It is not everyday that those who live in the highlands are remembered. When they are, it is often driven by events or visits of important officials. Festivals are held to showcase them, their culture, attire and life. They adorn tourism brochures and postcards and are marketed as an exotic community where nature nurtures their way of life.
What do not seem to be captured in the frames of these moments are issues that worry our highlanders. The celebratory spectacle of pastureland, grazing rights and yaks and sheep appear to have obscured the fact that rice, like the rest of the country is also the community’s staple diet.
It is an irony that the people of Sakteng, who were provided sheep and power tillers a day before had to draw lots to buy rice. Many had to return home empty handed for want of luck, not money. It is sad that the road to the community, which is used to transport ration remains blocked while politicians fly in and out in a helicopter. It is worse that the stock of rice was saved for guests who are yet to arrive but is not available to those who need it the most.
Bhutan is known as much for its hospitality as for its belief in the roll of dice or draw of lots. Cultural norms such as luck and karma are often persuasive in informing and, to an extent, convincing a community of their problems. But such a rational for rice or any other food would be stretching these norms a bit too far. If politicians and chillies can be airlifted, bags of rice could also be transported to Sakteng. If the highlanders are Bhutan’s pride, their lack of access to available rice should be our shame. The shortage of rice in Sakteng belies the fact that it is located just miles away from the so-called rice bowl of the east.
It is hoped that the issue receives attention of the policymakers. Besides reminding us about Bhutan’s dependency on imported rice, the rice shortage in Sakteng tells us about the challenges of living in the highlands.
Our communities in the highlands are more than distant exotic cultural exhibits to be displayed in brochures and postcards. They may be afar but they are one of us. Their problems are ours and ours entirely to address.