My visit to Ungar in Lhuentse was one of the best experiences of my journalistic life. The trip was refreshingly different. It was a trip with the Secretary of Gross National Happiness Commission to one of the farthest and poorest villages in Bhutan. 2 days of walk carrying my 85 kilogram body mass was quite a challenge. Yet, it was awakening and refreshing, at once.
My visit to the village of poor and struggling farmers gave me an opportunity for reflection and introspection. I know that poverty is everywhere. There are poor people living in more developed dzongkhags too. Poverty may or may not strike a whole community at the same time but in every community, there are poor people, some of them desperately poor. During my visit to Ungar, I observed that the people there were only concerned about eking out a mere existence. Their concern was about food, shelter and survival. They struggled endlessly. For them, it was simply what life meant.
Coming from a similar community, I have come to realise that it is a pity that these poor people are burdened with mere reasons for survival rather than contributing to nation building as equal partners with their fellow citizens. Their common parlance is, “We are happy as we are” while they hardly have any reason to be happy. They hold serious reservations about telling zhunglay jenmi dasho that they are unhappy. Therefore, I have reservations about the government’s statistics on their well being. The same people, who had told the GNHC survey team that they were happy, confessed to me later that they hadn’t told the truth. I convinced them that I wasn’t a zhungi dasho but a newspaper man. Therefore, if they told me the truth, the government might help them.
Indeed, the truth is, they aren’t happy. They suffer a food shortage for at least 6 months in a year. Many of them are indebted to financial institutions. An old woman told me that she couldn’t pay off her debt even if she “piled life upon life”. Marauding wild animals ravage their crops every season leaving them with little of a little they grow.
Then they have to contribute zhabto lemi which sometimes include clearing tourist trails and camps at the cost of their crops.
There are no road and electricity. They cannot send their children to school for numerous reasons. The villagers, who have resigned to their fate, say that many government officials came to their village with pen and paper, asked questions, and never returned.
Travelling to the remotest and poorest village in Lhuentse (considered better than some villages in other dzongkhags) and spending 3 nights with the villagers – eating what they eat and sleeping their way – made me think how much Bhutan needs to do to help those people.
Committees and meetings, plans and policies, aims and objectives, budgets and expenditures, ideas and ideals – all of these are not going to help them, at least not overnight. They need real plans and concrete implementation. They don’t need volumes of GNH literature but only what it means to them.
Had the Ura – Ungar – Lhuentse road plan been approved, we would have passed through that picturesque village of Ungar but never would have noticed who live inside the houses. The houses are mostly double-storied, large and CGI sheet-roofed. One would not suspect that the poorest of the Bhutanese live inside those houses.
These decent looking houses have no properly ventilated ovens, doors or windows. No toilets either. I was told that the people built their big houses when timbers and stones were aplenty in the village. The villagers helped one another build their houses. I learned that the people of 52 households were all related. Night-hunting was the way of courtship and a way to marriage.
Most of the people brewed ara. The poorest of them admitted to brewing at least 2 litres of ara in a week from borrowed food grains.
In the morning, many of the villagers have maize flour porridge. In the evening, the poor community inundates the visitors from zhung with tshogchhang. Next morning, Dema Tshering, a frail, skinny, 80 year old woman, comes to offer a bottle of milk and hard boiled eggs to the Secretary. I wondered when she last had a glass of milk. The day before, she told me that she was Nu 15,000 in debt to a bank. Her daughter had gone to Samtse to get some money from their relatives and never returned.
Ungar was provided drinking water supply in the mid 1990s but no repair works have been done. Although a few households tried to bring water to a common place, the difficulty is still there.
Despite all the problems and setbacks, Ungar is a memorable village. With its beautiful landscape, moderate climate, and breathtaking forests surrounding the village, it is refreshing. With its hospitable and friendly people, and gorgeous girls, it is heart warming.
Now that I am posted to the Southern Bhutan Bureau, I could already notice some similarities between the people in Ungar and neighbouring town of Jaigoan. They use open toilets. Unlike in Ungar, pigs in Jaigoan feed on human faeces. I am yet to explore if the rumour that pigs in Jaigoan feed on dead bodies is true. Meantime, the leather jacket I wore in Ungar still smells of smoke. I need to wash it although I don’t have to use it in Phuentsholing.