MB Subba

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic leaving thousands of Bhutanese unemployed, the government has identified the agriculture sector as one of the main sources of employment.

Agriculture is already picking up as many Bhutanese have ventured into commercial farming in varying scales. Some of the biggest farm projects being undertaken are Wobthang Organic Wonders (WOW) in Bumthang and Lingdi Organic Farm in Trongsa.

The WOW, which spreads over 35 acres of land is initiated by Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), while former National Council (NC) member Tharchen’s Lingdi Organic Farm spreads over 24 acres of fallow wet land. The two have been lucky to get multiple landowners together to form a big farm each.

Others have ventured into farming on a comparatively small scale. A former teacher and farm enthusiast, Meghraj Tamang, has been lucky to get a plot of land from one of his ex-students in Thimphu where he is growing vegetables including broccoli and cabbage.

Farm entrepreneurs said that they were pleasantly surprised by the support in terms of technical know-how and farm machinery provided by agriculture officials in the dzongkhag. An educated farmer said materials for making greenhouses and equipment like power tillers were easily available from the dzongkhag at a concessional rate.

However, much needs to be done on the policy front to create mass employment in agriculture. Farm enthusiasts say that lack of a “favourable and consistent agriculture policy” poses a huge challenge in venturing into large-scale commercial farming.

An official from the agriculture ministry in an earlier interview said that the ministry had received numerous proposals to lease government land for farming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the agriculture ministry on April 9 issued a notification stating that it would not lease government land for commercial farming activities unless approved by the National Land Commission for specific options. The objective, ministry officials said, was to encourage the cultivation of private fallow land.

According to the government, there are about 63,771 acres of private fallow land in the country.

However, Tharchen said that a majority of households do not own land that is enough to cultivate crops on a large scale and that most private land was scattered and divided into small holdings.

“I had a very tough time negotiating for the land as it belongs to 33 households,” he said.

Referring to the agriculture ministry’s notification, he said the government’s agriculture policies were inconsistent and contradictory. He said that the prospect of creating mass employment in commercial agriculture was bleak.

Meghraj Tamang said that availability of private land and pests were a major challenge in taking up commercial farming.

The need to produce lagthram for availing loans is one the issues, according to farm entrepreneurs.

The former teacher said he had received assurance from a landowner in Paro for lease. But added that the lagthram was in the possession of one of the family members.

The opposition leader said WOW was a “community farm” but that the business modality was yet to be worked out. The farm, he said, was just going with planting and cultivating.

Another farm enthusiast, Shyam Lal Limbu from Dagana, whose income was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, has leased three acres of a private land in Samtse.

He said the National CSI Bank has approved his loan and was awaiting disbursement. “I want to go for vegetable cultivation initially,” he said.

Tharchen said, “The CSI bank is not giving loan unless we produce the lagthram copy. But the problem is that most of our rural households have mortgaged their lagthrams.”

Such issues, the former NC member said, was discouraging against going commercial using private land and posed a huge challenge in generating employment in the agriculture sector.

The former NC member said that the process of availing loans from the National CSI Bank needed a serious review. He said the agriculture loan process should be eased.

The lack of youth willing to work in farms is another challenge. “I announced 10 vacancies for our farm thrice and offered Nu 15,000. No one was interested,” Tharchen said.

Meghraj Tamang said that banks needed to come up with an entrepreneur development department each to cater to the growing need for entrepreneurship loans.

The annual budget 2020-21 has funds allocated for making a farm road in each gewog all-weather pliable to give farmers uninterrupted access to market. Other major activities include land development and construction of cold storages, installation of input supply infrastructure facilities and RNR enterprise development programme.

However, lack of adequate allocation for infrastructure development such as irrigation channels in the fiscal year is expected to pose a challenge. Lack of adequate irrigation water has been one of the major issues facing agriculture development.

Despite a high level of interest in agriculture, the budget allocation for agriculture shows that there is no significant shift in government policies in the sector. Agriculture has been allocated Nu 7.17 billion (B), which is 10 percent of the total appropriation, which is unchanged from FY 2019-20.

The allocation for agriculture increased by 13 percent against a 14 percent increase in the total budget allocation of Nu 73.989B.