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Happiness or bust

Bhutan is a happy country. No, really. It's a country whose official policy is to be happy. The moment I land here, I am smothered by the country's famous insistence on measuring people's well-being by gross national happiness and not by gross national product. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:25 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Bhutan is a happy country. No, really. It's a country whose official policy is to be happy. The moment I land here, I am smothered by the country's famous insistence on measuring people's well-being by gross national happiness and not by gross national product. For a country that isn't what one would call rich and fully developed, and that, till recently, was strictly isolated from the rest of the world, that's one swell way of dealing with real challenges and shortcomings that may exist.

The term gross national happiness (GNH) was coined in 1972 by former monarch King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, that swell-looking guy I first saw on Bhutanese 3D postage stamps. It was a nifty way of handling the effects of the country opening up to modernisation under his rule. India has been familiar to this kind of protective strategy: 'Yes, we may be a poor country with a striking amount of human poverty. But unlike the rich West, we are rich in our spiritual wealth. See how our beggars look happier than those poor sods in the bitter cold in London's street corners.' Thankfully, that line of thinking has been slowly junked as India started to realise the importance of material wealth.

But with all its smiling people and happy consequences, all this banging on about GNH makes me suspect that much of the happiness in Bhutan is imposed 'from above'. Take the stringent anti-smoking law. Smoking in public places is a non-bailable offence that can get you jailed for three years. I'm yet to find out what the punishment is for a Bhutanese caught on the street wearing a t-shirt and bermudas. And Friday's lead headline in the daily Bhutan Today was 'Woman kills husband with a spade'. That must have triggered a big dip in Bhutan's GNH.

But a small country wedged between the two cultural behemoths of India and China may be constantly worried (how's that for irony?) about its own culture being smothered to death. Thus, a few drastic measures. And it's been only a few years since television and the internet have been allowed into the country.

At a dinner at the Indian embassy on Friday, I meet two young Bhutanese writers holding on to their lit cigarettes as if they were shooting up crystal meth. "This is Indian territory, so you'll be fine," an embassy official comforts them as they look nervously in the distance at their king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk (who looks remarkably like a young Elvis) shake hands with guests.

But beyond the crackdown on smoking (the law came into being last year with a Buddhist monk caught chewing gutka becoming the first arrest) and insistence on retaining culture 'by force', there's a dark side to Bhutan's happy story. The kingdom worries about its domiciled Nepali population. Nepalis remain an unwelcome lot and many have been sent off to different parts of the world. It's an immigration issue, a Bhutanese official tells me. But the 'anti-foreigner' policy applies to Bhutanese of Nepali origin too. This is, I figure, part of the 'Keeping Bhutan pure' policy. Any other country and we would have been talking about officially sanctioned xenophobia. But not here in happy, beautiful Bhutan.

So do Bhutanese writers deal with sad or nasty aspects of life at all? Or are all forms of culture quarantined from anything negative and 'polluting' — as in a Buddhist version of a communist or Arab State? I ask Dasho Kinley Dorji, former editor-in-chief of Kuensel, Bhutan's national paper, present information minister and big supporter of GNH. “Yes, there are problems mainly concerning our youth. These are worrying and need to be written and talked about,” he says. What the Columbia University alumnus means by 'problems' is an erosion of cultural values.

A country losing its sleep over a possible GNH crisis and worrying about losing its happiness to the dark forces of modernity? I think the golden age of Bhutanese Modernism, challenging the sanctioned smiles of Happy Happyland, may finally be on its way. And that brings me, watching the clouds invading and engulfing the hill tops around me, much happiness.