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Poor country with rich people

The living standard of Bhutanese has improved in the last five years, recent survey findings show.

Poverty rate has dropped to 8.2 percent from 12 and unemployment to 2 from 2.5 percent. Almost all households were found to have access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities. Literacy rate has risen to 66 percent and the consumption power of Bhutanese has increased by 82 percent.

These changes indicate development in the living standards of the people, although it varies among dzongkhags. The government claims that the decline in poverty rate is due to economic progress.

It could be,​ but there is a need to see these changes in the context of a changing Bhutan. Preliminary analyses show that most of the poverty reduction over the last five years was due to increasing non-food consumption.

That households spent more on transportation, clothing, and recreation in 2017 compared to 2012 indicates the behaviour of a consumerist society. The Gini index, which measures inequality, has remained almost the same in the last five years. We should be concerned of such trends, not flattered.

Despite improvement in access to public services, the households prioritised continuous water supply, road infrastructure and job creation for government action. The people’s need for these basic services sits uneasily with the findings. For instance, 99.5 percent of households were found to have access to improved water sources but 32.9 percent prioritised water supply as their main concern. About 63 percent of households reported having 24 hours access to drinking water.

This calls for a review to assess people’s access to basic services so that interventions can be made to supply continuous water. Having a tap in front of the house may indicate access to the source but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the households ​have access to water. Given its impact on sanitation and health, our policy makers need to understand that access to safe drinking water in a water rich country is a more reliable measure and indicator of living standards.

As a literate society, we must be able to assess our standards of living and question why Bhutanese spend more on clothes, recreation and transportation when they lack continuous water, good roads and jobs? What standards are we living and whose standards are we living up to when we buy big fancy cars to drive on broken roads? Who sets the living standards for the Bhutanese people?

The display of affluence in an economy that is built on borrowings has often resulted in Bhutan being called a poor country with rich people. Survey findings tell us that most people, 76 percent, are happy and that their happiness perception is associated with the households’ perception of being poor or non-poor.

But poverty remains a rural phenomenon with 40 percent of the country’s poor living in Dagana, Samtse and Mongar dzongkhags. Bhutan is largely rural and a majority of the country’s population lives there. Yet, robust economic growth and targeted interventions have not been able to change this chronic phenomenon.

Why?

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