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

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

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.

Three avenues, one goal

Food for thought: farmers livi (Credit: Phal Girota / Picture Library<)In 1990, senior government officials gathered at Paro to draft broad parameters for the country's development agenda. The conclusion was the "Paro Resolution on Environment and Sustainable Development", a statement that redefined sustainability in the Bhutanese context. It read as, "The capacity and the political will to effectively address today's development and environmental problems and tomorrow's challenges without compromising Bhutan's unique cultural integrity and historical heritage or the quality of life of future generations of Bhutanese citizens." But given that the country had very little experience to draw from, formulating proactive measures was not an easy task.

nec set about the task to identify the economic avenues that would enable Bhutan to pursue "the middle path" to sustainable development. In 1993, it set up the nes task force to investigate the avenues and judge their environmental implications. The findings were finally released in 1998. To achieve sustainable development, nes focuses on hydropower, food production and industry. "The nes examines each avenue in detail and analyses the effects of development on the culture, tradition and religion," says Kunzang Dorji, deputy director (information, communication and outreach division) nec.

The nes is the first step towards sustainable development. Now, the challenge lies in formulating a National Environment Action Plan to guide its implementation.

Water: Bhutan's "white gold"
For a country that did not have electricity till 1964, when the first diesel generators were installed, fuelwood along with kerosene is a major source of energy especially for domestic purposes. Now hydroelectricity is assuming the leading role and, given the severe limitations posed by the mountainous nature of the country's topography, it is considered the most promising of the three avenues of development.

It was in 1967 that Bhutan started setting up mini-hydel projects with India's assistance. By 1996, there were 21 such projects scattered all over the country. The first major hydel project, the 336-mw Chukha Hydropower Project, came onstream only in 1986. This was followed by two medium-sized projects -- the Kurichhu (45 mw) and Bashochuu (60.8 mw) -- and a major project, the Tala (1,020 mw), which are still under construction. The government has also planned three large projects, the Sankosh (4,060 mw), Wangchhu (900) and Bunakha (180 mw), but they are in the preliminary stage.

Much of the development of Bhutan's hydropower is being done with India's assistance. The Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited-built Chukha project, for instance, was commissioned in 1986 as part of an understanding between the Indian and Bhutanese governments. Most of the power generated is sold to India.

As of 1996, hydropower accounted for one-third of the annual foreign revenue earned by the country, though only 2 per cent of the total 20,000 megawatt potential had been tapped.

"With a 20,000 megawatt (mw) capacity, hydropower is Bhutan's white gold," says Dasho Nado Rinchen, deputy minister, nec . "We know that this area is a great revenue-generating area and also a relatively eco-friendly source of energy," he adds. Emphasis on tapping the water potential, therefore, is a priority area.

Given the fragile nature of the terrain, run-of-the-river projects are considered ideal. "The narrow gorges are ideal for this kind of power generation," says Tshering Tashi. "Unlike other countries that have invested heavily in large dams, there are no plans for multi-purpose dams in Bhutan. Hence, Bhutan's plan to harness water is in keeping with environmental concerns. Since most of the projects are run-of-the-river projects, very little environmental problems or conflicts with people are expected," avers Rinchen.

Unfortunately, though the country generates more than 350 mw of electricity annually, with the exception of major towns, most of the country is yet to be electrified. The cause of cause of concern is fuelwood consumption. Fuelwood still accounts for 75 per cent of the domestic energy needs, making the country one of the highest per capita consumers of fuelwood in the world -- 1.2 tonnes per year. The first casualty from the very high demand for fuelwood for domestic purposes is the country's forests, which range from the tropical hardwoods in the south to the blue pine and birch at altitudes up to 4,000 metres. But given the prohibitive costs involved in extending the grid lines across the rugged terrain to inaccessible areas, the government sees micro-mini hydel projects, initiated in the 1980s, as the logical alternative for the overwhelming rural majority.

