The Society & Economy of Bhutan
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Traditional Bhutanese society is encapsulated in the tiny communities that are interspersed throughout the dominant natural environment. Clusters of evenly styled buildings framed by neat fields nestled within the rolling forested landscape. Composed farmers, proceeding undistracted about their business, continue a tough though serene existence that seems to have changed little over the centuries. The whole unflustered uncorrupted atmosphere possesses a certain poise and grace. Bucolic village settings appear located in an alternative epoch, a halcyon past where a simple holistic way of life perpetuates within shielded internally consistent microcosms. There is something intrinsically appealing about a situation that is both extremely backward and yet essentially calm, cheerful and devoid of the abject suffering that is often associated with underdevelopment. It is these circumstances that can for the modern outsider conjure projected fantasies of an innocent paradise lost.

Bhutan is one of the least populated countries in South Asia, with an approximate population of 700,000. Society at large is located nearer to a stable pre-modern past than to an irresistible modern future. It remains the accumulated product of a history of ongoing migrations, as small isolated agrarian communities established footholds within the inhospitable natural terrain. The overall national condition therefore possesses numerous legacies from this recent secluded traditional order. The population density is the lowest of the Himalayan countries. 85% live in rural areas, the majority concentrated in the fertile southern and central valleys, while large areas at higher altitudes are virtually empty except for nomadic herders. There are three main ethnic groups - the Sharchops of Indo-Mongoloid origin, the Ngalops of Tibetan origin and the Lhotsams of Nepali origin - and there remain a few distinct tribal communities. Bhutanese rural society consists of a dispersed collection of close-knit village settlements of average size 43 persons.

Distance and livelihood are major factors explaining the profusion of separate units, and a strong community orientation. Bhutan's geographical conditions have encouraged whole-scale separations, both vertically - between the high northern, broad central and tropical southern belts - and horizontally - between respective valleys, separated by prohibitively high passes. Some areas still remain days walk from each other or the nearest road. Respective villages are essentially self-sufficient units, living off the limited fertile tracts through integrated farming systems. Most are sedentary, although there was a tradition for certain groups to seasonally migrate. Simple relations were maintained with the regional administrative and religious headquarters within the dzongs. The further one goes from these centers however the less the interactions, and there was little systematic effort on the part of the state to interfere at all in the activities of more distant agro-pastoral groups.

The country is a territorial and social mosaic of distinct village communities, where physical detachment and self-reliance has led to a kaleidoscopic localization of social organization and cultural practices. While loose linkages were certainly maintained between neighboring villages and districts, the huge variety of separate dialects, some spoken by only a few hundred people, indicates that communities were essentially able to develop independently. There therefore remains both overt and subtle intercommunity differentiation, demarcating a few distinct tribal groups and separating neighboring locales by dialect, specific livelihood, resident deity or indigenous institution. The people occupying the northern areas of Laya, Lunana and Lingshi are predominantly yak-herds, in summer grazing high pastures, in winter descending to more temperate climates to trade. Trading relations were also maintained across the border with Tibet. They speak dialects of Dzongkha, the principal language of the west, which may be barely intelligible to standard Dzongkha speakers. The Layaps, especially the women, retain their distinctive dress - predominantly black yak-hair and sheep wool fabrics and conical bamboo hats.

There is an immense social complexity within the geographically diverse central valleys. A very rough division can be drawn along historical and linguistic lines between the western, central and eastern zones. The peoples of the western regions share a similar Ngalop tradition and speak Dzongkha. Within the central regions there are a multitude of peoples and dialects, mostly associated to the Bumthang language family, closely related to Tibetan. Eastern Bhutan is lower, has a warmer climate and is more heavily populated. The majority are Sharchops, speaking Sharchopkha, a clear language set. There are however other defined groups, such as the Brokpas, who occupy the high valleys of Merak and Sakteng. These peoples also sport a distinctive apparel - women wear a short poncho like dress and red jackets, men wear leather leggings and woolen trousers, woolen tunics and leather sleeveless vests, both sexes wear a peculiar hat of yak felt with long twisted tufts.

The southern belt was previously thinly populated, due to the mountain people's fear of tropical disease. Over time, however, there have been significant migrations from north and south. The progressive arrival of peoples of Nepali descent gives the area a very varied ethnic and linguistic character. They are an extremely assorted group, from the plains dwelling Hindu Bahun-Chhetris and Newaris to the hill people of Mongoloid stock, including Sherpas, Gurungs, Tamangs, Rais and Limbus. In Samtse there are certain tribal communities considered to be aboriginals, notably the Lhopus. Living in extremely close-knit isolated communities, they maintain their distinct way of life, which includes the worship of local deities associated with animism and the marrying of cross cousins.

