Saturday, February 27, 2016

Rural-Urban Migration: The Impending Crisis II

One and a half decades back when a Thimphu-based UN Consultant requested me to do a paper on “How to be prepared for Rural-urban Migration”, one of my principal recommendations was that all government schools in Thimphu municipal area - Primary to Higher Secondary - should be auctioned off to private operators and the money raised from it should be used to establish large central schools in remote Dzongkhags. My paper never saw the light of day - it got dumped in the digital dustbin, on grounds that it was too radical.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, but my recommendations are as valid today as it was fifteen years ago. The situation hasn’t improved - infact, it has gotten worst. Today the pace of rural-urban migration has increased by leaps and bounds. As a result, every classroom in Thimphu schools are packed like cans of Sardines. The situation is so bad that some Head Teachers of Thimphu schools resort to switching off their phones during admission time. And yet, succeeding governments refuse to be decisive about the issue and, instead, continue to take the bull by the rump. Schools after school are built in Thimphu Thromde to keep pace with the burgeoning demand. As a result, Thimphu Municipality today outstrips every other Thromde, Gewog and Dzongkhag - in number of schools and student enrolment. Take a look at the following:

Thimphu Thromde (municipality) has a total of 32 schools (whole of Thimphu Dzongkhag has 45). By contrast, whole of Zhemgang Dzongkhag has only 31 schools. The overall student strength of schools under Thimphu Thromde outnumber all of Bumthang, Dagana, Gasa, Haa, Lhuentse and Trongsa Dzongkhags put together!

Trashigang, Bhutan’s most populous Dzongkhag has student enrollment of only 11,598, while Thimphu Thromde has a staggering enrollment of 24,067 students – that is more than double the student strength of entire Trashigang Dzongkhag. As a percentage of enrollment, Thimphu Thromde is miles ahead of every other Dzongkhag - at 13.9% of the national total, while the next highest - Samtse Dzongkhag - trails at 9.1%.

So then, why am I bringing up this issue? Trust me it is not to expose the colossal investment in educational facilities in one city, as opposed to the rest of the country, although it beats me why our planners and lawmakers do not see this immense disparity. My father did - when he visited Thimphu few years back. Ten minutes of being driven around the town, he exclaimed:

“My God, I now understand why there is no money for developmental activities in the rest of the Dzongkhags. There cannot be enough money in the Gyalpoi Baangzoe to finance all the fanciful activities that are happening in and around Thimphu”.

If some of you read my 10-articles series on rural-urban migration published in the Kuensel few months back, you would have read that I blame our education system as the No. 2 cause - after wildlife predation - that trigger rural-urban migration. However, I also believe that same school system can come to our rescue - not only to halt rural-urban migration, but to reverse the trend and, over time, restock the villages with farmers and farm hands who will go on to bring about a revolution in farm production.

But for that we need the will to take the bull by the horn, and set into motion the first baby steps! The baby steps can begin at schools, colleges and other institutions of learning.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rural-Urban Migration: The Impending Crisis

The spectacle of the avalanche is a sight to behold - it starts with a fluffy ball of snow coming dislodged and rolling down the mountainside. As it cascades downhill, the ball grows bigger and bigger while at the same time gaining velocity and mass. Within minutes, the whole mountainside begins to hurtle down with a thunderous roar that can be heard hundreds of miles away, in the aftermath, bringing ruin and destruction to everything in its path. The landscape is laid asunder and the geography of the land is altered beyond recognition.

That is exactly how the rural-urban migration starts: it begins with a trickle but slowly builds up into an exodus, in its wake, altering demographics and turning producers into consumers.

While porcupines merrily raise families in a labyrinth of burrows built underneath the ground of fertile lands abandoned by migrating farmers, most of these migrants end up eking out a living by the roadside - inside shanty ramshackles, tinkered together with metal sheets salvaged from castaway asphalt drums. Equal numbers of these escapees become burdens to relatives in urban centers, who are themselves buckling under a lifestyle and a system that denominates everything in terms of money. Some are forced into that shadowy zone between the honorable and the doubtful. Young, muscular hands that should be commandeering plough handles in rural farms, now don water spray guns in carwash centers and grip and navigate steering wheels of trucks and buses. At the end of day, they lumber back to their shanties and crawl into their beds - tired and spent - to dream fretful dreams of their urban dreams gone sour. But I fear that they still think that they are better off - from a life that is even worst than that they have now.

The allure of the glitz and the glitter of life in urban centers is not the reason why the strong and the mobile have chosen to move away from their traditional rural homes and way of life. It wasn't a choice that they made willingly. It was an option that was open to them - an option they chose to prefer over the meaningless toil and struggle that had become their daily, and nightly routine.

