Strange it may be, but not long ago, when we grew plenty of rice and importing was difficult, Bhutanese consuming imported rice (Jachum or Indian rice) were looked down upon. In some rice growing regions of the country, local rice determined social status. Some would boast of what they eat, three times a day, rice being an essential ingredient.

This has changed. What we eat is not the yardstick to measure social status. Cheaper rice imported from the region, especially India, made it affordable, making some change their food habits or staple diet. 

The government has requested the government of India to lift the ban on export of non-basmati white rice. The  request is  to approve the export of 77,000 metric tons  of non-basmati rice per year to the country. The request could be granted. Given our special relations, India will always have a consideration for Bhutan. Besides,  the amount we import is insignificant for a country that is the world’s largest rice exporting country. What we import is negligible to drive prices or cause shortage.

The ban on basmati rice, however, would have some consequences. Basmati is a brand of rice that is considered special.  A large section of the Bhutanese population depends on non-basmati rice. Many are known by the brand and not the quality. Therefore, we have people relying on SK or Rajbhog rice and not Basmati.

While the larger population depends on cheaper and affordable non-basmati brands, those who can afford expensive basmati brands are avoiding rice to cut down on carbs. Health conscious Bhutanese are relying less on rice and depend on healthier substitutes like quinoa, khule, kharang or yomri (powdered maize).

However, that will not solve our reliance on rice or import. Rice is still the staple diet and those who relied on maize also switched to rice. Rise in price or shortage due to restrictions on import will affect the taste. Many depend on non-basmati brands. A slight increase in price or scarcity would cost them more. Thousands of students in the 490 schools depend on non-basmati rice. 

While we wait anxiously for answers to the request made to the government of India, it is time to relook at our agricultural policies. Bhutan can never grow enough rice to not depend on import. But known as an agricultural country, it is a shame that any disturbance in price or import of rice is causing panic. The Food Corporation of Bhutan may have enough rice, imported, to last for a few years. That however is not a lasting solution.

We should grow our own food to reduce the dependence on import. Every time there is a disturbance on trade or price, we talk about investing in agriculture. It is forgotten when restrictions are lifted because of stabilizing market rice or because of special arrangements.

In the meantime, we are seeing fertile paddy fields left fallow for reasons like shortage of water, workers, and human-wildlife conflict. The government of India considering our request is a temporary solution. The longer-term solution is investing in growing our own food.