Dam building spoils Bhutan’s green image

Bhutan is pushing aside its happiness philosophy in a rush to exploit hydropower, with little regard for the environmental and social costs.

Bhutan fires the imagination of an ideal mountain country with many snow-clad peaks, where people go about their daily chores in serenity, dressed in their national dress, wearing a smile and with a song on their lips. The image of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) that it portrays is ever present. The four pillars of the GNH are sustainable and equitable development, conservation of the environment, cultural preservation and good governance.

It was with these expectations that I made my first visit to Bhutan recently, to find out more about Bhutan’s hydropower plans. I returned with some memorable experiences and apprehensions of Bhutan’s future – of its GNH.

The taxi driver smiled most of the drive from the airport in Paro to Thimphu, the capital. He stopped to refill his water bottle at a spring, to give a ride to a local schoolteacher, stopped to buy doma (betel nut leaf with lime and half an areca nut), and chatted with other drivers on the way. He was a picture of happiness, of a slow relaxed life. Even the policeman understood when he stopped the taxi in a no parking area to buy doma.

In contrast, bureaucrats, elected representatives, consultants to the Royal Government of Bhutan and NGOs were all extremely busy either travelling or in long meetings. But they did all make time to meet with me, at relatively short notice. They were clearly responsive and bureaucrats immediately responded to subsequent emails. This was refreshing when compared to Indian bureaucrats who seldom, if ever, respond.

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