Friday, December 30, 2011

Burning a 10 billion note

Last week I heard something very worrying. Our oil imports totals Nu. 10 billion (USD 200 million), which I am told is net profit from the hydropower exports. Five years ago, as a freelance columnist, I wrote this piece for Bhutan Times. I am afraid the fears I expressed then have sadly materialised.

Time to ponder seriously? You bet! If this 10 billion thing is true.  

Bhutan Times, Sept. 2007
Less oil, more thinking please

Thimphu has more cars than the total length of the road
A figure I saw on Kuensel, some issues back, stunned me for a moment – Nu. 2.1 billion (6% of GDP) spent on oil imports!  The report also states that the figure will increase in coming years as more vehicles get added to the already registered 30,000 vehicles in the country.  This I thought was more frightening.  Because as countries and multinational companies work towards reducing the dependence on petroleum we seem to be naively going headlong towards it.  Modern society is built on inexpensive fossil fuel (petrol, diesel, kerosene etc).  A simple example of the case in point is that if you look around or to yourself - the cloth that you are wearing, the shoes you are on or the soap that you had used this morning; everything has involved a petroleum product in one way or the other.  For production, for marketing or for transport to you as consumer.

Energy, or the lack of it, will be the defining issue for nations in this century and beyond.  The world is expecting another energy crisis.  Countries will go to war (if they have not gone already), companies will go to courts and communities will fight – all for the control of world’s limited energy.  Experts even speculate that ultimately nation’s sovereignty will be linked directly to how much this nation has control over its energy demands.  Many countries unfortunately do not have choice but to play on the whims of oil producing nations or companies.  One thing is clear – the era of cheap oil is gone.  And with India and China gulping more energy than anyone had predicted, oil price will only increase while the world’s production has peaked and oil wells are now slowing drying up.  Experts predict the price will rise to a level where ordinary citizens cannot afford.

Now bringing this global issue into Bhutan’s context, what does this mean?  It means the next world’s energy crisis will affect us very badly - unlike the last one.  The reason is simple – we have more cars now.  But there is one good news and, of course, one bad!  The good news is that with the harnessing of hydropower to the fullest, Bhutan will be one of the few countries that will be energy-independent and thereby relatively safe from global oil politics.  In fact thanks to India, we are already exporting surplus power which is becoming the mainstay of our national economy.  The bad news is that we are becoming, or we have already become, dependent on oil (Kuensel’s and RMA report say so).

So what do we do?  Obviously we cannot export electricity and at the same time become dependent on somebody’s energy.  Hence some serious rethinking needs to be done as to how we could use hydropower to meet our energy needs.  High time we set some short, mid and long-term goals on how much we can increase our dependence on hydro-power while reducing the demand for fossil fuels.  

First and foremost, however, we need to make the commercial power reliable for consumers.  It is a shame that we boast of exporting electricity but with a slight breeze or a drizzle there is a black-out.  Power grids have to be improved and distribution system has to be upgraded.  We cannot expect people to switch-on to radiator heaters if there is a power-cut on the day it snows.

Then a more serious consideration - the public transport system.  It is surprising that much-talked-about Thimphu Structural Plan (whoever did that) did not keep any provisions for electric trams, mono-rails or electric buses.  Thimphu’s population will definitely explode and with growing economic activities movements will increase.  There will be the need for mass rapid transport system.  Only with electric trams and rails can this be achieved.  Even if oil keeps flowing in, we cannot keep running our cars and buses.  Because every economic forecast for Bhutan predicts prosperity.  And prosperity would mean more cars which would ultimately lead to congestion of roads. 

Then the inter-city transport network.  Besides the widened Thimphu-Phuntsholing highway, we need to think of alternative transport system.  Phuntsholing and the other border towns are going to be linked to the Indian Railways network.  A narrow-gauge railway system inside the country is not an impossible dream.  If the British built the Darjeeling toy trains a century back, at least we Bhutanese, who claim to have defeated the British in a Duar war, can build a railway a century later.

Ropeway is another electric-driven eco-friendly technology.  This is of course nothing new.  I proposed this idea more than ten years back during the formulation of the Vision 2020 Document.  A ropeway ride from Thimphu to Punakha would, for example, need just one hour compared to the three-hour grueling drive.  Intermediary stations can be built on Dochula Peak, Talo and Nobgang.  Places like Gasa could well be connected with ropeways and cable cars.  Many Swiss and Italian resort towns have excellent facilities and may be a study-tour to these places would enlighten our planners and decision makers.

Finally, cars running on CNG are already on the road in India.  It is definitely a cheaper alternative than diesel or petrol cars.  Bangladesh has a huge reserve of natural gas and they want our electricity.  We could barter a win-win deal for both.  Solar energy is another source we could maximize.  Our houses need improved energy-retention techniques like double-glassed windows and ceilings.  We could even go back to mud walls which have better insulating properties than concrete.  My Japanese architect friend, Kaneko-san, has already built two such houses in Thimphu.

Whatever said and done, we need to think seriously, a little long-term and little out-of-the-box.  We need to shed off the “rugged-terrain-poor-country” mentality.  To start with we should stop buying, with public funds, Toyota Landcruisers that consumes a lot and pollutes even more.

