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King Dreams Big, Bhutan Grows. Wasbir Hussain had a 90-min interaction with His Majesty

First Published: 22nd April, 2024 20:59 IST

I was privileged to have been granted an audience by the 44-year-old, Oxford educated King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, at one of his offices in capital

Visionary leaders can transform nations. I was in Bhutan last week, travelling through nice curvaceous roads, soaking in the unmatched beauty of the undulating Himalayan mountains and peaks, with occasional valleys thrown in.

I was also totally mesmerized with the sight of rhododendrons of various hues in full bloom in the wilds. The sight of monasteries and stupas atop hills and slopes, some of which built as far back as the 7th century, and are mute witness to the transformation of this Himalayan nation, is something that fascinates an occasional visitor like me to this Dragon Kingdom, unified and ruled by monarchs of the Wangchuck dynasty since 1907, that is more than a hundred years now.

I was privileged to have been granted an audience by the 44 year old, Oxford educated King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, at one of his offices in capital Thimphu on the 16th of April.

King Wangchuck came across as a humble, down-to-earth personality, hugely charismatic and above all, a true visionary. And, looking at him, I got a feeling he is a fan of the iconic American singer-actor Elvis Presley or perhaps like some of his style.

I told His Majesty about my long association with Bhutan as a journalist and he started by talking about one of his pets that is ill, and how he and Her Majesty, the Queen, has to be with it by turns.

I am fairly aware of His majesty’s dream project, the Gelephu Mindfulness City (GMC) project, and wanted to know more from him. He walked up to a large LED TV and started talking of the extra-ordinary plan with maps for reference.

This city is coming up on the border with the Indian state of Assam. Singapore is a city that covers an area of less than 750 square kilometers and compared to that, Gelephu Mindfulness City is coming up on a 2600 Sq Km stretch. His Majesty said new laws are coming up to manage the city which will be a Special Autonomous Region within Bhutan and will even have its own currency.

This is an out-of-the-box idea – a new currency for the GMC. The GMC will have its own legal system with disputes to be settled in the court of law in three countries – Japan, the UK and Singapore. The City will be run in a corporate style with a Chairman at the helm. “Who is the Chairman,” I asked him. “It is me. I have put my neck out. If the project succeeds it is fine, if not, I am done,” His Majesty said in jest, of course. That’s how informally he speaks. Non-Bhutanese can not only invest in GMC but can also buy property like villas or condominiums that will come up. But there is a rider – they can come to own property by invitation only, His Majesty clarified.

“We are not building a guest house for people to come and take picture with a monk may be, we are doing serious business and therefore looking at serious global investors,” His Majesty said. The Project will not only attract global talent but also retain local talent and can prevent brain-drain. An international airport is coming up at Gelephu but it will require a huge landfill. His Majesty said he visits Gelephu every week on a domestic flight that takes 20 minutes to reach from the only international airport at present, that is Paro. The architects who are engaged in this project are totally in sync with His Majesty’s idea of the upcoming city to be totally environment-friendly and carbon negative.

One thing that His Majesty stressed repeatedly was that in this bid to build a new city, every effort is being made to retain Bhutan’s unique tradition and style and above all the ethos. It will be a city where visitors can even come to meditate and regain or re-invent the very purpose of life. His Majesty said having a stadium for sporting activities is important but such a facility need not be a concrete structure with cemented galleries. It can be on a natural landscape where people can sit around the ground in the middle. That way, the environment does not get hit adversely.

His Majesty truly feels for his people. Acquiring land is necessary but acquiring land with what is seen as a fair compensation is an oxymoron, according to him. Fair compensation can never be fair and the land owners need to be compensated for the future value of their land.

King Wangchuck expressed his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what his government has achieved for India. He said India is on course to becoming a 7 to 10 trillion dollar economy in the coming years. He said India and Bhutan are building on mutually beneficial cooperation amongst them.

His Majesty talked about the dynamic approach by Assam chief minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma towards ushering in development in the State, which is among Bhutan’s closest neighbours. I told him that his visit to Assam in November last year was a turning point in people-to-people relations between Bhutan and Assam. People in Assam took note of the fact that His Majesty drove straight to the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati upon landing at the Airport here. He told me everybody reveres the Kamakhya Temple. And yes, His Majesty is contemplating a visit to Assam again, this time with Her Majesty, the Queen, and the children.

Deviating from the Gelephu City Project, His Majesty said youths, irrespective of gender, will undergo National Service or The Gyalsungfor a year, starting this year. Israeli consultants will advise Bhutan on this programme that may incorporate some of the basic training that youths undergo in Israel during their National Service in the Israeli Military. The conversation touched so many diverse issues, and was so intense, I did not realise it went on for as long as 90 minutes.

“Your Majesty, can I use some of what you told me during our informal conversation in my writings or broadcast,” I asked him. “Why not, there is nothing secret in what I said,” he replied, as we parted.

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