Community: To provide a platform for positive youth development and to give back to the community, the Voluntary Artists’ Studio in Thimphu (VAST) organised its fourth Rice Bank project on April 17.

Azha Karma, the founder of VAST, said it all began in 2005 through an art camp held in Punakha.

“Through interactions with the locals, we found that some of them were living under dire situations where they had hardly any food to eat at the end of the day,” Azha Karma said. “They were the ones who survived by working in small landholdings or through share-cropping,” he added.

“Some even didn’t own any land. So, in a way to help them, we decided to give them a bag of rice during the lean season when there was hardly any harvest.”

However, Azha Karma said that the project came under criticism with some saying that VAST was spoiling the farmers and encouraging them to work less.

“VAST has a mandate to help uplift the lives of people and also instil in young people a sense of responsibility towards their community,” he said. “Art is one way to connect these young people to such social issues or causes and help them understand the rural way of life,” he added.

After such speculations, Azha Karma and his group decided to conduct a baseline survey that same year involving the concerned tshogpas and gup of the village. The survey was aimed to find out why certain sections of the village didn’t have enough to eat.

“We found out that they had to borrow rice to provide food to their family and the only way they could do that was by working in others’ fields,” Azha Karma said. “We held several meetings and decided to raise money through the Art of Giving and to start a Rice Bank project.”

The Rice Bank project was previously held three times.

The VAST members, artists and volunteers, raised money through entry fees, by selling food items, a jumble sale, face painting and tarot card readings, among others on Sunday.

The fourth Rice Bank project was held at Zarbisa chiwog under Kabji gewog in Punakha.

The 16 selected families were given 100 drey (one drey is equal to 1.5 to 2kgs) of rice to be paid back in instalments of 20 drey a year for five years without interest, Azha Karma said.

“The sad reality is that they can’t pay back the instalment. So, we decided to provide them with relief rice, to help them work in whatever landholdings they have for now and work towards achieving the instalment,” he said.

However, last summer, to further help them achieve the instalment, more than 105 VAST members went back to the village and helped them in the cultivation of rice towards achieving the Rice Bank.

“This yielded positive results. They were able to pay back their first instalment this year, which is being sold under the VAST’s community development programme,” Azha Karma said. “We have undertaken the responsibility to repackage and sell the rice.”

From the gross sale, 50 percent of the profit will be invested to buy more rice to be distributed free of cost as the second relief rice during the lean season this summer. The other 50 percent will be deposited as seed money for the next Rice Bank. This will be repeated till the project is completed in five years time, Azha Karma said.

“It gives VAST’s young members, artists and volunteers an opportunity to exercise their responsibilities as good citizens in the wake of being a greater Bhutanese family who believes that ‘no one deserves to go hungry’,” he said.

If the project is successful, Azha Karma hopes to expand the project in other places as well. For now, VAST is planning to help the farmers start home-based businesses as well.

Thinley Zangmo