The National Land Commission is on an important mission. They will soon start mapping gungtongs in the country and then come up with policy recommendations for the government.
This will be, like Bhutanese say, honey to the ears of the local leaders. Villages are getting empty because people lock up homes and leave in search of greener pastures. This has been an thorn in the side of our villages for long. It is not a new issue. It was highlighted in almost every gewog and dzongkhag forum in almost every dzongkhag, except for Paro, Thimphu and, perhaps, Punakha and Gasa.
The reasons are there for all to see. There were no professional studies done, but the local leaders know well why and how villages are getting emptied. In fact, the local government department had, five years ago, done a preliminary study. They pointed out the causes, the effect and recommended policy measures to address an issue that cuts across all dzongkhags. In other words, this is a national issue.
However, for whatever reasons, the local government had not been able to convince the central government to look into the issue. Perhaps in the excitement of other priorities, we have neglected an issue that will have huge repercussions. We know that villagers are locking up homes to look for work in urban areas; there is peer pressure among the young; and only the old are left behind. We also know that wild animals are ravaging crops that discourage farmers to cultivate, lack of infrastructure and isolation is forcing people to live in towns and cities.
What we don’t know is why the government didn’t prioritise this as a national issue. We can surmise that this is one issue voters highlighted when politicians came to the villages campaigning for votes.
For local leaders, it is a crisis situation. Without people in the village, there are no hands to help in community services; agriculture land turns into forest, leading to predation of crops by wildlife.
Villages are so short of people that in some chiwogs there are no candidates to stand for local government posts. Local leaders attribute the increasing number of choetens vandalised, lhakhang robberies, and fallowing agriculture land to the issue of gungtongs. Combating natural disasters like forest fire is also difficult when there are no people, or only the old remain, in the villages. Collecting taxes from gungtongs is another headache.
The local government department already recommended the need to revise rural taxation system, de-concentration of government offices and considering home placement for civil servants to help solve the issue. There were no ears to listen to this. The irony is that we are faced with this problem after years of focusing on regional balanced development.
We will not see all the people return to their villages. But with policy interventions, we should make our rural areas attractive to live and start or continue or livelihood.