where it still remains undamaged.

We are witnessing the daily impact of climate change in our lives and it is no more something that belongs to the distant past or something that would not touch our lives. Thus Bhutan’s decision to stay carbon neutral and save more than 50 million tonnes of carbon emission by exporting green power is source of big inspiration to all of us in the fight against climate change.

 Before I conclude…

Whatever be the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Uttarakhand President’s rule case the message for the BJP and those who currently preside over its destiny is loud and clear. There is lot of merit in the old Gandhian belief that means justify the end and not the other way round. So, if you want to rule the country give up the idea of achieving your goal of Congress-mukt Bharat through foul means. You have talked of cooperative federalism but not practised it in letter and spirit. The rule of law in India can be perverted only for a short time. The balance is restored inevitably.


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Bhutan: Small neighbour, big ideas


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