Happiness without kerosene

Happiness is ...

Today is the 24th of March. So it’s exactly three years since PDP got clobbered in the kingdom’s first general elections. Actually it wasn’t that bad – 33% of the voters had supported us. It’s just that that, unfortunately, translated to only two of the 47 seats in the National Assembly.

Anyhow, it’s now three years since that fateful day. And I’ve decided to commemorate the general elections by going to the people. I’m in Dorikha, at my indulgent aunt’s farmhouse, on my way to Gakiling gewog.

I’m taking along two important items for this trip. The first is a book: “Happiness – Lessons from a New Science” by Richard Layard, an economist who challenges that contemporary economic theory does not favour the pursuit of happiness.

The second item is a “solar light bulb” manufactured by Nokero (as in “no kerosene” – their idea is to replace the use of kerosene for illuminating homes). Nokero’s bulb is the size of a regular incandescent bulb, but carries a complete system to convert sunlight into electricity – solar panel, rechargeable battery, and light emitting diodes.

The Nokero bulb I’m carrying is a sample. Several villages in Gakiling don’t have electrical light, so I’ll use it to read “Happiness” at night. If the bulb survives my week-long tour, it would be ample proof that Nokero would make a worthy gift to our remote farmers.

Women warriors

Fourteen villages in my constituency, most of them in Gakiling gewog, do not have electricity. Every night, women in these villages turn their rangthang, a traditional stone mill, grinding buckwheat, maize and millet for several hours in virtual darkness. Working the rangthang is hard work in the best of conditions. But in the dark, by a hearth that offers more smoke than light, grinding food is a lonely and backbreaking exercise. Yet is must be done, for they must feed their families the next day.

So yesterday, when 35 women from similar villages across Bhutan announced that, in three months, they had fitted 504 families in 48 villages from 13 dzongkhags with solar lanterns I was overcome with joy.

These women are not ordinary people. They come from some of the remotest and poorest parts of our country. And almost all of them have never been to school. That’s why they now call themselves “barefoot solar engineers.”

And these women use solar power to fight the darkness that breeds poverty in distant villages. So they are already being called the “solar warriors of Bhutan”.

Yesterday, these women showed off their skills. They showed us how to install, maintain and repair solar lanterns. And they taught us that, with solar lanterns, they won’t have to work in the dark; that their children will be able to study at night; and that they will be better equipped to protect their crops from wild animals. They also taught us that they will no longer have to strain their eyes, or breathe in smoke, or travel long distances to buy kerosene, batteries and candles.

These “warriors” showed off their expertise with obvious pride and joy.

But one warrior, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, easily showed even more pride and even more joy. After all, it was Her Majesty’s Tarayana Foundation that permanently transformed the lives of these women from simple villagers to community leaders. During the last two years, Tarayana, along with Barefoot College, a leading Indian NGO, had carefully selected, supported and trained these women to become confident and competent engineers.

Some of these women will be employed by Tarayana to train even more barefoot solar engineers. Some will soon leave for Ladakh in India to train solar engineers there. But all of them will help illuminate dark villages. And fight poverty.

What I saw yesterday is not just about women empowerment as some observers noted. Or about reducing poverty, as proclaimed by others. It’s much, much more. It’s about putting GNH into action.

And it’s about the distinct possibility that women in my constituency will, in the near future, be able to work their stone mills in the comfort of the light from a solar lantern.