Undoubtedly, the proliferation of the malaise called “Goongtong” in the Eastern dzongkhags has been mainly caused by:
Wildlife predation and,
Youth abandoning village homes in search of better livelihood.
However, there appears to be a number of other players that aggravate the problem further. They can be identified as:
Zhabto Lemi/Goongdung Woola
Poor access to markets
Puritanical/Dogmatic religious beliefs
Divergent census Vs real population figures
Zhabto lemi/goongdung woola:
You may call it Goongdung Woola or you may choose to call it by its euphemistic equivalent: Zhabto Lemi – it means the same thing: forced involuntary labor contribution.
Villagers – at least those who are still domiciled in the villages – are required to contribute labor to repair dzongs, community lhakhangs, irrigation channels, farm roads and to haul construction materials for community projects. There are other sporadic unplanned activities that happen in the villages for which labour needs to be mobilized from within the community – free of cost.
Although it can be argued that all this is for their own benefit, the fact is that it places incredible amounts of physical and financial burden and hardship on the villagers who are already stretched to the limit of endurance by having to toil in the field all day long and stay awake all night – to guard the fields from predation by wildlife. It does not help that the calculation of labour contribution by each household is based on Goongdung – registered head count under each Goog.
The anomaly here is that the Googdung may be 20 heads – but the household may comprise of only about 3-4 remaining registrants. Rest may have migrated in search of easier livelihood. Thus, those who remain in the villages have to take on the additional burden on behalf of the rest of the family who are no longer residents of the villages.
The burden of Zhabto Lemi/Goongdung Woola has been so great that some Eastern males have come up with an ingenious way of avoiding it – they have declared themselves as Gomchens. Gomchens are considered religious entities, thus not subject to Zhabto Lemi/Goongdung Woola. The net result is that these Gomchens abandon their families and villages and roam the streets of the urban centers – seeking alms.
I am told that a village in Lauri gewog in Samdrup Jongkhar is now largely populated by females because most of their men have declared themselves Gomchens and moved out. This means that the increase in marriage break-up in the rural areas is also on the rise.
Poor access to market:
The lack of incentive to increase food and other production in the rural areas is attributed to lack of access to markets for their produce/products. The inability to generate attractive income from what they produce is the sole reason why farming is losing appeal among the rural population.
Cheap import substitution is another cause for falling production of local produce. For example, as incredible as it may sound, when I was in Deothang last November, I could not buy a kg. of the local specialty – Kharang: it is no exaggeration – the whole of Deothang town could not sell me a kg. of Kharang!
The most effective way to encourage retention of human capital in the villages is to afford them the ability to generate income from what they are best at: farm production. Unfortunately, the villagers lament that they have no access to markets and, even if they do, the prices they obtain are incommensurate to the amount of time and energy they have to invest behind their production.
They point out that the main reason why they are priced out of the market is because they have to compete with cheap imports from India.
Quite evidently, the farmers lacked leadership and direction. Thus, even after 60 years of planned development, our farmers are still stuck with their traditional kitchen farming mentality.
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