Choki Wangmo

Kewa ema datsi could become an expensive dish in Thimphu with a hike in the price of potatoes.

A kilogram (kg) of potato at the Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM) costs Nu 80 to Nu 100 this weekend.

Retailers pay Nu 4,000 for a 45-kg sack of potatoes. In the past, a sack of potato imported from India cost Nu 1,500.

Wholesalers at the CFM paid Nu 3,500 to Nu 4,500 for a sack of potatoes to the farmers of Chapcha in Chukha.

A wholesaler said farmers hoarded potatoes and took advantage of the shortage in the market by hiking the price. “Since the import was banned due to movement restriction, farmers hiked the prices and the ultimate price burden falls on the consumers, particularly the low- income groups.”

She also said that the government could have put a mechanism in place to address the shortage during the harvest season. “Last few months, the government tried to export potatoes without looking into probable shortage within the domestic market in winter.”

According to the wholesaler, the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited forced farmers to sell their products by instilling fear in farmers about the shortage of export market due to Covid-19.

Another wholesaler, Ugyen Zangmo, has last year’s unsold potato stock in her store. She has about 1,000 kgs, imported from India and has no market. She said that consumers refused to buy Indian potatoes as they believe that it was contaminated.

She said the government could have focused on local produce and distribution before rushing to export and ban import. “The government said that local produce would be sufficient even in winter but the market is flooded with hoarded goods at exorbitant rates.”

She also said stocking during the season could have helped to meet local demands during winter when there is shortage.

Small chilli (jitsi ema)also cost Nu 150 to 250 for 500gms while a kg of cauliflower costs Nu 300 in CFM.

Tomatoes and onions imported from India are sold at Nu 100. In October, the government of India approved the import of 150 metric tonnes of onions a month until the end of this month.

The import was given as a “special exemption for Bhutan.”

Until the agriculture ministry’s production of more than 10,000 metric tonnes of winter vegetables in the southern dzongkhags hit the market, consumers have to either bear the hiked prices or sustain on whatever is available.

A retailer has bought potatoes from wholesalers paying Nu 4,200 per sack. She said a sack contains only 45kgs, which is a loss. A sack usually contains 50kgs. “Bhutanese have no business ethics,” she said.

Customers said they would not be able to afford fresh vegetables.

Chief marketing officer with the Department of Agricultural Marketing Cooperatives, Yonten Jamtsho, said the price of any products that are scarce in the market was bound to increase.

He said that the prices of vegetables had increased since there was no local production and the import was stopped. “In the past, the shortage was replenished from import.”

He said the department can only advise people to stock up during the production season but we can’t take ownership and impose directives. “Farmers exported their products since the export price was attractive this year.” A kg of potato was exported at Nu 60.

According to Yonten Jamtsho, the only option to reduce the price  is to identify a variety of sources and make products abundant in the market. “We can’t control the prices because it will encourage illegal markets.”

Meanwhile, the Office of Consumption Protection will carry out monitoring today.

The chief programme officer, Jigme Dorji, said that there were no formal complaints but the department was informed about the hiked prices. 

“The department in collaboration with the agriculture ministry will intervene and look into ways of distribution and redistribution of products among dzongkhags to ensure availability and steady supply chain in the market,” he said.