A Malady Called Rural-Urban Migration

Yonten Tharchen went home to Nganglam after 19 years and returned to Thimphu completely bewildered and devastated at how whole villages are being abandoned, ancestral homes left to decay and fertile fields left fallow.

Laya Highland in Bhutan. (Source: www.drukasia.com)


“If something is not done in the next 5-10 years, I can foretell that the dzongdas of the eastern dzongkhags will have to be referred to as dzongda of Mongar wildlife, or dzongda of Trashigang wildlife etc., because there will be no humans left in the villages – except wild animals. It is a policy failure that needs immediate correction.”


-Yonten Tharchen

Secretary General, Bhutan Taekwondo Federation


Yonten Tharchen went home to Nganglam after 19 years and returned to Thimphu completely bewildered and devastated at how whole villages are being abandoned, ancestral homes left to decay and fertile fields left fallow.

He laments that, even today, the oranges and guavas still fall to the ground (production being in excess of consumption and with no access to markets) – as they used to in his youth – except that in those days he remembered that the cows, horses and pigs used to feed on them.

Today there are no able-bodied people in the villages left to work the fields and to tend to the domestic animals – so the fallen fruits turn into manure that help proliferate the growth of weeds and tall grasses that eventually turn once fertile fields and orchards into wasteland and wilderness.

Mainly the old and infirm remained in the villages

The few people, who still remain in the villages, are those who are old and infirm – those unfit to embark on the migratory journeys that the young and the strong have opted for.

Clearly the senior citizens today form the bulk of the village population in most of the eastern dzongkhags.  Strangely, it does not seem like the fast dwindling rural population is a cause for alarm.  In fact, about eight to nine years back, as a member of the SE network of the UNDP, one UN consultant sought my views on how Bhutan may “be prepared for rural-urban migration”. 

I wrote back saying that such an approach was defeatist at best, and that the more pertinent question to ask should have been: “How Bhutan may be better prepared to mitigate rural-urban migration”.

Regardless, I offered my views – including some suggested solutions. The then responsible representative of the UNDP found my views too “radical” and offered to improve the content of my paper by carrying out some edits.  I refused and my work never got published.

Since then, almost a decade later, the problem has aggravated to a point of no return, and yet we are nowhere being prepared for the influx of rural migrants to our urban centres, bringing with it complex and unexpected problems. 

What is causing the exodus of rural population?

But the issue is not of whether the urban centres are prepared or ill prepared to accommodate the increased incidence of rural-urban migration.  The real issue is: what is causing the exodus of rural population?  Why are the villagers abandoning the comfort of their ancestral homes and productive fields, and preferring to embrace the uncertainties of life in the urban centres?

Unchecked rural-urban migration has the potential to cause complex problems that we cannot even begin to fathom.  Some of our emerging problems of falling food production, quantum jump in food imports, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, unemployment and deteriorating urban crimes, have direct relation to the increase in rural population abandoning their fields and ancestral homes.

Every once in a while, His Majesty the King grants thousands of acres of land as Kidu to the farming communities in the villages, and yet, the incidence of gungtongs is on the increase – unabated.  So, what is causing this? 

Even while land holding and access to arable land has increased, why does this not translate into increased food production?  Why do the villagers and the rural youth move out of the comfort of their village homes and, instead, prefer the hardship of crushing stones by the roadside, or suffer the indignity of a life as a drayang performer, or be employed as a truck driver or a handy boy?

In an effort to understand the issues, the Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy (BCMD) awarded me a modest grant to help me visit rural areas to understand and identify the causes for this phenomenon.  What follows (to be presented in a series of articles) are my personal views and my understanding of what I believe are the real problems that contribute to rural-urban migration.


Contributed by Yeshey Dorji (Photographer & Blogger)


[email protected]


Beyond covering the cost of field visits for research and interviews, BCMD has no role or influence over the findings that are rendered above.



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