Suhasini Haidar

Bhutan diary

The Kyichu monastery dates back to the 6th century and is believed to be built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. Photo: Suhasini Haidar  


Seeing Mt. Everest is about good karma really, explained the lady next to me years ago when I was flying from Lhasa to Kathmandu. I had clearly collected some brownie points on my trip to Paro this time, as the sun shone brightly as we reached nearly touching distance from the majestic mountain. The visit comes close on the heels of visits to Nepal and Tibet for me, but one doesn’t ever tire of the sight of the Himalayan wall. Some good karma was left over apparently, as the flight landed in Paro nearly an hour early. Strong tailwinds, explained the pilot. This meant I had time to head to a little known monastery I had visited 18 years ago. The Kyichu monastery dates back to the 6th century, and is linked to some of the monasteries in Lhasa including the Jokhang temple, as it is believed to be built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. It is peaceful and never crowded, and what adds to its mystique is that the orange trees here bear fruit around the year. Sure enough, they were laden with fruit on this visit too!

On the bucket list of world leaders

It may seem cut off, but in fact Bhutan can be the centre of the world, because there’s always some high level dignitary in town. Many of them come for environmental causes, given that Bhutan is one of the only countries to mandate 60% forest cover in its constitution (it actually maintains 70%), and has a deep focus on fighting climate change. In Thimphu this time, I meet the former president of Finland, Tarja Halonen. Ms Halonen was elected twice, a record for Finland, and known for steering the country from 2000-2012. Ms. Halonen is here on a mission for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and sustainable development. At dinner, Ms. Halonen tells us about the Scandinavian way of handling extreme cold: late night runs from a steaming sauna to a frozen lake! For obvious reasons, this must be done without even basic swimwear on. “In the sauna,” Ms. Halonen tells me, educating me on the etiquette, “we must make only eye contact.”

Powering relations

Bhutan lives off clean energy. The bulk of its earnings come from selling hydropower to India, produced in power plants built by India. The father of it all was G.P.N. Rao, who I had the privilege of meeting in 1996, when he showed me how it worked, driving down a kilometre long tunnel to the core of the plant at Chukha. The river, or a part of it is guided through a mountain, that is quite literally hollowed out. As the water falls onto massive turbines at the bottom of the mountain,they turn and produce electricity, and the water is diverted back into the river. I remember being awestruck, and felt like I was on the set for a ‘Dr.No’ type James Bond movie set! Mr. Rao first travelled to Bhutan in 1977 to oversee the 366 MW Chukha project in 1977. He stayed on till the late 1990s, even after his retirement, when he became MD of the Chukha Hydropower Corporation and was honoured by both the Bhutanese King as well as the President of India for his work in ‘powering’ India-Bhutan relations. He died in 2002, but his work lives on.

Clean energy power play

While much of Bhutan’s electricity today, is produced at regular hydel power plants, Chukha remains a model of how electricity should be produced worldwide. As a result of the country's commitment, and nature's generosity, the Bhutanese pay only about 1-2 Ngultrums per unit of electricity. Cheap power also means that many Bhutanese have taken to electric cars, charging them up every night, and using them for the short distances they travel-helping further to keep the air clean with zero emissions.

Even so I was surprised, when a red ‘Tesla’ car passed us on the road, and I realized it was the country’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay at the wheel! When I met him for an interview, he laughed when I asked where his entourage was.

Bhutan’s AAP party?

Bhutan’s leaders are always young, but their most glamorous might be Lily Wangchuck. For years, Lily was Bhutan’s face in Delhi, as a diplomat at the embassy in India and still has many friends there. In 2012, she quit the foreign service and plunged into politics, becoming the president of the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), that promised to be the “party with a difference” and take only candidates with five years of professional experience and no corruption cases. Unfortunately the DCT came a cropper in the knockout first round of elections.

Ever feisty, Lily tells me she is now working on a ‘democracy dialogue’ to unite all opposition parties, even as she runs the hotel she has just built in Thimphu, the Namselling Boutique Hotel. She tells me that PM Tshering Tobgay may face trouble if he doesn’t keep the many election promises he gave including zero-unemployment. When I ask her if she knows the PM well, she has a twinkle in her eye. I hear they dated once….Bhutan is indeed a young country.

Happiness 2.0

The idea of Gross National Happiness has made Bhutan world famous, and its young King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is now working on GNH 2.0, with ideas to be unveiled in honour of his father the former King who abdicated in his favour and ushered in democracy. I was in Thimphu during the 59th birthday celebrations for the former King, and I can see that Bhutan is changing, and does need to revisit some of the ideas that have kept its traditions intact so far. Bhutanese adore their monarchy without exception, most still wear the ‘Koh’, and all homes are built according to tradition… but development is bringing new aspirations. The government seems to have relaxed rules on all residences being no more than 2 floors, as they once removed the ban on television. In downtown Thimphu, bars stay open longer than earlier too. There are also greater worries about depression and drug addiction in a society that still remains amazingly crime-free. Dasho Benji Dorji, the former environment minister of the country now runs a weekly radio show, trying to engage the youth on these issues. He tells me, “ We don’t want to hide our problems. We want to shine a spotlight on them so as to help more of our people”.

SAARC smaller member states

I was in Bhutan to speak at Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) at the southern border town of Phuentsholing. The institute is the brainchild, and pet project of the King, and trains civil servants of Bhutan in public policy. Guest speakers at the institute’s ‘Friday forum’ include H.M. King Jigme Khesar, Singaporean thinker Kishore Mahbubani, Shashi Tharoor and U.S. Professor, while I am introduced as the first woman to address the forum.

The talk is about expectations from the SAARC summit, and I wish leaders and diplomats could hear how the tensions between India and Pakistan affect those in other SAARC countries. Every second question I am asked was about why they aren’t able to put their differences aside for the good of the South Asia region. In so many ways, India-Bhutan relations are the template for good relations anywhere. An interdependency over energy, a complete union of currency (Indian notes are accepted everywhere and 1Re. = 1 Ng.), and an open border. As I drive back to Bagdogra to catch my flight home, though, India greets me with a pile of garbage and plastic bags. We don’t just need a greater appreciation of the relationship, I think, we need a little more of Bhutan in India.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 6:31:33 PM |

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