Even as we brand ourselves as the nation of Gross National Happiness, nation is also facing a pressing challenge that threatens the very fabric of its society – a declining fertility rate that has fallen significantly below the minimum replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. This demographic crisis, if left unaddressed, will have severe repercussions for the country’s long-term economic productivity, social stability, and future.

Our Constitution enshrines the State’s responsibility to ensure a good quality of life for its citizens and promote conditions that enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness. Article 9, Section 1, explicitly mandates the State to “ensure a good quality of life for the people of Bhutan in a progressive and prosperous country that is committed to peace and amity in the world”.

One of the key principles outlined in this article is the State’s commitment to minimizing income inequalities, promoting equitable distribution of public facilities, and ensuring access to essential services for all citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It is evident that the current lack of accessible and affordable Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) facilities even in places like Paro which is considered a developed district except the Capital is a violation of constitutional mandate, as it disproportionately burdens families, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds or remote areas, hindering their ability to raise children without compromising their livelihoods. Residents in these places face an impossible choice, to sacrifice their careers and economic stability to care for their children or forgo having additional children altogether. This predicament not only infringes upon the fundamental rights of citizens but also contributes to the nation’s declining fertility rate, threatening its long-term prosperity.

It is time for the State to take decisive action and prioritize the establishment of ECCD facilities across the length and breadth of the country, with a particular focus on underserved and remote areas. These facilities must be either fully funded by the State or heavily subsidized, ensuring that access to quality early childhood care and education is a right, not a privilege, for all Bhutanese parents. By alleviating the financial and logistical burdens associated with childcare, the State can create an enabling environment for families to have more children without compromising their economic well-being. This, in turn, will contribute to reversing the alarming decline in fertility rates, securing a sustainable demographic future for the nation.

Investing in ECCD facilities aligns with the State’s commitment to promoting equitable distribution of public facilities and minimizing income inequalities. By providing accessible and affordable childcare options, the State can empower families from all socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue their economic aspirations without sacrificing their reproductive rights or compromising the well-being of their children.

Government should not argue that the financial burden of establishing and maintaining a nationwide network of ECCD facilities is too expensive. Such arguments will be short-sighted perspective and fails to acknowledge the long-term economic and social costs of inaction. A declining population and shrinking workforce will inevitably lead to a myriad of challenges, including diminished economic productivity and the collapse of our public service delivery and sovereignty of the nation.

The government of the day must recognize the urgency of this demographic by  prioritizing the establishment of accessible and affordable Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) facilities across the country, is not merely a policy imperative but a constitutional obligation enshrined in the principles of the State Policy.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.