Thu, Oct 10, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Bhutan’s prime minister promotes hard work as the means to happiness

Bhutan’s first road was built 52 years ago and its infrastructure today is still inadequate. Tshering Tobgay wants the nation’s young people to embrace the idea of building up the nation themselves

By Gardiner Harris  /  NY Times News Service, THIMPHU, Bhutan

“The bottom line is that we have to work harder,” Tobgay said. “We need to grow our own food, build our own homes.”

He lamented that so many of Bhutan’s youth were voluntarily unemployed.

“If we can restructure the construction sector to make it more attractive, that should provide a lot of jobs,” he said.

The country’s major industries are hydroelectric power, which it exports to India, and tourism. While most of the population is still involved in subsistence farming, a growing number of people are abandoning their traditional single-family mud-and-wood homes in isolated villages and moving to the country’s towns and cities.

“Who wants to do subsistence farming and get up at four in the morning and carry water if you don’t have to?” asked Paljor Dorji, a member of the royal family and a longtime close adviser to the former king. “Once you educate the people, nobody is going to live the same miserable life their parents did.”

Between 2005 and last year, more than 1,300 apartment buildings were built in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and they now house nearly two-thirds of the city’s 116,000 residents.

Unlike most cities in South Asia, Thimphu is being developed within strict guidelines, which include adequate roads, sewers and schools. The city requires every building to incorporate elements from traditional Bhutanese architecture like pitched roofs, distinctive windows and upper-story projections, making the town feel like a downscale Vail, Colorado.

Thimphu is a pleasant walking city, with none of the chaotic warrens present in many Indian cities. Its people are cheerful, its merchants show none of the pushiness common in South Asia and even its stray dogs seem benign. There are no slums.

Tobgay has eliminated some of the restrictive customs enforced by the previous government, including occasional bans on vehicular traffic and a dress code requiring men to wear **ghos**, a dress-like, traditional garment. He acknowledged that preserving the country’s traditional culture would be challenging in an era of rapid urbanization.

Bhutan’s royal family is revered and criticism of royalty remains unthinkable. However, there is a lively national news media and the country’s many and growing democratic and educational institutions have made Bhutan the darling of development and nongovernmental funding organizations.

“Bhutan is an exceptional success story,” said Sekhar Bonu of the Asian Development Bank. “It’s a ray of hope in South Asia and it sets a new benchmark when we talk to other countries.”

Tobgay said one of his top priorities was to crack down on growing political corruption. The previous government was considering measures that would have weakened the country’s anti-corruption agency, but Tobgay, who has shunned his predecessor’s limousine and luxury accommodations, said that he planned to strengthen it.

“If corruption creeps in and takes root, we have had it,” Tobgay said. “We need to ensure that rule of law prevails.”

He plans to host a weekly call-in radio program, hold monthly news conferences and have public office hours when anyone can come and complain. He has a blog and a Twitter account and is active on Facebook.

“Friend me,” he said with a mischievous smile.

Thinley lobbied for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council, opened new embassies and held discussions with China; efforts that alarmed India. Tobgay has promised to end much of that international outreach.

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