Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Despite huge potential in agriculture and mining sectors and a close proximity to a secure and ready Indian market, Samtse, a dzongkhag that should be performing well economically, is the third poorest in the country.

According to the National Statistics Bureau’s (NSB) Poverty Analysis report 2022, released on December 31, 2022, Samtse has a 21.9 percent poverty rate.

The report also says Samtse has the largest share of poor individuals.

Samtse is one of the most populated dzongkhags in the country with 15 gewogs. According to the Population and Housing Census of Bhutan 2017, Samtse has a total population of 62,590.

So, why is Samtse in this state?

Samtse Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) chairman, Nima Dukpa, said 12 out of 15 gewogs in Samtse share a porous international border with India. While this gives market accessibility, it is also a challenge for people to do business due to competition.

“Samtse is also not an open tourism destination. There is not a single homestay as of now,” he said. “Our people depend on farming.”

Nima Dukpa said that although mining activities contribute to the country’s revenue generation, they don’t benefit the local economy directly.

People say tourism could help alleviate poverty in the dzongkhag.

“Tourism is the primary source of revenue, next to hydro power projects, for developed or rich dzongkhags,” a businessman said.

He also said that people from Samtse migrating to Thimphu and other urban places is another reason why the dzongkhag is unable to perform economically well.

Although business entities from other parts of the country are coming to Samtse and earning, they are reinvesting it back into their hometowns, he added.

A resident from Samtse, Bidyash Chhetri, said the dzongkhag has huge potential to earn from cash crops such as ginger, turmeric, mandarin orange, cardamom, and betel nut.

“But people don’t get paid enough for produce,” he said. “People work hard and grow, but at the end of the year, they do not get paid well. This is because of the market which is available but farmers don’t have direct access.”

The resident also said that Samtse has favourable weather conditions to grow chilies, rice, wheat, millet, maize, quinoa and lentils, among many other varieties throughout the year.

Samtse dzongdag Pasang Dorji said the high poverty rate in Samtse can be attributed to three reasons.

He said Samtse has the second lowest annual mean household income at Nu 194,777 compared to Thimphu (Nu 731,292), Gasa (Nu 676,218), Paro (Nu 456,874), and Punakha (Nu 431,930).

“This low annual mean household income can be attributed to the impact of wildlife depredation of agricultural crops,” he said.

“In addition, given the vast porous border, damage of crops by cattle from across the border result in reduced production.”

He also said that over the last couple of years the price of cardamom, which is one of the main sources of income, has dropped significantly from Nu 1,500 to Nu 500 per kg. Similarly, the quantity of cardamom produced has also declined significantly in recent years due to diseases, he explained.

Dzongdag Pasang Dorji also attributed Samtse’s high poverty rate to the increasing rate of rural-urban migration.

“While Samtse has a significant population in the productive age group, most of them have migrated to other dzongkhags, especially Thimphu, Phuentsholing, and Paro. Therefore, this has led to shortage of workforce and farm labour resulting in low economic productivity.”

Most of the lower regions of Samtse, starting from Chengmari to Sipsu have vast plains of paddy lands but many farmers have quit due to labour shortage. Wild animals, especially the elephant, is another reason farmers fear taking up paddy cultivation. However, 2022 was a good year as many farmers took up paddy cultivation in these places.

Samtse dzongkhag has identified several ways that could help alleviate poverty in Samtse.

Dzongdag Pasang Dorji said that a proper assessment of those households falling within the poverty line must be carried out, while at the same time diversifying agricultural commodities and economic activities.

“We need to develop targeted household poverty interventions and critical infrastructures and facilities,” he said.

However, despite all these problems, the future looks bright for Samtse.

Dhamdum Industrial Park is expected to bring economic changes. A few industries have already started operations at the park.

More trade routes have also been formally opened, which are expected to bring about positive market changes. Samtse-Haa highway is already helping farmers divert to a new market.

In the last few years, Samtse has also seen several entrepreneurial projects.