Says forgoing second serving of rice could help economy

Ugyen Penjor

The economy is down, revenue from domestic sources is declining and there is a deficit of Nu 3 billion (B) in the recurrent expenditure that has to be made from internal revenue.

The call is to think out of the box to make up for the deficit. Tightening the belt to recoup Nu 3B is being considered, even if it is sensitive. But there is a healthier way to make up for the deficit.


At 174cm tall and weighing 69kgs with a BMI of 22.8, Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering is a fitness freak

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, a surgeon by profession, is falling back on health.

The prime minister who always insists on using common sense is calling on Bhutanese to cut down on rice to stay healthy and revive the economy.


Rice and the budget deficit

Calling it a simple analogy, the prime minister said that all Bhutanese rice eaters sacrificing their second helping of rice could save the government Nu 3B besides their health.

The working is done around the huge volume of rice imported every year. Bhutan imported Nu 9B worth of rice last year, according to the prime minister. If import is reduced by one-third, it would mean a saving of Nu 3B. “To reduce the import by one-third, we should reduce consumption by one-third,” said Lyonchhen who hardly has rice in his diet.

“We are eating more than what we should be. If we can forgo the second share, the share being one-third of what we eat, we can make up for the deficit.”

The other logic is substituting rice with kharang (maize) kapchey (wheat flour) or quinoa. This way, while locally grown cereals could substitute the import of rice, farmers would have a source of cash income. “Kharang is by any means better for the health and the economy,” said Lyonchhen “It would be impossible to replace all rice with kharang, but it would be an achievement even if 50 percent change to kharang.”


A solution to surplus vegetable 

A follower of a strict diet himself, Lyonchhen said the ultimate aim is to change the Bhutanese dietary habit and revive the local economy. Bhutanese generally eat more rice and less vegetables. If this can be altered, it also provides a solution to not having a market for the seasonal surplus vegetables.

Lyonchhen reasons a double benefit. “If we cut down on rice by one-third and increase consumption of vegetables by the same amount, we need not worry about not being able to export vegetables,” he said. Taking the example of cabbage, Lyonchhen says that if the consumption of a 15 metric tonnes (MT) is 10 MT, increasing consumption by one-third would mean a shortage of 5MT.


The ground is ready

Changing the nation’s dietary habit would not be easy, but it is not impossible at the same time, according to Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering. “If I tell people to eat unhealthy food, it will be an uphill task, but I am telling them something that will help them,” he said. “The ground is fertile. People have realised that rice is not good and it puts on weight. We have to focus on this.”

There is all the reason to change the habit. Relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, Lyonchhen explained that the virus affects elderly and those with underlying health conditions because their immune system is weak. The immune system is weak because they consume less vegetables and more rice, salt and oil. “Our dining habit is bad. We have to reverse it. Anybody whose weight is beyond what it should be will have a weaker immune system.”

Sharing his observation, Lyonchhen said that a lot of food items should be off the Bhutanese menu. For instance, Bhutanese deep-fry and add spices to fish and boiled egg that is a good source of protein, fry bitter gourd and eat snacks like papads (an Indian snack) that is only rich in salt and oil, he said.

“With more people turning vegetarian, a culture of veg juma (a vegetarian version of Bhutanese sausages made of soya chunks) has also started.  After mixing all the ingredients needed for veg juma, it will be okay if we boil and consume it, but we deep-fry it,” he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided the perfect ground to change the unhealthy dietary habit. Lyonchhen warned that going by the name, Covid-19, with a year tagged on the type of coronavirus, there could be Covid-20 or Covid-25. ‘This gives us more reason to change our mindset, lifestyle and dietary habit to build a strong immune system.”