Bhutan and Modernization

In the early 1960s, development came to Bhutan, when the country opened her doors to the world for the first time in history. Until then, Bhutan was a country enshrouded in mystery, untainted by any foreign influence or international trade. Even today, much of the country’s culture and tradition and the environment are still thriving. What has sustained Bhutan is its vision to be a self-reliant country where its rich legacy of culture and tradition are intact and people live in harmony with nature and the environment.

In 1961, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, Bhutan opened its doors to the outside world. The Wangchuck dynasty led Bhutan into an era of peace, stability and order. Under the monarchy, sweeping reforms were initiated abolishing serfdom, creating an independent judiciary, and building the social and economic infrastructure of a modern state. In addition, the monarchy established representative institutions at all levels of Government to enable popular participation in the governance of the Kingdom. The most profound change took place in 1998 when His Majesty the King dissolved his Cabinet and devolved all executive authority and power to an elected Council of Ministers. These elected Council Ministers would serve for five-year terms. The forth King also established a mechanism for a vote of confidence in the King whereby the National Assembly can remove a Monarch by a two-thirds majority vote. The institution of monarchy thus has been instrumental in modernizing the Kingdom. Within a remarkably short span of time without undermining the country’s rich religious and cultural heritage and has enabled Bhutan to occupy its rightful place in the comity of nations.

Only in the late 1950s did modernization of the economy began with the establishment of a communications infrastructure, together with the social infrastructure of schools and hospitals. The per-capita GDP in 2000 was US$ 712.8 (Statistical Yearbook of Bhutan 2001), even though economic growth fell to a still-robust 5.7% from 7.4% in 1999. Despite the growth of ‘modern’ sectors, in particular hydropower generation and manufacturing, the Bhutanese economy remains based on renewable natural resources, with 79% of the population engaged in farming, animal husbandry and agro-forestry. In addition, to hydropower, tourism plays an extremely important role as an economic generator.

Under His Majesty’s distinctively Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), environmental conservation is one of the four pillars for steering the process of change. This approach gauges development not only in terms of income growth but also views development in terms of happiness, contentment and the spiritual and emotional well being of the people. GNH illustrates a holistic approach to development through equitable socioeconomic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and the strengthening and exercise of good governance.

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