In the middle of a maize field in Bikhar-Domkhar chiwogs stands a single storied house. The neatly plastered single-storey house appears it was constructed a few years ago. It was abandoned. Nobody knows when.

Neighbours have not seen the house owner for almost 15 years. “Nobody knows for sure where the owner is,” a villager said.

According to the residents, for every 10 houses in the village, there is one empty household, now popularly known as gungtong. Of the 208 households in the chiwogs, 43 are gungtongs.

Bikhar-Domkhar chiwog tshogpa, Sonam Dorji, said that increasing number of empty households is becoming a major concern for the local leaders. “We have problems during times of woola (labour contribution) because there are no representation from those households.”

He said that those residing in the villages are reluctant to come forward or make labour contribution claiming that those who left do not contribute. “Sometimes they listen but most of the time it is difficult for us and the gewog to persuade them to cooperate.”

Although marked as gungtong by the gewog, some of the owners are occasionally seen returning. “However, they disappear again. They come and use the facilities in the village without contributing a single penny worth of labour,” said Sonam Dorji.

Khabti-Lungtenzampa chiwog tshogpa, Tsheltrim Yangchen, said that gungtong is a challenge especially during collecting taxes from the villagers. “Here we have to collect taxes on everything from water to land and life.”

She said that while some of the people who have left their houses empty could be contacted through telephone, many of them were gone without leaving any contact details with the gewog administration or with their relatives in the village.

“There lies the problem. We go on collecting taxes from others but some of these people escape the taxes,” said the tshogpa. “This is unfair for those who have stayed back.”

Tsheltrim Yangchen said that most of the gungtong are a result of children who work as civil servants taking their parents along with them to the urban centres.  “Also there are children who have been staying away from the village. They never come back to the village when they grow up.”

Sonam Dorji said that human-wildlife conflict also deters farmers from staying back in the villages which is why those who are physically active turn to contract works in other places and leave the houses empty in the village.

Samkhar gewog mangmi, Tshering Samdrup, said that with increasing gungtong in the gewog, paddy fields have turned into forests. “Gungtong is a major concern for our gewog today. Besides the issue of collecting taxes, the community vitality is also affected.”

Of the 522 households in the gewog, there are 78 gungtong in Samkhar today.

The mangmi said that although many programmes under agriculture and livestock sectors have been initiated to help farmers get involved and stay back in the villages, the rate of gungtong has been increasing.

He said that a major project to encourage farmers who are residing in the villages to take part and also to attract youth from urban centres to return to villages is needed. “For this, the government has to take up necessary actions. We have to act now, before our villages are left empty, altogether.”

Sonam Dorji said that severe punishment for gungtong has to be put in place to deter people from leaving their homes empty. “Gungtong has been a nuisance for many years but officials have come up with temporary solutions,” he said. “It is time we have a permanent solution for gungtong. We need a firm penalty for gungtong.”

Younten Tshedup | Bikhar