Masters of arts in development studies

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Graduate School of Development Studies

Memories of Agrarian Reform in Bhutan:

An Exploratory study based on oral history

A Research Paper presented by:

Tashi Yetsho


in partial fulfillment of the requirements for obtaining the degree of



[Rural Livelihood and Global Change]

Members of the examining committee:

Dr. Andrew Martin Fischer

Prof. Dr. Ben White

The Hague, The Netherlands
November, 2010


This document represents part of the author’s study programme while at the Institute of Social Studies. The views stated therein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute.


Postal address: Institute of Social Studies

P.O. Box 29776
2502 LT The Hague
The Netherlands

Location: Kortenaerkade 12

2518 AX The Hague
The Netherlands

Telephone: +31 70 426 0460

Fax: +31 70 426 0799


To my country Bhutan

My parents: Kesang Choden and Thinley Wangdi

And to the whole family

Thank you for your love, support and inspiration.

Tashi Yetsho

November 2010


This research would not have been possible without constant guidance and support of Dr.Andrew Fischer and Prof.Dr Ben White who had rendered their valuable time and knowledge. You remained pivotal in my intellectual pursuits. You had not only guided me constantly but also meticulously read through and provided necessary improvements in my paper. This achievement had also helped me in my professional growth and future career. Thank you for your encouragement and your endless confidence in my ability to write something meaningful. This had been the real source of inspiration for me. I owe you my deepest gratitude, most sincere respect and heartfelt appreciation for your painstaking efforts and energy.

I also thank the Netherlands Government for providing the NFP fellowship.

I sincerely thank all government officials and the people who shared their expertise, experiences and wisdom which made my research meaningful.

Heartfelt thanks to SNV Bhutan for the kind financial support in carrying out my field research studies.

RLGC and Sunneke friends --- I owe special gratitude for insightful comments and support

My special thanks to Mr.Tashi Dorjee, Ms Yangchen, Dr.Nor Tshering and

to Mr. Kezang Namgyal for their continued support.

Lastly, I offer my regards and prayers to all those who has a hand in enabling me in completion of my Masters degree successfully.

Tashi Yetsho

November 2010

Table of Contents

Dedication iv

Acknowledgement v

List of Tables vii

List of Maps vii

List of Acronyms viii

Glossary ix

Abstract xii

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

Chapter 2 Agrarian reform and state modernization: Conceptual framework 5

2.1 Agrarian reform and state modernization 5

2.2 Discourse on ‘serfdom’/ ‘feudalism’ and Definitions 8

Chapter 3 Agrarian reform and state modernisation 12

3.1 General overview of Bhutan 13

3.2 Agrarian conditions and Agrarian structure 13

3.3 State modernisation and its relationship to agrarian reform 15

3.4 Process of agrarian reform and state modernisation 17

3.5 Brief overview post reform 21

Chapter 4 Remembering Agrarian reform in Jasabi Village 23

4.1 Background 23

4.2 Agrarian structure and agrarian relations pre reform 25

4.3 Taxation and Labour contribution system 29

4.4 Method of mobilising household and community labour contribution 34

4.5 The reform process 38

4.6 The post reform and transition 39

4.7 Agrarian structure and agrarian relations 40

4.8 Taxation and labour contribution 43

Chapter 5 Concluding Reflections 45

Appendix I 47

Appendix II 48


References 49

List of Tables

Table 4.1 An illustration from an elderly aristocrat 32

Table 4.2 Types of Tax 32

Table 4.3 Transition in Tax from Kind to cash (1960) 43

List of Maps

Map 3.1 Administrative Map of Bhutan 12


Map 4.1 Administrative Map of Lhuentse District 24

List of Acronyms

HDI : Human Development Index

NA : National Assembly

Nu : Ngultrum

PHCB : Population and Housing Census of Bhutan

UNDP : United Nations Development Programme


Aring tsho : Terracing the paddy field

acre zindrey : land record made through survey standard

Batsep : Tax collector

Boe : An attendant to the King

Bolang sa : A small plot of land given to the serf for their own Use

Brama : Local term for buckwheat

Bung threl : Labour tax

Chaktha : Chain survey

Changaps : Personal Assistant to King

Changla : Rice transplantation

Cheta Kasho : circular related to taxation (sometimes written in the bark of tree)

Chipon : Village messenger

Chipon Gom : Head of the village messenger

Cho-chon : Local term for dough made from flour

Choeje : A religious clan

Choesi : Dual system of governance

Choktham : Permission to register

Danglen : Share cropping

Dasho : An honorary title for a red scarf official

Dalai Lama : Head of the state under Tibet

Desi : Regional ruler

Drap : The serf working under the monastic body

Dratsang : Monastic institution

Drey : A unit of measurement for grains (one drey =1.67 kg of rice)

