Water Male Tiger Year: Flashback – The year of the Water Tiger was a year of challenge. It was a year of momentous events and developments, too.

The nation was in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst scourge the world has witnessed in recent memory. Although Bhutan tried her best to maintain zero Covid-19-related death, the global definition of death in the year of Covid-19 saw many Bhutanese, young and old, succumb to the virus.

But the nation did not step back. Instead, it looked ahead and made some remarkably bold decisions; the tremor shook us to the core and urged us to reset our priorities. As a small nation, the burden of carrying the civil service was growing even as the Royal Civil Service Commission had long decided to make Bhutan’s civil service small and efficient.

The change began with doing away with the post of gaydrung. Then came the ‘reform” in the real sense of the term. Irrelevant positions were axed and the capabilities of the civil servants in the senior positions were tested. Many a secretary had to bow gracefully out, some for being the best in their line of duty, even. Directors, dzongdags, and chiefs followed. An abrupt change is difficult to accept, but, in the long run, such professional trimming exercises will stand us in good stead. That is Bhutan looking to the future.

Fuel and food prices touched a record high in the Year of the Water Tiger, leaving middle- and lower-income Bhutanese in precarious situations. As an import-driven economy, such realities cannot be avoided. Even as agriculture is Bhutan’s mainstay, production and trade have been dismal since the planned development began more than sixty years ago. The government imposed a ban on importing vehicles to save the depleting foreign currency reserves. As the fledging private sector could not produce employment opportunities, youth unemployment, one of the biggest problems facing the country today, ratcheted up. This, too, is Bhutan looking to the future.

In an effort to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and to augment’s the country’s financial reserves for development projects, the State took over the dolomite and gypsum mines. The State Mining Corporation Limited has already started to pay a mining licence fee of Nu 3 billion (Nu 200 million a year) for the Chunaikhola dolomite mine and Nu 1.125B (Nu 75M a year) for Khothakpa gypsum mine to the government. This is a good change, a picture of a nation moving ahead.

Environmentally, Bhutan continued to make a mark on the global map. EVs are gaining popularity among Bhutanese families and the transport sector is investing heavily in EVs. However, more needs to be done. Lack of infrastructure development and subsidies remain the key issues facing the nation’s dream of going green. And, for rejuvenating Bhutan’s tourism sector, the world recognised Bhutan with several highly-coveted international awards. But product and service development has not witnessed a significant evolution. This, too, is Bhutan looking to the future.

The Year of the Water Tiger also saw the government make costly missteps. At a time when Bhutanese society needs more educational centres and libraries, the government made bar licence free to all shops. The decision in itself was not wrong, considering equality and fairness to all, as the economic affair minister so passionately argued, but do we have the mechanisms and human resources to stop our children from being exposed to such vices too early in their lives? Pandering to the vote banks is an unfortunate reality of democracy where representatives often are forced to put the long-term national interests on the back seat. This is the Tiger’s regret he hopes the Hare will set it right.

The nation lost highly-trained and skilled professionals in worrying numbers. Even as we speak, the number of Bhutanese going abroad for work continues to increase. One might ask why? Bhutan does not have a strong social security system. Lack of opportunities and long-term financial security drive many a Bhutanese out of the borders in search of better options. Close to 500 teachers and an almost equal number of health professionals left the system in 2022. A country is in a deep problem when the critical sectors such as education and health, not to mention the many other sectors that have experienced the same, it is the system calling for a radical change.

But it takes courage to define one’s sense of individuality in these murky and vastly troubled times. If there was a country that held its breath and calmly charted its future in 2022 no matter how rough the path and strong the winds, it was Bhutan that launched itself anew with the brand—“Believe”.

Tourism, one of the significant revenue earners, is waking again with new vigour and the promise to take the nation to newer and greater heights. That is the change that the Water Tiger forced upon us which will be passed on to the quick and nimble Hare to carry on. All these are taking stock and forging ahead, a picture of a forward-looking nation.