Masters of arts in development studies

Chapter 4 Remembering Agrarian reform in Jasabi Village

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Chapter 4
Remembering Agrarian reform in Jasabi Village

The chapter revives the memories of elderly respondents to understand how the reform took place at local level, in Jasabi village, Lhuentse District. The analysis in this chapter supports two main conclusions. Firstly, when we examine the Bhutanese ‘serf’ system as it existed in this study area, while recognizing that servile ‘unfree’ relations of production are incompatible with the modern world, and have the potential to become oppressive, the agrarian relations prevalent in the pre-reform period were relatively benign compared to what we read in the literature on other forms of European and other Asian feudalism. Therefore it is an over-simplification to call the pre reform agrarian structure as ‘serfdom’ or ‘feudal’ for Bhutan.

Secondly, there are legacies which persisted from the pre reform era to the present, including some old elements of the relatively servile relations, transposed into the more modern context.

The chapter contains six sections: section one present a note on setting of the district, section two analyses the agrarian structure prior to the reform, section three covers the taxation and labour contribution system, section four deals with the method of mobilizing household and community labour contributions, section five focuses on the actual implementation of the reform and section six analyses the post-reform situation.

4.1 Background

Lhuentse District is located in far eastern Bhutan encompassing an area of 2,888 sq km. It consists of eight Gewogs (blocks) with a total population of 22,650. It has an estimate of 3,512 acres of dry land and 2,514 acres of wetland.

During the 18th and 19th century, Lhuentse District was administered by Trongsa Penlop (regional governors) and the Lhuentse Dzongpon (Fort- governors). Kurtoe Gewog located in the northern border currently has the population of 2,111 people inhabiting the area of 1,074 square km. There are 42 villages with 163 registered households (Bhutan Portal, 2010) Jasabi is one of these villages with rugged terrain that makes the village less accessible to market, centre of administration and other services.Jasabi village is administered by Gup (village head man) of Kurtoe Gewog. People walk about 2 hours to reach the district headquarter, crossing a river by a suspension bridge. At present, the village has 10 households with an estimated population of people of 30. It is known that the village consisted of 20 households and about 240 people before the reform in the 1950s.

Map 4.1
Administrative Map of Lhuentse District

Source: (National Statistics Bureau, 2010)

Land continues to be an important asset for the people in this village and agriculture is the main source of livelihood. The other sources of income are traditional carpentry, pottery, bamboo weaving and weaving keshuthara34. Prior to the reform, the people also practiced rather a primitive agriculture and particularly shifting cultivation known as tseri (slash and burn) . The farm land in this village is considered to be fertile and can yield multiple crops35. Most of the farmers in this village have learnt the art of farming right from the age of 13 to 15 years. Land has other social and cultural significance. Every year, the people would celebrate a local festival or cult known as ‘prew36. This is a collective event but organized by the local aristocratic family. This festival marks peace, happiness and prosperity in the village. The available literature and local oral sources establish the fact that most agrarian reforms were Initiated in the eastern region, and especially In Lhuentse that was once dominated by the presence of local aristocrats. Even In the early 1970s, the fourth king’s attention was drawn to the prevailing landholding system in Lhuentse. Many farmers worked for their landlords who normally were in Bumthang37.

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