Masters of arts in development studies

Agrarian structure and agrarian relations pre reform

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4.2 Agrarian structure and agrarian relations pre reform

In the 1950s the king remained as the head of the state, the Penlops (regional governors) and the Dzongpons (fort governors) were also powerful political entities. They controlled all the labour and tax collection done by the state. They were the key players in running the administration of the state. The landed aristocrats owned most of the land but they had to pay huge amount of tax in kind to the state. For this reason labour remained critical to work their land. Land distribution was unequal in this village. In a sparsely populated agrarian society, access to and control of ‘labour’ is a key to maintaining wealth and status among the agrarian elites. If the ‘serfs’ are mistreated by one landlord they always have the option of flight, moving to another who will treat them better. In such conditions it is reasonable to expect that landed elites will take care to treat their dependents relatively well. At the same time there are sayings from villages across in other eastern districts which do indicate that peasants had a clear sense of injustice in the system, which kept them living in ‘poverty in the midst of abundance’ because of the heavy demands of taxation38.

In Jasabi, there were a few aristocratic families who owned large acreage of land. There was another category of land holding peasants and regular tax payers known as (threlpa) which constitutes the larger segment of community population of subsistence peasants who had enough land or negligible ownership of land to support their livelihood. And lastly there were a large number of ‘serf’ who had very minimal amount of land (half langdor)39 or were even landless and therefore had to work under the aristocrats. The presence of this differentiation in the social structure created the division of labour which characterized the society, based on dependence on the elites.

In addition, the peasant also had to borrow grain from the landed elites, creating a non monetized borrowing and lending schemes based of their own interest, capital and terms of payment. As a matter of fact, one producing less and another producing more created a dependent relationship leading to exercising of authority one over another or the relationship due to this economic compulsion translated into a local power dynamics. This dependence again was not based on purely modern market sense where borrowing was totally on economic interest but here it created a social relationship in which the elites had certain degree of control.

On the other hand, there was also the prevalence of interdependent relationship between the landlords and the peasants in terms of labour and productivity. The local demography exercised a certain compulsion. For instance the landed aristocrats did not have enough labour to work their land and the subsistence or below subsistence peasants mentioned earlier did not have enough land to work in order to meet their living. An excerpt from the interview states:

“I was married at the age of 25 and I have no children. I worked for the land lord for three years, who gave me land to settle because I was landless. I had to clear forest, till the land and then sow maize and thre (millet). I had to do this because I stay in their land working hard” (Source: Interview held on August 2010).

However, it was found that the peasants who worked for the landed elites were satisfied with what they had although they faced hard times while contributing labour tax to the state. The ‘unfree’ labour relationship was therefore relatively benign as both the political/landed elites had to depend on the labour of the ‘serf’ to keep the state running as well as meet the demands of taxation.Labour was the key element. There were different terminologies used to describe ‘serf’ varying across the regions. It is clear from this study that there were two kinds of ‘serfs’ in existence, one known as the ‘zab’ and the other ‘drap’. ‘Zabs’ were those who lived below subsistence or mere subsistence level, they could not make their livelihood out of their land holding so worked under the landed aristocrats and they were hereditary ‘serf’. The draps were those who worked under the monastic (choeje) land40. They had subsistence amount of land themselves and were better off than the zabs. The draps worked on tenure contract which forbade them from working for the other landed elites. They were only responsible for the monastic body. Both zabs and the draps however do not belong to the category of tax paying households (threlpa). Servile labour relationships were entered into by men, women and children.

In addition it is known that if a zab was married to a drap, their children had the preference to work under any landlord of their parents but normally children opt to work under the landlord of their mother. Whereas if both parents were zab to the same landlord then their children also worked with their parents’. The children work as soon as they attained twelve years of age. The ‘serfs’ were called by nangsen. The nanzsens’ were not only entitled to fooding, clothing and shelter from their landlords but they were also given small plot of land for their own agriculture work. Conversely the draps were usually provided with the land they can own if they were landless unlike the zab.41 However, there were certain understandings and rules to bind with their land lord, as indicated by the two excerpts from interviews below.