This swelling number of forced migrants to the urban centers represents an important and critical human capital gone to waste. From being producers, they have now become consumers thereby putting pressure on our already scares resources and infrastructure. Over time, they will lose their most important life skill and their inherent strength - farming and farm work. Their locked and barricaded homes in the villages will rot and crumble - their fallow lands will be overgrown with trees and bushes. The possibility of reverse migration will become harder, if not entirely impossible. A whole lot of homeless, landless floating population will be created that will see no reason for hope or optimism.

The old, the infirm and the weak occupy most of the village homes that are still inhabited. They grow what little they can but there is no guarantee that they will harvest the yield of their toil and hardship. They will bang empty tins and rattle bamboo bells all night long – to ward off wild boar and deer and porcupine. During day they will holler and howl curses at the marauding monkeys. They will buy stuffed tigers from China to scare off the monkeys, which will eventually get shredded to smithereens, once they become wise to the falsehood. The monkeys are reported to have become so daring that they walk into village homes in broad daylight and walk away with bundles of corn hung out to dry. All that the old ladies in the homes can do is shriek with fright.

This pathetic and almost surrealistic condition in the villages and urban centers is caused by a malady called “rural-urban migration” - a man-made sickness brought about and perpetuated by a misnomer called “human-wildlife conflict”. It is the result of a conservation policy that is out of tune with the changing times and one that got stuck in a time warp.

Rural-urban migration is not a trend that is unique to Bhutan. It happens elsewhere in the world. But what causes it in the land of the GNH is pretty unique and unparalleled!

Bhutan's case of human displacement as a result of encroachment by wildlife must be the first of its kind in the world. It provably goes down well with the chilips - in tune with our unfailing claim to uniqueness, in everything we do or say. Elsewhere in the world opposite it true - human encroaching into the habitat of wildlife, thereby causing conflict and endangerment. Bhutan's record of shrinking cultivation of farmlands is proof that there is no encroachment into wildlife habitat.

In Bhutan whole villages are emptied as a result of rampant and uncontrolled predation by wildlife. And conflict is not allowed - by law! Our laws give primacy to wildlife, over human life and well-being. The country is already paying the price - and it will get worst over the years.

It is time that we end our apathy and do what we must - to halt, if not reverse, the rural-urban migration. We are in no position to afford the consequences that are not too difficult to imagine. If we do not do something now, it may be too late for us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Lunar New Year Wishes

I wish a VERY HAPPY LUNAR NEW YEAR to all my readers around the world.

Exactly three hundred and fifty five days back, on the 19th of February, 2015 last year, I had made a New Year wish - something that I have never done before. I had wished that the two governments of Bhutan and India would get together and decide to shut down the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-I (PHP-I). That didn't happen - the project authorities continue to dig deeper and deeper into the core of the earth, to find stable ground on which to start building the dam’s foundation. Unfortunately, despite years of digging, solid rock eludes them. In the meantime, the unstable mountainside to the right of the river continues to slide and sink - pointing to horrendous consequences, should we continue to ignore and defy nature’s warnings.

Eight years since construction started, the state of the stalled PHP-I dam construction as of 7.10.2015

First on the list of my wishes for the year is the reiteration of my last year’s wish: closure of the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-I. As bizarre and fantastic as it may sound, I believe that this is the only way out to avoid irredeemable loss - both environmental as well as financial. The fallout from the failure of this dam is simply inconceivable. Such an eventuality could be the cause of the end of Bhutan’s hydropower dreams.

Is another dam being planned for the PHP-II that is happening downstream of the PHP-I? If so, the preponderance of the near certainty of the failure of PHP-I dam would be cited - to justify the costly fortification measures to withstand the effects of dam burst of the PHP-I, if such a thing is possible. In all this what is certain is that the “self-liquidating” Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project-II too will see between 400-500% cost escalation. Regardless, the project authorities and the government will not bat an eye-lid. They will assure the people of Bhutan that “geological surprises” are a norm and that the project will still reel in money, guaranteed by the “cost plus” pricing arrangement with government of India.

My second wish for the year is still about hydropower projects - Bhutan’s most efficient factories of debt and enslavement. I wish: NO FURTHER HYDROPOWER PROJECTS - beyond the three that are at varying stages of planning and execution - Nikachhu in central Bhutan and Kholongchhu and Nyeramari in the east. And, as recommended in the first Bhutan Hydropower System Master Plan, that all future hydropower projects be located in one or two of our five major river basins, instead of shackling all of our river systems, to eternal bondage.

