Zhapto lemi: Forced to volunteer?
25 June, 2010 - When a village lhakhang begins to crumble, nobody tells the community to come together to rebuild it. It just happens.
If the village irrigation canal gets damaged just before transplantation season, the community that depends on it gets together to fix it.
Those in the community, who don’t show up, are usually asked to compensate in some way or the other; which, after the onset of the monetized economy, meant paying up in money that could be used to hire able-bodied workers from another village.
As the older generation will recall, the first development projects, like building of the national highways, were also built with labour contribution by a number of Bhutanese.
Repair and renovation work of national monuments, like dzongs and monasteries, have also been done with the labour contribution of the people. Senior officers in the government today will tell you of contributing woola (labour) to the government as young boys for the earliest government projects.
While gungda woola, which required every household to compulsorily contribute labour for a certain number of days, was basically a system of drawing labour from within the Bhutanese population, it did bring about an additional burden to village households that are usually busy with so many other things, like cultivating crops and protecting them from the wild, and meeting other community requirements.
Misuse of community labour by the village leader, and those in the district administration, were also issues that have dogged gungda woola. Some observers also point out that the pressure of gungda woola might have resulted in rural Bhutan’s finest artisans migrating to other countries in the region, where they could practise their art and craft, like thangka painting, in peace and also get money for it.
In the ‘80s, the zhapto lemi system came as part of the process to have greater involvement of the community in deciding and implementing essential rural service schemes in the villages.
The Zhapto Lemi Act came into force in 1996, with one of its basic principles being local self-reliance, where beneficiaries maintain facilities and amenities funded by the government.
However, people in the rural Bhutan still feel burdened, given that many more development projects are coming to their community, which requires labour contribution at a time when most of the village youth have left for the urban centres.
Even as parliament debates about whether to do away of keep the zhapto lemi system, which the National Assembly actually did away with last year, the people in rural Bhutan have said that they are not clear about what the rules exactly are like, and whether they should get paid for work they do.
As a minister pointed out, if a community deems a service or activity will benefit them, or is important to them, they will naturally contribute to it. Even if this happens, there is a dire need for clarity on exactly what the system is, which must also be clearly communicated to the people.