About a decade ago, Harka Bahadur Rai and his family left their small plot of land in Saijong, a remote village inhabited Rais in Samtse, and migrated to Gedu to work at a construction site.
The village was then a three-day walk from Samtse and took about four days on foot from Haa. Most villagers were sharecroppers toiling in fields that belonged to people of Haa.
“Most youngsters have moved away from the village in search of better economic avenues like my family,” 63-year-old Harka Bahadur Rai said. He said this was how poverty divided his family and relatives.
Today, the families have returned to their new home in Bebji, Haa. Some even left well paying jobs.
In 2011, the residents of Saijong in Samtse, and Sangbaykha and Gakiling gewogs, Haa together received more than 185 acres as kidu through the National Rehabilitation Programme (NRP). The programme was initiated on His Majesty The King’s command to alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods of the landless and socio-economically disadvantaged people.
Bebji Tshogpa Pema Gyeltshen said that 68 households were selected including 20 households from Saijong, and 30 households from Thangdokha in Gakiling gewog, to resettle in Bebji.
Saijong is one of the most remote villages in the country.
Even today, it’s a seven hours walk from Dorokha, the nearest road point, which served as the main access point to the village. Except for one, 20 households relocated in Bebji.
Apart from small land holdings, the villagers did not have access to proper drinking water, electricity, telecommunication, road, health facilities, or school.
In Bebji, they have each of these amenities. The village, about 20km from Gakiling drungkhag lies on a gentle slope opposite the Sangbay Ama in Sangbaykha gewog, Haa. Most residents grow cardamom and rear livestock.
Under the programme, they were provided land, support for shelter and income -generation, and other essential socio-economic services. The Office of the Gyalpoi Zimpon, National Land Commission, and the Gross National Happiness Commission in collaboration with other sectors implemented the programme.
NRP for Bebji is one of the five projects carried out under the programme in Pemagatshel, Haa, Lhuentse, and Samdrupjongkhar since 2011 benefiting 245 households.
Bir Bahadur Rai, Bebji’s former tshogpa, owns 2.83 acres. He earns about Nu 0.5 million (M) selling cardamom from his two-acre orchard. He grows cereals and vegetables on the remaining land.
The father of four worked as a ward boy at the national referral hospital from 2001 to 2002. His monthly income was barely adequate to make ends meet. He chose to return to the village and settle in Bebji.
“Even our parents can’t do to children what His Majesty The King did to us,” he said. “We can’t thank enough for that.”
Panchaman Rai also worked as a ward boy at the hospital for seven years. He experienced bitter life in rapidly changing Thimphu and left his job to join his family. From his monthly salary of Nu 8,000, he spent Nu 5,000 on rent.
“Since I was living in urban poverty I opted to return to my family in the village, which is far better than Thimphu,” said the 36-year-old, who recently completed constructing his house in Bebji. Panchaman Rai and his uncle are also attending non-formal education classes.
“We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to learn,” he said.
Panchaman Rai grows cardamom on 3.13 acres of land and earns Nu 0.3M from its sale annually. While in Saijong, he grew vegetables and some cash crops on his 60 decimals land that he inherited from his parents. The land hardly produced enough for his family.
“The market was far away which acted as a disincentive to produce surplus.”
The father of two school-going children is one of the contended farmers in Bebji. “I will keep offering my gratitude and prayers to His Majesty The King even in my next life.”
Another landless farmer, Tsang Tsha from Thangdokha village in Sangbaykha worked as a labourer for his relatives until he relocated to Bebji. Today he works on 2.31 acres of land that his father received as kidu land. “Forget about land, we even got farm equipment,” he said. “Our King is a real Bodhisattava.”
“Unlike in the past we no longer have to carry load on our backs, spend nights in caves and jungles and cross the notorious Tergo La,” Pema Gyeltshen said.
The farmers used to take their agriculture produce to Haa town across Tergo La pass, which is more than 3,720 meters above sea level and mostly remains covered in snow during winters and landslides blocking paths in summer.
Kuenga, 63, from Tima, owns 1.5 acres of cardamom orchard, which has given his family good income over the years. The buyers come to Bebji in their vehicles and strike deals. Despite poor harvest this year, he earned about Nu 40,000.
“My family need not borrow cereals or dairy products from others any more. My grandchildren go to school in other dzongkhag, there is nothing more I need.”
Those resettled in Bebji have become a closely-knit community. They have one of the best archery teams in the area, beating teams from neighbouring villages like Mochu, Sangbaykha, and Gakiling. They are now looking forward to play against the dzongkhag team soon.
For Harka Bahadur Rai and his nephew Panchaman Rai, their lives have changed. Relatives, who have been separated for years, had children who did not know about their own relatives in other places.
“Had it not been for the kidu, our children could have even married within relatives,” Harka Bahadur Rai said. “Fortunately, such times won’t come.”
Tshering Palden and Tenzin Namgyel | Sangbaykha