One of the early foundational pillars of modern Bhutan was the emancipation of serfs in 1959 by His Majesty the third king. This meant the abolishment of feudalism and redistribution of land to the landless and vulnerable sections of society.
In Bhutan, unlike in the west, land has much more significance that just owning real estate. First, for a largely rural country dependant on subsistence agriculture, land is a source of basic livelihood. It is also seen as a source of security and now increasingly as a sign of wealth. There is also a strong emotional connect with land.
In rural Bhutan land rights are also synonymous with water rights and the importance of these two even in urban and semi-urban areas cannot be stated enough.
Land is a key factor even in the evolution of Bhutan’s largely agrarian economy to a more modern one. This is because land is the ultimate asset for anyone to get loans or access to capital and even big business houses require land both as infrastructure and loan security.
Given the importance of land it is important that the problems associated with land in Bhutan are solved.
For one in an increasingly capitalistic economy land is now getting concentrated in the hands of a few with the ‘great land rush’ that started around two decades ago. One of the problems is the elite with political and money power getting more than their fair share.
Land grabbing is also a symptom of poor governance and an unfair society where a powerful few pull strings to take what is not theirs. It is a poor reflection on the land administration system and also the legal system that fails to check it.
There is also a need to take serious re-look at land administration in Bhutan. For one the National Land Commission needs to be made more efficient and transparent. The NLC currently is seen as a highly bureaucratic and cumbersome organization where even the numerous commission members are unable to meet to make decisions.
The NLC secretariat itself needs to change its attitude from one that is doing thram holders a favor to that of a modern service delivery system. What would be frustrating for most is while the powerful can measure acres of land that is not their own, there is much tension and drama when it comes to measuring the land of ordinary folks.
As Gyelpozhing and Thimphu land scam have shown there is also a need for a thorough audit of thram and land records to ensure that rules are being followed. The unholy nexus of land officials, local government officials and some heavyweights both at the local and national level needs to be broken.
All oversight agencies like the RAA, ACC and the NLC’s own investigation section need to buckle up and do a lot more in ensuring that land irregularities are nipped in the bud.
The judicial system needs to be more sensitized to land disputes and it should look at tackling these disputes in fastest and most efficient way especially since most court cases relate to land.
The numerous instances of records being tampered with show that is better to maintain thrams with multiple agencies so that even if the thram record is tampered in one place it should have a copy elsewhere like for example NLC and Thimphu District Municipality checking and balancing one others records.
As the country embarks on big and land intensive projects the government should ensure that we don’t follow the example of some of our neighbors. In India for example thousands of acres were grabbed from farmers at dirt cheap prices by state governments only to have it given to crony capitalists, relatives and themselves in the name of SEZs etc. Land in Bhutan ultimately can either be the great equalizer or the great divider.