The elderly are losing out in the rural-urban migration rat race

As the city life buzzes on, never to stop, and unaware of the differences between day and night rural villages bear an increasingly forlorn look.

Rural-urban migration described by many as a ‘crisis’ has already hit most of the rural areas hard. So hard, that the land that were once seen as the gate to prosperity are now barren.

One emerging aspect of this crisis is how as youth migrate to urban areas the old are left behind to fend for themselves. On the other hand the elderly who do make it to urban areas have problems adjusting to a new urban landscape.

Dil Maya Nirola in her late sixties appears to have crossed over 80 with a cane in her hand that helps her to walk. She stays alone with her grandchildren in a village in Ugyentse Gewog, Samtse. Her two daughters are married off and live in urban towns. Her only son died leaving the grandchildren to herself. She smilingly accepts her fate. “I am an old woman, I have spent my whole life in the villages, I like it here,” she says.

According to her neighbors, her daughters recently sold whatever land they had as property and went back to Thimphu. Similarly, there are accounts of people leaving behind their houses and lands to move to urban areas.

Dawa Dema, 33 is a farmer in Kanglung. Although her family is in Kanglung, she has seen an increasing number of households getting empty. According to her, her relatives work in Phuntsholing and have left their house in the village which she goes to check occasionally. She relates this to the human wildlife conflict that they experienced and is common in the area.

The Labour Force Survey report of 2014 shows that 71.2% moved to urban areas from rural areas and other urban areas and only 28.2% moved from urban to rural areas.

Drametse Gup, Tshering Dorji, said that the problem is not a new one but a linear trend. “The youth especially those who are done with their class 10 or 12 exams and do not get absorbed in high schools or university end up packing their bags and leave to Thimphu to either stay with relatives or friends.” He said that the parents most of whom are elderly people expect their children to be employed and send money. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.”

Rural to urban migration is remarkably causing the biggest drift in the labour force. Resulting in labour shortages in the villages and at the same time causing poverty and unemployment in the urban areas.

The visibility of elderly people begging along the Norzin Lam is one of the impacts. By law, they are destitute, who have no one to look after them. Zam who is from Haa and is often seen on the streets begging says she has nobody back home and that she doesn’t have the strength to work in the field so she begs. Similarly, there are old women selling vegetables door to door in College hostels in Kanglung who cannot do large scale production in spite of having the required land because the younger members of the family are out in the town areas employed or looking for a job.

An independent research carried by Kumaon University in India in 2014 showed that the maximum (48.67%) migrant families are recorded in central Bhutan followed by (28.75%) migrant families in eastern Bhutan and (20.38%) in western Bhutan. Southern Bhutan however does not have much of a serious problem regarding migration to urban areas although it is not negligible.

National Council Member of Samtse, Mr. Sangay Khandu spoke to this paper about the situation in southern Bhutan. “It is a major concern in Bhutan because the elderly do not want to leave their villages and youngsters are eager to experience the city life for better opportunities which results in helpless old people having to look after themselves but in the recent years, because the cardamom business has flourished they are now coming back to the villages.”

Samtse Norbugang gewog gup, Kinga Wangdi says that with increased number of people migrating to urban areas, the parents are somehow compelled to leave the farmland to attend to the grand children of their office going daughters and sons causing a major shift in a life style from rural to urban and back to rural. He said, “After seeing the fancy lifestyle in urban areas, it can cause problems in dealing with a hectic life here in rural areas”.

However, not all that glitters is gold, as Karna Maya Gurung has been in Thimphu since last year as her son insisted her to come. She says, “I feel good that my son has timely meals as I cook for him every day and do some other household chores”. But on the other hand, she said that always worries about her husband back in the village for he must be having a hard time to look after the cattle and farm all alone.

In Kanglung, Trashigang, small school going children are seen selling fruits or vegetables be it on a sunny day or a rainy afternoon as they go around in their school dress. When asked on why they do that, a few of them shared that the fruits fall down from the tree and they sell it to earn a few Ngultrums for themselves and in fact quite a few of the fruits are from the trees of a neighbor who doesn’t stay there any longer.

This article was made possible due to support from the Department of Information and Media

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