Sowing the seeds of modern Bhutan
A 20-point letter from King Ugyen Wangchuck to the Viceroy of India in 1921
In this rare photo the first King, Ugyen Wangchuck, is seen standing with a stick and wearing a hat near the long wall stupa in Chendebji near Trongsa. John Claude White, British Political Officer took this photo in 1905 during his trip to Bhutan. (Royal Geographical Society)
26 June, 2010 - “Bhutan is at present a poor and a backward country. Until recent years it suffered frequently from internal struggles, which depopulated and ruined the country,” wrote King Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926), the first Druk Gyalpo, to the Viceroy of India dated September 5, 1921.
“Now that peaceful times have come and a stable hereditary government has been established under the protection of your government, there has arisen an ever-growing desire for closer political and trade relations with India for the progress on the lines of civilised countries,” the letter states.
This is the first point of the 20-point letter, requesting assistance to develop Bhutan. The letter was written in Bumthang, the then summer capital of Bhutan. It was sent to Gangtok to the British political officer to be delivered to the Viceroy. It was written in Dzongkha on Bhutanese paper and had the seal of the King. The letter is now with the British library in London.
In 1921, Bhutan took its first step to modernise. King Ugyen Wangchuck understood the power of education. Point three of the letter states, “The first great barrier to be removed is the ignorance of my people. Until seven years ago, there was, outside of the monasteries, no knowledge of reading or writing among the people. In 1914, I sent 45 boys to be taught at Kalimpong, and in 1915 started a school at Pumthang [sic] [Bumthang] in which Hindi and English are taught.
Of the 45 boys, who went to Kalimpong, 33 have passed the middle school standard, and 4 of them will appear for the university entrance examination in 18 months time. The boys have proved themselves to be apt pupils. At Pumthang [sic] [Bumthang] School, 8 of the pupils has reached the 6th standard.”
Point four of the letter states, “The problem now faced is how best to utilise these lads for the development of Bhutan. A number of openings suggest themselves to me as urgent. There is a great need of medical knowledge to relieve suffering, to deal with these epidemics, which have frequently decimated the population and to help towards a lower general mortality. I should, therefore, like to see at least two of the lads trained as doctors.”
In point five of the letter, the King proposes training two of the students as veterinary doctors, so that they can protect and take care of the animals. “… it would be well that two of the lads should pass through a veterinary college. During the last few years, the cattle in large tracts of the country were practically exterminated by rinderpest.”
Points six and seven of the letter demonstrate the concept of sustainability and belief in science. “For initiating a system of general education among the people at large, it is desirable that a few of the lads should get a thorough training in the science and methods of training, and for this 6 lads might be deputed, who would afterwards take charge of a training school for primary teachers in Bhutan and conduct schools at various centres in the country.
Point seven deals with agriculture. “The real basis of prosperity of the country is agriculture (including stock raising and dairying), and practically the whole population is engaged in it. I believe that, if the modern methods, which I have heard are employed in many other countries, were adopted, much could be done to improve the crops and the animals (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and mules). If three of the lads could get a scientific and practical course of training in agriculture and dairying (including cheese making), they might do much to introduce improved methods and to teach people through demonstration farms,” wrote the King.
From the correspondence of the earlier political officer Charles Bell, we learn of the willingness of the government of India to assist the king in developing the resources of the country.
The introductory of the letter demonstrates how courteous the king was, “I take the liberty of asking Your Excellency’s warm interest in the welfare of my country of Bhutan and of laying before you certain proposals for its development in the hope that I may gain help from the Government of India towards their realisation,” writes the King.
A specimen of a cover letter of the first King, written to Charles Bell, the British political officer. It is written in Dzongkha on handmade daphne paper and has the seal of the king. Photo: Postal Himal, No 142, 2 Quarter, 2010
11 July, 2010 - The roots of Bhutan’s successful conservation of the natural environment go a long way back. It did not happen by chance, as a lot of people tend to assume nowadays.
It was a conscious choice that was made by the Bhutanese leadership as written records show.
“Bhutan has great forests which, if worked on good lines, should in time produce a considerable revenue to the country and be a benefit to India,” King Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926) wrote to the Viceroy of India. The letter is dated September 5, 1921. “At present they produce hardly any revenue and those adjoining the plains of India have been largely destroyed through the absence of supervision and ignorance of the proper methods of conservation. I should like to have four of the lads trained at a School of Forestry.”
This is the ninth point of the king’s 20-point letter (see June 26 Kuensel issue), requesting development assistance. It lays down the foundations of the environment policy and demonstrates the consciousness and willingness to protect the natural environment.
For the king to implement his developmental activities, he required Rs 130,000. The British government declined to finance it.
Instead, they suggested cutting down parts of the lush forest to generate the required revenue. “In 1923, a request to work the Bhutan forests overlooking the Duars was received from one Mr. Chas E. Simmondes of England. The application was supported by Brigadier General the Hon’ble C.G.Bruce and others, but His Highness the Maharaja of Bhutan, after consideration, declined to accept the proposal,” states British records.
The early 20th century saw tremendous growth in the global demand for pulp and timber. At that time, boreal forests of Russia and trees of Norway to Canada were viciously leveled to profit from this booming trade. In these regions it takes over a century for the trees to mature.
Trees in Bhutan grow much faster, but the king recognised far worse long-term ills from unsustainable logging.
The king received another temptation. Dr. Graham, a close friend of the king, also advised cutting down the trees to generate the required revenue. In June 1925, the doctor wrote to the King to convince him to allow a British firm to harvest Bhutanese forests. “If you had the conditions so drawn up as to avoid interference with any of your old laws and customs, I think that this proposal is one of the very best for developing your country … any arrangement with the company would naturally be on the understanding that they replanted every area, which they felled. I do hope that you get an arrangement satisfactory to Bhutan and likely to produce a large income, which will last.”
Despite the urgent need for revenue to finance development and the potentials to generate it from lumbering, the king mindfully chose to conserve.
Written British records indicate the first king managed to send three of the students to Dehra Dun Forestry School in India to study the ranger’s course. By 1927 all three completed their studies.
They did not return home immediately. Instead, the three foresters worked as rangers in the Darjeeling state forests for a few months to gain experience, before returning home to assume independent charges of responsibility, which they successfully did.
Today, Bhutan has successfully managed to conserve biological diversity and protected the natural environment. Almost 50 percent of the land is protected. Furthermore, the Constitution requires a forest cover of 60 percent for all time to come.
Contributed by Tshering Tashi