As recently as the late 70s, it was possible for the Berkeley professor Leo Rose to write in his Politics of Bhutan that most families had as much land at their disposal as they could cultivate, and that in many villages the local authorities still had land available for distribution to any family that wanted it. Things have changed now. With population increasing at more than three percent and the decision to withdraw tseri (shifting cultivation, known as jhum further east) land from production, pressure is growing on land in Druk Yul, including on the 72 percent of the country still under forest cover.
Migration from villages to urban centres, the all-too-common phenomenon elsewhere which Bhutan might have been spared, is increasing. Thimphu Valley´s annual growth rate of 10 percent means it will reach its calculated limit of around 60,000 persons in just a few more years. Ironically, it is Bhutan´s very success in extending basic education deep into the rural areas that is responsible for this. Young people are using their education to seek alternatives to the drudgery of semi-subsistence agriculture. As the UNDP put it in typical donor agency politesse to the sixth Bhutan Aid Meeting in Geneva earlier this year, “employment has the potential of becoming one of Bhutan´s critical development issues”. Not that the Thimphu government is not doing anything about it. It has ambitious family planning targets – to increase the contraceptive prevalence rate from 25 percent at present to 36 percent by 2002 and to reduce fertility from the current level of 5.6 to 2 surviving children per woman by 2012.
But even if these goals were to be achieved, the momentum resulting from a young age structure will continue to rapidly increase the population for the next half century. About 50,000 persons are expected to enter the labour force in the current (eighth) plan itself. Used to be a time when all educated Bhutanese could hope to find a job with the civil service. However, with the decision to convert the civil service into a “highly professional, compact and efficient organisation” (to use the official formulation) that avenue seems to have been largely cut off. Of the 94 university graduates looking for jobs in 1994, only 15 were inducted into the civil service.
Prospects for employment outside of government are, for the moment, bleak. The main opportunities in the industrial sector lie in developing the nation´s vast hydropower resource and establishing small and cottage industries. Power exports to India will, of course, continue to be a major contributor to government revenues. (Delhi recently raised the price of electricity that it buys from the Chukha power project in western Bhutan to INR 2 a unit, and construction on the 1020 MW Tala project has just begun.) The natural resource industry, such as cement, that cheap power will make possible within the country will typically be capital intensive, with relatively weak employment linkages to the local economy.
As for cottage industry, weaving is the only handicraft that has a large market base. It enjoys two advantages – national dress requirement laws, and the tendency of people, as they become richer in Thimphu, to prefer the more expensive locally woven textiles to cheaper machine-made imports even when these (mass produced in Punjab, India) faithfully replicate the traditional Bhutanese designs to the last check. But, weaving, despite being an important supplementary source of income, is hardly likely to appeal to the increasing numbers of junior-high and high school graduates emerging from the country´s expanding school system.
Many come to Thimphu seeking jobs in hotels and restaurants, often staying with relatives employed in government. But, with the restriction of tourist numbers that results from Bhutan´s low-volume-high-value tourism policy, only a few of them succeed. The rest take odd jobs, and hit the bars in the evenings. Juvenile delinquency is on the rise. The murder which took place outside Club X, a local disco, a few months ago gave rise to much consternation and soul-searching, but the modernising process has been unleashed and it will be hard to bottle up expectations.
The imperative of tackling the unemployment problem, although still incipient, but gradually becoming acute, may eventually force Bhutan to ease up on the relatively cautious policies it has followed so far on tourism, foreign investment (a maximum of 20 percent equity participation allowed), forest-based industries, and procedures for employing expatriate labour.