Druk Gyalpo : The King of Bhutan

Dzongdag : District Administrator

Dzongkha : National Language of Bhutan

Dzongkhag : District administration

Dzongpon : Fort governor

Dung : A clan

Dungkhag : Sub district administration

Dungpa : Sub district administrator

Genja : An agreement

Gewog : Block

Gungda woola : Compulsory household labour contribution to the Government

Gungthrel : Household tax

Gup : Village headman

Jasabi : A name of the village in kurtoe

Jekhenpo : Head/chief abbot of the monastic body

Ju threl : Wealth tax

Kamthrel : Tax paid in money

Kamzhing : Dry land

Kasho : A royal decree

Khaep : A tax-paying household/land holding peasant

Khechen gi sa : Local term referring to a fertile land

Khomteng Lhakhang : Village temple across the border

Kidu : Welfare

Kurim : Religious ceremony

Kurtoe : A block in Lhuentse Dzongkhag

Kurtoep kha : Local dialect spoken in the east

Lama : An equivalence of a priest

Langdo : Land measurement unit in terms of oxen(4

langdo makes 1 acre of land)

Langpon : Responsible for ploughing the field

Lhakhang : Religious institution

Lhuentse : A District in the eastern Bhutan

Lodroe Tshogde : Royal Advisory Council

Lhuentsepa : Title for the District head under Lhuntse

Lonthrel/tsampa : Tax in term grains

Mangi Ap : Head of the village community

Mathram : Land record

Mathram chen : Master Land record

Mephu threl : Fire tax

Minap : Common people

Nangzen : A milder term used for the serf

Ngultrum/Nu : Bhutanese currency

Nyerchen : Master of store keeper for various products

Such as butter, grains, meats etc

National Assembly : Parliament also called as Tshogdue

Palang : A wine container made out of bamboo

Peljor gonghphel : Socio-economic development

Penlop : Regional governors

Perpon : Village messenger

Phatsa : Traditional bag

Prew : Local festival in kurtoe gewog

Pchu : Labour exchange system

Remong : Share cropping

Sang : A measurement unit for butter (one sang =333 gm)

Satong : An empty land

Shabto lemi : Labour contribution for development activity

Sha nyerpa : Responsible for storing meat

Shey : A measurement unit in kilograms

Shingkey : Share cropping

Son drey : A measurement unit of land

Sumdang : Share cropping

Tego : Upper blouse worn by the woman in particular

Toe tha : Weaving tax

Thre : Millet

Threlpa : Tax payer/same as kheap above

Toezeps : Associated with discipline and etiquette

Tseri : Slash and burn

Thrimpon : Judge

Tshogdu : National Assembly/parliament

Wang youn : Tax levied for receiving blessing from a lama

Werza : Weeding

Woola : Labour

Yumbi Umling : A fertile valley in Jasabi

Zab : Serf

Zhime nyerpa : Tax caretaker

Zimpon : Chamberlain


The academic research on the history of agrarian reform is very limited hence very little is known in the field of agrarian history of Bhutan. This research paper is an attempt to reconstruct an understanding of the past agrarian reform in Bhutan in the 1950s and even prior. This study is based mainly on an exploratory study and limited secondary resources. Particular attention is given to understanding the inter-relationship between the agrarian reform and the political process of state modernization. This tries to connect the actual agrarian structures in the pre reform period with the political processes that had shaped the agrarian reform. This study reveals a detailed account on how agrarian reform is being remembered in the particicular research area based in the eastern region while it also presents a general understanding on this particular subject.

The main discussion in this study is that agrarian reform had been an effective political strategy in state modernization breaking down the power of the landed political/landed elites. As a consequences on one hand we see relatively servile characteristics remain today imposed in the more modern context expressed in different forms but on the other hand the reform had improved the livelihoods of the people at large redistributing land to the landless and end in the ‘serf’ system. Indeed while reviving the traditional agrarian structure it is widely recognized the universalisation of the terms/label such as ‘serfdom/feudal’is an over simplification in Bhutan context and these terms are not relevant to describe the past system. The use of indigenous term and alternative perspective is also questioned in this study. This study contributes to break down the internalization and clear understanding within the discourses so far that the past system is portrayed to legitimize current system while we have the unique elements and richness in the past agrarian structure to be more valued. The study ends with reflections on above discussions and what remains as a scope for the future researchers/scholars.


(Agrarian reform, state modernization, politics, Land, Labour, serfdom,


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