Twenty years ago Bhutan launched one of the most comprehensive development plans in its history in response to the kind of changes the country was beginning to witness—“2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity and Happiness”. The plan’s vision statement was concerned chiefly with setting out directions that would enable Bhutan to maintain a distinctive path of development “well into the 21st century”. The vision was ambitious because it was necessary.
The question though is how far have we come. We have done well in some areas, not in others, however. The document used to be the reference point for young graduates who are now in senior positions but now know not what it really meant because of the many changes in between. Each department, sector and division work own their own because the workforce was not prepared for the grandness of the vision.
Today, Bhutan’s fertility rate of 1.7 is well below replacement rate of 2.1. This means Bhutan has transitioned to low fertility, low mortality, and a low child dependency ratio, which means the country is nearing demographic transition. This is a problematic equation in population studies.
Statisticians are of the view that Bhutan has gone way below the replacement level which does not portend well for the country. The success of family planning continues to be debated. But then, is Bhutan’s decreasing fertility rate all that bad and worrying? The share of ageing population is increasing relative to working-age population and old-age dependency is rising. The economy of the country is facing a downturn of a sort. If Bhutan lags behind in preparing for population ageing without investment in human capital and growth-stimulating policies informed by a national population policy, repercussions of falling birth rate could be damaging.
In other sectors too, we have not done well. Agriculture is beleaguered and unemployment among the young people is rising. According to a study by Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bhutan’s demographic dividend is expected to last only until 2038 after which it will decline gradually. The question is what would happen when Bhutan’s population aged 65 and above reaches more than 15 percent by 2050, as projected by ADB, and correspondingly in support ratio. This is a serious warning.
These are the engines of growth that Bhutan has not been able to capitalise on. Urbanisation, the danger of which the Vision document warned, if not streamlined, is showing in the way new towns are growing. In the mean time, democracy did their share of destruction because political parties had to pander to the demands of the electorate. Some Bhutanese villages have more roads than necessary today and less education and health facilities at the same time. What is now shocking is nobody is ready to accept the failure. Nobody owns “2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity and Happiness”. If such bureaucratic cultures become entrenched, we have little to achieve as a nation.
The real question is how do we rate our progress, especially at a time when we are sitting to chart a development vision for 2045 and beyond. Vision 2045 looks like a failure already if these challenges are not considered. Politically elected governments have the responsibility to shape the long-term future of Bhutan. The nation cannot think small or little anymore, and how these plans are integrated well will depend on how together as a nation we look ahead, ideas such as robotics and AI besides.
2020 just passed by. Our plan for future has to be shaped in the spirit of the nation’s true needs and potential. We need to be self-sufficient first. That’s the national dream.