How does a capital city achieve the envious status of being the happiest city within a mere three decades of the country’s independence? What impulse enables it to climb ever higher levels of success on the social progress indicators and human well-being indices? How does a city succeed in bringing about dramatic improvements in the quality of life of its citizens within a safe and sustainable environment?
There are no miracles. When man and mission match, the result is Vilnius. Thanks to the kind invitation of the Azzara Foundation, my visit to the beautiful capital city of Lithuania has become a pilgrimage of sorts, enabling me to discover a deep connection between the humans and the natural environment, a sojourn at the tri-junction of a country’s past, present, and future, an encounter with a people in search of meaning and fulfilment beyond the here and the now.
Once the country regained what truly belonged to her and her people by right and responsibility – her sovereign-self and independence – the recovery of national memory and restoration of her centuries-old history and culture quickly fell into a natural scheme of nation-building. The future could be envisioned, development planned, cities laid out, infrastructure built, service delivery systems put in place, and all the rest could follow, as the light guided and resources allowed.
The country is green and water is abundant with crystal-blue lakes that stretch far and wide and bless the land in all directions. The sky is clear and the earth is fertile as the sea is a gift. The sun and the moon and the stars have their time and their shine with little obstacle through pollution that afflict many lands. The boundaries are neat and the family is a big as the European Union.
The capital city has led the way. It is the seat of the national government and home of the parliament. Timeless monuments stand tall in honour of the country’s rich past. Gediminas Castle, Bell Tower and Cathedral Square, exquisite moments and mighty landmarks mark the majesty of the historic city. The 440-year old University of Vilnius forms the centre-piece of the city. Its motto says it all:
From here, the way leads to the stars.
It has to be the purest call of the highest order to guide a seat of learning and the life of scholars.
Vilnius has claimed top spot for several years in a row as one of the best managed cities in the world; one of the top regions world-wide for growth in foreign direct investments; among the Top 10 Smart Cities in the World. It was the first city in Europe to introduce a culture of sharing economy via shared bicycle and shared car use; free coffee on Sunday for pensioners, in a conscious effort to build an inclusive and sustainable society.
Gediminas Street is closed to traffic during week-ends to allow its citizens safe and free movement, socialise, talk a walk with family, friends, neighbours, and fellow-citizens. Vehicles don’t blow horns, and there are penalties for defaulters; there is no trash or garbage; surroundings are spotless. Noise and hooliganism are virtually absent as are pick-pockets and beggars.
Vilnius is one of the safest cities in the world. Traffic and parking rules are followed to the letter and spirit. Time was when Mayor Zuokas lost no time in driving a tank over a wrongly-parked Mercedes Benz! “Don’t make me get the tank” became an effective incentive to follow road discipline.
There is tremendous warmth, goodwill and positive energy that define this city of joy and pride. A sense of humour is very palpable as in, for instance, one of the provisions of the constitution of an imaginary republic of Uzupis that reads: Everyone has the right to die but it is not obligatory!
Education is a big priority and all members of the community, including big business and industry, are actively involved in supporting common efforts. They are keen to learn from other countries, including Bhutan. Volunteer groups are active everywhere. Many school children are already preparing a recommendation for NASA to guide flying.
Lithuania boasts one of the fastest internet speeds and among the finest basketball teams in the world. Work on Vilnius 2035 is already underway.
Among the memorable highlights of my visit to Lithuania was my fortuitous meeting with two of my rare fellow-Bhutanese, Kinley Choden, studying Public Health at Klaipeda University, during my engagement in the port-city of that name on the coast of the Baltic Sea, and Phub Zam, an engineer with the Bhutan Power Corporation, based in Bangkok, on attachment with the Gediminas Technical University on an Erasmus Mundus fellowship programme. It was true joy to meet these wonderful young Bhutanese, perhaps our pioneers in far-away Lithuania, giving an excellent account of themselves and of our country.
I was also heartened to discover that some beginnings for collaboration are being made between our two countries. I met two professors during a session at the University of Vilnius who had just returned from Sherubtse College following the conclusion of an archeological project with our peak of learning. I also met Prof Jolanta Preidiene, Head of International Relations and Projects Department, Vilnius College, University of Applied Sciences, who is overseeing the collaboration project that we signed under the auspices of the Erasmus Mundus fellowship programme that enables exchange of students and faculty between the Royal Thimphu College and Vilnius College.
Opportunities for mutually beneficial institutional partnerships are truly promising. Some prominent citizens of Lithuania, including the three-time elected former Mayor of Vilnius, Hon. Arturas Zuokas, have already visited Bhutan and become passionate goodwill ambassadors of our country.
Lithuania has made the most creative and responsible use of the gift of independence and freedom and become a dynamic and forward-looking, virtually corruption-free, self-respecting country in Europe, at peace with itself, at peace with the world.
Professor Yosly Caridad Hernandez Bieliukas’s prayer for Lithuania speaks to the passionate wish of her people for their country: “That it remain a beautiful country filled with friendly people who are noble, pure, quiet and peaceful. Also, that it grow socially, economically, and politically, thereby becoming a consolidated European centre of tourism and economic power”.
It is humbling to note that the wish is for purity, peace, nobility and quiet, with the benefit of economic well-being… It speaks to the core of GNH as well…
Thakur S Powdyel