If we are serious about reversing rural-urban migration, the priority should be working towards creating a conducive atmosphere for income generation.
We take pride in declaring ourselves as an agrarian society yet, we have allowed our farmers to be totally disenchanted with farming turning them into consumers, from their traditional role of producers.
Food self-sufficiency is said to be at the core of our development planning for the past four decades. Allowing our farmers to abandon their farms and villages isn’t the best strategy to achieving our goals. Small wonder than that instead of being self-sufficient in food, our food import bill for the year 2013 stood at Nu.6.3B. Rice alone accounted for Nu.1.57B.
Resettlement & Consolidation of Villages:
One of the biggest problems to effective service delivery in the rural areas is that our villages are too fragmented and isolated. One of the reasons why the villages still remain poorly developed is because it is not cost-effective to deliver essential services because of low population density in the villages.
It is time to consider resettlement and consolidation of villages to form larger human settlements to effectively counter wildlife predation. We did try this sometime in the late 70s and early 80s. We need to look at this very seriously once again – because one way to counter wildlife predation is by out-numbering them.
In addition, larger areas under cultivation will mean that cost of solar fencing will become economical through shared burden and economies of scale. Marketing of farm produces will be simpler and cheaper. Farmers can become better organised to collect, pack, deliver and market their produces.
Access to Markets:
It is not enough that the farmers produce – they need quick and economic means to access markets for their produces. Unfortunately, two of the biggest complaints of the farming community appear to be that:
1. They are too far away from the centres of commerce; and
2. They are priced out by cheap imports form India and third countries.
The above two problems are not insurmountable. When they say they are too far away from markets, it translates to transportation challenges. This problem would be solved if we can organise pick-up from centralised pick-up points in villages. This will take some doing, but it is a matter of building up organisational set up to pick up, sort, pack, store and transport to distribution centres from where bulk movement of produces to consumption centres can be organised.
This means we need to create a distribution network around the country. This can be done by private operators but with government encouragement.
Price is always an issue. Unfortunately, Bhutanese people want too much profit for too little value. This stems from the fact that they are poorly educated in the concept of costing. They do not know how to price their produce. As a result, they are priced out by imports. What they actually mean is that they are getting less profit! Thus, one of the most important exercises we need to conduct is to educate Bhutanese farmers to be reasonable in their expectations.
To encourage local production, selective restrictions on imports should be imposed. Bhutanese farmers cannot compete with imports because of the scale of production. However, consumers in Bhutan will always be willing to pay a higher price for locally produced food items because they are mostly organic and healthy and safe compared with those imported and sold at Sunday markets.
The government needs to help create an effective marketing and distribution network. However, there would be no point to producing if the produces cannot be marketed. Therefore, we need to create or invent markets for the produces.
In 2013, a staggering 53,307 students, or 31 percent of the total students in the country received free food from the WFP and the government under its School Feeding Program (SFP).
From 2014 through 2018, the WFP has earmarked a budget of US$ 8.6M (Nu 581M) that it will pump into this program.
In 2015 alone, the government is expected to spend Nu 269.980M to feed school children.
Where is all this money going? To India!
What has prevented Bhutan and Bhutanese farmers from supplying most of the food items purchased under the SFP? Nobody seems to have thought of this. We need to think and act upon.
The Centralised School Feeding Program of the education ministry and the WWF represents one single assured market for the Bhutanese farmers – it represents a Nu 500M worth of business every year. Why haven’t we tapped into this ready market? Why haven’t we looked at supplying to other institutionalised bodies such as RBP, RBA, RBG, colleges and VTI’s and monk bodies – to meet their food needs from healthy and safe produces available within the country?
Buying from within generates income for the rural people. Sizeable income from farm produces means that farmers will be discouraged from leaving their villages. This will curtail imports and prevent outflow of Rupees. Generation of business in rural areas will ensure that Goontongpas will start to return to their villages to take up farming.
Educational institutions can be the engine of growth in the rural areas. In fact, one of the main reasons why the UN Res Rep considered my ideas too radical (please refer my first article) and refused to publish was because of my suggestion that all government funded schools in the urban centres like Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue and Phuentsholing, should be auctioned off to private operators.
My idea was and still is, that Bhutanese have now become economically efficient to be able to afford the cost of educating their own children. Therefore, they should not continue to seek kidu from the government. Thus those who wish to remain in the urban centres must be burdened with having to pay private schools to educate their children.
If they cannot or do not wish to, they have the option to work in the rural areas where, my idea is that the government should open up public/central schools with free boarding and tuition. In this respect, the recent announcement by the government to consolidate a large number of schools to form central schools is in tune with my idea. However, they fall short of the real potential such an idea offers, simply because the government is thinking small.
Starting huge central/public schools in the rural areas should serve a purpose that go beyond educating children. It should be an engine of growth; it must generate economic activities that can give employment; it must keep the farming community within the vicinity busy producing all year round. It should not only serve the farming community but these schools must open up opportunities for all sorts of businesses- poultry, piggery, dairy farming, laundry services, bakery, banking, Internet services, photocopy and documentation centres etc.
However, key to the success of these schools will be that they have to be big. Each of these schools – around 4 to 5 spread around the country – must have about 5,000 students each. Such a number opens up all sorts of possibilities. Imagine how many bakers and poultry farmers will be needed to serve breakfast to a school of 5,000 students.
These schools will also help create regional hubs such as Yenla towns. These will help absorb few of the migrants that otherwise end up in urban areas. Free education in the rural areas will help draw talent to the rural areas thereby making it possible for them to develop faster and better.
These schools will not only help end Goongtongs but will also help reverse the process of rural-urban migration.
Contributed by Yeshey Dorji
Photographer & Blogger