With modern development and increasing urbanization in the country, there is pressure on conversion of chhuzhing. This pressure will only increase in coming years. Policy-makers, including local government leaders, have to be prepared to face the pressures if the national goal of preservation of chhuzhing is to be achieved. It will indeed be a tough challenge for the decision-makers when there are many forces driving the conversion of chhuzhing.
Before 2000s, most of the urban areas, including Thimphu, were chhuzhing. Without the conversion of the chhuzhing to other land uses, Thimphu could have faced acute housing shortage and most people could have had to resorted to squatter settlement. While we all agree that the development of Thimphu city could have been better than what we have today, we should also acknowledge that it accommodated over 30,000 households in 2021 compared to only 15,720 households in 2005. This would not have been possible without the conversion of chhuzhings.
Over the years, the preservation of chhuzhings has been justified with numerous reasons. Food security is one of the most quoted reason. It is, however, necessary to conduct a proper research on how chhuzhing is helping the country in achieving its food security. For instance, cultivation of areca nuts in most of the chhuzhings of southern dzongkhags or the many vacant and uncultivated lands in the northern dzongkhags are not in line with our food security goal. It must be acknowledged that the production of rice is labour intensive despite mechanisation of farming. The unhindered import of rice from India is also proving to be tough competition for our rice farmers, both in terms of price as well as in offering consumers a choice. While the local rice is a regular menu in the table of urban riches, it is not an affordable commodity for the common people, particularly when the market is flooded with cheaper alternatives.
Maintaining cultural landscape of settlement also requires chhuzhing preservation. While chhuzhing forms a significant component of the cultural landscape, it is equally important to consider the social and economic implications of preserving chhuzhing. All sections of society benefit from having a good view of the landscape. Tourism, for instance, benefits immensely when tourists on their entry to the country appreciates the first sight of Bhutan through the cultural landscape of Paro. Generally, we believe that tourism has multiplier effects on the society, starting from royalty that tourist pays to the government and the employment it generates in the economy. However, the cost of preserving the cultural landscape should not be borne only by the chhuzhing owners. Policies and implementation plans to preserve chhuzhing should be followed by design of reasonable fiscal and incentive measures to the chhuzhing owners for maintaining such cultural landscape of national importance.
Another quoted reason for chhuzhing preservation is quality of living environment. Like any other green areas within urban areas, the chhuzhing provides quality of life to the urban dwellers. It increases the value of the property located near the preserved area. It also increases the hedonic value of property located on the higher elevation, which has a good view of the cultural landscape of chhuzhing. As mentioned above, there is no associated costs borne by these beneficiaries of the serene environment generated by the preserved chhuzhings. Therefore, all the stakeholders directly or indirectly benefiting from the preservation of the chhuzhing preservation should equally pay for the preservation. For example, minimal fees may be charged to those living or owning property in the proximity of chhuzhing.
As Bhutan gradually develops, there will be shift in employment from primary to service sector. We should not expect chhuzhing owners and their children to remain as farmers. We are likely to see increasing case of vacant or uncultivated chhuzhing in hope of converting it to other land types. Government should intervene through different mechanisms that are acceptable for the chhuzhing owners to realize national goals.
One of the major challenges in chhuzhing preservation is the numerous incidences of subdivision of chhuzhing plots. Cultivation is not feasible for owners when the plot size is small. Consolidation of these chhuzhing plots should be proposed if cultivation of the rice is the priority. Alternatively, if it is kept as vacant, conversion to serviced land will increase the land supply and would help curb the distortions in the land markets. It will help in reducing the living cost in the urban centres, where more than 50 percent of population is expected to reside by 2047.
In the land markets, value of chhuzhing was higher than kamzhing in the past, and in recent times, the value of Kamzhing is higher than chhuzhing. It is also true to say that socio-economic status of chhuzhing owners were better than those owners of other land types, and this trend have been reversed in recent times. Further, when the neighbor has become landlord and earning good income, it is irresistible for the chhuzhing owner to find a way in a system to sell it, mostly lower rate than other land types.
As Bhutan develops gradually and transform to a more progressive society, it is time to relook at our policies related to preservation of chhuzhing by considering its socio-economic impacts. If we choose to preserve it, we may have to do it with policy interventions with chhuzhing owners at the heart of stakeholders. In coming years, we Bhutanese should accept the creative destruction of chhuzhing for more progressive and innovative society through creation of service-oriented jobs for our youth and coming generation. Whether we preserve chhuzhing or not, service sector will expand, and development pressure on the agriculture land will continue to grow.