… consumers say not good enough

Choki Wangmo 

Given local chilli shortage, import ban, and hiked prices, frustration among consumers is growing and some are even questioning the government policies on production and imports.

Some said that agriculture ministry should have a long-term plan and policy to ensure support to farmers and ensure swift supply of chillies in winters at an affordable rate.

“Import ban on chillies should be lifted as there is no scientific evidence that they are toxic as claimed. If chill from Falakata is unfit for consumption, there are other options to import from other Indian states to address the shortage in Bhutan,” another said.

While the government implemented the ban to encourage domestic production the consumers were gravely affected. “But the problem with local production is that the farmers are not ready.”

Since last month, the local green chillies were supplied in the market but still remains unavailable in many parts of the communities.

Chief Agriculture Officer Namgay Thinley said that the incessant rain in September and October had damaged most of the chilli nurseries and hampered production.

As of January 15, 27,990 kilograms (kg) of chillies were supplied of which about 5,000kg were marketed within the Thimphu thromde.

Chillies were procured from Tsirang, Dagana, Sarpang, Samtse, Pemagatshel, Zhemgang, Samdrupjongkhar. Low land settlements of Mongar,   Wangduephodrang and Trongsa also cultivated chillies in small quantities.

“The production is expected to increase to 294 metric tonnes (MT) in February and 500MT by March,” Namgay Thinley said.

According to the agriculture ministry’s fixed price, a kg of chilli costs Nu 300 at the farmer’s field and Nu 401 in retail shops in Thimphu. But the consumers said that it was 600 per kg.

Last week, in an eight-minute video, Namgay Thinley, on the agriculture production department’s social media page, appealed to the consumers to bear with the chilli shortage and said that the officials were working to ensure a steady supply.

“A decade ago, we imported winter vegetables but since 2011, we had bridged the gap through local production. In winter, we now produce 13 kinds of vegetables and continue to do so,” he said, adding that the country faces chilli shortage for only one and half months.

If we lift the ban, farmers would be discouraged to work. By two years, we would be able to bridge the gaps so that chillies are available at all times, he added.

In response, consumers said that the ministry could have carried out research studies to promote local produce and could have controlled the import instead of imposing a ban. 

“Green chilli which costs Nu 50-60 a kg in Jaigaon is smuggled and then sold at Nu 500-600, robbing the innocent,” he said.

This month, four cases of smuggled chilles  were intercepted by BAFRA inspectors.

Agriculture secretary, Rinzin Dorji, said that dry chillies are available in the market in various forms.

He said that for this winter, 535 acres in the warmer southern dzongkhags were being cultivated with chilli and the production from these areas is expected to meet the market demand. “These chilli growing areas are provided with inputs such as seeds, fencing, plastic mulching technology and drip irrigation technology.”

Bhutan temporarily banned the import of chilli from nearby areas across the border in June 2016 following the detection of residues of different types of pesticides in quantities above the maximum residue level.

He said the toxicity of the imported chillies were proved by the human health experts from the World Health Organisation and then the decisions to ban the import was made in consultation with the highest authorities.

The latest tests conducted on chillies from the nearby neighbouring states in the first and second weeks of this month still showed the presence of residues of pesticides from five major pesticide groups.

“Importing from long distances will not only increase the cost but aggravate our dependency on imports,” he said.

If imported green chillies contain toxic chemicals, a consumer said that imported dry chillies and chilli powders won’t be fit for consumption as suggested by the officials.

Rinzin Dorji also said that policy shifts, if any, are warranted by circumstances and changing times. “The ministry is guided by the Food and Nutrition Policy of 2014. The policy not only talks about food but takes into consideration the importance of nutrition for health of the people.”

He said that, recently, the ministry had initiated drafting the RNR Strategy 2040 that makes an analysis of the current situation and charts a way forward with well-defined key performance indicators, learning from the situations created by Covid-19 about food self-sufficiency in the country. 

Currently, 31 different types of vegetables are grown across the country. Of these, 17 vegetables are prioritised for commercial cultivation. The total area under production is about 16,150 acres with 47,080MT of production.