It was the world’s last hold-out against television and is regarded by travelers as a Shangri-la, but Bhutan’s decision to make itself the poster boy for electric transport is further proof of its willingness to embrace technology as part of its unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) development model, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said.
In an interview after signing a deal with Nissan on Friday to import a fleet of battery-powered compact cars to the remote Himalayan nation, Tobgay said Bhutan was happy to be at the technological vanguard.
“Technology is not destructive. It’s good and can contribute to prosperity for Bhutan,” the prime minister said.
It was not always like this. The tiny kingdom was famously the last country to ever get television, finally embracing it in 1999, at a time when less than a quarter of households had electricity.
However, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as a technophobe — it now exports electricity thanks to an ambitious hydropower program, while smartphones are a common sight, at least on the streets of the sleepy capital.
“Internet, cellular phones, smartphones, they are ubiquitous, you can’t do anything without them, now they are essential tools,” Tobgay said. “Cellular phones became a reality 10 years ago. We adopted it very well, almost everybody has a cellular phone, that’s the reality.”
“Similarly today we launched the Nissan Leaf... Our goal is to make the best of all options,” he added.
In the deal with Nissan, dozens of battery-powered Leafs should soon be motoring along the streets of Thimpu, helping it avoid the kind of pollution pervasive elsewhere in South Asia.
Tobgay said Bhutan would never allow its environment to become a victim of economic growth — an important principle of Gross National Happiness.
“Growth is important, but it should be balanced with other aspects of life including culture, spirituality, heritage and sustainable development,” the prime minister said.
“During the development of the last 30 to 40 years, we placed a lot of emphasis to promote the environment, clean industries. We are looking to become 100 percent organic, [although] it will take some time,” Tobgay said. “And we are looking to develop a zero emission goal. This formulates a narrative of Bhutan, about what Bhutan is about and where Bhutan wants to go.”
Tobgay, who came to power in July last year after winning Bhutan’s second elections, has previously voiced a degree of skepticism about the happiness metric — a philosophy originally espoused by a former king — as a distraction from tackling the country’s problems.
However, in his interview, the prime minister said addressing issues such as corruption, unemployment and the environment would allow Bhutan to practice what it preaches.
“GNH should guide us, this philosophy should not be compromised,” he said. “But my stance has been that rather than talking about the GNH and debate the philosophy, we have to operationalize it.”
With a population of 750,000, Bhutan is in many ways a study in contrasts with its giant neighbors India and China, with their billion-plus populations and mega-cities.
Despite its stunning scenery, few tourists can afford to pay the US$250 daily rate to visit the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”
The nation’s abundant waterfalls and crystal-clear rivers have allowed Bhutan to become a significant player in the hydropower sector.