07/05/2006, 00.00
BHUTAN
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Peasants fall victim to government's rural development plan

by Prakash Dubey

The system launched by the government obliges villagers themselves, "in a spirit of solidarity and sacrifice", to pay half the cost of all development projects with their agricultural labour. Since the project was launched, 100,000 peasants have left the rural areas.

Thimphu (AsiaNews) – Agricultural development projects in Bhutan to "bolster the rural economy" have actually become millstones around the necks of around 400,000 poor villagers. The system – called Zhabto Lemey – obliges project beneficiaries to contribute half of all project costs with their labour in the fields.

For the government, this situation is "a voluntary choice of the peasants" and the system is "very good, because it has fostered a spirit of solidarity and commitment among the nation: they believe they are the builders of their prosperity."

Ramesh Purohit, who works for a construction company, told AsiaNews: "The truth is that this system is elbowing rural people out of their natural habitats to make them become urban ghetto dwellers, with all the changes this brings. There are around 100,000 Bhutanese villagers who have deserted their villages to escape labour conscription. This is a massive displacement of people in a country whose official population numbers around 600,000."

Purohit added: "The government is asking peasants not only to work for the development of their villages: they must transport construction materials for roads to the mountains of Bhutan. This injures them physically and damages their lifestyle. They are being forced, through much toil, to destroy their environment and so they prefer to escape."

The roads are "perhaps an even greater threat from an economic and cultural point of view. The scope is merely that of transforming old mule routes into comfortable roads, so that cultivated fields can be easily reached and peasants' agricultural products may be bought off them at throwaway prices".

The hardest hit victims of the system are nationals of Nepalese origin who are non-Buddhists living in south-west Bhutan. Mostly Christians or Hindus, they are primarily farmers and they cannot leave their villages because they are too poor to afford the move. Besides, the government does not recognize their full civil rights so they are not allowed to take free decisions like moving to the city.

The Zhabto Lemey was fiercely contested by Bhutan's National Assembly too. Dorji Wangchuk, an assembly member, said the forced labour that villagers were forced to undertake left them little time to work their fields and "they cannot survive without working". So, together with other MPs, he has called for its immediate abolition: the government response has been a curt refusal and it has announced that the system will remain in force at least until the end of 2008.

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