We are accustomed to thinking in terms of ‘smart cities’, generally, and of ‘smart towns’ occasionally. But, how about ‘smart villages’? This is where the soul finds its natural home. Native joy, primeval innocence, and pure contentment are said to dwell here. But my ancient dream of every village being a school, and every home a classroom, and my village, my responsibility sounded a bit too ambitious or plain impossible for most observers, at best, and not fancy enough, at worst.
Be that as it may. But, as a country, we have had bigger and more compelling messages emanating from the golden throne. It was as early as the 1970s. The youngest monarch in the world had seen it all even as he was still recovering from the irreparable loss of his beloved father, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Bhutan’s Fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had two inescapably clear messages of supreme significance for the long-term security and sustainability of Bhutan, among many other vital commands. They pertained to self-sufficiency, and self-reliance, not as an end in themselves, even though these ends are much to be desired as ends in themselves, but more as a strategic means to a strategic end.
In the unprecedented Covid-era, this royal vision returns to us with ever greater force and relevance as the whole world seems bereft of the benefit of any certainty and as even the most robust systems have been rendered visibly precarious and clearly vulnerable. The irony of our times, however, is that many leaders and citizens in the so-called developed world are restless and itching to open their cities for business because their economy is suffering, never mind the loss of precious lives to the ever-growing pandemic.
The sad truth is that once the virus is defeated, and we hope we can beat it, and beat it sooner rather than later, the world might get back to its old habits and behaviour as if there was no such thing as Covid-19, and as though nothing had ever happened. The world will be back to its normal grind and cut-throat competition and the pains and gains of the current misery might well be tragically wasted, with no lessons learned, sans any sense of guilt felt, till much-abused Nature unleashes another havoc to catch humanity off-guard.
We may not be able to influence global habits into looking inward and consciously choosing a more sustainable and life-friendly path to development. But, as a country, we have the rare benefit of royal vision and direction articulated with great clarity and force. Now is time to re-affirm and re-assert the power of these insights and pave a development path charted by ourselves, founded on our strengths and pursued at our pace.
These past several weeks since the advent of the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Bhutan have shown the country’s unique capacity and will for extraordinary leadership at the highest level and the resilience and commitment of all our citizens at all levels to rise to the challenge and stand out despite several constraints that the system faces. Bhutanese citizens have demonstrated that with our King at the helm, we are prepared for anything to secure the well-being of our people and the security of our country. The spontaneous manifestation of goodwill and basic human goodness across the society has been most chastening and inspiring.
This positive energy and this renewed sense of purpose and dedication provide the natural conditions for collective thought and action to deepen our appreciation of the wisdom of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the vision of Gross National Happiness, the planned Gyalsung programme and other vital national initiatives. It is also a time to re-think our economic development pathway that frees the country from the strain of looking at the league table and checking where we stand in relation to others.
GNH is meant to be a departure from GDP. The current global predicament could in some uncomfortable ways be seen as a vindication of the limits of the GDP-obsessed model of growth fuelled by reckless production and mindless consumption to the inestimable detriment of our dear Planet Earth.
Despite the economic downturn, one of the positive consequences of Covid-19 has been on Mother Nature that has received much-needed respite all over the world, including our own towns and industrial centres. The natural environment is greener, the sky is bluer, the air cleaner and the water clearer. The pace of life has slowed, family-time has increased, and people have become more reflective and found many creative ways to tide over the unprecedented situation. The spirit of caring and sharing is truly heartening.
Given our stark realities, it makes irrefutable sense to build ‘smart village’ even as we plan smart cities and decent towns that do not exhibit opulence but that provide space for all to live a life of dignity. The whole vision of decentralisation, democratisation, and the efforts of successive governments are intended to bring about equity and justice in the sharing of resources and for the flourishing of all parts of the country.
Some beautiful things are already happening. There is renewed and enhanced interest in agricultural, horticultural, livestock activities among our farmer and educated youth; there is a quick adjustment between jobs; and Bhutanese living abroad are returning because they know there is no place like home. Innovation and enterprise of diverse scale and significance are taking place across the country.
Now is an appropriate time to plan for smart and sustainable villages that have all the necessary public services within easy reach but without compromising their integrity and charm that set villages apart as wide, green open spaces endowed with all physical facilities and enriched by social harmony, cultural pride and spiritual nourishment in a live and vibrant environment that supports all life-forms.
Self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-respecting, smart villages will be the pride of Bhutan and the bulwark of our strength rather than crowded, restless, impersonal cities devoid of a soul. The best of Bhutan is still in our remote villages.
It is in the fitness of things to discover the unique potentials of our villages and invest them with pride and creativity befitting the grace and integrity of our still-surviving pastoral heritage. The secret to Bhutan’s long-term sustainability might lie in its inner, authentic self.
Thakur S Powdyel
Former Minister of Education