Bhutan to welcome electric cars as part of Gross National Happiness model

Once slow to embrace technology, tiny Himalayan nation signs deal to import Nissan Leaf

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 10:04am


It was the world's last holdout against television and is regarded by travellers as a Himalayan Shangri-La. But Bhutan is now poised to make itself the poster boy for electric transport.

It is further proof of its willingness to embrace technology as part of its unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) development model, said Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

Speaking after signing a deal with Nissan on Friday to import a fleet of battery-powered compact cars, Tobgay said Bhutan was happy to be at the technological vanguard.

"Technology is not destructive. It's good and can contribute to prosperity for Bhutan," he said.

It was not always thus. The tiny kingdom was famously the last country to get television, finally embracing it in 1999, at a time when fewer than a quarter of households had electricity.

But it is rapidly shedding its reputation as a technophobe - it now exports electricity thanks to an ambitious hydropower programme, while smartphones are a common sight.

"Internet, cellular phones, smartphones, they are ubiquitous, you can't do anything without them, now they are essential tools," Tobgay said.

"Cellular phones became a reality 10 years ago. We adopted it very well, almost everybody has a cellular phone, that's the reality.

"Similarly today we launched the Nissan Leaf … Our goal is to make the best of all options."

Under the deal with Nissan, dozens of battery-powered Leafs should soon be motoring along the streets of Thimphu, helping it avoid the kind of pollution pervasive elsewhere in South Asia.

Tobgay said Bhutan would never allow its environment to become a victim of economic growth - an important principle of GNH.

"Growth is important but it should be balanced with other aspects of life including culture, spirituality, heritage and sustainable development," he said. "During the development of the last 30-40 years, we placed a lot of emphasis to promote the environment, clean industries."

Tobgay, who came to power last July after winning Bhutan's second elections, has previously voiced a degree of scepticism about GNH - a philosophy originally espoused by a former king - as a distraction from tackling the country's problems.

But in an interview, the prime minister said addressing issues such as corruption, unemployment and the environment would allow Bhutan to practise what it preaches.

"GNH should guide us, this philosophy should not be compromised," he said. "But my stance has been that rather than talking about the GNH and debate the philosophy, we have to operationalise it."

With a population of just 750,000, Bhutan is in many ways a study in contrasts with its giant neighbours India and China, with their billion-plus populations and mega-cities.

But its abundant waterfalls and crystal-clear rivers have allowed Bhutan to become a significant player in the hydropower sector. It now operates four hydroelectric plants, which in total have almost 1,500-megawatt capacity - at peak output roughly equivalent to a large nuclear power station - and the surplus is sold to India.