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Housing crisis

After corruption, Phuentsholing, the country’s commercial hub is now becoming a hub for crime.

A Bhutanese woman was allegedly raped in the Indian border town of Phuentsholing last week. The suspect is reported to be still at large and the brouhaha that ensued online was not enough for authorities to take action. Earlier this month, two teachers allegedly threw a newborn out of a hotel window. What offended the teaching fraternity more was not the act of alleged murder but of the teachers’ image being tarnished.

We are getting better at getting our priorities wrong and this is happening at the cost of our women and children.

The alleged rape case in Jaigaon may have occurred in a foreign territory but that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to protect our women. Bhutanese live in Jaigoan, not out of choice but of compulsion. Our failure to address the acute housing crunch that has been plaguing Phuentsholing for years has today manifested in a sexual assault case, one that is perhaps not enough to get our authorities to comment on, let alone condemn and act on.

A Housing Needs Survey (HNS) done in 2014 found robbery and sexual harassment were the biggest issues Bhutanese living in Jaigaon faced. The survey found that income of more than 9,500 Bhutanese living in Jaigaon range between Nu 5,000 and Nu 10,000 while 23 percent earned less than Nu 5,000 a month. About 17 percent earn between Nu 10,000 and Nu 20,000. Only one percent earns more than Nu 20,000. Records with the Phuentsholing municipality however, show that there are today about 3,000 Bhutanese living across the border.

To what extent the number has declined due to measures taken to provide affordable housing in Phuentsholing is not yet known. In April 2016, the government had identified seven sites to construct affordable houses, about 400 units, in the next two years. Plans to build temporary houses were also announced. The National Housing Development Corporation was also involved in several projects.The two years is up and we still have few thousands living across the border.

Rapid urbanisation and population growth has created new housing challenges for Bhutan, especially in urban centres. Studies have found that the people’s inability to purchase one’s own home has resulted in heavy dependence on rental housing, which in turn has limited urban families’ ability to save and build equity in their home.

It is time this vicious circle of dependency and urban poverty is broken. The existing housing policy is not adequate to address the housing crunch, in Phuentsholing or Thimphu. The works and human settlement minister had announced to the graduates during the orientation that the ministry was drafting a new housing policy to solve the housing issues. When it was learnt that no new policy was drafted, the government said that it was reviewing the existing policy.

The government may be concerned of the chronic housing crunch in urban centres but this concern is futile if it doesn’t translate into policies and initiatives that bring about a change in the wellbeing of its people. If it fails to ensure the safety of women and children in a society, in its cities, the government and the country has not done better.

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