15 years ago, the first elected government adopted the Constitution of Bhutan as the nation transformed into a democratic, constitutional monarchy. The Constitution outlines the structure of the government and provisions for the human and legal rights of the people of Bhutan. 

Article 9 of the Constitution defines the fundamental duties of the state. This includes providing free education, access to basic health services, promoting the arts and sciences, and encouraging private sector development. In addition to these obligations, the state is tasked with ensuring a good quality of life for the citizens of Bhutan. That is a wide and flexible mandate, and what it entails will vary not only over time as the country develops but across space, since different regions face different challenges. 

This becomes apparent when we examine the Bhutan Living Standard Survey (BLSS). The National Statistics Bureau conducts BLSS every five years to record the well-being and outlook of a representative sample of the population. The latest survey was conducted between April and June 2022 and covered over 13,000 Bhutanese households. In addition to questions on living standards (housing conditions, food consumption, household member details, etc.), respondents were asked to list upto three actions the government could take to improve their household’s welfare. The results from that part of the questionnaire show the wide range of issues on which Bhutanese households desire government support. 

The contrasting priorities between rural and urban areas of Bhutan are pronounced. In rural regions, the primary demand is road construction and upgradation (28%), while urban households, the top concern was job creation (16%). The latter is unsurprising, as according to the 2022 Labour Force Survey, the urban unemployment rate (10%) is three times higher than the rural unemployment rate. 

It is also unsurprising that road construction and improvement is such a commonly-desired government action. As a mountainous and land-locked country, the country faces an uphill battle in connecting her dispersed regions. With only 21 inhabitants per square kilometer, Bhutan is among the least densely-populated countries in Asia. Roads are a public good, and their construction is essential for creating markets and economies of scale. 

This makes it critical to continue the substantial progress that the government and its partners have made in road construction recently. Under the 12th Five-Year Plan, 789 farm roads were constructed across the country. The length of black-topped roads has nearly doubled in the 15 years since the Constitution was adopted, from 2,600 kilometers in 2008 to 4,900 kilometers in 2022.

There are notable patterns in respondent priorities by Dzongkhag. For 12 out of 20 Dzongkhags, roads were the top concern. For five Dzongkhags (Ha, Paro, Sarpang, Samdrup Jongkhar and Punakha), it was water supply and sanitation, with waste management being the primary concern in Paro and Haa. Chukkha, Lhuentse, and Thimphu were the remaining three Dzongkhags, for which no action by the government was requested. 

Delving deeper into the data, it becomes clear how different types of Bhutanese households prioritize government actions. According to the 2022 Poverty Analysis Report, 12% of Bhutan’s population falls under the national poverty line. Poor households were only two-thirds as likely as non-poor households to request no action by the government. Poor households were more likely than non-poor households to call for electricity, social support (including income transfers, subsidies for basic necessities like food and oil, and elder- and child-care), and transportation. 

But most distinctions fell across rural versus urban lines, rather than poor versus non-poor lines. This underscores the challenges presented by Bhutan’s geography. Roads, health, education (building new schools), and agricultural support were more commonly requested by rural households than urban households. The most requested agricultural support was the provision of farming equipment, such as power tillers, and the creation of marketing outlets. In contrast, respondents in urban areas were more likely to call for water supply and sanitation, job creation, business financing, and affordable housing than their rural counterparts.   

Many of these desired government actions are linked to one of the most prominent demographic and economic challenges facing Bhutan today: the ongoing emigration to Australia and other advanced economies. The survey responses reflect both causes and consequences of that issue. 

On the cause side, there is a lack of job opportunities as a contributing factor. Job creation was the top concern for nearly 10% of the population and was listed as a top three concern for over one-fifth of the country. Private sector development would create more opportunities for Bhutanese citizens to achieve their aspirations domestically, rather than abroad. 

On the consequence side, the calls for social support in the form of eldercare are likely a reflection not only of Bhutan’s ageing population but of economic migrants leaving their parents behind. 

July 18 marks Constitution Day, and the 15th anniversary milestone is an opportunity to reflect on how government priorities are evolving with the challenges and opportunities of the day. 

Contributed by

Milan Thomas (PhD)


Asian Development Bank

Yangchen C. Rinzin

Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies