The high cost of bureaucracy on ordinary Bhutanese

Picture this: Imagine you’re driving from Thimphu to Paro. You need to catch your flight. You’ve allowed ample time to arrive comfortably. But on the road, you’re delayed by slow-moving traffic caused by inexperienced drivers, or vehicles in poor condition. It eats into your precious minutes. Frustrating, right? And even though you’re really flustered, you keep your cool. You speed up on empty stretches, past sensible ones that allow you through comfortably. You cross the half-way point. You might just make it on time. And then, you’re confronted with a slow-moving, big truck. It sees you in its rear-view mirror but won’t let you pass. It’s so big that you can’t see oncoming traffic, making overtaking impossible and risky. Finally, when you think you’ve maneuvered past the big fellow, you run into a fleet of big ass vehicles that behave just the same. In your rear-view mirror you can now see all the other slow cars you zipped passed a while ago catching up with you. How does it feel? Now, imagine this chaotic scenario magnified as you venture farther from the capital, even if it’s to a remote, nondescript village in the country.

This is our bureaucracy. Omnipresent, like a mischievous speed breaker, bang in the middle of nowhere, on a smooth stretch of road, an apt analogy for our truly omnipotent bureaucracy.

Recently, I stumbled upon news that a beloved and prominent national figure expressed sadness over elderly people leaving for foreign shores. It made me think about a few friends of mine who migrated to Australia. The decision to uproot their children and parents is undoubtedly complex. Would they have chosen differently if they had had access to affordable domestic help? Perhaps. But now, those children are growing up in a foreign land, gradually losing touch with their country of birth.

This begs the question: Could, or should our bureaucracy have been more sensitive, compassionate, and efficient? It seems that bureaucracies worldwide are boxed in to share the same vein and grain. How can I be so sure, you ask? Well, it’s because I live outside that box. I’m an outsider looking in. And from this vantage point, the paradigm is crystal clear.

In the end, it’s a tale as old as time. Baser human impulses prevail, and unfortunately, our bureaucrats often succumb to them. Imagination, optimism, and the willingness to take risks that benefit the greater good become mere whispers in the wind. It’s almost as if bureaucracy enforces a state of predictable somnambulism, where the status quo is honoured above all else.

Among the myriad bureaucrats, only a fraction genuinely empathise with others. I always wondered why activists and tireless social workers have inexhaustible firepower. I am beginning to understand it’s because their mission is to work for the benefit of others, selflessly. Although oftentimes, some appear culpable in making their own lives and others, insensibly difficult. Misguided perhaps by an immature zeal. We yearn for bureaucrats who possess a similar spark, individuals who can infuse the system with a passion akin to dedicated social workers. How can we expect to achieve the ambitious goals set by our Monarchs if we traverse through life in a predictable, regimented manner? How can we rise to global standards if we don’t push ourselves and rally behind those capable of driving change?

Recalling the past, my young bureaucrat friends and their acquaintances, all seemed to know how their own ecosystem was flawed. How it desired improvement. They were the minority of vocal critics up against the system. However, as time wore on, they became assimilated into the very work culture they once despised. Now, they hobnob among their counterparts, comfortably nestled in their new roles as bosses. The game has changed, and they seem content in their self-referential bubble, detached from reality, gravity, and the ground beneath their feet. As they rise higher, the air around them thickens, blowing little airy bubbles, servicing the impenetrable fortress of bureaucracy.

But let’s call a spade a spade. Everyone contributes to the callousness, inefficacy, and buoyancy of a system. It’s unfortunate that the system inadvertently nurtures and perpetuates the same flaws it should address.

Eventually, there’s really no negotiating when dealing with one’s conscience. That inner confrontation is as certain as the darkness of tonight. Someone said not long ago, ‘You are only as sane as your next thought or word’. That highlights the fragility of the mind, and the importance of introspection.

I have heard of people who held the high chair in their bureaucratic days, humbled virtually overnight by life in retirement. It’s only a handful who seamlessly transition back into the community. The ones who never lose touch with the reality of the people. The people, who supposedly are the ones outside the system, when actually, the system was built for them who are now considered, ‘outside’.

When cushioned, entitled top-dogs say, ‘I understand what hunger means’, they’re talking about a basic sensation. In relation to their experience of having skipped a meal by some aberration of a distraction, or through a trendy intermittent fasting regimen to become healthier. And not because they have a tittle of an idea when someone close to poverty, utters all the other words except that one particular word which is hunger. For it’s not spoken. It’s a state of existence.

So is it only normal for decision-makers in the higher echelons to not feel the pinch of the ones way below in the social strata? For they avail perks not realistic to others. With their spending power they easily lure national workers as domestic help while depriving the rest from some respite and affordable help when a prompt, efficient system, or alternative isn’t at hand. And it will continue to be a long wait till a solution surfaces. Inertia will still be at play when imminent empathy should have, could have been the order of the day.

I’m reminded of Drayang workers, who through no fault of their own, went redundant through retrenchment, caused by a hasty moralistic move. In a display of supposed magnanimity, the government offered them a paltry wage. Can we realistically expect anyone to survive, let alone provide for their dependents, with such meagre compensation? On the other hand, we unfailingly witness the colourful spectacle of newly elected parliamentarians demanding higher salaries and greater benefits, as if their elected role exempts them from embodying the selfless dedication they should exemplify. Ideally, these representatives should be willing to toil tirelessly for a minimum wage, setting an example for all.

It’s clear as daylight that we are always ready to make any sacrifice when called upon by our King and Country. However, it is equally important to focus on the little things that make life liveable on a daily basis. We may have lost a significant portion of our youth to distant lands, but now is the time to inspire them to forge a future in Bhutan. We need a bureaucracy that is uniquely ours, that speaks ‘Us’, to unlock the true potential of our nation. And then could we begin to live the dream that our Monarchs dream for us all.

Contributed by 

Karma Wangchuk 

Artist and Independent Filmmaker. A contributor to local magazines and newspapers, he volunteered at the VAST Art Studio, Thimphu, for close to twenty years.