The issue of the elderly being left behind in villages is not new. Yet it remains a worrying trend, nagging policy makers and communities alike, especially when it occurs in hamlets like Bunakha in Chukha where land is fertile and accessibility a non-issue.
Citing rural–urban migration and economic opportunities in urban centres as reasons for such phenomena do not hold water any more. Nor is it right to blame the young for seeking education and employment outside their communities. What appears apparent is that farming as an occupation and a way of life in a country that is identified as an agrarian society is on the wane.
Such a paradox is disturbing when juxtaposed with the findings of GNH survey 2015, which revealed farmers to be the least happy in the country. We have been hearing the same refrain since 2010. It is understood that reaping the benefits of investment in agriculture takes time and that the sector is prone to vagaries of climatic. Where farm mechanisation is initiated to address farm labour shortage, wildlife encroachment has left farmers helpless. Even when efforts are made to address these issues, irrigation becomes an issue. Despite recent efforts, it is clear that the agriculture sector, which provides livelihood to 56.7 percent of the population, has taken a severe beating.
It is perhaps because of all these reasons and more that the elderly get left behind in villages. They may not be abandoned, but farming life is. When residents start buying imported food and the young give up on farming, the bedrock of a village’s culture is fragmented. A village is more than fallow lands, empty homes and few elderly measuring slow steps in the autumn of their days. Like local festivals, farming, the pulse of rural Bhutan’s life is one of the activities that bring and keep the community together.
In a way, we may have already lost this essence of a village. Not paying attention to agriculture risks losing more. The Bunakha story that this newspaper carried had several young people call us to correct that they have not abandoned their home. Such reactions and the fact that they still call their villages home offer hope – a hope that needs to be cultivated.
With right and timely intervention, the agriculture sector could still be salvaged and tapped for its socioeconomic opportunities. The wellbeing of a majority of the country’s people depends on addressing the problems in the agriculture sector.
Tackling this needs urgency and priority beyond what we have given the sector so far. If not, the narrative of agrarian Bhutan will be mere rhetoric.