One step forward, two steps back

Omair Ahmad | Updated on May 31, 2021

Common factor: Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (left), the third king of Bhutan, and Jawaharlal Nehru deeply admired each other   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In an odd way, the economic and social problems of both India and Bhutan stem from a vision of progress adopted decades ago

I recently had lunch with a friend from Bhutan. We had quite a bit to catch up on. Towards the end of the meeting, he said something about how the difference in exposure and educational backgrounds did not dent the admiration that Jawaharalal Nehru and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the third king of Bhutan, had for one another.

Nehru was a widely travelled, well-read intellectual with a classic European education. The king had received most of his education in Bhutan. Barring a short stay in Scotland, he had seen very little outside his country. And yet, both leaders found themselves in essential agreement about democratic institutions, limiting the concentration of power among the aristocracy and favouring land-to-the-tiller policies. Wangchuck may have been the only monarch to not only push through institutions of democracy, but also embed in the Constitution the power to impeach the king (this was later removed under the reign of his son).

Despite the vast differences between the two countries — Bhutan’s population is just over 800,000 and India’s is now 1.3 billion — it is interesting how these leaders advocated similar ways forward. Decades have since passed, and Bhutan has gone through a democratic transformation that has placed the bulk of political power in the hands of an elected Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Yet, oddly enough, Bhutan is struggling with a problem that also worries India: Namely, dignified employment. It was visible when I first visited the country 12 years ago and has only magnified over the years.

I do not want to overstate the similarities. India puts out more people every month looking for jobs than Bhutan’s entire population. In fact, many Indians work as cheap labour in Bhutan. These are jobs that many Bhutanese will not do at the low pay. Much of Bhutan’s population traditionally relied on farming for its income, but the reach of higher education has spawned an array of aspirations that the countryside cannot fulfil.

Just as India’s post-liberalisation years have not created as many jobs, Bhutan, powered by the sale of electricity produced by its run-of-the-river projects, has failed to do the same. The economies of both countries have grown, but so has the percentage of people left on the sidelines, either unwilling or unable to find suitable jobs. Bhutan has struggled with youth disaffection as well as antisocial behaviour that is deeply unfamiliar to the country. Chortens — a type of Buddhist shrine — have been vandalised, and drunken fights and violence on the streets have seen an upsurge.

Again, from the Indian side of things, this problem seems minor. A few years ago in Thimphu, after a dinner at the Indian ambassador’s residence, my wife and I decided to stroll back to our hotel. The Indian Embassy grounds — called India House — are about a 20-30 minute walk from the centre of the city. We both were looking forward to the walk but our Bhutanese friends were not as enthused by the idea. “It is not the Thimphu you used to know” — they warned us. We chose to ignore the warning and walked back to the hotel in the kind of silence and beauty that only the Himalayas can offer. Later, I thought about what made my Bhutanese friends anxious about our safety. There had been a rash of knifings across the country — nine in nine months. For us, coming from Delhi, this is the equivalent of what occurs over a “normal” weekend.

In an odd way, though, the problems of both countries stem from a vision of progress adopted decades ago. We embraced a form of “higher education” that ended up helping only a small set of people get high-quality jobs — most of which were in the government sector. Bhutan’s robust welfare state and India’s Green Revolution have meant that our agricultural sector did better than before Independence (in the case of Bhutan, before opening up to India in 1958). But we somehow managed to ignore the transition point — of how farmers could become something else.

Today, the leadership of India and Bhutan, coming from very different directions, face similar challenges. One of them is climate change, which affects both the geography of the mountains of Bhutan and the majority of India’s rain-fed agriculture. In 1958, when Nehru made his epic trek to Bhutan by horse and yak, he found a king with similar concerns. As India and Bhutan celebrate 70 years of signing a Treaty of Friendship on August 8, will they, once again, find a similar way forward?



Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on July 19, 2019

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