Starting July, almost 300 families who have been living across the border in Jaigaon will move into the National Housing Development Corporation Ltd. (NHDCL) housing colony in Phuentsholing.

The news has been received well for it has come years after Bhutanese families were pushed to live across the border due to lack of affordable housing in the country’s commercial hub. The 506 units would however, not accommodate all the families living in Jaigaon. As of January this year, about 1,259 applicants have registered for the flats. The number is likely to increase. It is important that NHDCL allots the flats in a fair manner so that those who are in dire need are given priority. The Changjiji housing colony in Thimphu provides several lessons to learn from.

Housing is one of human’s basic needs and is considered an indicator of a person’s standard of living. The latest living standards survey found that in urban areas, about 64 percent of households live in rented houses while 19 percent own homes. Most urban residents spend a huge portion of their income on house rent.

The government’s and the NHDCL’s efforts to address the chronic housing crunch in urban centres are commendable. But more needs to be done. Along with housing, there is a dire need to address housing amenities such as access to improved drinking water and sanitation facilities because these services are directly associated with a household’s welfare and standards of living.

The recent case of sewage leakage in Motithang, an area, which has better access to drinking water than the rest of the city, shows that private house owners are not concerned about the welfare of its residents. Given the acute shortage of housing, residents tolerate these lapses even if they risk lives. House owners are exploiting residents and the municipality, mired in bureaucracy has been of little help in addressing the tenants’ concerns.

It is for these reasons that the NHDCL must step in and become more proactive than reactive in meeting the housing needs of the population. Realising the importance of proper housing for teachers who serve in some of the most remote parts of the country, the education ministry has now prioritised housing for teachers in the 12th Plan. Other sectors are likely to follow suit. The housing policy that the government claims to be reviewing must be given priority so that the housing needs of the people are addressed.

The UN is focusing on housing and housing amenities through the Sustainable Development Goals – goal 6, clean water and sanitation, and goal 11, sustainable cities and communities. Bhutan has much work to do in achieving these SDG goals, even though the survey found that the living standards of the Bhutanese have improved.

Contradictions such as these must make the society think. It must make them ask what it means when a country that is at the threshold of graduating from its least developed status isn’t able to provide some of the basic needs to its population.