Journalist Gopilal Acharya spoke with Bhutan’s new Prime Minister Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering on behalf of the South Asian Monitor. Tshering’s party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), swept the polls on October 18, winning 30 of the 47 constituencies in Bhutan’s third National Assembly (Lower House) election. The new government officially assumed office on November 7.
SAM: One of main campaign promises, possibly the biggest, is DNT’s commitment to diversify Bhutan’s economy. How would you go about doing this?
PM: Yes, our manifesto clearly states that we need to diversify our economy. Up until now we have frequently talked about all our eggs being in one basket (with regard to Bhutan’s concerted investment in the hydropower sector). This has been our concern ever since we started investing in hydropower, and this, I am sure, is also the concern of the Indian government. Our friends in India are concerned about the wellbeing of the Bhutanese as well as the socio-economic growth of the country. And this is something unique about our relationship with India.
When it comes to the economic front, India is not dictating us what to do, instead it is what we ask them to do.
No country would like to have all eggs in one basket, and all countries would like to diversify their economy. When it comes to the economic front, India is not dictating us what to do, instead it is what we ask them to do. India has always listened to our requests. Hydropower is something we initiated and it’s something we would like to strengthen. India’s approach has been very clear—let’s know how we can help you, and we’re here are to help you.
At the end of the day, economic prosperity should translate into happiness of the people. In the next five years, in whatever we do, I will make sure we strike a good balance between economic development and social wellbeing of our people. I will ensure the balance between GDP and GNH.
Hydropower has been a big chapter of our economy, and that will stay. In addition to that, we must enhance the tourism sector by diversifying its services and products. As an agrarian country, we will emphasise on agriculture. We must move from subsistence to commercial farming. The private sector, as a major employment-provider, needs more development. All these have also been there in the agendas of past governments.
SAM: Is there a roadmap being developed for this?
PM: We will develop the roadmap. We will revisit all the existing rules and regulations, policies and laws, and see what is hindering the processes. We will then bring in appropriate corrective measures, identify appropriate resources, look for the needed brains in particular sectors, and match-make what we have in our hands. The DNT government will provide all the necessary policy support and in return will expect support from all the sectors. We need to work together in a wholesome way.
SAM: Economic diversification means improvement in transport network, transit and connectivity, customs and data exchange, border trade and infrastructure, among others. In this light, would the DNT government consider engaging with the sub-regional bloc BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) more closely?
PM: The upfront answer is yes. We must engage with our neighbours. At the same time, rapid development is not what we should be aiming for. It should instead be sustainable development. We must keep the long-term interest of the country in mind. If all the components of BBIN are sustainable, if they are good for the country, then why not engage with them. From what it seems, most of the components of BBIN will lift our GDP. But if what BBIN promises were not in the interest of Brand Bhutan, in the interest of Gross National Happiness, then I would think twice about it. At the end of the day, economic prosperity should translate into happiness of the people. In the next five years, in whatever we do, I will make sure we strike a good balance between economic development and social wellbeing of our people. I will ensure the balance between GDP and GNH.
People are branding us as anti-rich, which is absolutely wrong. If people get rich through fair means, we have absolute support to that. But getting richer by unfair means is something we will not tolerate.
SAM: With the outlay of Nu 308 billion, the 12th Plan is the most ambitious of the five-year plans so far. How do you intend to mobilise such huge resources?
PM: I would like to caution you on the words ‘very ambitious’. Yes, going by the outlay, this is the biggest plan so far. But you must remember that when I was in school, I used to get five packets of chewing gum for one ngultrum (the ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee at par). Today, one packet of chewing gum costs five ngultrums. In the past, some five-year plans were budgeted at a few hundred million ngultrums, and today it is coming to a few hundred billion. We must remember that our economy has changed, and so has the value of money. By this standard, Nu 300 billion is not that ambitious. The outlay is reasonable.
Coming to the resource part, we have many development partners, India being the biggest. However, you must also appreciate the fact that over the years, a considerable chunk of the five-year plan budget has been met from internal revenue. What we are not able to meet from our internal resources, we will look from our development partners, and India always champions in that. This is what I would call a good relationship. For the 12th Plan we hope to raise nearly 80% of the budget from internal resources.
SAM: How do you explain your party’s guiding principle of ‘Narrowing the Gap’?
PM: We are talking about many social gaps here, income inequality being the captain. We have developmental disparity; we have access to health disparity; and we have nepotism that leads to gaps. People are branding us as anti-rich, which is absolutely wrong. If people get rich through fair means, we have absolute support to that. But getting richer by unfair means is something we will not tolerate. All our major policy promises favor the rural lot—our focus on dropping the cut-off point for high school (Class 10) students, for example, will allow all rural children to continue their education till Class 12. Isn’t this a big step towards narrowing the gap?
Our pledge number one is improving health services. The health sector has some of the biggest gaps to be narrowed. If we allow the existing gaps in the health sector to continue, few decades down the line there will be disparity even in people’s lifespan. People in rural areas are not able to get basic health support. For example, diabetic people are going on as unknown diabetics, and often come to us with the target organ damaged. These are the people who will not live long.
On the other hand, those who can afford avail best of services in the country as well as outside. So, offering timely and quality tertiary level health services to all Bhutanese will be one of big measures to narrow the gap. In terms of disparity and accessibility to tertiary level healthcare, Bhutan ranks quite badly. We are 125th among about 170 countries. We are on the lower third. This is something we will work on in the next five years. I am a doctor first and the need to improve the quality of our healthcare as this factor drove me to politics.