Food sufficiency: an uphill task
"In the four decades of planned development, food self-sufficiency has greatly improved. By the end of the 8th five year plan, we hope to achieve 70 per cent sufficiency -- 5 per cent up from the current level," says Pelzang Wangchuk, national project manager, land use and statistics section, policy and planning division, moa . But there are many constraints in achieving food self-sufficiency.

More than 85 per cent of the people are dependent on agriculture and other related activities, yet as of 1995 they accounted for only 38 per cent of the gross domestic product. Worse, cultivated areas account for a mere 7.8 per cent of the geographical area. Most of the land holdings are small and often in isolated patches. With transport facilities still in the nascent stage, most of the farmers integrate their activities to be self-sufficient. For centuries, this has been the way of life. Traditional land use classification include sok-shing that is use of leaf-litter, fodder and dry litter from public wood lots, and tsamdro , grazing of pasture land on a rotational basis in the mountainous region of north Bhutan.

But with modernisation has come about a change in consumption pattern. "Consumption has changed to a large extent, particularly in eastern Bhutan. Rice has replaced maize as the main diet. Land suitable for crops which require less water is used to cultivate water-intensive crops," says Wangchuk. At the same time, the population is ticking at the rate of 3.1 per cent per annum. The emergence of non-farming communities also cannot be overlooked. Nor can the fact that the country has very little arable land to begin with. Given the circumstances, does increasing food sufficiency entail bring forest land under the plough?

Keeping all these constraints in mind, says Wangchuk, there are two aspects of food self-sufficiency that need to be considered. Firstly, development and distribution of high-yielding varieties ( hyv ) of crops. "Many hyv crops such as paddy, maize and potatoes are already reaping benefits for farmers across the country. You have to follow it up with appropriate modern technology so that the yield is higher from the same plot of land," he says. Secondly, reclaim waste/dry land and regenerate them. The yield from such land will improve in subsequent years.

Rinchen is also of the same view: "Instead of looking for new land, what should be encouraged is intensive farming, increasing use of manure, introduction of hyv and pest management practices." The moa has an extensive network of people working at the block and village levels. Comprising agricultural experts, forestry experts and so on, the extension officers, provide assistance and education to the local people. "We know we cannot be wholly self-sufficient in food grains, but we can strive to increase self-sufficiency," says the minister.

hyvs is a package, which encompases the use of more water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides -- in other words, the Green Revolution which in course of time has turned sour in India. Does increase in food entail the same for Bhutan? There is no clear answer. But says Chencho Norbu, head, Soil and Plant Analytical Laboratory, Semtokha, "As of now, the agricultural practices followed across the country are still traditional. The main input has always been farmyard manure and its use has continued. Nowhere has it been replaced by chemical fertilisers, except perhaps apple orchards."

Use of fertilisers also depends on whether villages are connected by roads. "Farmers living in accessible areas use more fertilisers," says Norbu, but they, too, have realised the difference in the taste of the crops grown using chemical fertilisers." He adds that, in some areas, fertilisers are used in combination with farmyard manure, but there is no exclusive dependence on fertilisers. "Bhutan is one of the lowest consumers of chemical fertilisers in the world," he says.

As far as the regulations concerning pesticide consumption is concerned, the country's National Assembly has recently endorsed the Pesticides Act of Bhutan, 2000. This lays down a comprehensive set of specifications on the manufacture, import, sale, licensing, use, monitoring and seizure of pesticides in the country. The Act aims to ensure integrated pest management, limited use of pesticides, keep control on the types and quality of pesticides and provide for their effective use. A board comprising researchers and professionals from the renewable natural resources sector will be established to oversee the implementation.

Industries: limited development
Expanding the industrial base is recognised as the third avenue of economic development. "But it will be limited and gradual because we want to avoid anything that may destroy the ecology in the long run," says Rinchen. Moreover, the economic viability of any industrial project is an important consideration.

