Under the shadow of gungtongs

In the remote eastern dzongkhag of Lhuntse, life is turning increasingly tough.

With villagers, especially the young and able, leaving their rural lands for what they deem greener pastures in urban centers like Thimphu, population back home is on the decline.

This growing phenomenon has resulted in ripple effects: agricultural land remains fallow and elderly parents and grandparents are separated from the younger ones in the family who take to the cities in hope of a better life.

Seventy-two year old Aum Dumda from Wambur village of Tshenkhar gewog in Lhuntse is one of the many left behind to shoulder the burden of surviving in the village without children to look after her. She has difficulty carrying out farming chores and is becoming increasingly dependent on her neighbors.

“I wonder how long this must go on,” she sighs with a far-away look in her eyes.

Rural-urban migration is becoming a common feature in developing countries like Bhutan.

The National Housing and Population Census 2005 revealed that the number of migrants, mostly comprising young adults aged 15-30 years is increasing yearly.

The phenomenon is largely viewed as a response to economic reforms and better employment opportunities in destination cities.

Sonam Rinzin, a 73-year old who has been left behind by his children in the same village, says the advent of modern education has contributed to rural-urban migration. “Once children are educated, even for some years, they begin to dream big and most often, leave the villages. Education is good but it causes village children to lose interest in farming.”

Lhuntse is one of the most isolated districts in the country with one of the highest number of rural-urban migrants.

The dzongkhag has a population of 22,998 with 2,527 households of which more than 244 households are empty (gungtongs).

Among the eight gewogs in Lhuntse; Tshenkhar and Maenbi gewogs have the highest numbers of gungtongs.

Maenbi gewog has 339 households of which 59 are gungtongs and Tshenkhar gewog has 436 households of which 58 are empty.

Tshenkhar Gup Tsheten Wangdi said the number of gungtongs has been rising yearly. “When the government provides facilities, people have to contribute labor but we do not have enough labor to carry out the tasks,” he said, adding that those who are left behind complain about having to contribute double the amount of labor.

He mentioned that repercussions like loss of cultural values, weakening of family cohesion, administrative problems during annual census and tax collection are felt acutely and widely.

According to Tsheten Wangdi, some of the main causes of rural-urban migration are small landholdings, lack of employment opportunities, limited cultural and social amenities and better schools

Rural poverty being rampant in Lhuntse due to low agricultural income, and less than optimal farm productivity as well as underemployment and pressure of physically strenuous farm work, the people of Lhuntse are leaving to seek better opportunities in urban hubs like the capital.

The effects of this are already being felt across the dzongkhag. One can sight vast swathes of land left to become jungles, the old struggling to carry out daily chores and a reminiscent, tangible sadness in the air.

With the aged and physically weaker people left in the villages, labor shortage is a huge problem and the rural pockets are developing at snail’s pace. This means that earning a decent income is also a problem for the villagers since local economy is doldrums.

Tsheten Wangdi said that less population in the villages will cause minimal pressure on the natural environment and the volume of waste generated will not be a cause for concern. He also added that those left behind can inherit more ancestral property “but if there is no thriving life in the backwaters, who will benefit from all this?”

However, dzongkhag authorities told Business Bhutan that the government is implementing broad strategies toward curbing rural-urban migration and results are expected sooner than later.

The multi-pronged strategy includes rural access to market for which farm roads are being constructed. The government also provides farm inputs and other essentials to farmers for increasing agricultural productivity.

Additionally, the recently introduced initiative of central schools is expected to address the problem of poor quality education and incidences of school dropouts.

Similarly, introduction of electric fencing to address crop depredation by wild animals, adequate irrigation channels and compensation for livestock and crop damage are other measures the government is implementing.

Tsheten Wangdi said that since his gewog now has access to such facilities provided by the government, he is trying to contact and convince individuals who left their ancestral home to come back.

“Rural-urban migration is a serious but real threat to our nation,” he said.

Though rural-urban migration deprives villages of their people, those who did find employment in the cities are said to send back remittances.

The Labor Force Survey Report 2015 shows that lack of educational facilities in rural places contributed to more than 46% of the migration, motivated by a desire for education-related opportunities offered in urban areas.

This shows that education is a powerful determinant of rural-urban migration and schooling has increased expectations of new and modern urban life so that educated rural people are more prone to migrate.

However, the Tshenkhar gup is optimistic that if the government can increase the number of recreational centers, job opportunities, higher institutes of learning, and many more in the rural areas, it will definitely encourage young people to stay back and work in their localities.

Wambur Tshogpa Choni Norbu said that most people migrate due to small landholdings and less farming land. “So if the government can give land on lease or resettlement land, the youth may come back and utilize their land for cultivating agricultural produces.”

Lhuntse is famous for its many sacred sites and cultural heritage. The place is also famous for the hand-loomed fabrics typically woven from fine silk, popularly known as Kishutharas, which is one the most distinctive art forms in the country.

Observers share the opinion that with such rich natural and cultural resources at the dzongkhag’s disposal, eco-tourism in rural Lhuntse can be developed and if the cards are played well, the locals can benefit hugely.

Meanwhile, if this exodus from the rural pockets continues, one day, the villages will see nothing but the tears of the grey-haired and bones left of those who have crossed the great divide.

Jigme Wangchen from Tshenkhar, Lhuntse