The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Birds have left the nest

Gopilal Acharya
Of shuttered homes

If you are on a tour of remote villages you probably will not miss the empty homes; some almost falling down, others neatly double-locked.

Where are the inhabitants of these deserted homes?

They have left the village, replies the gup. Some have gone to the capital and some have re-settled in other dzongkhags, running small businesses or laboring in other people’s farms and orchards.

Many villages in most dzongkhags have empty homes - old battered rural structures with a hangdog look. According to studies, Zhemgang tops the list (of dzogkhags from where maximum residents have migrated) followed by Lhuentse, Pemagatshel, Mongar, Haa, Trashigang, Tsirang, and Samtse.

Yet, more people, especially young adults, are leaving rural homes for the urban lure. And once in the cities and towns of their dreams they end up living difficult lives, often doing odd jobs.

A gathering of old men and women

Today, it is old men and women who are left in the villages continuing the tradition of back-breaking labor, chained to the yoke.

It is paddy plantation season in rural Bhutan, and it’s old men and women who are cutting terraces, getting the fields ready, and transplanting the nursery.

Ask them where the young men and women have gone, and the answer is straight: towns.

In the village of Kalimati in Samtse, it is 70-year-old Puney Prasad Dahal who continues to work the plough. And people like Ram Chandra Baral, 60, look after the family cattle.

They say their younger children attend schools while the older ones are away working in towns. They say they badly need helping hand in fields, especially during peak agriculture season.

Situation is equally dismal in Bartsham. Local leaders say it is a continuing exodus. Most young people who drop school pack their bags and say goodbye to their villages.

Most people leaving villages for urban centers fall under the age between 16 to 30, the most crucial members of farm hands. Therefore, in the absence of these able-bodied young adults, school-going children help their parents after school and during vacations.

The urban lure

According to a study by the agriculture ministry, if the current trend in rural-urban drift continues, about half of Bhutan’s population will be living in urban areas by 2020. And 2020 is just 10 years away.

This means farm hands in rural Bhutan, in places like Kalimati and Bartsham, will only dwindle. More rural homes will go empty and Bhutan’s urban centers will choke in social chaos.

Thimphu and Phuentsholing are already bearing the ugly brunt of rapid migration. While Phuentsholing has already crossed its expected growth rate and is in dire need for expansion space, Thimphu has enough homeless, destitute, and the jobless.

Town planners and municipalities in these urban centers have enough work in hand. Drinking water, electricity, parking space, vegetable market, illegal settlements, and garbage are some major headaches. Urban poverty and enclave development are two major issues these cities will have to tackle.

More bad news for Thimphu

Studies show more than 28% of annual migrants are moving to the capital. There is a clear indication that Thimphu will host more migrants in the years to come. Phuentsholing, Paro, and Gelephu are other top destinations for the migrants.

Moreover, the rapid drift is reflected by the fact that more than 72% of all urban dwellers are migrants from rural areas. And about 63% of the migrants have at least been to primary school. Most migrants are men (60%), meaning it is women who are left behind to take care of farms.

School leavers don’t want to go back to their villages, and even those hard up for jobs continue to scour cities and towns desperately waiting for miracles to happen.

Take the case of Sonam Tshering, 24, from Tsirang. He attended school till Class VI, worked his family farm for five years, and came to Thimphu looking for a better life.

Today, he cleans drains for the municipality and hides away from familiar faces. But he has no qualms about what he is doing because he never wants to go back home to his old parents.

The DPT promise

The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Manifesto doesn’t have a section solely dedicated to rural-urban drift though it does talk about related issues in snatches in its various sub-sections.

It talks about generating employment for the rural communities and the poor through cottage industries, small enterprises, credit guarantees, and access to micro credit facilites.

The Manifesto talks about making farming less strenuous and more cost effective through mechanization and other support services. Village training for youth in technical and business skills for farm based enterprises is also being promised.

The DPT Manifesto, however, doesn’t talk about how the government will attract and retain young adults, especially those who have been to school, in villages. It doesn’t have a clear answer to overcome farm labor shortage.

In a reverse promise, the Manifesto states that the DPT government will work hard to receive more urban dwellers by according high priority to proper town planning and urban development.

We want our children back

Farmers are desperate for their children to come back home and take the yoke off them. They say people are giving up livestock rearing because there is no one to take care of the animals.

“Our fields are fallow and our homes are empty,” says Ranjit Gurung, 73. “The birds have left the nest.”

Farmers say even if their children come home for breaks and vacations, they refuse to work saying they have lost touch with sickles and spades.

They say the migration of young adults is the major reason for farm labor shortage.

Farmers say the government must provide incentives to youths who want to go back to villages and take up farming. They say village life must be made more attractive.

“The government must help us to bring our children back home,” says Ranjit Gurung.

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