In 2008, when we became a democracy and the first parliament session enacted the constitution, the elected leaders failed to see the need to harmonize the then existing laws to the constitution.
All the focus was on the transition to the new system of governance and in the process we failed to customize the legal instruments to support the transition. It may have cost us in more ways than we can imagine.
For example, the constitution aptly manifests our development philosophy of gross national happiness (GNH). It officially endorses GNH as the guiding principle. But today, we are still struggling to integrate GNH into the governance structure and more so to implement the philosophy and make it more practical.
We cannot discount the national conscience to adapt to GNH principles. But the national will lacks the flesh and blood in the absence of a national strategy to implement GNH.
We have renamed the planning commission as the GNH Commission. We have started using GNH as the overarching goal in every government policy. We have intensified our efforts to measure GNH. We have started debating more on the concept. But still today, we have no strategy to make GNH practical and to implement it.
Implementing GNH is indeed a daunting challenge. It is made further complicated because the pursuance for happiness can make the whole process very idealistic. To some extent, it has happened and some say that Bhutan is trying to be Utopia. It is therefore, necessary to draw a line between idealism and realism.
In the name of GNH, we have seen some of the government decisions toeing the idealistic line. The decision to ban junk food, meat ban on religious days and months, the Tobacco Act are some examples. It is entirely a different debate whether such decisions are right or wrong but it cannot be blindly enforced without taking into account ground realities. It should be backed up with necessary scientific studies.
The concept of GNH is a pun to the materialistic pursuit of GDP but GNH cannot be independent of economic pursuit either. It is necessary to have our feet grounded when we pursue GNH. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse says that we will have more time for ideology only when our stomachs are filled.
Without a national strategy to implement GNH, the onus is left up to individual government agencies to advocate GNH.
The education ministry was one of the first agencies to try to impart GNH principles in students. Students are encouraged to meditate in classes to clear their mind, schools are advised to go green, and young minds are encouraged to contemplate more on Bhutanese values.
In such an exercise, the Ministry of Information and Communication organized a brainstorming session in Paro this week to discuss the role of the media in a GNH society. The heads of media organizations, media regulators and media experts deliberated for two days.
The consensus from the meet was that the media could definitely do more to contribute to the national philosophy of GNH. It was also felt that we could develop a different media culture in the country.
Discussions on understanding GNH dominated the session. A veteran journalist from India, George Varghese, teased participants by asking whether Bhutan was spending too much time discussing GNH and not implementing it.
A researcher from the Center of Bhutan Studies said that, in general, there is not much interest on GNH among the Bhutanese people. He said the interest is much more overwhelming from outside the country. The statement warrants us to ask ourselves whether Bhutan’s overzealous approach in advocating GNH has backfired. If so, isn’t it time for us to take a step back, contemplate and then advocate for a better strategy to implement GNH.
We need to debate more on the issue. We need to ask ourselves whether GNH is the end goal or the pursuance of it in itself is GNH. We definitely need to go back to the basics.
We also have to debate on what is the best way to advocate GNH. Should the government spearhead it through policies? Or will it be better to call for introspection by making GNH simpler for every Bhutanese to be able to connect to it. How can we really make GNH interesting and not make it relevant only for academic experts? Is it necessary to mention GNH in every government policy?
When it comes to implementing GNH, it is time we realize that we have many more questions than answers. We may not be able to answer all questions but we can begin by encouraging debate and by tackling one question at a time. The advantage we have is time. We are not in a hurry to give a concrete shape to GNH. In pursuing GNH, we may not even be looking for consensus and we may begin by respecting differences.