Fifty years ago, when I was a child, we didn't have money for shoes. We wore something roughly stitched together from the jute of gunny bags. But it was a time of innocence... everyone around was similarly poor so you didn't feel underprivileged. We would skate on the frozen river, break chunks of it and pull out trout for dinner,'' says Phuntsho, who sits with a mug of beer on the wide open-air terrace of his hotel in Bumthang, central Bhutan, recounting tales from the past to a small group of tourists.

I am in Bhutan as a jury member at the Beskop Tshechu, the first international documentary and short film festival held in the capital city of Thimphu. It is a welcome break from life in India, a country reeling under a series of corruption scandals and cynical disenchantment among people. I am also exploring the day-to-day lives of the Bhutanese to understand what is inherently good in the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to modernisation.

The phrase signalled the benevolent king's commitment to building an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values. For instance, education and healthcare are free for all citizens; and as there aren't enough hospitals in Bhutan, the government sponsors surgery or advanced medical treatment abroad for its citizens.

I meet people from all walks of life to understand several questions: What are the challenges to GNH posed by modernisation? What is it that India can adopt? What is it that Bhutan could be on the verge of losing — and must retrieve before it is too late?

Dago Beda belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Bhutan. She runs the country's foremost travel agency, a school, a cable distribution company, a mall, and has produced two films in which her younger daughter (the first Miss Bhutan) has acted. She is planning to construct a second mall and says, “The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. We believe development of human society can take place only when material and spiritual development reinforce each other. All proposed economic policies and development plans of the country must pass a GNH review. My plans for the mall had to be similarly scrutinised.”

Her views are reinforced by an audience member at the film festival: “It's tricky for foreigners to grasp, but most Bhutanese instinctively understand GNH. In keeping with our ethos, the traffic signal at Thimphu's busiest junction was replaced by a policeman because everyone complained that lights were too impersonal.”

Television exposure

But things are changing... and rapidly. The first event to shake the kingdom out of its slumber was the arrival of satellite television in 1999. Although the point can be debated, it is believed that crime, vandalism and anti-social behaviour — till then barely known in Bhutan — started to become commonplace. Thimphu residents say they've only recently started locking their doors at night. Government departments report corruption cases, while parents and teachers fume that children are contemptuous of discipline and obsessed with western pop culture.

There is growing frustration. Young people dominate Bhutan. According to the census, of its roughly 7 lakh people, 49 per cent are under 21 and current unemployment rate among the youth hovers at 5.5 per cent. Hardly surprising considering that the literacy rate has soared from 20 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent today.

While aspirations for many have changed thanks to television, a large number of urban Bhutanese have attended college abroad and this exposure often makes them impatient with how things are at home. The biggest challenge the government faces is to offer Bhutan's youth something other than farming rice on terraced hills. Everyone wants to be rich quickly and the choice of a career is determined by that. Even though doctors are needed badly, no one wants to study medicine. Too much study, too much hard work, and the possibility of a rural transfer are not attractive.

Ugyen Wangdi is the pioneering documentary film-maker in Bhutan.

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, his films have been screened at various international film festivals and won several awards. Summing up the situation, he says, “Moving away from an agrarian to a consumer society has widened the gap between haves and the have-nots and is the greatest challenge to GNH. When we were agrarian, a rich farmer would have a few more cows and yaks than the ordinary farmer. GNH was more achievable due to a strong Buddhist psyche. But with the coming of satellite television, there is more consumerism.

"After watching TV for the first time, a woman working at a farm said everyone on TV looks so beautiful. Beauty salons and shops selling cars, electronics, garments and cosmetics have increased after cable TV. Banks have seen a sharp increase in loans. We are moving ahead at an alarming speed and our age-old values are disappearing sooner than we could have imagined. I have documented village customs and traditions which are long gone. Having captured that time, I feel this acute sense of being on a roller coaster.”

Mixed emotions

It is late afternoon at a restaurant in Paro. Lunch has been served; dishes are being washed; vegetables for dinner are being chopped. The owner is free to chat now. She says that satellite television has wrought changes that make her uncomfortable. While Korean TV dramas are a big hit among the youth, her relatives prefer Hindi soap operas. “Before we would sit together at home and eat dinner,” she said. “Now everyone is watching television.” The lives of the women in the soaps confound her. “They seem happy being doormats to their husbands,” she continues. “The woman eats dinner only when the husband has returned home from work, no matter how late. They put up with extra-marital affairs and bad tempers. In the long run, watching these soaps may not be good for the culture that we wish to protect.” She is married and has a daughter. There is no pressure on her to bear sons, women inherit property and can re-marry. Little wonder that Indian news reports of dowry deaths and female foeticide seem terrifying.

Kesang Chuki Dorjee is a fellow jury member and film-maker who covered the democratic elections extensively for a documentary. Her latest film was screened at the festival and follows the journey of women leaders at the grassroots. She sits in a cafe, eating her blueberry cheesecake and says: “On a more positive note, the Bhutanese are learning about other cultures and the various educational programmes that broaden our horizon. More and more of them are beginning to appreciate the peace and tranquillity that Bhutan offers which is taken for granted until we see the chaos and conflict that seem to pervade the rest of the world.”

In 2006, the absolute monarchy was replaced by an elected assembly. The fifth king travelled extensively around the country encouraging participation in the upcoming democratic exercise, speaking mainly to the Bhutanese youth on the need to strive for greater standards. “We no longer live in a small hidden kingdom... We are very much a part of this new globalised world. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is — how can Bhutan stand on her own feet? How can we make a good living? How can Bhutan compete with other nations as equals?”

In the face of so many new challenges, the Bhutanese have to re-define what “making a good living” entails. In a country where traditional dress, language and architecture are compulsory, how do they “modernise” without lose their ideals?

What the future holds…

So what does the future have in store for Bhutan? Kunzang Choki, who runs a bookshop in Thimphu, says, “An elderly monk who went to Paro with the intention of going into a three-year retreat returned finding the distractions unbearable, and instead chose to come to Bumthang. But how long will it stay remote and quiet here?” A regular customer at the bookshop chips in, “Our worry is not just about outsiders. Newspaper reports about penalties imposed on the Department of Civil Aviation over the non-compliance of environmental regulations for the construction of the airport are disturbing.”

Even as it negotiates change in the quest for modernity, Bhutan is a lesson for India. As economic development in our country surpasses the limits of ecosystems to provide resources; as people protest and demand government accountability, we too need to focus on social and psychological well-being of our people.