High Altitude Dilemma

It is an intriguing view from the high mountains of Bhutan. To the east lies Nepal, grappling large-scale environmental degradation. To the north and south, China and India, overwhelmed by the pressure of 2 billion people. Several examples of what Bhutan should not be. So what should it will itself to become? As unbelievable as it may sound in the age of the Internet, the tiny Himalayan kingdom has lived in a self-imposed exile for very long. Its natural resource base is still intact -- more than 70 per cent of the country's land area is under forests. But, modernisation threatens to despoil the rugged country and its rural economy -- more than 85 per cent of its 600,000 people derive a living from agriculture and related activities. The government, determined to save the traditions and culture of a timeless nation, has charted a national environmental strategy for sustainable development. But with "development" creeping in, will Bhutan find a different way ahead? A report by Mridula Chettri

Published: Saturday 30 September 2000

High Altitude Dilemma

 Picture perfect: Bhutanese ar (Credit: Aditya Patankr)On the road to destiny

The tradition-bound Himalayan kingdom readies itself to brace modernism

In 1958, when the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, went to Bhutan on a state visit, the only way he could reach the capital Thimpu was over land. He demanded to be met at the Indo-Bhutan border by someone equal or of a higher rank. The king or prime minister. Bhutan had no prime minister; and for the then king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, travelling 200 km from the capital to the border town Phuentsoling was unthinkable -- six days on mule and foot (one way).

Two things happened then: the monarch proclaimed his trusted aide Jigme Palden Dorji prime minister and Bhutan, with Indian aid, got its first road. Today, the drive through winding asphalt roads between the two cities takes a mere six hours. But many areas are still accessible only by mule tracks, foot trails and suspension bridges. In these places, horses, yaks and oxen continue to be the beasts of burden. Meanwhile, the roads -- some 3,200 km -- are maintained by the Indian Army. In fact, Indian presence in the small Himalayan kingdom is unmistakable: the sight of army vehicles carrying troops to the China border checkpoint, the craze for Bollywood matinee idols or savouring idli-vada in the army canteen midway between the two cities. Despite the influence of its neighbour India, one thing remains unsullied: its environment

Shadowed by the folds of the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan is a conservationist's dream come true. Snaky, swift rivers slice the fragile mountains. Verdant forests that shroud the mountains are home to over 50 species of rhododendron, some of which are among the 60 per cent of endemic plant species found in the entire Himalayan range. There are over 600 species of medicinal plants and an equally diverse fauna -- the golden langur ( Prebytis geei ), takin ( Budorcas taxicolor ) and red panda ( Ailurus fulgens ) being central to its 165-odd species. Though the exact number is indeterminate, some 770 avian species also share this land with its people.

Bhutan has been declared as one of the global hotspots for conservation of biological diversity. It's no small wonder: 72. 5 per cent (29,045 sq km) of the geographical area is under forest cover, of which 26.5 per cent comprise the nine national parks. Further, in 1995, the government decreed that the country must maintain 60 per cent of its forest cover for all time to come. "Given that 26.5 per cent of the total forest area falls under protected areas and 40 per cent is inaccessible, it is not a difficult task to maintain the forest cover," says a confident B B Chettri, head (social forestry), Forestry Services Division, ministry of agriculture ( moa ), Thimpu.

"Most of the species have remained undisturbed so Bhutan probably has the richest floral wealth in the Himalayan region," says Sangay Wangchuk, head of the Nature Conservation Section ( ncs ) in the Forest Services Division, responsible for conservation activities in the country. Currently in the process of formulating a Biodiversity Action Plan, the ncs has drawn up management plans for conservation of this natural treasure trove.

The ethnic Bhutanese people are of Mongoloid origin. Their distinct and unique traditions complement the pristine environment to form the last bastion of the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. Conservation being one of its central tenets, the people believe in preserving nature -- "giving back to the Earth what one has taken".

"The natural elements of the earth are seen as the abode of the gods and goddesses. We believe anyone who disturbs and pollutes their domain will be punished with death and disease," says Tshering Tashi, joint director, National Environment Commission ( nec ), a high level policy-making body that oversees cross-cultural activities related to environment.

The preservation of the country's rich biodiversity has been attributed to two factors: the strong ethic of the 600,000-odd Bhutanese and the astute leadership of the king Jigyme Singye Wangchuk. "Besides, policymakers are also very environment conscious. They keep going to other countries and see the evils of urbanisation for themselves. When they come back, they formulate policies which ensure that Bhutan does not repeat the mistakes that have been made," says Lam Dorjee, programme coordinator, Royal Society for Protection of Nature ( rspn ), a non-governmental organisation. The country's tourism policy, for instance, is one such policy dictated by the people's sentiments and the policymakers' will.

Kinlay Dorjee, country representative, Asia/Pacific Programme of the Worldwide Fund for Nature ( wwf )-Bhutan, recalls an incident that took place in the 1970s. "The government gave permission to trekkers to scale the snow-capped mountains. When the local people saw them treading on the mountains, which they consider sacred, they protested. The government was forced to chose between revenue and people's sentiments. They decided against the former," he says. "Now these mountains are the only unconquered mountains in the world and that is an attraction by itself (see box: No free visits, please! ).

Unfortunately, Bhutan's zealous desire to safeguard its culture has also led to international unpleasantries. "To guard its identity and ethnicity", 100,000-odd Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese citizens were evicted in 1990 from the kingdom. This unintentionally or otherwise opened their doors into the world of international politics and a lot of criticism, too.

Until the 1960s, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a name derived from the violent storms that rage down from the mountains, was masked in mystery. Almost half-a-century later, much has changed. In 1983, it got its first airport -- a narrow strip of land flanked by steep mountains and aside a river in Paro, one of the most picturesque valleys 65 km from the capital Thimpu. Postal and bank services were introduced gradually.

In 1986, it got its first newspaper -- the weekly Kuensel, which is published in three languages, English, Dzongkha and Nepali -- followed by the first satellite ground station in 1989. Even today television is mostly for video movies (there is no dearth of rental parlours in the capital). Almost a decade later, Internet came of 'age' in the country in June 1998, as part of the silver jubilee celebration of king's coronation. The kho for men and khira for women is a compulsory dress code. It is another matter that the dress code is adhered to mostly in northern Bhutan, even there they are cast aside by the younger lot for trendier stuff if it's a night out at the capital's discotheques.

Modernisation has been ringing incessantly on Bhutan's doors. But, as if putting conditions on its entry, the government has not opened its doors fully. It is still trying to "properly anticipate and fully prepare for" the assault. Most policymakers in Thimpu feel that the government has much to gain from modernisation but this could also erode the natural resources and centuries-old value system.

Rugged terrain, rural economy with limited scope for agriculture and scarcity of trained manpower is a precarious combination for a country like Bhutan. To top this, the population growth rate is ticking at an undesired 3.1 per cent per annum. At this rate, the population is expected to double in 20 years. The pressure on natural resources thus cannot be ignored. Other indicators are not impressive either. Life expectancy is only 66 years, while adult literacy is 46 per cent.

After much thinking under the direction of the monarch, it has zeroed in on the "middle path" for sustainable development -- raising the standard of living without compromising on the country's environment.

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