The Society & Economy of Bhutan
Why Yangphel?
Find a Trek or Tour
Customize a Trip
Virtual Tours
Interactive Map
eMail Postcard
Traveler Info
Questions & Answers
Contact Yangphel
Site Map & Credits
Urban Developments

Thimphu is a building site, a collection of almost new and half-formed structures. Since its establishment as the permanent capital in 1952-3, when there was little more than a Dzong surrounded by a small collection of huts, the town has witnessed a dramatic expansion into a spread out settlement of some 35,000 inhabitants. As the political and administrative center, it has become the fulcrum for modern development initiatives and a symbol of the nation's future. What is revealed is an eclectic mix of old and new, as very different worlds coalesce. Government guidelines have determined that architecture and dress retain their traditional character, a move that provides the impression of continuity. Yet this rather messy and congested urban environment of concrete, cars and corrugated iron is somewhat distanced from its country cousins. The ubiquitous dzong, monasteries and chortens are now complemented by the necessary functionality of shopping malls and housing colonies. An abounding and sometimes gaudy variety of imported goods share space with more simple and artistic traditional wares. The powerful elite, astute businessmen and women, highly educated civil servants and overseas development workers pass hesitant foreign and domestic visitors, recent rural migrants and red-robed monks.

Since the inception of planned development, policy interventions have focused on the universal provision of social services and physical infrastructure. The vast majority of the population have thus benefited from modernizing processes in very tangible ways. However, to successfully transform society, individuals will require the appropriate opportunities, and the necessary capacities and capabilities, to suitably fulfill their innate potentials and meet their perceived needs. There is a risk of significant gaps emerging between traditional rural and modern urban environments. Furthermore, power may become polarized and it is common for political vacuums to occur. The manner in which society reacts to the host of new possibilities and potentials is of critical importance. Social changes associated with modernization are inherently destabilizing and often ambiguous as to its outcomes. Aiming to effect a steady and balanced transition Bhutan now faces a host of new complex challenges.

Uneven trends are emerging that have the potential to jeopardize successful social evolution. One of the greatest challenges facing the nation is the rapid rate of population growth. If the current growth rate of 3.1% per annum remains unchecked, then the population will double in 23 years. The country's demographic transition, with 43% of the population currently under 15 years of age, will mean that growth in the demand for jobs will far exceed supply. Indeed, it is estimated that a total of 267,000 jobs need to be created in the next 20 years, even under the most favorable demographic assumptions. The requirements of a fast expanding population could undermine social stability, creating political and social stresses and placing unsustainable pressures on the natural resource base.

Thimphu may not be characteristic of the greater part of the country, neither possessing its medieval ambiance or its picturesque beauty, yet it is an integral part. With the development process comes increased expectations. Rural-urban migration has been increasing rapidly, particularly to the principal urban centers, with some estimates suggesting that the population of Thimphu is increasing at 10% per annum. If the present trend continues, the nation's urban population could approach 400,000 within the next 20 years. Although rural-urban migration is a natural corollary of development and modernization, such increases pose a major threat to stability. Many urban areas, located in narrow valleys, are physically unable to absorb such volumes of new inhabitants, and do not possess the necessary physical and social infrastructure. Furthermore, rapid urbanization could be environmentally and socially destructive, with unsustainable levels of localized natural resource utilization and many migrants unable to find the work that they seek. The creation of suitable employment is already a critical issue, with an excess demand for jobs in the modern sector and a shortage of farm labor.

If harnessed prudently the elements embodied in traditional systems might constitute a valuable development resource. Indeed, where formal state institutions remain in the process of evolution, the perpetuation of such informal arrangements will greatly aid in the maintenance of stability and the provision of additional opportunities. Furthermore, in catering for the very specific conditions of a particular location, the synergy of traditional and modern techniques might be highly constructive towards the generation of appropriate localized strategies. However, the relationship between traditional and modern systems is not necessarily mutual, and can often be competing and contradictory, leading to the supplanting of the old with the new. The introduction of a partially developed modern institutional infrastructure can have a disorientating impact on efficacious traditional institutional arrangements, and potentially negative implications on related social behavior.

Equity issues pose fundamental challenges for the efficient and effective development and stability of the nation. Relatively equal access to and control of resources greatly aids the maintenance of an equitable society. A 1959 Land Reform and subsequent state policy interventions have determined that land and other resources are distributed relatively evenly through society. The state maintains ownership and control of the great majority of the national resource-base. Although the physical and institutional infrastructure has improved dramatically, and the vast majority of the population has benefited in very tangible ways, the benefits have thus far not been distributed equally between social groups and regions. In remote and isolated areas in particular, lives remain characterized by vulnerability, uncertainty and drudgery, where legitimate expectations and aspirations are not being fully met. Ensuring that such vulnerable and disadvantaged groups are able to benefit more fully from the process of economic and social development is a challenge that must be met in the years ahead.

Income differentials are a natural product of modernization, however, it is important that these remain within acceptable boundaries. This is currently promoted through redistributive and regulatory policies, such as a progressive system of taxation and the setting of defined parameters on the activities of particular social groups. The opportunities available to an emerging elite have thus been maintained within acceptable boundaries. Although the state currently maintains relatively balanced power relations, it will eventually be necessary to formally institutionalize political conditions. Towards this end, power is now being devolved through an extensive process of decentralization. The outcome of such empowering initiatives may be of critical future importance to the maintenance of an equitable and just society.

Bhutanese women enjoy equality with men, both before the law and in informal social arrangements. They are actively involved in all areas of economic, political and social life, as farmers, entrepreneurs, decision-makers, professionals and homemakers. Within traditional society gender roles afford equal status, power and freedom. However, there is the potential that this situation might change under the different working environments implied by modernization. Under changing circumstances, there is the possibility that women's roles remain the same, whereas men's roles are altered. Such a change might impact upon the division of power within the household, and thereby compromise gender equality in the future. Perhaps the area where women are currently underrepresented is in formal decision-making processes, although this situation is being rectified. It will be increasingly important to mainstream gender roles in society, to ensure that these remain equitable and opportunities are distributed evenly.

Contemporary Bhutanese society possesses many of its traditional traits, carried forward onto a changing context. These have proved extremely beneficial in the preservation of a balanced and integrated social environment. However, circumstances are altering fundamentally and it cannot be guaranteed that equilibriums will be maintained. At both the national and individual levels objectives have transformed beyond recognition. The social environment is now dynamic and the emerging pressures possess a multidimensional complexity. It will involve a delicate and nimble juggling act if the nation is to become successfully modernized, whilst retaining the most valuable elements of an established tradition. Within the larger urban environments most still associate with their original village and maintain close links through family, friends and extended livelihood approaches. However, new, slightly narrower though often bigger, communities have also evolved around families, classmates, social status, career, or shared interests. Tiny microcosms encourage the Buddhist values of interconnectedness and interdependence. Is unlikely that such cohesion can be retained within a modern context.

Bhutan Overview
Voices of Bhutan
Culture & Religion
Society & Economy
Arts & Crafts
Photo Gallery
Links & References