Bhutan is an agrarian society. More than half the population depends on agriculture.
We have heard this a thousand times and more. Those at the decision-making level today, and in the recent past, grew up studying, some even memorising this when they were in school. Agriculture, the mainstay of our economy and livelihoods received importance. In fact, if the country strived for self-sufficiency, food self-sufficiency was the number one priority.
Unfortunately, we forgot what we memorised. Agriculture is dwindling, if not disappearing. The contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic economy was 45.1 percent in 1981 when, for instance, the current Prime Minister was in his primary school. It is today a meagre 13 percent, according to a World Bank report launched yesterday.
It is sad to hear that the poorest are in the agriculture sector, the sector that was the backbone of our economy. Bhutan has developed. Our priorities have shifted. Today, we are talking of investments of billions of Ngultrums in sectors other than agriculture. Hydropower, tourism, service sector or construction, every sector has overtaken agriculture.
Agriculture is not only growing rice or wheat or maize. Cash crops like apple, cardamom, oranges and vegetables are important for the economy. All these are replaced with imports. It is sad to discover that the once highest export item has now taken a back seat.
Agriculture, when we look back, was prioritised only in speeches and meetings. After that, we went into sectors that brought quick returns. There is nothing wrong in exploring other sectors as the drivers of economic growth, but we cannot neglect agriculture.
The evidence is there for everyone to see. Human-wildlife conflict where losers are farmers, rural-urban migration, and encroachment from urbanisation into agriculture land, poor infrastructure did not help agriculture.
It was worse when other developments, like building roads damaged irrigation channels or encroached on paddy land. Mechanisation, that once became a priority, remained rhetoric. Agriculture under those conditions couldn’t develop.
As a small and independent nation, it is critically important for us to achieve food self-sufficiency and security. Investing in agriculture can help us. We are encouraging our young people to look at agriculture as an alternative. Without investment, it is not going to draw the young, even with ideas, to take up agriculture. And if World Bank report on poverty analysis is saying that agriculture is associated with poor, it is even discouraging.
The report should be taken positively. It points out what is lacking in the important sector. There are initiatives to promote local produces. Agriculture is one. The recent decision to link markets like schools and hospitals to those into agriculture provides with a ready market. But that is too small.
If we have to develop agriculture and substitute import, we have to invest in agriculture. Investment could be in infrastructure, farm mechanisation, research and exploring markets.
Our traditional wisdom says that we will never go hungry if we know to grow our own food. This should be the guiding wisdom at the national level.