Un­der the shadow of gung­tongs

Business Bhutan - - Front Page - Jigme Wangchen from Tshenkhar, Lhuntse

In the re­mote east­ern dzongkhag of Lhuntse, life is turn­ing in­creas­ingly tough.

With vil­lagers, es­pe­cially the young and able, leav­ing their ru­ral lands for what they deem greener pas­tures in ur­ban cen­ters like Thim­phu, pop­u­la­tion back home is on the de­cline.

This grow­ing phe­nom­e­non has re­sulted in rip­ple ef­fects: agri­cul­tural land re­mains fal­low and el­derly par­ents and grand­par­ents are sep­a­rated from the younger ones in the fam­ily who take to the cities in hope of a bet­ter life.

Seventy-two year old Aum Dumda from Wam­bur vil­lage of Tshenkhar gewog in Lhuntse is one of the many left be­hind to

shoul­der the bur­den of sur­viv­ing in the vil­lage without chil­dren to look af­ter her. She has dif­fi­culty car­ry­ing out farm­ing chores and is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on her neigh­bors.

“I won­der how long this must go on,” she sighs with a far-away look in her eyes.

Ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion is be­com­ing a com­mon fea­ture in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries like Bhutan.

The Na­tional Hous­ing and Pop­u­la­tion Cen­sus 2005 re­vealed that the num­ber of mi­grants, mostly com­pris­ing young adults aged 15-30 years is in­creas­ing yearly.

The phe­nom­e­non is largely viewed as a re­sponse to eco­nomic re­forms and bet­ter em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in desti­na­tion cities.

Sonam Rinzin, a 73year old who has been left be­hind by his chil­dren in the same vil­lage, says the ad­vent of modern ed­u­ca­tion has con­trib­uted to ru­ralur­ban mi­gra­tion. “Once chil­dren are ed­u­cated, even for some years, they be­gin to dream big and most of­ten, leave the vil­lages. Ed­u­ca­tion is good but it causes vil­lage chil­dren to lose in­ter­est in farm­ing.”

Lhuntse is one of the most iso­lated dis­tricts in the coun­try with one of the high­est num­ber of ru­ralur­ban mi­grants.

The dzongkhag has a pop­u­la­tion of 22,998 with 2,527 house­holds of which more than 244 house­holds are empty (gung­tongs).

Among the eight gewogs in Lhuntse; Tshenkhar and Maenbi gewogs have the high­est num­bers of gung­tongs.

Maenbi gewog has 339 house­holds of which 59 are gung­tongs and Tshenkhar gewog has 436 house­holds of which 58 are empty.

Tshenkhar Gup Tsheten Wangdi said the num­ber of gung­tongs has been ris­ing yearly. “When the gov­ern­ment pro­vides fa­cil­i­ties, peo­ple have to con­trib­ute la­bor but we do not have enough la­bor to carry out the tasks,” he said, adding that those who are left be­hind com­plain about hav­ing to con­trib­ute dou­ble the amount of la­bor.

He men­tioned that reper­cus­sions like loss of cul­tural val­ues, weak­en­ing of fam­ily co­he­sion, ad­min­is­tra­tive prob­lems dur­ing an­nual cen­sus and tax col­lec­tion are felt acutely and widely.

Ac­cord­ing to Tsheten Wangdi, some of the main causes of ru­ralur­ban mi­gra­tion are small land­hold­ings, lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, limited cul­tural and so­cial ameni­ties and bet­ter schools

Ru­ral poverty be­ing ram­pant in Lhuntse due to low agri­cul­tural in­come, and less than op­ti­mal farm pro­duc­tiv­ity as well as un­der­em­ploy­ment and pres­sure of phys­i­cally stren­u­ous farm work, the peo­ple of Lhuntse are leav­ing to seek bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties in ur­ban hubs like the cap­i­tal.

The ef­fects of this are al­ready be­ing felt across the dzongkhag. One can sight vast swathes of land left to be­come jun­gles, the old strug­gling to carry out daily chores and a rem­i­nis­cent, tan­gi­ble sad­ness in the air.

