As a country where agriculture is the biggest sector, having to depend on neighbouring countries for food items is a sad reality. This failure to prioritise agriculture sector to augment self-sufficiency could have, in the long run, serious implications not only on the economy but also on the nation’s peace, security, and sovereignty.
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 ought to be read against the backdrop of rising food imports. For example, going by some reports, 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.
One of the reasons for increasing rice import is labour intensive nature of production in the country. 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 that began in 1961. 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. Other interventions like priority sector lending, rural enterprise development, and micro-finance are seen as means to boost the sector’s productivity. The key, however, is building an effective market chain. We have not had admirable results there.
All these succeeding, we have an opportunity to address many of the pressing issues we are grappling with today – household abandonment in the rural areas, increasing migration of people from the rural parts of the country to the bigger population centres, growing youth unemployment, and development activities encroaching on our precious little arable land.
It is time we gave teeth and meaning to the oft-mooted idea of import substitution. The rest will follow.