Economy and Society

Bhutan is a sparsely populated land of some 700,000 inhabitants, spread out over the inaccessible and inhospitable mountainous landscape in miniature agrarian settlements. Within what essentially remains a traditional framework, individual units come together to compose a loosely linked social collage. A nation that collectively appears so different - united by centralized political and religious institutions and a common historical experience - possesses immense domestic diversity. Bhutanese society centers on community - a collection of lives interwoven in such a way that everyone appears important, no one is invisible. Within distanced villages, inclusive relations assume heightened intimacy, joining the rich with the poor, the old with the young, women and men in collective survival strategies. The prevailing social situation is characterized by a long-established underlying stability. In this sense it is somewhat atypical - underdeveloped, yet essentially free from the major social problems associated with poverty, disparity, unemployment and degradation.

The few major urban centers, relatively new occurrences, are indicative of the fact that, although at a formative stage, Bhutanese society is undergoing fundamental transformations. Following the nation's entry into the modern world in the early 1960s and ongoing development interventions, people are experiencing significant alterations in the parameters within which they exist. A basic communications network now loosely links the country both internally and externally. The relationship between centralized state and devolved society is becoming more intimate. Modern infrastructures have much improved the health status and broadened the skills base. A range of new choices and opportunities has emerged, associated with technological innovations and structural adjustments. Whereas previously lives were heavily circumscribed and pretty predictable, young schoolchildren now face an exciting though uncertain future.

The traditional order is gradually making way for a period of restless reformation. From inward looking to outward oriented, communities are coalescing to form a national playing field. With opportunity comes aspiration and ambition, as the savvy and streetwise jostle for position within a partially formed modern system. Hierarchies are developing around the center related to relationships with multiple aspects of modernity, the most significant and lasting associated with wealth. Whereas more subtle evolutions are evident at the village level, towns represent the primary arenas for the formation of a modern Bhutanese society.

There is no guarantee that amidst the sweeping changes the nation will retain its overall consistency. The process of social reorganization involves a delicate balancing act, and trends are surfacing that have the potential to disrupt a steady transition. The population is growing and urbanization is on the increase. Informal local arrangements are being supplemented, substituted or simply eroded by the formal national infrastructure. Certain inequalities are emerging in wealth and status, between genders and regions. Instances of delinquency are slowly on the increase, as some are finding themselves outside mainstream arrangements. Benefiting from the host of modernism and caught in an optimistic whirlwind, popular expectations are running well ahead of society's ability to fulfill them. In the tricky and unpredictable state between tradition and modernity, the nation and its citizens face a series of unprecedented challenges.