Playing Chinese Checkers: Bhutan's Hydropower Master Plan as of now

Yet again my third wish has to do with hydropower projects. I wish that all future hydropower projects be located closer to its ultimate market - India - towards the south of the country, instead of way up in the north bordering the alpine regions. What is the logic of locating the projects far away from the market? Other than to increase project cost and thereby bring down profitability, it makes no sense to locate projects far away from the market. Even a kid can understand that transportation of construction material and delivery of the product to its market will be lot more cheaper, if the production facilities are sited at locations that are closer to the market. There is something sinister in the way this simple logic is ignored.

Bhutan's Hydropower Master Plan according to my wish. No hydropower projects above the red line

Once again, my fourth wish has to do with hydropower and electricity. Our government and the hydropower sector are shameless in declaring that hydropower is the mainstay of our economic activity. We claim that we produce electricity in abundance and that our biggest export is electricity. We claim that we are the cheapest in the region - in terms of unit cost to the consumers.

If all these were true, how is it that our factories in Pasakha are shutting down one after another, for want of power? How is it that the common man is required to queue up for hours at the gas station, to buy and use imported LPG and kerosene for cooking and heating, instead of the supposedly cheap electricity? How can the government and the power sector be so brazen as to claim that we are the cheapest in the region? How does it matter? I repeat, how does it matter when, in the face of all this gloating, the reality is that the Bhutanese people are unable to afford our own electricity - neither for cooking nor for heating homes?

Therefore, my IVth wish is that instead of the Economic Affairs Ministry trying to organize and streamline the long queues at the gas stations, the government and the contended mandarins at the power sector put their acts together to ensure that there is no need for long queues at the gas station. One sure way is to make electricity affordable to the Bhutanese people. What we lose in Rupee earnings as a result of making electricity affordable for the Bhutanese people will be more than made up through reduced import of LPG and kerosene. Please do some mathematics.

The most shameful thing about a country that projects itself as a net exporter of hydro electricity, is the fact that we have to import power during the winter months at a price higher than that at which we export during the summer months. This is a most shameful and pathetic situation!

Therefore, my Vth wish is to build dams over the Wangchhu and the Punatsangchhu, so that we can harness the excessive water available during the monsoons, caused by snow melt and rain water which otherwise go on to flood the plains of India. Such storage reservoirs will augment the drastic fall in water availability during winter months, thereby making it possible for our generators in the power plants to work at full capacity to generate electricity, even during the winter months. This will eliminate the need for import of expensive electricity during the lean season.

The meaningless and environmentally disastrous Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway is a ruinous undertaking that is the very antithesis to our reputation as a responsible nation with strong commitment towards the protection of nature and environment. The road cuts through one of the world’s most important high altitude tiger habitats, it infringes on the established laws, while it affords no benefit to the people or the country. On the contrary, doing this road will effectively dismantle our image as a forerunner in environmental conservation and stewardship.

I wish that the government would shelve this project once and for all.

My wish number VII for the year concerns one of our most shameful census rules: the law that disallows the registration of a child born to a Bhutanese mother as a natural Bhutanese. This law is in stark contrast to our claim that we have no gender prejudice in the country. Not only that, the fact that such a primeval law is still prevalent, is a demonstration that we are not truly a GNH country that we claim to be.

Therefore, my most important wish for the year is that we abolish this law immediately to bring equality among genders. The reason is simple: if one’s claim to Bhutanese citizenship is to be based on the Bhutaneseness of a parent, the mother is the only true parent that needs no verification in 100% of the cases, while a father may not necessarily be the claimed biological father. Thus, the law is flawed and it relegates the mother to the position of a second-class citizen. If we claim that we are not a primitive society then this law must go!

My last wish is a call for the amendment of the Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan. This law is the principal cause that has contributed to the creation of Gungtongs in the rural villages. Some of its provisions go against the concepts of conservation, which is all about maintaining a balance and not about according primacy to one species over the other.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Birth of the Crown Prince

The birth of Bhutan’s long awaited Crown Prince has at last been announced this Friday the 5th of February, 2016. Her Majesty the Queen as well as His Royal Highness the Crown Prince are reported in perfect health.

The news of the Royal birth was reported worldwide

Monday the 8th February, 2016 has been announced a public holiday. To celebrate the happy occasion the Prime Minister announced plans for the full restoration of the Drugyel Dzong in Paro.

Their Majesties the King and the Queen will grant soelra to every child born on Friday the 5th of February, 2016.

The sense of apprehension that the people of Bhutan felt over the delayed birth of the Crown Prince is finally put to rest.

I wish His Royal Highness the Crown Prince good and healthy growth.