Recently, I was in Thimphu, Bhutan to participate in the meeting of the Forum of Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) as head of the Indian delegation and also to hand over the chairmanship of the FEMBoSA to the chief election commissioner of Bhutan. My earlier visit to Bhutan was in 2005 — when I was joint secretary, ministry of home affairs — to participate in the Indo-Bhutan bilateral cooperation meeting. This was before democracy was introduced in Bhutan in 2008. As a result, this visit was quite interesting. The socio-economic and infrastructural transformation has been remarkable. The political landscape has also undergone a remarkable change from monarchy to democracy.
The democratisation of the erstwhile kingdom has been a long time coming. The kingdom of Bhutan, like the northeastern region of India, has ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences. Therefore, the changeover to democracy was opportune. Democratic countries do well in political participation and human rights protection, as also in socio-economic development, to meet the aspirations of various groups — ethnic as well as social. It is the best tool and guarantor of peace and stability, which are the foundations of economic and social development.
Earlier, Paro and Thimphu used to be simple, serene and eco-friendly, and one saw few high-rises there. The airport city of Paro was dotted with some traditional buildings. It was the same in Thimphu, where multistorey buildings above 15 metres (47 feet) were negligible in number. Most homes and hotels in Thimphu were built in the traditional Bhutanese style.
However, today the whole valley in Thimphu has been transformed into multistorey buildings, including hotels and commercial complexes. It has become the hub of both commercial and business activities in the country, apart from government establishments. One is pleased to see business and trade continue, jostling late in the evening in the town full of local shoppers and foreign tourists .
Thimphu has decidedly and radically changed into a modern, vibrant and dynamic city. One concern would be that, since the Thimphu valley has a limited space and plain area, unless the government adopts a proper masterplan for its development, it will turn into a concrete jungle with limited open space and greenery, once its hallmark. The capital had a lot of greenery around it, but due to development and the creation of urban infrastructure as well as the inflow of local citizens, it has started to disappear. This needs to be arrested. This is the bane of many such cities around the world.
In the political arena too, the new democratic kingdom has come a long way. The first election of 2008 was a watershed; the last general election of July 2013 went off peacefully. The kingdom uses around 5,000 Indian-made EVM machines to elect 72 parliamentarians, both to the Upper House and Lower House. Voters are satisfied with the EVMs and feel that the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), recently introduced in India, could also be used in Bhutan in the near future.
Fortunately, I could attend the closing ceremony of Bhutan’s National Assembly on October 1, where the king was ceremonially present. It was an interesting and solemn affair, where both the ruling party and the opposition sit together in the National Assembly without any distinction, unlike other democracies where they have separate sitting arrangements for the treasury and opposition. During the one-hour ceremony, I observed a tremendous feeling of goodwill and bonhomie. It was followed by high tea in the open courtyard, where everyone wished each other in the spirit of friendship despite their political differences. This is unique. I hasten to add that the pursuit of gross national happiness, their mission and vision, could be seen at this social and communal gathering.
One thing that was heartening for me was the loyalty and affection towards India shown by Bhutanese officials. They are candid in their admission that India is a great country in terms of size, resources and capacity. They look upon India as a source of strength and support, admitting that Bhutan cannot offer much except its loyalty and cooperation. They expect India to reciprocate in a similar manner. They feel that the government of India should respond to their requests, that projects and programmes undertaken by the Indian government in their country should be attended to on a priority basis and in a responsible manner, so that mutual benefits accrue to the people of both countries.
A specific area that could be jointly managed by India and Bhutan is improving tourism between our two countries. I still remember the 2004 offer of a few enterprising youths from Myanmar and Manipur, who were keen to start eco- and religious tourism between Myanmar, India and Bhutan through the Moreh checkpost (in Manipur). In those days, the plan was to bring both eco- and religious tourists to India to visit the Kaziranga and Manas sanctuaries in Assam and then proceed to Thimphu. After halting for a few days in Thimphu, they would visit the monasteries and then return by road to Jaldapara sanctuary, Bagdogra and Kolkata.
Bhutan offers a big opportunity for both religious and eco-tourism. Important places like Bumthang, Gangtay, Gasa, Dagala hold attractions for religious-minded people of all ages. These places are dotted with age-old monasteries, where people can spend days together in search of peace, tranquillity and spirituality.
Unfortunately, this plan could not be developed because of certain bilateral factors and legal issues. However, the door is still open to try again.
The writer is election commissioner of India. Views are personal
This Article first appeared here