IN 1979, BHUTAN’S THEN KING, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) during an interview with the Indian media. It took till April 1987 before the Fifth Druk Gyalpo’s now-eponymous societal philosophy became known to the Western world when Financial Times, London, interviewed him about why Bhutan’s development was crawling ahead compared to development in Nepal and Thailand.
Today, we all know where Nepal and Thailand stand vis-a-vis Bhutan in the Human Development Index. Even a quarter century ago, the very idea that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” took hold of Bhutan’s citizens as immediately as it did the rest of the world in search of a new benchmark of progress. But decades have passed since GNH was enshrined as the country’s governing philosophy, and things change; today, the country’s youth, who form a significant percentage of the population—21.5 percent are 15-24 years old (UN’s World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision)—are yearning to be part of a global mainstream that the concept of traditional GNH might find unequipped to address.
And this yearning is reflected in the casual, often blithe, way the Bhutanese are looking at and embracing change. Television and the Internet have been accessible here only since June 1999, and were introduced despite widespread fears that their “controversial” content such as fashion shows, Western music, WWF wrestling and pornography could destroy the kingdom’s traditional way of life based on unique Buddhist principles. (In fact, when welcoming media into the country, Jigme Singye Wangchuck had cautioned his people that this modern technology could be “both beneficial as well as negative for the individual and the society”.)