From vast paddy fields to grazing grounds

For security reasons there is a shortage of workers from across the border hampering paddy cultivation in Gelephu

Labour: Vast fertile and flat paddy land with a reliable source of water for irrigation, and adequate labour is what many farmers dream of. Gelephu has exactly that. There is no dearth of market as most farmers have tied up with the Food Corporation of Bhutan.

But an increasing number of paddy fields are being left fallow in Gelephu. Shortage of labour and insecurity has led to this.

The last cultivation was done in 2014 in the area commonly known as the fishery area adjacent to the border. Following the kidnaping of a class IX student on December 17, 2014, a permanent fear among landowners prevail. The boy was guarding his harvest when he was abducted.

People now fear even walking alone to their fields. After the abduction, the regional immigration office did not allow day-labourers from across the border to work in the fields. There are no workers to hire in Gelephu and landowners depend entirely on day-labourers from Dadgari, Assam.

Landowners say it is almost impossible to find Bhutanese labour. Those willing to work are already busy with their own plantations. Most of the landowners did sharecropping with Indian counter parts prior to the abduction.

A 60-year-old former civil servant said she and her four siblings own about 10 acres of paddy field at the fishery. Pointing to a small hut outside her house, she said it was once used for grain storage. It is empty now.

“Who would not want to grow their own local rice? It’s for our safety that sharecropping isn’t allowed, but it is  threatening our food self sufficiency,” she said.

There are more than 250 acres of wetland. Should all the fields be cultivated, at least 625,000kgs of rice could be harvested a year. The land was brought under Gelephu thromde as an agriculture precinct and the land tax was increased to 10 percent.

This year, only a few acres of paddy field near the fishery pond were cultivated. One of the few owners still cultivating is Madhav Chuwan. Of his total two acres, he grew rice on just one.

“I was able to cultivate because my two daughter-in-laws insisted they would transplant,” he said. He harvested 50 muri (1 muri is equal to 50kgs) of rice. He said the harvest is enough to feed his 11-member family but not enough to sell unlike previous years.

Madhav added since the land has fallen under the thromde, he pays Nu 20,000 in tax. Having to leave half of his land uncultivated is a loss. “It’s otherwise a fertile land without any water problem,” he said.

The field has now become a grazing land for cattle from across the border. More than 100 cattle are found grazing in the field every day.

Another landowner said if not sharecropping with Assamese residents he could not initiate cultivation on his own. He lives in Thimphu and could not come to look after the field.

Gelephu Thrompon Namgay said that according to development control rules although the fields fall under the thromde, owners will still be allowed to cultivate.  Those holding more than one acre could construct a two-storied house on the 10 decimal land.

The issue of those owning less than an acre needs to be resolved soon, he said.  “We’ve to plan how to go about with the agriculture precinct,” he added. “How convenient we can make cultivation there needs to be discussed.”

He also pointed out that he could not resolve the issue during his tenure as he prioritized other activities. Other than resolving how to use the agriculture precinct, agriculture programme activities do not lie in the thromde’s purview. The dzongkhag agriculture cannot come into a thromde jurisdiction for agriculture programmes.

“Yet we supported in water supply and maintaining irrigation channels,” he added, also pointing out that he did not have a say on the security issue.

Nirmala Pokhrel, Gelephu

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