The “Satong” and “Gungtong” issue

The “Satong” and “Gungtong” issue

Unbalanced economic development and lack of infrastructure lead to satong and gungtong

According to the review report on satong and gungtong by the Good Governance Committee (GGC) of the National Council (NC), the imbalance in socioeconomic development outcomes is evident from disparities in poverty and migration patterns across the country.

The report highlights that nearly 6,000 households across the country are classified as gungtong, with 75% of them located in the six eastern dzongkhags, highest in Trashigang (24.53%), followed by Pemagatshel (14.23%), Trashiyangtse (13.43%), and Mongar (11.22%). Conversely, districts like Thimphu (0%), Paro (0.05%), Gasa (0.02%), and Chukha (0.94%) recorded the lowest numbers of gungtong.

The report also reveals that between 2010 and 2019, the total cultivated area decreased by over 28,000 acres (10%), with chuzhing reduced by 29,566.42 acres (38.4%) while kamzhing increased by almost 14,000 acres (8.13%).

Eminent member of the NC, Phuntsho Rapten, who is also Chairperson of the National Council’s Good Governance Committee, expressed concern that if this trend continues, Bhutan could see some of its villages becoming deserted, food security becoming increasingly vulnerable, and community vitality diminishing rapidly.

The most significant reasons for leaving land fallow include irrigation problems, human-wildlife conflicts, and labor shortages. The committee found that people migrate for various reasons such as employment, education, family relocation, marriage, and health. It is projected that by 2037, half of the country’s population will reside in urban areas.

In 2019, 8,957.81 acres of wetland were left fallow, translating to an opportunity cost of 14,322.5 metric tons of rice per year. Moreover, between 2017 and 2022, both the area under paddy cultivation and its production declined by over 50%. Consequently, rice imports increased significantly from Nu 1.7 billion in 2017 to Nu 2.6 billion in 2022, and further to Nu 3 billion in 2023.

The chairman remarked, “This has significantly impacted our goal of achieving rice self-sufficiency, which decreased to 25% in 2022 from 40.8% in 2018.”

The GGC proposed ten recommendations to address rising gungtong and satong, including balanced regional development, a policy for converting fallow lands, flexible use of wetlands, crop and livestock insurance schemes, and program support.

In its recommendations, the committee emphasized the critical need for balanced development to reduce fallow lands and gungtong. The report states that the imbalance in socioeconomic development is evident from disparities in poverty and migration patterns across the country.

The chairman noted that while migration cannot be halted, socioeconomic challenges like poverty, satong, and gungtong can be alleviated through creating economic opportunities and enhancing infrastructure and services, especially in rural areas.

The committee also recommended formulating policies for converting fallow lands, emphasizing the increasing dependence on food imports and the growing amount of fallow lands that could threaten the country’s food security. “Many lands are lying fallow, and their productivity is very low. It is crucial to adopt policies similar to those seen in foreign countries, where fallow lands are leased for use,” the chairperson suggested.

Additionally, the committee proposed allowing flexible use of wetlands, citing urgent necessity for a fallow land conversion policy. The chairman stated, “There is potential for commercial or contract farming, which could diversify land use and enhance productivity.”

The committee also advocated for crop and livestock insurance to mitigate risks from natural calamities and human-wildlife conflicts. The chairman highlighted the high risks associated with farming and the need for an insurance scheme to cover livestock depredation and crop damage caused by wild animals, focusing on priority crops and livestock categories identified by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

Further recommendations included program support, such as subsidies, to address challenges faced by farmers due to labor shortages and limited access to suitable machinery. The government previously provided subsidies for hiring farm machinery, but this support has been withdrawn. Consequently, farmers now face higher costs to rent equipment, placing a significant burden on them.

The committee recommended reevaluating subsidies for farm machinery and introducing cost-sharing packages for prioritized crops and livestock activities to incentivize farmers.

Other recommendations included establishing eligibility criteria for land exchanges, scaling up agricultural production, reviewing access to credit in the agricultural sector, reconsidering interest rates, expanding markets, and incentivizing the agricultural sector to attract youth, especially in rural areas.

In view of the additional submisssions from the member, the house assigned the GGC to revisits some of the recommendations. the house will adopt the report including the final recommendations on July 2, 2024.

By Nidup Lhamo, Thimphu