In general — barring circumstances such as those arising out of the Doklam crisis last year — Bhutan is probably the least watched country in India’s neighbourhood. The country makes little ‘news’, barring the periodic feelgood references to its being the “happiest” place in the world.
And yet, almost unnoticed, Bhutan has changed the fastest among all countries in the region over the last 10-15 years — with far-reaching consequences for itself and its neighbours.
From a television ownership of just 17.31% in 2003 — when computers and mobile phones were unknown — about 70% of households across the country now have television connections, according to the latest Bhutan Living Standards Survey, released last month. Ninety per cent of urban households, and 27% households in the rural areas, have cable TV.
Just under 18% of households own a computer/laptop, according to the Survey report. Average mobile phone ownership per household is 2.3, with 97% households having at least one. A little less than two-thirds (64.6%) of households own smartphones.
Bhutan is no more the country that was being protected by its monarch from outside influences at the turn of the century. Since becoming a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy in 2008, it has done well economically. Data released in December in the 2017 Poverty Analysis Report, jointly prepared by the Bhutanese government and the World Bank, showed that poverty has been cut by a third to about 8% from the estimated 12% in 2012. Poverty has, in fact, been declining steadily for several years now — it was 23.2% in 2007, and about 31% in 2004.
Bhutan now has the third highest per capita income behind the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the SAARC region, and has got a glowing report card from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the third fastest growing economy in the world, with a projected 8% growth rate for 2017 — even though this growth is powered mainly by the export of electricity from its many hydropower projects, most of them built by India, and is almost entirely dependent on demand from India.
Bhutan will hold this year its second fully democratic election, likely in April. As the roots of democracy are going deeper, Bhutan’s sense of awareness about its landlocked geography, and about its security and sovereignty, too, is becoming more acute. Recently, in an assertion of its independent foreign policy, Bhutan stood alone among all SAARC countries to abstain on the Jersualem vote in the UN General Assembly — all others in the region, and China, voted for the resolution that delivered a rap on the knuckles to the United States for trying to force a fait accompli on the status of Jerusalem.
Sovereignty and security were the two big themes of an address that King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck delivered in the last week of December. But the Monarch appeared to focus not so much on external threats as on internal vulnerabilities, and he asked Bhutan to guard against them by remaining “internally resolute and strong”, and by standing by the traditional values of community relationships.
“The history of global and regional trends in other countries has shown that the downfall of countries are caused by failure of governments, breakdown in the rule of law, economic crises, and the growing economic disparities between the rich and the poor. People feel helpless, and lose faith and trust in their governments and in each other. Their frustrations lead to internal skirmishes extenuating religious, political and racial differences, leading to political clashes, anarchy, and wars. This has destabilised economies, disintegrated governance structures, and destroyed societies and countries,” he said in the address, according to the online news portal, The Bhutanese.
With the median age 28, and with children below age 15 accounting for 28% of the 7 lakh population, Bhutan’s main concern right now is to create employment opportunities for the increasing numbers of young people joining the workforce.
For, the country’s stunning growth rate is largely “jobless”. The working age population is estimated at 506,611, and the labour force participation is 61%. Jobs are mostly in agriculture and in the public sector. As per a draft Labour Force Survey report for 2016 that was presented to Bhutan’s Parliament last November, although the unemployment rate has fallen from 2.5% in 2015 to 2.1% in 2016, the youth unemployment rate has increased by 2.6%, and could be as high as 13.2%.
The other challenge, paradoxically, is the declining fertility rate. From 5.6 in 1994, Bhutan reached its replacement level fertility rate of 2.3 in 2007. As per the latest data, the fertility rate is now 1.9, which is below replacement levels. The crude birth rate is 17 per 1,000, while the death rate is 12.2 per 1,000. BLSS 2017, however, showed that happiness levels, despite having declined somewhat, are still very high — apparently 76% of households consider themselves happy, and only one out of every 39 persons is very unhappy.