Although their increased demands are being met, lands are fallowing

Agriculture: With only a small parcel of land and four mouths to feed, Kakam, a young and energetic mother, decided to cultivate more rice.  She asked a landowner to let her work on her fields and offered 50 percent of the harvest.

Every autumn, it was a pain for Kakam from Rinchengang village in Wangduephodrang to see the fruit of her hard work getting divided.  The landowner would come in a van and take her share.  Kakam and her workers would help carry the owner’s share to the roadside.  Kakam requested for a bigger share.  Over the next few years, she gave 40 percent of the yearly harvest.

Kakam was getting older.  Her daughter had married a policeman and left.  Hiring hands was expensive.

She decided to hand over the land.  The landowner offered her 70 percent of the harvest.  Kakam continued for a while until the young men, who helped her, left the village.  They were good masons and renovation of lhakhangs and dzongs provided better opportunities.  She couldn’t cultivate the land, even if the owner offered 90 percent of the share.

Today Kakam lives on the money her daughter sends her monthly, besides her own small paddy field.  She has a kitchen garden to supplement.

The Punatsangchhu valley is fertile and paddy thrives.  But cultivating the staple food is becoming difficult.  In the upper valleys like in Shengana, fields are left fallow.  Others are beginning to see the same fate too.

The landless, or those who owned little, thrived on sharecropping.  Landowners, who mostly live in the Wang valley in Thimphu, are happy to take their share without having to toil in the sun and rain. “They (sharecroppers) used to be very grateful to us for letting them cultivate our land,” said a landowner.

But that was a long time ago.  The tables have turned. “Sharecroppers are unwilling to work even if we offer 80 percent of the share,” Tashi, a landowner in Rubesa, Wangduephodrang, said. “Back then, landowners were demanding, as agriculture was the main source of livelihood,” he said.

The number of sharecroppers is dwindling as they find opportunities in small towns and employment outside agriculture.  Cheaper imported rice, shortage of workers, increasing daily wage, and children leaving villages are responsible for the change.

According to a village elder, while many were granted land kidu by His Majesty the King, some have resettled in other dzongkhags.  Besides they see opportunities outside the village.

A sharecropper in Punakha, Karma, said it was cheaper to buy white rice (imported rice) than work on other’s lands, when they could earn more on construction sites.

“The expenditure always exceeds the income. Forget working on other’s land, even to work on our land has become expensive,” he said. “Paddy fields were like gold back then, but not anymore.”

Daily wage for women, crucial during transplantation season, range from Nu 450 to 500 a day, excluding food.  Hiring power tiller cost Nu 500 an hour. “There is no profit and you’re doomed if wild animals destroy the crop,” said Karma.

This could be the reason behind the increasing price of local rice.

The mangmi of Baap gewog in Punakha, Kuenga Penjore, said every year, more and more people want to hand over the land to their owners.  He said it has forced those owning about 15-17 acres to leave almost 40 percent of their lands fallow in all the five chiwogs he represents. “The young are going to school and there are no hands to work,” he said.

In one of his chiwogs, the owner is paid only Nu 4,500 for the two-acre land he had let a sharecropper cultivate.  That is not even 15 percent.  The owner is planning to start a farm.

On the left banks of Phochhu, Changjokha village boasts of flatland and ample water.  Around four varieties of rice are grown here.  Sharecroppers, like Kinley Bidha, 70, are offered to cultivate other’s land without any thojo (share offered to landowners).  The farmer feels mechanisation has helped a bit.

Most paddy fields belong to the dratshang and landowners in Thimphu. “From equal share in the past, sharecroppers pay only a minimum, as landowners don’t want their field to be left fallow,” she said.  Those cultivating dratshang land now give only 340 dres (dre is a measuring can) from 200,000 dres of paddy harvest. “Still some refuse to work.” This is about 510 kilogrammes from three tonnes of paddy.

Unless farming is mechanised, people will not return to the villages.


What officials say

Punakha’s district agriculture official, Tashi Wangdi said Punakha has less fallow fields compared with other districts.  According to 2013 record, about 6,000 acres of wetland have been cultivated.

He said, while they don’t have records of how much land were given for sharecropping, but the majority belonging to dratshang was given as sharecropping.

Wangdue’s district agriculture official, Sonam Zangpo, said as per the record, 3,948 acres of wetland and 4,192 acres of dry land have been cultivated during the last season.  He said across Wangdue, 421 acres of wetland and 725 acres of dry land were left fallow, according to the 2013 record.

Decreasing number of sharecroppers and sharecroppers returning lands to landowners could be one of the reasons for increase in lands turning fallow.  However, there were various other factors contributing to increase in fallow lands such as, rural urban migration, wildlife attack, irrigation problem, labour shortage and increasing labour charges.

Officials said the decreasing number of sharecroppers is one reasons for fields turning fallow.  They agreed that rural-urban migration, wildlife attack, irrigation problem, labour shortage and increasing labour charges are other factors.

By Dawa Gyelmo and  Ugyen Penjore