The agriculture department has an ambitious, but important target of bringing about 79,040 acres, roughly about 32 international football-ground sized paddy fields under improved irrigation systems. That would be an achievement towards ensuring food security.
Unfortunately, it is to remain a plan. There is no budget or human resources and 37 irrigation schemes of the 108 identified in the current Plan will have to be shelved. The plan was to overhaul some of the existing irrigation channels and construct new ones.
Still largely dependent on agriculture, this is a huge setback on our dreams of achieving food self-sufficiency. As a rice eating population and largely dependent on imports, bringing even one acre of land under rice cultivation would provide solutions to a lot of problems we are facing now.
The dependence on imported rice is growing by the day. In 2013, we imported rice worth Nu 1.45 billion albeit including the fake imports. It is increasingly being felt that it is cheaper to import food grains than producing our own. That is why more fields are being left fallow. The economy of returns is poor. Therefore, we see an increasing urban drift. Farmers are experiencing success in the concept of cash income for farmers. Then there is the issue of wild animals that is discouraging more farmers to abandon cultivation.
But depending on cheap imports is a bad concept even if we have the money. As a land locked country, there are risks in relying on what others produce. We have experienced the unreliability in the past. When roads, our lifeline, get blocked, food becomes expensive and scarce. Any disturbance in food prices in India sends shockwaves rippling through Bhutan. And India is increasingly experiencing strange climatic conditions that are disrupting the food supply chain. It is even worse when factors that affect food availability or price is out of our hands.
There is an agreement that agriculture, that has been the backbone of our economy, should be prioritised. But our focus has been largely on other sectors. Agriculture will provide solutions to the growing unemployment problem. If our irrigation channels are reliable, and our farms mechanised, it will be easier to encourage young educated people to return to the farm and take up agriculture as a profession. The market is already there.
Given the importance of the sector and the associated benefits, it would not be wrong to reprioritise the budget, limited it may be. The evidence is clear that if Bhutanese can produce, there is a market. Khamtey rice from Bangtar or Champak from Chuzargang are becoming household names.
And given our smaller population, food self-sufficiency is within our reach if agriculture receives the priority. Irrigation schemes, agricultural techniques and continued mechanisation should still be the development focus.