In the first meeting of the highlanders in the capital Wednesday, more than 350 highlanders from 10 dzongkhags met to put before the government a list of priorities for the highland communities in the 12th Plan. The issues that they raised were pertinent considering the changes the highland communities are going through today, especially the need to upgrade schools and health facilities. Livestock compensation, stringent laws for Cordyceps collection, and experienced teachers are some of the needs that the highlanders feel are critically important in their communities.

Because most of the highland communities share space with our protected areas, human-wildlife conflict is an issue. Decreasing number of sheep and yaks is a concern that highlanders have been bringing to light repeatedly. Their livelihoods, which depend largely on these animals, are becoming ever more challenging. Seasonal migration of the highlanders affects education of their children. Higher secondary with boarding facilities could be the answer to addressing this issue. For many a highlander, health facilities are a concern. In times of major health issues, travel to the nearest hospital is both cumbersome and risky.

There are already plans to upgrade schools in the highland. The 16 schools in the highlands will get all facilities that are given to central schools. Although Bhutan’s health service coverage has reached a commendable 95 percent, we are yet to launch programme to strengthen health service coverage in the highland communities. These are the priorities that the highlander need urgently. We cannot lose focus on these developments. If we fail to include these development needs of the highland communities in the 12th Plan, it may be too late for us to reconsider our plans.

Except for a few highland communities, migration to the urban centres is an emerging issue. If developments are not taken to the highlands, our highlanders will be compelled to leave their homes. As prime minister said, highlanders in the northern frontiers have a critical responsibility in the security of Bhutan’s borders.

Long-term programmes to develop livelihoods of the highland communities have been long overdue.