With the aged and phys­i­cally weaker peo­ple left in the vil­lages, la­bor short­age is a huge prob­lem and the ru­ral pock­ets are de­vel­op­ing at snail’s pace. This means that earn­ing a de­cent in­come is also a prob­lem for the vil­lagers since lo­cal econ­omy is dol­drums.

Tsheten Wangdi said that less pop­u­la­tion in the vil­lages will cause min­i­mal pres­sure on the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and the vol­ume of waste gen­er­ated will not be a cause for con­cern. He also added that those left be­hind can in­herit more an­ces­tral prop­erty “but if there is no thriv­ing life in the back­wa­ters, who will ben­e­fit from all this?”

How­ever, dzongkhag au­thor­i­ties told Busi­ness Bhutan that the gov­ern­ment is im­ple­ment­ing broad strate­gies to­ward curb­ing ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion and re­sults are ex­pected sooner than later.

The multi-pronged strat­egy in­cludes ru­ral ac­cess to mar­ket for which farm roads are be­ing con­structed. The gov­ern­ment also pro­vides farm in­puts and other essentials to farm­ers for in­creas­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the re­cently in­tro­duced ini­tia­tive of cen­tral schools is ex­pected to ad­dress the prob­lem of poor qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and in­ci­dences of school dropouts.

Sim­i­larly, in­tro­duc­tion of elec­tric fenc­ing to ad­dress crop depre­da­tion by wild an­i­mals, ad­e­quate ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels and com­pen­sa­tion for live­stock and crop dam­age are other mea­sures the gov­ern­ment is im­ple­ment­ing.

Tsheten Wangdi said that since his gewog now has ac­cess to such fa­cil­i­ties pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment, he is try­ing to con­tact and con­vince in­di­vid­u­als who left their an­ces­tral home to come back.

“Ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion is a se­ri­ous but real threat to our na­tion,” he said.

Though ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion de­prives vil­lages of their peo­ple, those who did find em­ploy­ment in the cities are said to send back re­mit­tances.

The La­bor Force Sur­vey Re­port 2015 shows that lack of ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties in ru­ral places con­trib­uted to more than 46% of the mi­gra­tion, mo­ti­vated by a de­sire for ed­u­ca­tion-re­lated op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered in ur­ban ar­eas.

This shows that ed­u­ca­tion is a pow­er­ful de­ter­mi­nant of ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion and school­ing has in­creased ex­pec­ta­tions of new and modern ur­ban life so that ed­u­cated ru­ral peo­ple are more prone to mi­grate.

How­ever, the Tshenkhar gup is op­ti­mistic that if the gov­ern­ment can in­crease the num­ber of recre­ational cen­ters, job op­por­tu­ni­ties, higher in­sti­tutes of learn­ing, and many more in the ru­ral ar­eas, it will def­i­nitely en­cour­age young peo­ple to stay back and work in their lo­cal­i­ties.

Wam­bur Tshogpa Choni Norbu said that most peo­ple mi­grate due to small land­hold­ings and less farm­ing land. “So if the gov­ern­ment can give land on lease or re­set­tle­ment land, the youth may come back and uti­lize their land for cul­ti­vat­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duces.”

Lhuntse is fa­mous for its many sa­cred sites and cul­tural her­itage. The place is also fa­mous for the hand-loomed fab­rics typ­i­cally wo­ven from fine silk, pop­u­larly known as Kishutha­ras, which is one the most distinc­tive art forms in the coun­try.

Ob­servers share the opin­ion that with such rich nat­u­ral and cul­tural re­sources at the dzongkhag’s dis­posal, eco­tourism in ru­ral Lhuntse can be de­vel­oped and if the cards are played well, the lo­cals can ben­e­fit hugely.

Mean­while, if this ex­o­dus from the ru­ral pock­ets con­tin­ues, one day, the vil­lages will see noth­ing but the tears of the grey­haired and bones left of those who have crossed the great di­vide.

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