Rethinking highland development

Bhutan’s highlanders, the custodians of northern borders, are increasingly leaving their homes and migrating to the plains for good. And that matters.

Balanced development is still a major challenge for Bhutan. The tourism sector is only now looking at taking the benefits from international visitors to places outside Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Punakha. It will not be easy, of course, because save the raw nature, there is pretty much nothing to entice visitors to the remote parts of the country.

Cordyceps collection benefited the far-off settlements, particularly the highlanders. Looking back, Bhutan’s development approach should have been a little more far-sighted. Today, highlanders, each individually, earns a lot more than a mid-level civil servant or businessperson annually. Many from the highland communities have invested heavily in the urban centres—in properties and profitable businesses.

Here is a lesson drawn from our own experience. While the country’s few urban centres are bursting at the seams what with development activities and projects of kinds and kinds, the rural parts of the country have not witnessed significant change beyond a few roads and telecommunications networks. In fact, these very modern amenities are encouraging our people in the rural parts to abandon their homes and move increasingly towards the growing urban centres.

For Bhutan, to keep our communities and people at the borders is vitally important. But we must not forget the fact that our people will stay put in these many strategic locations only if we take development at their doorstep. Here is where the governments have repeatedly fallen short. The government cannot ask or compel the people in the highlands to not modernise and remain herders and farmers forever.

We may have messed up with some of the biggest opportunities we had but all’s not lost. Taking major development projects to the highlands and strategic locations is still very much possible. Why can’t we take happiness centres to the highlands, for instance? We can boast connectivity today and can improve on it. Why can’t we take some of our top wellness centres to the highlands?

These small development initiatives and activities have the potential to revitalise our communities. Centralised development approach may have done us good in the past when we had to look through from the perspective of development budget. Not anymore. We risk losing more by asking highlanders to continue to be highlanders without giving them the benefits of modern development.

Our highlands can be the seat of the most efficient research houses and world-class universities and education centres. Rethinking highland development must go beyond small workshops and rhetoric. Blathering we have had enough.

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