Adopting old civic culture in new urban situations provides strong social support

Changing cultural landscape in the world due to urbanization calls for better efforts to safeguard and adopt old civic cultures of the rural villages in new urban situations, said Founder and President of Loden Foundation,  Dr Karma Phuntsho

He made these assertions during the third World Third Forum for Intangible Cultural Heritage held from October 10-12 at the National Intangible Heritage Center (NIHC) in Jeonju, Korea.

Dr Karma Phuntsho shared five different initiatives he is involved in as a way of safeguarding and promoting intangible cultural practices which are fundamental for community cohesion and solidarity.

He said Bhutan is no exception to the process of urbanization in spite of its historic isolation and renown for conservation of its traditional way of life.

Over the centuries ago, Dr Karma Phuntsho said, “The country was entirely made up of villages. Even Thimphu, the nation’s capital for nearly four centuries, was a valley of a few scattered villages and the fortress, which housed the government and monastic headquarters.”

Additionally, he said, the urbanization has transformed in both the tangible, physical environment and the intangible, social, and cultural systems.

“We witness changes in both the external landscape and the internal people,” said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

Moreover, he said the creations of external urban infrastructure are achieved relatively quickly and easily.

However, the process of developing the intangible culture of social support systems to manage and maintain the facilities and address social challenges needs much greater efforts of cultural education and social organization, said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

“While physical facilities can be built in a span of few years, the culture to use them responsibly and sustain them takes many decades to develop,” he added.

Additionally, Dr Karma Phunthso said though Bhutan has done well in building hydropower stations, connecting homes to the grid, and procuring electrical appliances, the general knowledge and culture of safe installation and responsible use of electricity remains poor. As a result, he said, electric short circuits today cause many house fires in Bhutan.

However, he said some challenges could be overcome by revitalizing the social and cultural practices, which existed in the villages for many centuries.

Despite alcohol liver disease being a top cause of death in Bhutan, Dr Karma Phuntsho also talked on the Bhutanese robust culture of drinking alcohol, particularly during festive occasions.

However, he said the traditional communities also have a strong support system in place to help a person abusing alcohol.

“The supply of alcohol is limited as it is brewed at home, if the person abuses alcohol, the person who serves would normally refrain after serving a couple rounds.”

Moreover, family members, neighbours, and villagers provide counseling and controlling measures when necessary.

“One’s sense of community identity and the general practice of community solidarity restrain the person from becoming a serious alcoholic,” said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

While, the same person if deprived of social support system in a new urban environment has unlimited access to alcohol produced in large factories, and sometimes even sold on debt. Moreover, the bartender only wishes to sell as much alcohol as possible.

Then alcohol abuse become worse in a new urban place, as people live very private individualistic lives, said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

To curb the problem, he said although the government and Civil Society Organizations have taken steps, it is modeled on foreign practices, and no serious effort has been made to adopt the existent traditional support systems.

“The village communities still practice these systems and schemes to maintain public spaces including religious monuments and commons, distribute resources such as pastures and water, organize village events and activities, mobilize resources, mediate in conflicts and render help during emergencies and disasters,” said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

He shared the old practices of civil society and community mobilization that serve as social cement and hold the communities together are declining fast.

Meanwhile, Dr Karma Phuntsho added that it has led to serious social challenges and rising mental health issues. 

“Building harmonious civic life and community solidarity in our new urban situations, it is crucial that we activate the traditional civic cultures from the villages in the new urban situations, astutely adapt the civic systems to keep them relevant and beneficial, and engage the urban citizens in appropriating and promoting the civic cultures of their communities of their origin,” said Dr Karma Phuntsho.

The forum was organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre Asia-Pacifique (ICHCAP) and was attended by over 40 participants from about 20 countries.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu