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Learning from the Kingdom of Bhutan
-- From GNP To GNH --

Fumiaki Miyashita,
Professor of Economic Geography Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

Do you know the meaning of GNH? GNH is an acronym for Gross National Happiness. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of the Kingdom of Bhutan was the originator of the word when, at a conference in Colombo in 1976, he was quoted saying that "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product." The concept of GNH has questioned the supremacy of GNP/economic growth which, as a worldwide trend at that time, attracted global attention; an international conference on this concept has held several times.

Why did the King make such a statement? Bhutan is a small Himalayan country wedged between China and India. The total land area is 46,500 square kilometers, 1.1 times that of Kyushu in Japan; the population is a mere 650,000. Bhutan has been called a Shangri-La or terra incognita; it has never been colonized and remained closed for centuries. In understanding Bhutan, it is meaningless to compare its GNP with the GNPs of big nations such as those in Europe, Japan or China. However, I have wondered if the Bhutanese have been living more happily and I wanted to measure the level of happiness on some kind of scale. I visited Bhutan in August of this year to learn more about the concept of GNH.

GNH consists of four main ideas: (1) sustainable and fair socioeconomic development, (2) protection of the natural environment, (3) protection of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and (4) good politics. This concept is said to be rooted in the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism; the "yardstick" being used is not the same as a monetary or materialistic one and the spiritual aspect has also been integrated. Of course, there are many who concur with this concept and many who do not. The most difficult aspect is how to numerically express "happiness" and compare the results with the data from other countries. This is a difficult task. However, when comparing the concept of GNH with other nations Bhutan ranks very high. This has also been demonstrated by the fact that most Bhutanese think of themselves as being happy. They are also a people who think that other's happiness is more important than their own. About 80% of Bhutanese are Tibetan and the remaining 20% are Nepalese. Their religion is mostly Tibetan Buddhism. There are about 20 dialects but the national language is unified in Dzongka. However, all classes in schools are conducted in English except for Dzongka and Bhutanese history.

Bhutan has been an absolute monarchy. Under the initiative of the sagacious fourth King, the first national election was held this past March to elect a prime minister. The King has provided leadership in reforming and modernizing Bhutan into becoming a constitutional monarchy. The youth of Bhutan wish to study abroad in places such as India, Europe or America and then return to Bhutan to become public servants. Bhutan is supportive of education and provides free schooling to its citizens. Bhutan is also committed to enhancing its handicraft industry and has put effort into providing more vocational training. Eminent Buddhist monks are highly respected and, since they are involved in the everyday life of the Bhutanese, many enter monasteries at an early age. When people die, they are cremated and their ashes are scattered into rivers because they believe in transmigration. This means there are no cemeteries. Basic medical care is free in Bhutan.

In the area of protection of the natural environment, Bhutan and Nepal take different approaches. Nepal actively accepts mountain climbers. Bhutan believes that the mountains are the home of holy spirits and the mountains are religious sites. Among the high peaks, 20 are still unclimbed. It is simply unthinkable to dig a tunnel in any of these mountains. The roads wind up and down through 3,000-meter peaks. The valleys are so deep that it is very difficult to bridge them. The opening of National Highway No. 1 allowed Bhutan to change from a self-supporting/barter economy into a market-oriented economy. The roads built so far have been designed with topography in mind and landslides occur frequently during the rainy season. In principle, Bhutan forbids forest logging and actively plants trees. About 72% of Bhutan's land is forested. In Nepal, however, deforestation has progressed on a large scale, and serious damage has been caused by flooding in countries downstream.

About 80% of Bhutan's population farms, grows rice, buckwheat, fruits and vegetables, but production has been insufficient and produce quality has been poor. Bhutan could become wealthier by introducing advanced agricultural technology, increasing plant varieties, expanding the distribution network, etc. Bhutan must grow and become more economically independent. Looking at its external payments balance, the largest revenue source is from the sale of electricity to India, followed by tourism. It is difficult to be self-supporting with an industrial product base on a market scale like that of Bhutan. Many industrial products are imported from India and other countries.

Bhutan is a "happy" country on the surface. However, in reality, it receives a lot of assistance from various countries, such as India, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Bhutan intentionally refuses large assistance from big countries such as the US, Russia and China. For Bhutan to survive in the international community, international financial and technological assistance are essential. For a small nation to survive as a sovereign one among the big nations of the United Nations is proof of world democracy and leads the way towards world peace. From November 6-8, the coronation of the Bhutan's young fifth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, will be held. I continue to wish for measured and steady growth in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Fumiaki Miyashita,
Professor of Economic Geography Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

Academic background:

- Undergraduate degree at Keio University's Faculty of Commerce
- Doctoral program at Waseda University's Graduate School of Commerce
- Served as researcher and lecturer at the Australian National University, the University of London and other foreign institutions

Main literary works:

"Lecture and Dialogue with President Clinton" (translation; Waseda University, 1993)
"The Steel Industry"published in 'New Japanese Industry' (joint authorship; Nikkei Shimbun, 1997)
"Production Structure of Modern Foundry" published in 'History of Foundry Technologies' (joint authorship; Japan Foundry Engineering Society, 1997)