Why is homelessness growing in Bhutan?

Yangyel Lhaden

Homelessness is not peculiar to Bhutan. But the recent lockdown brought the issue to the fore. Although many might be inclined to think otherwise, Bhutan has a significant number of floating population.

As the argument goes, why should Bhutan have the problem of homelessness at all? But why not? It’s a reality that is threatening to grow with so-called development.

Dr Chencho Dorji, a psychiatrist, said that homelessness in urban may be side effect of modernisation- rural urban migration, nuclear families, overcrowding and limited living spaces in urban areas and loss of income. “As society progress and become more effluent, sophisticated and materialistic, people become more self-centered and less tolerant to others, especially to the weaker lot.”

The drifters of Thimphu found their home at Rinchen Kuenphen Primary School (RKPS) during the lockdown, under the care of His Majesty’s The King’s Kidu Programme, organised by the Office of The Gyalpoi Zimpon.

The down and out who came to RKPS were suffering from diverse social and other disabilities such as deafness, dumbness and physical disability. Most were alcoholic.

Dr Chencho Dorji said that persons with social disabilities would face difficulty in social inclusion. For example, he said that there was one middle aged shabbily dressed man walking with a stick in Thimphu-Paro highway. He said that people avoided him as they assumed he would hurt them but purpose of him carrying the stick was because he was scared of dogs. “Such type of person will face difficulty living in communes.”

Dr Chencho had another story to tell. About 10 years ago, Her Royal Highness Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck brought 10 alcoholic people from Centenary Famers’ Market who were living on Bazam bridge to be counselled at the psychiatric ward. The group started razzling on the first day in the ward. They did not believe when told that they were brought in for detox as they thought they were taken into a new housing.

Detoxification and counselling programme did not work.

Dr Chencho said that chronic psychosis or schizophrenia were among the severest and most disabling from social point of view as such people would face difficulty living in communes and would not show dramatic improvement over a few weeks or months of attention. Moreover, too much attention could be anathema to their mental well-being.

How do we socially include such people?

“The problem is complex and there is no simple straight forward answer to help these group of people otherwise the industralised and rich countries could have taken care of all their destitute people,” Dr Chencho said.

And he warned: “Destitution and suicide were likely to increase unless something was done about it as the weaker and poorer lot would not be able to compete for limited opportunities with rapid modernisation and they would fall into the abyss.”

Developments come with cost. How must such social problems be addressed so that Bhutan’s GNH does not fly flat on its face?

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