Development depends on nature, more so in a country like ours. For it to succeed, it has to be sustainable.
And sustaining development needs the involvement of the community.
It could have been event-driven, but the highland community received a little more attention lately. Festivals were held to celebrate their way of life and, for once, representatives of the highland community came to Thimphu to discuss policy issues. We now see these communities being involved in conservation projects, to protect endangered species and their habitats.
While much needs to be done, these moves are encouraging. For long the attention in the highlands was targeted for environmental and cultural reasons and the benefit to the people were more or less a proxy outcome. This appears to be changing. We are witnessing a shift now.
The people, the custodians of the highlands, its culture and environment, are getting the attention of policy makers. We are beginning to realise that having elected representatives to make their issues heard in the headquarters is not enough. Since their presence up in the mountains secures the northern frontiers and its ecosystem, the highland communities need to be heard and involved to enrich and inform the policy development process that takes place away from their homes.
Our planners and policy makers must understand that their involvement is crucial to ensure ownership of activities that will be implemented from the centre. Concerns have already been shared about people leaving the mountains for better education and economic activities.
While persuasion may work to an extent, we must accept that they are as vulnerable as anyone to the seductions of a city life. Many still are surprised to find girls from the highlands performing in drayangs just as they get amused when students from there perform well in schools. Choosing to stay or leave or do well in school or stay home is a choice that the rest of the society must begin to respect. We must understand that the rest of the country sees the highland community as the rest of the world sees Bhutan.
As we involve the highland communities and take stock of development challenges, there is a need to assess if development activities taken so far have improved the quality of life there. Representatives last week asked for improved health and education services. The government must give priority to their wellbeing. The children in the mountains deserve experienced teachers and better health facilities just as those living in the valleys.
If these communities are yet to avail basic health and education services, amenities that others take for granted, there is a flaw in our development process. It is then not nature that is to blame. The stunted development is nurtured and it is hoped that this has not come at the cost of the country’s environmental conservation policies.
Now that their concerns have been heard, we expect to see policies that are sustainable and driven by the community’s wellbeing. Their development or under-development is also about choice.