Suppliers complain about vehicle permit issues

Choki Wangmo  

While urban areas complain of vegetable shortage, rural commercial farmers are grappling with losses from damaged or returned farm produce for lack of swift distribution mechanism and communication among authorities.

Towards the end of last year, a commercial farmer in Zhemgang, Galey Yangzom, could not sell half of her vegetable harvest. They wilted and rotted.

Since she started farming in the beginning of 2020, about six tonnes of potatoes were damaged as there was no facilitation and support in transporting the produce.

She also planted potatoes in about five acres. “Since there was no help coming from the authorities concerned, we got in touch with the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited in Gelephu, Phuntsholing, and Zhemgang.”

An official from post-harvest and marketing division visited and tied her with a vendor in Gelephu who bought six tonnes of grade-A potatoes but refused to buy grades B and C. “We tried reaching out to the officials through various mediums but they said there was no market.”

“We lost about 90 percent of the potatoes,” she added.

Galey Yangzom said that the growers were unsure about who was supposed to be in charge of picking up the vegetables from the field because the rules kept on changing.

“People who are responsible keep referring us to different organisations and putting the blame on the pandemic,” she said. “The market chain and networking were poor too.”

A vegetable supplier from the same dzongkhag was told to supply cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli to the vendors in the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu (CFM). He harvested broccoli the night before heading to Thimphu fearing the risk of damage.

He said that due to remoteness of the place, he had to collect two to three days before heading to Thimphu on an 11-hour journey. But vegetable dealers in Thimphu rejected his goods saying they were spoilt.

He said that the Indian wholesalers usually played such tricks to import Indian vegetables at a cheaper rate and take a huge profit. “It is a ruse to discourage local producers. Agriculture officials also supported the dealers. It is discouraging local growers.”

Seven to eight tonnes of radish from Zhemgang couldn’t be sold, the farmers said, adding that when the local radish was ready for harvest, the government allowed import of Indian radish.

Another supplier said that in recent days, farmers from Zhemgang and Sarpang had sent vegetables to CFM but most of the vegetables were returned without any reason.  “The price of the vegetables was in line with the prices fixed by the government,” he said.


Suppliers incur loss  due to movement  restriction 

A Thimphu-based vegetable distributor incurred a loss of Nu 0.5 million during the second lockdown.

Although he was authorised by the National Covid-19 taskforce to “source, collect, and supply vegetables to the identified shops in the zones”, the traffic police restricted movements and he did not get vehicle permits.

“My team is trying to get maximum produce to market in Thimphu but because of vehicle permit restrictions, I am facing difficulties and running into losses. The perishable nature of the goods is adding to the problem,” he said.

“I am becoming hopeless by the day as the authorities who are supposed to help and support us are coming with more restrictions and complaints,” he added.

He is seeking help from the agriculture ministry, Thimphu Thromde, and the Prime Minister’s Office.


What’s wrong?

Most of the commercial farmers said that there was a communication gap among officials in the gewog, dzongkhag, and the agriculture ministry.

“There are many agencies involved in decision making and they implement different decisions, creating confusion for farmers,” one said.

Few suppliers said that the Standard Operating Procedures in different dzongkhags were different but all of them were slow and tedious.

A commercial farmer and the former Member of the Parliament, Tharchen, said that there was poor coordination among Thimphu Thromde, agriculture ministry, distributors, and the Royal Bhutan Police. “This is the result of their poor coordination. Once delivered from the field, the extension officers should not accept the vegetables. The local governments should be involved.”

The ministry also needs to involve the stakeholders while fixing the price of the vegetables, another said.

The farmers said that wholesalers did not have licence but were still importing in billions, demotivating local producers. “We cannot compete with imported items since they are cheap and grown with the help of fertilisers within a month.”

“Local producers cannot penetrate the local market chain if the import is allowed,” a supplier said.

Another said that the authorities concerned were promoting imported items rather than encouraging local farmers. “While farmers can’t transport goods due to restrictions, imported items find ready market everywhere without a problem.”

Authorities should carry out proper study of the local production before importing, Galey Yangzom said. “Farmers also faced challenges in getting payments.”

The vendor from Gelephu who picked up 250kg of grade B potatoes refused to return the potatoes and also didn’t pay for it. “It is not the amount. If they can be like this to literate farmers like us, I can imagine what must be going on with the farmers who can’t read and write.”

She said farmers faced such challenges but the problems came into the fore recently when the educated took up farming. She did not get any support from officials at the dzongkhag or in the gewog.


How can things be done differently?

Galey Yangzom said that the dzongkhag agriculture officers (DAOs) and extension officers need to keep in touch with the farmers, advise farmers about post-harvest, and link marketing. “Any policies made should be in consultation with the farmers from all dzongkhags. This is because what is decided within the four walls of their office does not work in the field.”

According to her, issues like the shortage of vegetables in the urban areas, consumer complaints about hiked prices, and farmers’ challenges with marketing could be solved through coordination and policy communication.

DAOs, she said, should have quarterly meetings and report to the headquarters. “I feel there is no communication between the farmers, extension officers, DAOs and the headquarters.”

To reduce damage, farmers said having storage and transport facilities for vegetables grown in far-flung areas like Zhemgang would help.

Agriculture Secretary Rinzin Dorji said that there were few problems related to transportation and distribution of vegetables. “The farmers should get in touch with extension officers and DAOs.”

He said that there was a dzongkhag-to-dzongkhag connection to facilitate transportation and officers were assigned to support marketing.

Meanwhile, the traffic superintendent of Thimphu, Namgay, said that for vehicle permits, the vegetable suppliers should route through Thimphu Thromde and Thimphu Dzongkhag after undergoing necessary Covid-19 protocols like testing.

“The thromde and the dzongkhag will identify the suppliers and delivery vehicles based on the vegetable demand in different zones. Accordingly, they should be tested and the permits will be issued upon meeting the requirements.”