According to Rinchen, the government is encouraging industrial growth where: raw materials can be sourced from the country itself; there is a demand for the product both in the domestic market and neighbouring countries such as India and Bangladesh; and it is not highly-polluting. In this context, before establishing the industry, it is important to carry out an environmental impact assessment ( eia ).

Currently, industrial development is based on four main resources -- hydropower, wood, agriculture and minerals. The thrust is expectedly on hydropower. There is a potential in agro-based industries but "we has not done much to promote the industry", says Rinchen. In recent years, the growth in industrial sector has come from mineral-based activities. However, says Rinchen, "Mining should be conducted only for high-value minerals. The nec is not in favour of mining. Reclamation of mined areas is mandatory but miners say that the lease period given by the government is too less to undertake such an activity. The nec has suggested that the lease period be extended and a certain portion of the period be earmarked only for reclamation."

Because of the proximity to raw materials and a ready market (in India), the country's major industries are located in the south or southwest. These industries include particle board, calcium carbide, ferro-silicon and cement. Says Rinchen, "Some of these industries have been found to be highly polluting." Hence, for the first time in the country, the nec recently carried out an extensive eia of all the industries in the country, which is yet to be made public. Depending on the nature of the problem, the industrial units will be tackled, says Rinchen, adding: "We are ready to help the industries concerned to take necessary action."

Challenges ahead
So far, so good. But a host of problems are expected in the near future, especially while making inroads in the development of the three economic avenues. While hydropower expansion entails maintaining the country's forest cover, food sufficiency and industrialisation may mean eating up a part of the forests. However, says Rinchen, "The change that the government wants to bring about is not as drastic as it may sound and I am confident these issues will be resolved."

"I suggest that some amount of the revenue generated be earmarked for development of catchment areas. All kinds of activities -- such as logging, grazing and encroachment -- should be banned in these areas," says Tshering Tashi. "There should also be specific watershed management plans for all the rivers. Currently, there is one for Wang river watershed, which encompasses four districts of Paro, Thimpu, Haa and Chukha, but in the future we should have separate ones," he says.

Bhutan is also yet to evolve a land use plan, says Chencho Norbu. "At present, some areas may be arable but are under forests or vice versa. So we need to look into these issues. Once this is done, we will get an answer to all the conflicts," he says. Besides, everything should be backed by data and it is the duty of the policymakers to take care of these issues, he adds.

Lam Dorjee of rspn feels the only way for controlling the conflict is to stick to the policy of maintaining 60 per cent forest cover. "The returns from hydropower should also be pumped to regenerating land. There has to be a limit on bringing more land under cultivation also. The idea should be to enhance farming technologies," he says. "At the same time, it is essential to maintain the forests on a sustainable basis -- by harvesting on a rotational basis, for instance," says Sangay Thinley, secretary, moa .

To aid in its "middle path" development, the government has also set up the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation ( btf ). Established in March 1991 as an innovative financing mechanism, btf is aimed at helping Bhutan conserve its environment "despite the pressure of modernisation". The primary donor to btf is the Global Environment Facility. Other donors include Switzerland, Denmark, wwf and the Netherlands.

Making a beginning

Some places in western Bhutan< (Credit: National Environment Commissio)With modernisation has come the pressure on the forests. Though almost three-fourths of the country is still covered by dense foliage, the demands from a growing population can put unprecedented demands on them. Be it for construction, fuelwood consumption, infrastructure development, it cannot be underestimated. At the same time, 60 per cent of land under forests have to be maintained for all time to come. So how does the government plan to tackle the growing demands?

"There are a lot of places in Bhutan where people unknowingly use valuable trees, such as oak, as fuelwood. They should be made aware of their worth," says Petri Lehtonen, senior forestry specialist, indufor Oy, Finland. To make the people aware of all this as well as to empower them, the government has embarked on community/social forestry programmes. "However, the concept of community management of forests is not very old. Since forests are in plenty, and the population is very small, the need to conserve forest resources has never been felt. But now we are introducing community forestry," says B B Chettri. "However, I am unsure of the basic objective -- management or utilisation of forest resources," he adds.

