Thukten Zangpo 

With a large number of people going abroad for study and work, and the dropping fertility rate, many are beginning to worry that the nation with an ageing population will de-growth its economy.

The worry is that it is not only the citizens with specialised skills in engineering, medicine, education, and information technology, among others that are migrating for better opportunities.

But also, the majority of people that are migrating or planning to migrate are young or economically active people who can contribute in building the country’s productive economy.

The government in January this year confirmed that more than 30,000 Bhutanese are living abroad in 113 countries—about 12,000 in Australia.

With about 10,000 Bhutanese getting Australian visas in the last nine months until March this year seems a huge number for a country with a small population.

According to the stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are about 12,000 Bhutanese in Australia in 2021, which had doubled from 5,953 Bhutanese in 2016.

Between 2001-2010 over 1,579 Bhutanese arrived in Australia. This saw an increase to 3,290 between 2011-2015, and 6,993 between 2016-2021.

Statistics from the Royal Civil Service Commission show that 1,462 civil servants separated from civil service of which about 70 percent or 1,023 voluntarily resigned in the fiscal year 2021-22. The attrition rate was 4.6 percent.

Similarly, in the fiscal year 2020-21, 779 civil servants resigned of which 58.9 percent or 459 voluntarily resigned.

The government also confirmed that the health and education sector is seeing an attrition rate of 7.5 percent and 8 percent early this year.

From January to May this year, 531 teachers resigned of which 416 resigned voluntarily. Of 478 teachers who resigned in 2022, 307 were voluntary.

Similarly, 15 nurses resigned in January this year, while 374 nurses left their jobs between 2019 and 2022.

The World Health Organisation recommended a doctor to population ratio of 1:1,000. However, Bhutan has one doctor for every 5,000 population.

The shortage in manpower is felt in every organisation and every sector in the country. Most Bhutanese favour Australia as their destination, and prefer to work as cleaners, cab drivers, labourers, and caregivers, among others.

With Bhutanese leaving the country in large numbers amid the country’s fast declining fertility rate and ageing population is a concern.

The country’s fertility rate has come down from 6 children per woman in 1982 to 1.9 in 2017 and 1.8 last year, which is below the 2.1 replacement level.

The replacement rate of fertility is the number of children a woman has to have to keep the population stabilised and fewer than that would mean a gradual reduction in population.

The study by the Asian Development Bank states that Bhutan’s first demographic dividend is expected to last until 2038 as the support ratio (share of the working-age population to dependents) continues to rise.

It added that after 2038, the dividend is expected to steadily decline and turn into a demographic tax as the share of the working-age population declines.

The Bank projected that the fall support ratio is expected to increase the share of the population aged 65 and above from 2.8 percent in 1990 to 6.9 percent in 2025, and is expected to reach more than 15 percent by 2050.

In the next 25 years, the number of older persons in the country, aged 65 years and above, is expected to more than double. The number of older persons which was at 50, 715 in 2022 is expected to reach 118,650 persons by 2047.

As per the Labour Force Survey report, the working age population in Bhutan, persons 15 years and above was 484,965 in 2022. It is expected to be 602,673 by 2037 between 15-64 while 117,866 persons will be over 65 years of age.

“In Bhutan’s 43 demographic dividend phase, the demographic could have attributed an estimated 1.6 percentage points to economic growth each year,” the ADB stated.

A country with an anticipated demographic dividend may reap the benefits of good health, quality education and decent employment and this results in economic advantage.

However, with a large number of Bhutanese leaving for abroad, this could decrease economic activities and productivity in the country.

If civil servants leave in hordes after the proposed salary revision, it could add to the country’s dilemma.