Individual communities were structured in a way that they could essentially function independently. Each may be interpreted as deriving their individual methods, although there are often marked similarities due to the very comparable situations encountered. Indigenous local institutions have evolved through which a village headman is elected, roles and responsibilities are allocated between sexes and age groups, and mutually beneficial collective arrangements are promoted. In many cases women are the heads of the household, the owners of the land and the economic decision-makers. Male power derives more from a religious role, which should not be underestimated. Although there are inevitable gaps between rich and poor, the limited economic opportunities maintain such discrepancies within acceptable margins, and the small internal environment means that inclusive symbiotic relationships remain.

This marked community orientation promotes a common bond, a distinct localization of outlook and a strong source of individual identity. Within the larger urban environments most still associate with their original village and maintain close links through family, friends and extended livelihood approaches. The traditional way of life, with its implied hardships, promotes intimate interrelations and a strong sense of solidarity, where collective detachment has mitigated internal dislocations. Attitudes are essentially relaxed, encouraging friendly exchanges and a very matter-of-fact outlook. This carries over to sexual practices, most notably "night hunting", when young men climb through windows to reach sometimes unsuspecting suitors. Should they be together in the morning it is assumed that they are married.

Each group has its particular body of stories - amusing anecdotes, fascinating occurrences and auspicious events. Personal relations assume heightened importance and command overwhelming interest. Individual histories are common knowledge, as are private joys and problems and future plans. Where such information is currency, there is a marked proliferation of gossip and rumor. Wonderful storytellers spin fantastic tales; lives are portrayed in brilliant Technicolor, a fascinating fusion of fantasy and reality. Although composed on a small canvas, one is afforded an intricacy of human detail that would otherwise become submerged.

Distance is a principal feature of Bhutan's contemporary social circumstance. For much of its history the whole territory was sheltered from the outside world. Essentially insulated from modern influences, traditional structures were retained and allowed to mature within a settled background. Spread out over inaccessible mountainous terrain, society remained only very loosely connected, where people existed in miniature community centered life-worlds. Although the total land area is relatively small, villages and regions are separated by hours and days. Travel - on horseback or by foot traversing high hills and steep valleys on narrow winding tracks - was a protracted experience, encouraging a very localized perspective of time and space. However, as the nation becomes integrated, both externally and internally, underlying contexts are transforming. Gaps are closing and horizons expanding, as the nation enters a new era of compression, convergence and modernization.

Essential circumstances have altered and new national imperatives have become introduced. Bhutan is now committed to development and change. Although it appears needless, almost destructive, to disturb well-functioning systems, encounters with modernity are inexorable. Indeed, reactionary romanticism denies the many traditional hardships, the host of potential benefits and the basic inevitability of modernization. Bhutanese society is now experiencing some fundamental structural changes. Since the inception of planned development in the early 1960s a concerted effort has been made to create an enabling environment, whereby society might undertake the transition to a modern condition. Although still at a formative stage, the situations encountered by the majority of the population are becoming somewhat removed from the stable restricted past.

Associated with the requirement for state regulatory and development policy interventions, there now exists a more intimate relationship between a centralized paternalistic state and society. From informal and detached to formal and integrated, the institutional environment is gradually becoming transformed. Social activities are now governed by a blend of traditional and modern arrangements. The Royal Government has placed emphasis on human development, most notably in the fields of physical infrastructure, health and education. A basic health coverage system has been established, and there is now universal primary health care. The health status of the population has improved dramatically, with life expectancy at 66 years (1999). Modern educational institutions provide educational opportunities from primary to tertiary level, with the gross primary enrolment rate estimated at 72% (1999).

Bhutan's total road network measures about 3,200 km, the main routes consisting of an east-west highway and four north-south highways, connecting all the districts and the major towns. However, inhibited by the mountainous terrain, certain regions and the majority of villages remain unconnected. The country now has an airport, at Paro in western Bhutan, from where the national airline, Druk Air, provides regular services to Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Bangkok. A basic telecommunications network has been established, consisting of telephone, telegraph, telex, fax, e-mail and internet access. Such advantages are accessible in the main urban centers and all but a few regional headquarters, and civil wireless facilities are available in all the dzongkhags. Electricity is now available in certain areas, with the development of more that 20 hydroelectric schemes as well as the installation of diesel generators. 39 towns are now electrified and 5% of the population has access to electricity.

With the introduction of modern technologies and methods, the economic opportunities are slowly increasing. A new livelihood division has emerged between traditional and modern sectors. Whereas traditional agrarian pursuits provide ample employment possibilities, there are only limited productivity improvements available. Despite the progress made in the development of a more efficient modern sector, employment opportunities are currently limited, predominantly to public service and small-scale trade, with only 7,000 jobs so far created and around half of these occupied by expatriates. The overall extent of modernization is reflected in the rural-urban distribution. Bhutan is one of the least urbanized countries in the world, with only 15% of the population living in urban areas. Thimphu is the capital city, with a population between 30,000 and 40,000. The other major urban settlements are Gelephu, Phuntsholing and Samdrup Jongkhar, all in the south, where industrial activity is concentrated. Towns are developing in all 20 dzongkhag (district) headquarters and altogether 44 settlements, with a minimum of 500 inhabitants, have been recognized as urban.

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