Are Bhutanese happier?

The survey period for the GNH survey 2015 has been completed and data is being compiled

GNH: Despite some misgivings about their politicians, Bhutanese citizens are still a happy lot, perhaps even more so than a few years ago, going by the personal observations of the enumerators, who travelled around the country to interview respondents for the GNH survey 2015.

While data for the survey is still being compiled and the findings scheduled only for a November release, some enumerators shared their observations on societal changes noticed during their three-month survey.

The primary reason why Bhutanese may be happier today is that more basic services are available since the last survey conducted in 2010. Researcher Pema Thinley said he is “optimistic” that the happiness level would have increased beyond 2010’s GNH index value of 0.74. The 2010 survey found that less than 10 percent of Bhutanese were yet to achieve happiness, he said.

Another enumerator, Sangay Chophel, pointed out that the most visible change was more roads than in 2010. “Walking distances was drastically reduced compared to the past survey,” he said.

But with the roads have also come the pros and cons of development.

Pema Thinley said there has been a shift in what development means in rural Bhutan. “Our neighbour doesn’t do any work; he has really developed,” is a phrase that was often heard he said. He added that people are doing less physical work, for instance, not brewing local produce but purchasing and consuming beer, or leaving the lands fallow and opting to buy commodities from shops with money earned doing odd construction jobs. “They’re starting to think this is development,” he said. “Our people are becoming less hardworking than before.”

Enumerator Kuenzang Lhadon had a different opinion. She said that lands remaining fallow are a result of the more productive generations migrating to urban areas for employment. “Many say financial security is what they need to be truly happy,” she said, adding that it is usually what people don’t have, that they think will make them happy. For instance, she said for villagers that do not have electricity or a road to their village, these factors would make them happy.

However, Kuenzang Lhadon found that in one village the youth were opting to stay back. Because of a profitable business in cordyceps, youth remained in remote Laya, Gasa, which indicated that if employment opportunities are available, rural-urban migration might not occur.

Another change noticed by the enumerators was less socialising. Sangay Chophel said that in 2007, when the first GNH survey was conducted, socialising was vital. “At the end of the survey, we would sometimes gather, sing, dance around a bon fire, and villagers would come to visit us,” he said. “Now, most people are stuck to their TVs.”

Despite this, the enumerators said they were still welcomed warmly wherever they went, and offered accommodation. “Rural people are more hospitable and welcoming,” Kuenzang Lhadon said, especially when compared to their urban counterparts.

The enumerators also detected a growing mistrust in the political process during their survey.

“There is some sort of a dissatisfaction among the electorate, the citizens,” Pema Thinley said. “A huge shift has occurred in the mind set of the people.”

There is a narrower perspective of democracy in rural areas, observed Pema Thinley, where immediate and short-term conditions, like the yield of their fields, road conditions, and water supply, among others, are seen as measures of democracy. But other larger aspects like sovereignty, national goals, justice, rule of law, are not raised.

The enumerators noted that perhaps there was a need for the concerned agencies to step in and clarify the larger implications of a democracy. Sangay Chophel said people have become more cautious and are keeping a close tab on the government fulfilling their pledges, even more so than on basic services for their villages or communities now.

Pema Thinley said that respondents interviewed seemed to be “fatigued” at the number of surveys they had to undergo by the various government agencies and expressed a desire to know how these surveys solved their problems like bad roads and water shortages, among others. He said that this usually instilled a feeling of helplessness in the enumerator, and a hope that the research output would in some way help guide policy makers.

“Overall I thought that people usually expressed that they were happy and content in their lives although they did not really have substantial financial income,” Kuenzang Lhadon said. “I think people in Bhutan, though poor financially, are rich in health and how they see life.”

A total of 7,202 out of 8,871 randomly selected respondents were interviewed nationwide, compared to 7,142 in the 2010 survey. The number of respondents for the 2015 survey could change as figures are being re-verified.

“Tracking down respondents, who were selected randomly, and convincing them to spare about two hours to talk with our enumerators was bit difficult,” senior researcher, Karma Wangdi said.

The number of questions for the 2015 survey was also decreased to 148 from 249, allowing enumerators to interview at least two respondents a day.

“The number of questions were reduced in such a way that it is not going to impact the comparability with the earlier survey and at the same time reduce burden on both respondent as well as enumerators,” Karma Wangdi said. “Questions were also improved drawing on lessons from the earlier surveys.”

The total cost of the 2015 survey was Nu 27.86 million, with the Japan International Cooperation Agency funding about 82 percent of the cost, and the rest being borne by the government.

Gyalsten K Dorji

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