Relooking at the rural-urban migration debate

For quite some time now there has been hue and cry over the growing rural-urban migration figures in the country.

Everything has been blamed from the decline of agriculture, to the breakdown of traditional village communities to even universal education.

It has been assumed that it is the duty of any government coming into power to decrease or even stop this growing tide.

A lot of developmental literature and political speeches have also been dedicated to this issue as policymakers have expressed concern and even alarm at this phenomenon.

However, what policymakers do not realize is that it is neither possible nor desirable to reverse this trend.

One popular argument is that rural-urban migration would not have happened if universal education was not provided, or if we just left large sections of our rural people uneducated and unexposed to the modern world.

Though it may not appear so this is an extremely elitist and naïve argument made mainly by urban and educated residents. These are also the same people who not having lived in rural areas have a naïve and romanticized notion of it.

As much as we here in Bhutan like to romanticize rural life, it is extremely hard. The main source of income there which is agriculture demands backbreaking hard work with very little returns. The land holdings are also becoming unsustainable as families grow in numbers and land has to be divided among children. This is compounded by human-wildlife conflict and water shortage.

Many developed and developing countries have gone through this socio-economic phenomenon. A good example is eighteenth century Europe when the Industrial Revolution changed the very socio-economic structure of Europe allowing them to dominate the world economy and politics for the next two centuries.

With the rise of manufacturing and services economy many people in Europe left their small landholdings and even feudal landholdings to move to big cities and towns. They moved onto Industrial jobs and other opportunities in the urban areas.

The same movement is now happening in a major and much bigger way in both India and China who are fast emerging as the world’s next superpowers.

While some of us like to imagine Bhutan is very different from the rest of the world the reality is that Bhutan is very much a part of the global economy and developments and hence also subject to its rules. Bhutanese youth who have been exposed to globalization cannot be wished back or put into the lamp but rather every avenue must be given for them to shine.

People are similar in the basic characteristics and have similar aspirations. So the educated or semi-educated rural youth will have the same dreams and aspirations as his or her urban counterparts. Also, the parents of these children would want a better future for their children than being stuck in a life of drudgery on unproductive farms.

The main issue at hand is that given the high number of young people in Bhutan it has a lot of economic potential provided they are given the right skills in addition to the already available basic education. Bhutan has to utilize this young demographic dividend in growing and strengthening our economy.

Rural-urban migration is not a problem but it is an opportunity to change the nature of our economy.

Accepting this reality Bhutan should develop and strengthen our urban centers to accommodate such an inevitable flow. This would mean giving priority to urban infrastructure and creating planned urbanization. Proper urbanization will also avoid the pressure coming on just a few urban centers like Thimphu and Phuentsholing. For example one step would be in creating other growth centers like Dzongkha thromdes or regional urban growth centers.

At the same time Bhutan also has an enormous challenge in incorporating this huge youth dividend into Bhutan’s economic growth. The failure to do this will create negative socio-economic consequences for Bhutan.

For Bhutan the math is very simple. If the country is to ever achieve high levels of economic development, growth and employment it cannot be done by keeping a large majority of our small population on economically unproductive farms.

“History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migrations from one environment to another.” 

Ellsworth Huntington



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