The Kingdom of Bhutan, world-renowned for creating the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and for being the first carbon negative country, is now launching the Gelephu Mindfulness City, an interconnected bridge of sustainable development between South and Southeast Asia. I was part of a select delegation given a tour by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck himself.
The 43-year-old King Khesar announced plans for the new city on Bhutan National Day, December 17, in Thimphu. Galvanizing thousands of Bhutanese and high-profile international industrialists and entrepreneurs, the King said the city would be Bhutan’s economic hub – an opportunity to capitalize on the economic corridor linking South Asia to Southeast Asia. The World Bank states trade between the two regions grew ninefold from 2000 to 2018, from $38 billion to $349 billion. Bhutan will utilize the land connection from Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar through Assam and Northeast India, to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.
King Khesar announced the establishment of a Special Administrative Region with executive autonomy and legal independence “to create a vibrant economic hub.” But Gelephu will stand apart from the average special economic zone (SEZ).
“There are economic hubs elsewhere that invite foreign investment by providing a conducive business environment and compelling incentives. Bhutan’s economic hub will offer all that and more,” the King proclaimed. “It will be one-of-a-kind, anchored on the vision and values of GNH. It will be a Mindfulness City, encompassing conscious and sustainable businesses, inspired by Buddhist spiritual heritage, and distinguished by the uniqueness of the Bhutanese identity.”
Gelephu, unlike other SEZs, will host businesses screened and invited based on their respect for the Bhutanese way of life, sustainable and equitable development, and sovereignty. The Bhutanese, a Bhutan-based daily, has reported that companies have expressed interest in bioscience, data centers, education, and energy endeavors in the Gelephu Special Administrative Region.
The Gelephu project will see concerted development in three key areas: energy, connectivity, and skills. Hydropower will attract investments through competitive regional pricing. Other energy sources like wind, thermal, and solar will be harnessed. Digital infrastructure development and the international airport in Gelephu will improve connectivity. The project will upskill Bhutanese and bring in foreign skilled workers.
The Mindfulness City will be located in the southern Himalayan foothills. Gelephu, a vast flatland, spanning 1,000 square kilometers, will be even more accessible once the envisaged transportation infrastructure is completed. In a sign of continued goodwill, the government of India has committed to connecting border towns with railway lines, and developing and improving major roads leading to Bhutan. All of the country’s towns and cities can fit inside Gelephu – a testament to its size.
Top Danish sustainability architect Bjarke Ingels unveiled the breathtaking Mindfulness City Masterplan, designed in collaboration with Arup and Cistri. As a delegate, I witnessed Ingels present the Masterplan to audible gasps as skeptics quickly turned believers. It incorporates Bhutanese culture into architecture, the protection of farmlands, wildlife sanctuaries, and heritage. The environment-friendly city will have no structure taller than the trees, with minimal, mostly residential, structures near the sanctuaries and farmlands, and most structures concentrated towards the centers.
My favorite feature is the Temple-Dam on the Sankosh River. Ingels describes the dam as embedding “the city’s fundamental values into a cascading landscape of steps and landings, that like a 21st century Tiger’s Nest will be a manmade monument to the divine possibility of a sustainable human presence on earth, turning engineering into art, and the forces of nature into power.” This will be a run-of-river hydropower project, ensuring minimal disruption and displacement, given Bhutanese settlements are usually atop mountains and not near the river.
“Linking South and Southeast Asia, Gelephu Mindfulness City spatially embodies the Bhutanese concept of bridges as sacred connectors of people across isolated geographies, traditions and times, encouraging endeavors and transformation,” observed GNH researcher Latoya Ferns. The Dzong (fortress)-inspired inhabitable bridges will contain an international airport and railway connections; a eudaimonic healthcare center offering traditional and allopathic medicine; and a greenhouse showcasing ancient farming methods and modern agroscience.
Communications Scholar Dr. Dorji Wangchuk described Bhutan as “a living museum where the past, present, and future mingle seamlessly like nowhere else.” In keeping with Bhutan’s identity as the only Vajrayana Buddhist country, the initial focus will be to establish a Vajrayana center of unprecedented scale in Buddhist history, a joint venture involving all important spiritual masters.
The city will organize and consolidate religious and spiritual tourism. Bhutan has so far marketed itself as a cultural and adventure destination; its unbroken Buddhist lineage has not yet been optimally marketed. Prior to changing the Tourism Policy, 63,000 of the 76,983 recorded visitors in 2019 were cultural tourists. Of those, 1,000 came for the Masked Dance festivals called Tsechus and 400 visited meditation retreats.
The project aims to reverse the unprecedented migration of several thousand Bhutanese to countries like Australia. The urban centers of Thimphu, Paro, and Phuentsholing have reached their saturation point. As growth plateaus, so do hopes and dreams. Gelephu Mindfulness City emboldens Bhutanese to aspire again. Bhutan graduated to being a middle income country in December – newly untethered from dependency on external grants, hydropower, and tourism. The city will deliver sustained prosperity.
King Khesar declared, “It is an inflection point, a mandate and opportunity for us all– the King, the government, and the people– to join hands and work tirelessly to pave the road to the future. Gelephu will become a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world and the future. The road we have chosen is a gateway to the world– to markets, capital, new ideas, knowledge, and technology towards our future, and– to chart our destiny.”
Bhutan is transitioned to democracy because former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck gifted it to the people, despite a dearth of public demand. Even after 16 years, Bhutanese maintain that they would vote for the monarchy if they could, and rally behind goals set by the King far more than those introduced by a prime minister. In his fieldwork, Dorji Wangchuk observed that Bhutanese view the monarchs, who are referred to as phama (parents), as extended family members.
Thus, all projects led by the King achieve success. Of particular note is the De-suung, a national volunteer program, launched in 2011, that to this day has seen a total of 42,000 sign ups within minutes of slots opening up, according to the official website. The King provides training in a culture of excellence, whether in building infrastructure or frontline workers achieving among the highest COVID-19 vaccine coverage worldwide. This adds to the Mindfulness City’s exceptionalism, which by design is destined to succeed, with sovereign prerogatives, popular support, and Bhutan’s credible track record in sustainable practices as force multipliers.
The Fourth King was unafraid to depart from the mainstream and introduce GNH as an alternative development paradigm. Though many at the time thought him crazy, the United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals in its image and instituted the International Day of Happiness.
The Fifth King is also challenging the narrative that Bhutan is tiny and without economic heft. Bhutan will prove skeptics wrong again. On National Day, King Khesar rallied the packed stadium, “Let us build a legacy that will continue to benefit Bhutanese 500 years into the future. Are you ready to shoulder this responsibility with me?”
There was a resounding “Yes” from the 30,000 Bhutanese gathered there.