The confusion about community or social forestry among forest officials, many of whom were trained in India, is apparent. However, Jean-Claude Balcet, senior agricultural economist, Rural Development South Asia Region, feels that though the effort made by the government cannot be overruled, there is a lot more to do. The World Bank and Swiss development Organisation is carrying out a joint (forestry) mission in Mogar district, one of the components of which is social forestry. "There has not been much progress because social forestry rules have not been passed. Traditional rights are very strong and so are the government's conservation plans," she says.

Balcet cites the example of Khaling Kharchungla forest management user village where the people openly protested against the government's conservation plan. Retaliates Sangay Wangchuk, "There may be isolated cases of people resenting conservation efforts, we cannot generalise."

"If we want to protect the forests, we know we have to empower the local people. They should be brought in and in fact presence of forest officials much be reduced. But all this cannot be done overnight. It took Nepal decades to successfully manage their forests," defends Sangay Thinley.

The government is also planning to bring in all the forests under a scientific managed plan. "Earlier, there was an ad hoc harvesting system. It was need-based. Now there are rules and regulations for harvesting," says B B Chettri. " All the forest areas will be brought under scientific management practices within 20 years," says D B Dhittal, head, forest resources development section, forestry services division, moa . "We map the area and prepare land use maps, devise our cutting patterns, among other things. In some areas, we target conservation of a particular animal specie and create buffer zone," he adds.

There is a timber pricing policy also. The government has banned export of timber and is expected to ban export of semi-finished wood products. Within the country, an auction takes place where all the bidders are government-recognised agencies. "The overall purpose is not to generate revenue, but to meet the local demands and sustainability of forest resources," says Tashi Geley, divisional manager, Wang division, Forest Development Corporation ( fdc ), Thimpu.

To further regulate timber prices and supply, moa recently announced some measures, which include increasing the number of forest management units, establishment of three sawmills, which will be operated by fdc . The new announcement came in the wake of a study of the timber price and supply following implementation of the Revised Timber Pricing and Marketing Policy in January 1999.

Though all forest areas are state-owned, the people still maintain traditional rights to forest resources. "Apart from collection of minor produce, every Bhutanese citizen is entitled to timber at concessional rates -- as low as Rs 10 per tree for conifer and Rs 30 for broad leaf. In summer, they can apply to the forest department. By December they are given the logs. But in case of emergency, they are able to get the supply the same day itself. The procedure may be lengthy but there is no red-tapism. It moves very fast," says Dhittal.

Integrating parks with people
There are nine national parks in the country but, unlike India, the government, has recognised the indigenous rights of people. "People have continued living in the parks and meeting their basic needs. They follow their traditional cropping practices. There are schools inside the parks and life has been going on. So there is no need to displace them in the name of conservation," says Kinlay Dorjee of wwf . "In the long run, we ( ngo s) would like some kind of concept where national park management will be managed by the local people alone. They should be given autonomy but this will take some time, at least 10 years," he says.

"Their way of life was in any case eco-friendly even when there was no presence of the state. This we can attributed to the Buddhist way of living -- just take what you need, don't destroy anything else. Hence, conservation is much easier for us. We don't have to work as hard as our counterparts," says Sangay Wangchuk.

It is true that in some cases, people have questioned the need for conservation. But, says Wangchuk, various other schemes such as rural credit and communication facilities given by the government have made them realise that no harm is meant. "This understanding has even reduced the conflict between foresters and communities," he says.

"Conservation is a hindrance to development, which is the case elsewhere because it entails rules/enforcement, working with the communities. One has to give equal weightage to both conservation and development," says Lam Dorjee. Phobjikha in Wangdue district is one place where rspn along with undp and the government is trying to integrate the two in the conservation of the endangered black-necked crane ( Grus nigricollis ), which migrates from Tibet to Bombdiling in Yangtse district and Phobjikha in western Bhutan in the winter months.

