Bhutan’s aspiration to become a self-reliant country is becoming a myth.
Political parties, desperate to woo voters with their promises have no qualms accepting that the funding to fulfil their pledges will be sourced from donors.
The people see the contradiction of borrowing funds to become self-reliant. The political parties do not.
Official records define self-reliance as ‘the ability to meet all our national development needs as articulated through five year plans by 2020.’ Making Bhutan self-reliant was the goal of the 11th Plan, which is touted a success. Have we achieved the goal? Instead of measuring its success based on the wellbeing of the people, we assess the success of a plan on the amount of funding the country was able to secure from a donor. And as political parties continue to stress on making the country self-reliant and food secure, Bhutanese are realising that the concept of self-reliance remains an elusive aspiration for the country.
With the country about to elect a new government, which will implement an ambitious transitional 12th Plan, Bhutanese people must ask if we have become abled today to meet our development needs, which under an elected government change every five years. We must question what it means when the country that is at the threshold of graduating into a middle-income status has failed to provide safe drinking water to its people. We must ask why after almost 60 years of planned development, we are only now talking about providing basic necessities – water and housing to the people? We must ask how building an economy on borrowings would help the country become self-reliant.
Bhutanese need to ask these questions and more because the issue is as much about sustainability as it is about self-reliance. Apart from donors, the political parties are also banking on the commissioning of hydropower projects to generate the required revenue. Except for Mangdechhu project, which is expected to commission by the end of this year, Punatshangchhu I is rescheduled to 2022 when the 12th Plan ends and the Punatshangchhu II to the end of 2019.
Hydropower projects, which are mired in delays, should warn us of being too optimistic of generating the revenue the country needs. Against the growing expenditure in health and education sectors and the revenue foregone through fiscal incentives, the country needs to review the dangerous illusion it has created of higher revenues from hydropower achieving the self-reliance goal. We have created an impression that revenue from hydropower would solve all our problems. For an elected government that governs for five years, such narratives work. For the country, not quite.
Although already budgeted, the promises of pay hikes for civil servants should also be weighed against the pledges to develop the private sector. Making the jobs and benefits attractive in the civil service could further isolate the private sector, which at least on paper is called the engine of growth.
Given its impressive economic growth, Bhutan is referred as one of the fastest growing economies today. But the country remains economically vulnerable. The growth has not been able create jobs for a growing workforce.
Are we happy with this narrative of making Bhutan a self-reliant country?