‘In the past I had five zab families working under me. They worked three days for me and one day for themselves on the land that my grandparents had given to them. Sometimes they grow crops on their own land but if they don’t, they would work for others during that one day off. I even did not have to go for woola42 myself, because zabs would go for me. But I would provide them food, shelter and in fact, I was equally responsible to ensure their living. However, if they were occupied I have to contribute the woola for the dzong myself’ (Source: Interview held on August 2010)43

‘In the past, we had about 300 to 400 acres of land. There were drap families (six men and eight women) working on our land, and all of them were given some land to cultivate for their self-consumption. We also helped them build their house with some provision of rations like rice, maize etc. When they worked for us we provided them with meals. While they worked for themselves we provided with flour for cho-chon (dough made from flour). But in case if they did not want to work on our land, we used to send them away. For this matter my grandfather was strict at supervising people working on his farm. However, after my father, situation became little simpler. I also worked equally with those people. When I remember the system in its entirety it was sort of like re-mong in which they worked three days for us and two days for themselves. But later the number of working days changed and it was two days for us, and two days for themselves. In those days in my family man was usually head of the family and his attendance and participation was important during the household festival’44 (Source: Interview held on August 2010)

Further, to elaborate the ‘serf’ systems, it indicated that the zabs sometimes have to perform non agriculture work (household chores) to their landlord. They also have to attend to the labour tax of their landlord besides their own labour tax contribution to the state. It becomes much easier and clearer to capture the historical memory of the traditional system which has its own unique features/elements and richness, with the use of indigenous terms. So we further assert that trying to force the pre reform agrarian structure into a universal notion of ‘serfdom/feudalism’ hides all of the above.

4.3 Taxation and Labour contribution system

Dasho45 Lhuentsepa as a Dzongpon was responsible for all taxes in Lhuentse Dzongkhag. He reported and updated all the status of tax collection to the regional governors under Trongsa. There were instances when attendant to the king who were called as ‘boe’ would also be sent to the village to ensure that taxes are being paid.46 It was sometimes the nyerchen (store keeper) and sha nerpa (responsible for meat stuff) or the Zhime nyerpa who would come to the villages. Majority of the taxes collected were used for the dratshang (monastic), ‘kurim’ religious ceremonies and other purposes.

Both the central and local government was fully supported by taxes collected in kind and services from the people including those of aristocrats. Thus the taxation system across the country had a very close connection with the labour contribution system. The socio economic and political conditions during that time was totally dependent on implicit remuneration of labour and various forms of taxation paid usually in kind in proportion to the resources or wealth they owned especially such as(land and cattle). For example, taxes in kind were known as (lonthrel) such as bung-threl (labour), ju-threl (wealth), wang-yon (blessing), mephu-threl (fire)47 and so forth. In terms of labour contribution, every household had to contribute their labour for any developmental activities under the state. This was however on the condition that on an average there were twelve people living in a household. But if there were more people, more labour has to be contributed from that particular household. This was the system between the state, local elites, aristocrats and the peasants. They needed each other because of harsh reality and scarcity of labour those days, and that their relationship was based on trust, reciprocity and mutuality rather than on oppression or domination.

Irrespective of economic position in the community, every household was levied taxes except for those zab and drab. But it was found that there was no uniformity in the taxation48 .This heterogeneity in tax collection proved very burdensome for both the taxpaying household and those landed elites. Few families and households were however, spared by royal kasho (decree) from paying the taxes49. The tax regime therefore had forced appropriation and extraction of surpluses including the elites, ‘threlpa’ and ‘serf’. It is clear that each region had maintained a record (mathram) of their households according to their asset ownership and the taxes were paid accordingly. Those who do not own anything were not in the record and do not have to pay any taxes.

Similarly, the memories of the elderly confirm that at the regional level, collection of taxes in kind (lonthrel) was so much that they have to pay almost all their farm produce. A periodic batsep (tax collector) from the central government would come to monitor this tax collection.The tax collection was sometimes fearsome too, because when an order of batseps visit would come, whole of the community would be mobilized to clear and widen the footpath he would travel. This was literally the gesture to welcome and to show their hospitality to the batsep. If anyone failed at his command or would not comply by, he had the authority to flog them. The batsep also had the privilege and guest’s right to halt the night with the host he desired. Upon his arrival, each tax-paying household (threlpa) in the region would submissively come at his feet with a palang of locally brewed wine (a cylindrical container to carry local brew). On the following day, he along with an interpreter would visit the households, and inspect the milking cows tied securely. Depending on the number of cattle in a household, he would severely impose the annual butter tax: it was 5 sangs (1 kg 666 gram) for a healthy milking cow, but for those households with huge number of milking cows, they would be slapped with amount as heavy as 15 sheys (75 sangs). He would set the order the deadline and wait in the Dzong for the collections to arrive accordingly.

