Sanam Lyonpo wants to make the Covid-19 a blessing in disguise

MB Subba

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has suddenly made farming a lucrative job in the country.

The closure of border gates with India has given Bhutanese farmers the opportunity to substitute a large portion of the country’s vegetable and meat requirement that are imported from India.

The country is expected to face shortage of food items that are temporarily banned if farmers do not ramp up production. The country imports food items not only because they are comparatively cheaper but also Bhutanese farmers have not been able to meet the demand nationwide.

The agriculture ministry wants to take the COVID-19 pandemic as a blessing in disguise. Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor has said that the pandemic had called for a test of sustainability.

Amid the ban on import of vegetables, meat and doma, the government is urging farmers to increase production through local governments and agriculture extension offices.

The minister on March 22 wrote to all 20 dzongdags to encourage farmers in their respective dzongkhags coordinate with agriculture and livestock officials to provide assistance to farmers to increase production of food items.

The minister said that there was no need for farmers worry about possible over- production or lack of market. “I urge our farmers to produce as much as possible without worrying about market,” he said.

The government, he said, would buy from if the production is at a commercial scale. But he added, “The price has to be reasonable.”

To motivate farmers, the agriculture minister said that the cottage and small industry (CSI) bank would provide loans at the minimum or zero interest rates. The ministry also promises to provide technical and procurement support would to farmers.

The import of meat and vegetables has not seen any significant decrease over the years despite the government emphasising on self-sufficiency.

According to statistics with Renewable Natural Resources (RNR), Bhutan imported 10,454 metric ton (MT) of vegetables worth Nu 152.96 million (M) during the six months from January to July, 2019. During the same period in the previous, Bhutan had imported 17,855MT of vegetables worth Nu 166.17M.

The country imported 3319MT of meat worth Nu 485M during the first six months of 2019. During the same period in the previous year, Bhutan imported 2,893MT of meat worth almost Nu 405M.

The country also imported 415.8MT of fish worth Nu 62M from January to July last year.

Some observers believe that some of the people who have been rendered jobless will return to their villages to take up farming. They are of the view that the government’s economic stimulus plan should cover the agriculture sector.

However, farmers say lack of irrigation facilities, connectivity and access to markets are a big challenge. In absence of proper storage facilities, farmers are also forced to sell their produce at the earliest irrespective of market situations.

According to the annual agriculture statistics, Bhutan produced a total of 82,877 metric ton (MT) of various vegetables in 2018 although statistics for 2019 is not released.

In the same year, the country produced a total of 3,517MT of meat and 200MT of fish. The production of chicken saw a constant increase from 944MT in 2014 to 1,687MT in 2018.

Beef, which is one of the most consumed meat items, saw a decrease from 639MT to 410MT during the same period. The production of fish remained almost stagnant from 119MT to 200MT.

The agriculture sector provides more than 65 percent of the total population employment and contributing more than 20 percent to GDP.