Dorji Wangchuk is an independent filmmaker and media consultant and a guest columnist for Bhutan Times (

Saturday, December 17, 2011

National Day Address of HM the King

My fellow Bhutanese, it gives me great joy to speak to you on this auspicious occasion 104 years since Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck ascended the Throne, in 1907. Our nation has been blessed with the benevolent reigns of four monarchs since.

It is exactly five years since I became King. In these five years, we have made a successful transition to democracy. The elected government, bureaucracy and government agencies have implemented important development activities effectively and we have continued to achieve impressive socio-economic growth. Bhutan’s relations with other nations have grown more diverse and strong. I am extremely proud of these achievements and the people and I, are deeply grateful to the government, dratshang, civil service and private sector.

In October, I married Jetsun Pema. I am grateful for the warmth and affection with which, all our Bhutanese people came together to celebrate with me. I deeply appreciate the efforts and preparations made by the government, bureaucracy and volunteers; the prayers of the Zhung Dratshang and religious community; the good wishes and blessings of our senior citizens; the joy and happiness with which the youth embraced the occasion and the wholehearted love and support of the people of the 20 dzongkhags. The strength of your love and kindness towards me leaves me deeply humbled. As a young King, I have not yet been able to serve you as my father has done but my greatest desire is that I must repay your love, loyalty, support and trust. I pledge that it shall be my life-long endeavor to do so.

My dear citizens, while I am deeply satisfied with the progress of our nation, it is my duty as King to contemplate, every single day, on the challenges that lie ahead for our nation. My deepest concerns today are:

·      Democracy – we have made a unique transition to democracy. What makes this transition even more extraordinary is the short span of time within which we have done so. Yet, the true test shall be whether we have the will and commitment to sustain a well functioning and strong vibrant democracy for all time to come. Further, we have a strong, committed parliament today, but my worry is, in the future, whether our best and brightest people will come forward in order to serve the nation through politics. After all, for democracy to succeed, we will always need strong and capable people in parliament.

·      Education – the government over the decades has built schools in remote areas and trained teachers to man these schools. It has made immense efforts to build a strong education system. However, is the education our youth are receiving attuned to needs of the nation?  And once educated, will our children find employment and realize their full potential?

·      Corruption – will we allow it, as in so many developing countries, to spread throughout society and destroy everything? Or will we meet the challenge and overcome it no matter how difficult it might be? In fighting corruption, will we remember to also fight waste, unnecessary expenditure and complacency?

·      Self-reliance – how do we achieve a measure of self-reliance that will make our growth sustainable? How do we overcome our great dependence on imports, for example?

These are my concerns. But our people must be reassured that it is not only I, as King, who seeks the solutions to these problems. We have the government led by the prime minister, the civil service and members of parliament and local government, who shall all work together to address these challenges.

I am confident because our people are unique. Our people are proud citizens who love our country and take it as our sacred duty to serve the nation. As Bhutanese we have so many qualities to be proud of. The manner, in which we all were united in celebration of my wedding, is a symbol of the fraternity and brotherhood among our people. It is an auspicious sign, that we will always come together, in good times and bad, in the interest of our nation. We will always, together as one, defend and protect our nation. If we are able to preserve this strength of unity and harmony, we shall overcome all challenges that may come our way.

Before I conclude, in the spirit of national days past, I will present awards to those who have served our nation and people well.

I end with a prayer for our nation. That the sun of peace and prosperity may always shine on Bhutan – a nation blessed by the teachings of Lord Buddha – a Shangrila blessed by the great Guru Rimpoche  and founded by our revered and beloved parent Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – a country born from the labour of Jigme Singye Wangchuck and the people of Bhutan.

Tashi Delek!

Bhutanese media were conferred the Order of Merit (Gold)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Acceptance Speech at Keio University of HM King of Bhutan

Honorable President, 
Honourable Dean, 
members of the Faculty, 

I thank you for conferring this honour upon me and giving me this opportunity to speak to the students of this esteemed university.

My dear students,

I have been King, but for 5 years. I can only tell you my own thoughts and experiences and hope that you take away something from it.

In contemplating how to be a good King for Bhutan, I realized one thing very early on. This world we live in is forever changing – the speed and vastness of the change is astonishing. One decade is unrecognizable from the last. What we take for granted today, was not imagined yesterday.

Take for example – our mobile phones - don’t we all love our mobile phones? We use our phones to capture special moments in our lives, we text our friends and co-workers, it helps us to conduct our everyday business, we get to speak to our loved ones and receive emails at the same time- This ingenious technology has completely transformed the manner in which we communicate with each other, its contribution to democracy, enhancing cohesion in society, driving up our efficiency… all of which is truly invaluable. When I was growing up, the closest we got to imagine the existence of such technology let alone ever using one was watching science fiction movies such as Star Trek.

Can you imagine life without mobiles? It’s almost unimaginable. And yet in the near future something else will come to replace this way of life.

This is why - I keep thinking about what our generation is going to do. How are we going to tread this world during our time? What kind of footprints are we going to leave as our generation leaves this world to our, yet unborn children?

