What about more-conventional measurements? There’s plenty to measure in Bhutan: some of it good, some of it less so. First, the bad. By some estimates, as much as 90 percent of the population lives at subsistence level. The country has a $598 million debt. Nearly two-thirds of Bhutan is still without electricity, while a quarter are without clean drinking water.
This last fact may be one reason why Bhutan is not a very healthy place to live. The average life expectancy is 63 years – much lower than is common in richer countries. There are only a handful of ambulances. Those lucky enough to make it to a hospital in one of the larger towns, like Thimphu or Phuentsholing, will find large, modern-looking facilities. Trouble is, most of the staff aren’t trained in basics like surgery or outpatient care. Diagnostics and acute and chronic care are virtually nonexistent.
But then, Bhutan only began modernizing in the 1950s. Previously, there were no paved roads, most homes were built from mud and grass, literacy was low, and the death rate was high. That Bhutan has progressed so far is thus remarkable. The current king, who came to the throne in 1974, invested the country’s meager finances in an airport, an east-west road, bridges, national education, health care, and select energy-producing technologies like hydropower, which provides almost all the country’s electricity. And it has worked, after a fashion.
According to the Asian Development Bank, Bhutan’s GNP in 1985 barely topped $45 million. By 2002, it was more than $590 million. From 1999 to 2003, Bhutan’s average GDP grew by 6.72 percent every year. Save for China, none of Bhutan’s regional neighbors – including India – saw more GDP growth during the same period.
If Bhutan is still not a very healthy place to live, it’s certainly better than it was. The number of health facilities in the country rose from 65 in 1985 to more than 200 today. Infant mortality rates in 2000 were half of what they were in 1985, while average life expectancy rose from 48 years to 63 during the same period.
The country has seen a remarkable growth in general education. The literacy rate is almost 50 percent, whereas in the early 1990s it ranked the lowest among the least-developed countries. More than 90 percent of Bhutanese children now reach at least the fifth grade. The country’s first university opened its doors in 2003.
Technology use has increased, too: according to World Bank figures, from 1999 to 2003 the number of fixed-line and mobile-phone subscribers jumped from 18 to 45 per 1,000 people; personal-computer ownership nearly tripled from 5 to 14 per 1,000 people. In 1999, the country introduced its first commercial Internet service provider, DrukNet, and its first television broadcasts, through the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). For roughly $60 a year, a Bhutanese home can have both. This is, of course, a lot of money in Bhutan. According to DrukNet, neither it nor the BBS has a large subscriber base, as yet, because two-thirds of the households in Bhutan don’t have electricity. But DrukNet claims there are already a combined 120,000 subscribers.
Bhutan has gone from being off-limits to tourists to being the most coveted destination for well-heeled adventurers–in part because travel visas are rationed, giving travelers the sense they are seeing something very special. They are, especially if they are fortunate enough to stay at the five-star Como Uma Paro or the Amankora, or the soon-to-open Yangphel Hotel.
But even as it modernizes, Bhutan has also strengthened or enacted laws designed to control pollution, mining, and logging. Almost 70 percent of the country’s forests are protected. New laws ban smoking, gambling, and prostitution; anticorruption and construction codes have also been enacted.