Rural-Urban Migration: The Impending Crisis

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Yeshey Dorji

The spectacle of the avalanche is a sight to behold – it starts with a fluffy ball of snow coming dislodged and rolling down the mountainside. As it cascades downhill, the ball grows bigger and bigger while at the same time gaining velocity and mass. Within minutes, the whole mountainside begins to hurtle down with a thunderous roar that can be heard hundreds of miles away, in the aftermath, bringing ruin and destruction to everything in its path. The landscape is laid asunder and the geography of the land is altered beyond recognition.

That is exactly how the rural-urban migration starts: it begins with a trickle but slowly builds up into an exodus, in its wake, altering demographics and turning producers into consumers.

While porcupines merrily raise families in a labyrinth of burrows built underneath the ground of fertile lands abandoned by migrating farmers, most of these migrants end up eking out a living by the roadside – inside shanty ramshackles, tinkered together with metal sheets salvaged from castaway asphalt drums. Equal numbers of these escapees become burdens to relatives in urban centers, who are themselves buckling under a lifestyle and a system that denominates everything in terms of money. Some are forced into that shadowy zone between the honorable and the doubtful. Young, muscular hands that should be commandeering plough handles in rural farms, now don water spray guns in carwash centers and grip and navigate steering wheels of trucks and buses. At the end of day, they lumber back to their shanties and crawl into their beds – tired and spent – to dream fretful dreams of their urban dreams gone sour. But I fear that they still think that they are better off – from a life that is even worst than that they have now.

The allure of the glitz and the glitter of life in urban centers is not the reason why the strong and the mobile have chosen to move away from their traditional rural homes and way of life. It wasn’t a choice that they made willingly. It was an option that was open to them – an option they chose to prefer over the meaningless toil and struggle that had become their daily, and nightly routine.

This swelling number of forced migrants to the urban centers represents an important and critical human capital gone to waste. From being producers, they have now become consumers thereby putting pressure on our already scares resources and infrastructure. Over time, they will lose their most important life skill and their inherent strength – farming and farm work. Their locked and barricaded homes in the villages will rot and crumble – their fallow lands will be overgrown with trees and bushes. The possibility of reverse migration will become harder, if not entirely impossible. A whole lot of homeless, landless floating population will be created that will see no reason for hope or optimism.

The old, the infirm and the weak occupy most of the village homes that are still inhabited. They grow what little they can but there is no guarantee that they will harvest the yield of their toil and hardship. They will bang empty tins and rattle bamboo bells all night long – to ward off wild boar and deer and porcupine. During day they will holler and howl curses at the marauding monkeys. They will buy stuffed tigers from China to scare off the monkeys, which will eventually get shredded to smithereens, once they become wise to the falsehood. The monkeys are reported to have become so daring that they walk into village homes in broad daylight and walk away with bundles of corn hung out to dry. All that the old ladies in the homes can do is shriek with fright.

This pathetic and almost surrealistic condition in the villages and urban centers is caused by a malady called “rural-urban migration” – a man-made sickness brought about and perpetuated by a misnomer called “human-wildlife conflict”. It is the result of a conservation policy that is out of tune with the changing times and one that got stuck in a time warp.

Rural-urban migration is not a trend that is unique to Bhutan. It happens elsewhere in the world. But whatcauses it in the land of the GNH is pretty unique and unparalleled!

Bhutan’s case of human displacement as a result of encroachment by wildlife must be the first of its kind in the world. It provably goes down well with the chilips – in tune with our unfailing claim to uniqueness, in everything we do or say. Elsewhere in the world opposite it true – human encroaching into the habitat of wildlife, thereby causing conflict and endangerment. Bhutan’s record of shrinking cultivation of farmlands is proof that there is no encroachment into wildlife habitat.

In Bhutan whole villages are emptied as a result of rampant and uncontrolled predation by wildlife. And conflict is not allowed – by law! Our laws give primacy to wildlife, over human life and well-being. The country is already paying the price – and it will get worst over the years.

It is time that we end our apathy and do what we must – to halt, if not reverse, the rural-urban migration. We are in no position to afford the consequences that are not too difficult to imagine. If we do not do something now, it may be too late for us.