I feel – in such a world, of great diversity and change – one thing is clear. The independence and detachment of an individual is growing. In a technologically advanced world, the need to build small, genuine, human relationships is no longer strong. A global village we may have become, but with islands of individuals. We have the tools for communication such as the mobile phone, but not natural and intimate human bonds.

The problems facing the world today – they challenge all of us equally. And the solutions to these challenges must come from a real sense of concern and care for others, for all sentient beings and, for future generations. We must care about what happens to this earth. That requires something more than leadership, science or technology – it requires Values. Even as I simply glance through the statistics that reflect the condition of the world today, however accurate the information may be, it’s not a pretty picture:

First, lets talk about the environment:
If you listen to these numbers, it is alarming how reckless we have been and continue to be. Something as fundamental as the environment – the Earth – has been forsaken for profit: Glaciers are melting, polar ice caps are thinning and coral reefs are dying. Climate change threatens the well being of all mankind. Today our consumption of renewable natural resources is 50% larger than nature’s capacity to regenerate. Every second, rainforests the size of a football field disappear Water problems affect half of humanity.  It is quite clear now, that we will be handing to our children, a world which has been, in so many ways, made worse than when we inherited it.

Now, lets talk about poverty:
  • In a world that has seen unprecedented material growth – the richest countries and people are richer than ever before:
  • The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for only 5 percent of global income while the richest 20 percent get 75%
  • 24,000 children die each day due to poverty
  • About half of humanity – 3 billion people live in cities – of which 1 billion are confined to slums.
The problems of poorer countries and people are often worsened by corruption – which impedes economic growth and prevents the nurturing of strong and fair political systems – both of which are key to increasing the opportunities for the poor to improve their lives. In developing countries, bribes alone total $20 to 40 billion a year – imagine what it could do for health, education and economic opportunities for the poor.

Even in advanced nations, corruption has taken root – it is simply far more refined and sophisticated. Poverty brings hardship, suffering and untold misery. We have to be mindful that with such disparities come disharmony, conflict and ultimately instability on a global scale.

What about health?
  • 1 billion people lack access to proper health care
  • 11 million children under the age of 5 die every year from malnutrition and preventable diseases
  • 300 million suffer serious sickness due to malaria and 1 million die each year
  • 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS
Then there is the global economy:
  • The unpredictability and imperfect nature of legislations have caused instability and uncertainty in poorer countries affecting the already insecure livelihoods of their people
  • Coupled with military spending the world’s future is even more unpredictable and dangerous. World military expenditure in 2009 was estimated at $1.5 trillion or about $225 for each person in the world
  • The poor countries, most in need of resources are typically the ones with the weakest voice in how the global economy is shaped
Thus, we are only laying the groundwork for a world of inequality and resentment – of future conflict over resources and livelihoods – of continued strife, of terrorism and instability.  The list of global problems goes on and on. And coupled with the rapid growth of the world’s population – from 2 billion in 1930 to 7 billion today and 8 billion by the time we are in our mid-forties - each problem will be multiplied and made worse year by year.

I could summarize everything and put it simply – “The greatness of science and inventions, of great philosophers, of enterprise and industry has brought the world immeasurable benefits. Today we live a life far removed from that of our forefathers. Yet we face new and greater global challenges. Growth that overlooks inequality, injustice, environmental degradation, unbridled consumption is ultimately unsustainable. And it will continue to throw in humanity’s way greater problems, until the day, we will not be able to repair the damage.”

So what we do- when faced with such great challenges?

The solution to global problems will not just materialize from politics, from great leaders or from science and technology. The solution will come from us living as citizens of our communities, our societies, our countries and above all as citizens of the world. As citizens of the world, our unifying force – our strength must also come from something that is not bound by nation, ethnicity or religion – but from fundamental human values. Values of Compassion, Integrity and Justice. They are as old as mankind and we must bring ourselves to appreciate them and return them to their due place in our lives, our societies and in our governments.

My utmost hope is that our generation - with this unity of aspirations and values as human beings – and equipped with this huge arsenal of science and technology and the lessons of history - will seek the solutions, so desperately needed. I hope we will realize that we are at the cusp of a fundamental change of thought – a social revolution that will change the way humanity will pursue growth. Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth. And in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable.

The letter from the President states that the honorary doctorate is for my promotion of the philosophy of GNH. What is GNH? Well, it is nothing other than that approach to growth and development that I have just spoken of.

(My dear friends, let me repeat, our generation has to redefine the true purpose of growth. And since I know you are all students of economics I place on you the responsibility of finding this alternative growth path. You must approach this task with sincerity and great sense of responsibility but above all you must first be good and decent human beings).

In conclusion – I pray that you, my dear friends, will find wisdom, courage and determination to overcome challenges and grasp opportunities; to give you a moral compass towards honorable lives. I pray that at the end of it all, you will all be able to look back at extraordinary lives free of regret and full of satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment. And that I will learn, year after year, with great pride, of all the good you have done as simple human beings.

Thank you, my dear friends, thank you!

(His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was conferred Honourary Doctorate in Economics by the Keio University (Tokyo) for the promotion of philosophy of Gross National Happiness)