The taxed households would start to weave a bamboo basket to secure the tax butter and start carrying the consignment to the Dzong for final weighing. It was this same group of people who had to relay the loads to butter depot in Bumthang. All the collections would finally be pooled in the hands of the Dzongpons. At the local level, each household was also levied kamthrel (entitlement of Gup for his duty), which was paid between 40-60 dreys (20 dreys = 33.3 kg) of cereals. Another form of tax in existent was nyarikado (fish tax) for which each tax-paying household (threlpa) had to pay about 10 dreys of wheat grains in lieu of fish. People related the imposition of nyarikado tax to a popular anecdote where Zhabdrung was known to have bartered the fish with some amount of rice. However, this gesture was later registered as a form of regular tax. Another form of tax was wangyon (tax levied for receiving blessings (literally) but generally understood as taxes) for which it was levied 10 dreys of rice. Indeed every household also had to pay ‘meh-phu’ thre - this is if anybody was found to put up a small hut and build fire, it was a taxable act. For this even the ‘zabs’ and the ‘draps’ had to pay a minimal amount of tax in kind.

The taxes paid in those days were mainly in kind (lonthrel/tsampa), stored in the Dzong, and normally distributed to the monastic body. Besides the taxes it was mandatory for every household to contribute labour (woola) tax in the form of labour contribution such as ‘gungda woola’ where every household would have to contribute labour force for at least fifteen days in a year50. Another form of labour tax was shapto-lemi which had no fixed number of days and it is still continued today51. This woola system was applied by the government for all kinds of developmental activities like construction of Dzongs, bridges, roads and carrying loads for administrative purposes, postal services, taking horses for transporting loads and so forth. In addition to this, the peasants had to contribute corvee labour such as delivering the official luggage’s including annual tax goods accumulated and delivered from one region to another. An elderly aristocrat demonstrates on holdings and production in the past system as illustrated below52.

Table 4.1
An illustration from an elderly aristocrat




Approximate quantity Annually




45 acres kamzhing (dry land) and chuzhing (wet land).

Five cows,

one ox,

Two horses

Maize:400 dre

5 serf families

1 drey=1.67 kg


Unhusked rice: 5000 drey.

Thre(local term for millet)


Millet:400 dre

Brama(local term for Buck wheat)


Buck wheat:400 drey



Z owns reduced amount today


Unhusked rice:920 drey

(Approximate amount produced today)


(Source: Primary data from field)

The above chart indicates that today the amount of land owned is less than compared to before which is further demonstrated by the quantity of produce. It is also very interesting how well those quantities and very detailed elements were remembered.From what we see above that is linked to the next table we see below on how those were taxed. The same elderly aristocrat demonstrates how the taxation system was functioning and what was remembered. After the tax payment the remaining produce is kept for self consumption which is also shared with the serf. This production depended largely on good harvest and bad harvest year. The table below represents the type and kind of taxes paid by the same aristocrat above.

Table 4.2
Types of Tax


Tax kind

Amount (annually)



Cattle tax

1 milking cow= 5 sangs of butter

(1 sang = 333.3 gm)


 Porterage tax 

2 - 3 days 

Every household was imposed porterage tax

Porterage tax is known for a labour tax to move district consignments


Weaving tax (toe-tha)

1 piece of "pha-tsa"

Pha-tsa is a  (traditional cotton bag)  

material to weave is provided from the District and in return one ‘tego’ piece is provided

Tego is a national dress


Unhusked rice.

400 dre

1 dre = 1.67 kg


Horse tax

1-2 days

1 horse needs to transport load 2 -3 times


Gung thre (grade one house tax)

Free labour contribution for the state

For the construction/maintenance of road, dzong, bridge etc.

In the past every household is had grade I, ii, and iii depending on the status of the family. And tax is levied.

(Source: Primary data from the field)
The taxes paid however varied even among the aristocratic families. As illustrated in the table above, while some aristocratic family paid all of those taxes, there were some who paid just the ‘wang-youn’ 53which was paid in the form of rice. They paid ‘mra-nisho-thie’ or 400 dreys of rice to Lhuentse Dzong. Besides that the community had to ensure that for every ritual conducted54, they have to contribute ‘mar sang khe dey’ (20 sang of butter).Having illustrated the tax payments levied on the aristocrats, we should note that the taxes paid by the ordinary taxpaying household (khrelpa) also differed to a large extent. The kind of taxes they paid depended on their land holdings, and the number of cattle they owned. Based on the account of those interviewed, it is safe to say that there were around 10% of aristocratic families paying taxes, and 20% tax paying households while the rest were the non taxpaying households

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