Although we are an agrarian society, investment and development in the sector has been lacking. With rapid economic development that we continue to witness, agriculture is fast taking the back seat. The danger is that we could become more dependent on food imports which is not good for the nation’s long-term future. Any kind of dependence is dangerous.
A recent study found that decline in the hectarage of cultivated land resulted in Bhutan losing more than 31,300 tonnes of rice in the last two decades, which could have fed one-fifth of her population for at least twelve months. In the period of a little more than thirty years, the extent of land under cultivation decreased from about 28,000 hectares to 20,547 hectares. This means, between 1981 and 2017, we lost about 18,417 acres of cultivated land. Agriculture sector today contributes only about 14 percent to the country’s economy.
Reports might tell us that we are today about 80 percent food self-sufficient, but this fact must be read against the backdrop of rising food imports. While we are not even 50 percent rice (staple diet) self-sufficient, rising import of meat and dairy products, among others, contribute greatly to the trade deficit. Bhutan imported food items worth about Nu 8 billion and exported worth about Nu 3 billion in the last nine months. Listed with petroleum products, rice is the only food item among the top-ten import commodities.
Decreasing budget for agriculture sector has led to sporadic and ineffective interventions. In other words, low investment in the sector has resulted in low growth. Plan budget for agriculture sector has been falling since the first five-year Plan. In the fourth plan period, agriculture sector was allocated 44 percent of the total budget, which decreased to 33 percent in the fifth plan. Since then, budget share for agriculture sector has been declining to the extent that in the 10th plan, the sector was allotted only 5.5 percent of the total budget, which further dropped to 2.3 percent in the 11th.
The country expects to increase rice production by 15 percent by bringing at least 50 percent of the fallow land under cultivation and by encouraging farmers to engage in growing spring rice. Rural revitalisation is an umbrela idea under which comes the need for policies, institutions, and investments that take advantage of new opportunities to make rural areas vibrant and healthy places to live and work. That has not happened.
If we are to reduce rural poverty and, more importantly, improve food insecurity, mere promises are not enough. There has to be real investment.