"A year back, people living in four blocks in Phobjikha set up a committee to make a safe habitat for the cranes while earning from eco-tourism at the same time. The committee has now banned people from going near roosting areas, local people have been trained as guides for tourists and all the earnings are used for village development activities," says Seeta Giri, national project officer, United Nations Development Fund -Bhutan. "I do not know how this will work in the future, but as of now it seems favourable," says Lam Dorjee.

If there is one thing the forest officials loathe is the livestock because the "huge herds of cattle eat small plants and saplings". Since the livestock population is very high, some have even suggested culling of animals. "The pragmatic solution would be to stall feed," says D B Dhittal. Animals owned by nomadic communities are a nuisance, others can be tackled, he says. But because people have traditional grazing rights, it is difficult to impose a ban. "In the area between Paro and Ha, the forest cover has gone down by 50 per cent. The trend may change with awareness of the adverse impacts of grazing, but there is no immediate solution," he says. Tshering Tashi suggests taxing families who have more than a stipulated number of animals.

Proactive planning

T he challenges that Bhutan is faced with are indeed daring, but rather than taking corrective measures, one cannot deny the fact that the government is taking proactive steps to mitigate the evils of development. For instance, air pollution. Though not of the proportion Indian metros like New Delhi are faced with, there is no time for complacency in Thimpu, one of the most congested cities in Bhutan (see box: Heavy air ).

"Sustainable livelihood is important but to do that without good governance is difficult. And in Bhutan, we have the necessary political will," Seeta Giri . Sangay Wangchuk feels the same. "The realisation that conservation is necessary is backed by a lot of political will. This is why we are optimistic about maintaining it," he says.

In order to make people actively participate in the development process, in 1981, the government of Bhutan set up district development committees ( dzongkhag yargay tshochung-dyt s) in all the 20 districts of the country. It comprised a total of 560 elected members, all of whom have important planning and programming respon-sibilities. Further, in 1991, block development com-mittees ( gewog yargay tshochung ) -- headed by elected representatives called gups -- were introduced, with responsibilities for the planning, management and implementation of development activities at the lowest administrative level.

The decentralisation process was personally introduced and promoted by the king. Since the Fifth Five-Year Plan, considerable headway has been made in strengthening dyt s. The current Eight Five-Year Plan aims to spread the same to the block-level. "We are in the process of identifying blocks which merit recognition to begin the process in the first phase itself," says Pelzang Wangchuk.

undp is also giving prime importance to decentralisation. "People had got so used to someone else deciding for them that the new process is definitely going to bring about a change," says a positive Seeta Giri. "With decentralisation, we feel that the local people will be able to voice environmental issues in the planning process at a higher level," hopes Kunzang Dorji .

Besides, says Kinlay Dorjee of wwf , "As part of the government's decentralisation programme, we are trying to form a village-level committee to discuss development issues and planning. The idea is to develop a committee of foresters/government representatives/local people to chart an annual work plan."

"The government policy is so pro-conservation that in terms of environment and development, Bhutan is in a unique situation. And policymakers have stressed time and again that legislation is important in the choices that are made," he says.

"The essence of everything we do is pre-emptive, rather than fighting the problem," says Sangay Wangchuk. The government's policy to ban the use of plastic is one such move. Despite any incidence of plastic causing a menace in the country, the government learnt about problems elsewhere and under the guidance of rspn banned its use (see box: Plastic ban ).

Lam Dorjee sums up what's in people's mind: "We think beyond the country's border. It is a pride for Bhutan to see clean water from our rivers entering another country." If the people's will is strong and it is backed by the will of the policymakers, too, there is no reason to believe that the spoils of modernisation will tarnish the green image of the Himalayan kingdom wedged between the China and India.

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