From human-based settlement planning to planning-based human settlement

During the live session on August 4, the Prime Minister (PM) Dasho Dr. Lotay Tshering stated that the 13th Plan will see a strategic shift from human-based settlement planning to planning-based human settlement. This statement came in the wake of a question asked on plans by the government to tackle

rural-urban migration. While there are proponents of this mode of planning, there are also others saying that expenses would be high and also that people may not necessarily move to the settlements. Economic potential is cited as the probable “magic bullet” that could encourage people to remain in the villages. 

According to an expert in planning, for decades, Bhutan has adhered to a human-based settlement planning strategy, where infrastructure development was concentrated around human presence. However, with an increasing trend of rural-urban migration, this approach has resulted in redundant facilities and underdeveloped areas. “This new approach entails focusing development efforts on specific locations to create concentrated and sustainable urban centers that can withstand the challenges of time,” he said.

Moving further, he noted that the human-based settlement planning method would lead to infrastructure development dispersed across regions where people were once living or areas where the potentials for development exist. “Due to the influx of rural inhabitants into urban areas, many villages are experiencing dwindling populations, often with the average age of residents exceeding 50 years. Recognizing this shift, the government is aiming to adopt planning-based settlement, which concentrates resources and facilities within a single location. The goal is to create thriving centers of development that will remain relevant and functional.”

He further underlined that the new approach would ensure that all facilities and infrastructure are centralized in one location, attracting people to these centers and promoting sustainable growth. “By developing robust centers, the government envisions that people will be naturally drawn to these hubs addressing the challenges of migration.”

When asked if the government would be able to construct such “promising centers,” he said that it would be difficult to have such centers in all villages and gewogs. “What the government could do is to have such growth centers in strategic places spread across the country, and not necessarily in villages. For instance, a center each in all districts could be an answer. People can go to these centers to avail facilities, trade and return back to their villages,” he said. 

He further added that one strategy that the government could adopt is the relocation of ministries and other agencies to districts outside Thimphu. “We are now living in a technologically advanced world. There is no need for all ministries and several agencies to be stationed in Thimphu and other areas,” he added.

A former corporate employee said that as Bhutan embarks on a transformative shift in all areas of governance, it has become imperative to ensure that balanced regional development becomes a realty. “If the government is able to do as the PM has reportedly said, it would kill two birds with a stone – address rural-urban migration and make balanced regional development a realty,” he said, adding that the migration trend cannot be immediately addressed. “But, we need to initiate something now, so that in the near future, we do not see our villages empty.”

According to him, the said planning method, would entail heavy cost and time. “Proper research has to be done to identify areas, which have the potential to encourage people to stay there. If not it will be just like issues faced in the education sector, where schools built earlier have no students now. Infrastructure beginning from buildings to others need to be constructed,” he said.

He further added that the economic potentials of regions should be explored. “If a place has abundant natural resources, it is not only the locals who will stay there. People from other areas will also come to live in these areas,” he said.

While formal studies have not been done, observers say that villages in Bhutan have just the old and elderly living. “Those who are young have left seeking opportunities in Bhutan’s and abroad. At this trend, villages could become empty in the next decade or so,” a civil servant from Trashigang said.  

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu