The recent directives from the government to encourage farmers in all dzongkhags to increase the production of food items could be a small but significant step. It has been long overdue.
I grew up in a self-sufficient home where my family did not import anything except salt and clothes. Same narratives have come to us through the voices of the elders and the pages of history, but it appears like a joke today due to our policy errors.
It was a national shame that in the aftermath of the rupee crisis in 2012, chili made it to the list of smuggled goods in Bhutan and, today, one kilogram of chili cost Nu 300. We imported 10,454 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables, worth Nu 152.96 million (M) in six months from January to July 2019 while we were busy making posters about Organic Bhutan or drafting 21st-century paper perfect economic blueprint. No one is responsible for it and the reasons and excuses are plenty: hydropower myopia, climate change, the drying up of springs and water bodies, land degradation, pests and disease, rural-urban migration, and the list goes on.
But the real reason for the current situation of Bhutanese agriculture is because we take vegetables from Falakatta for granted. We make investments of billions of ngultrums in all the sectors except in agriculture. This is compounded by the misguided policy of acquiring prime agricultural land for urban expansion. Chhanjiji, Olakha-Babesa, Semtokha, Hejo, Bajo, Debsi, Taba, Khuruthang were prime agricultural land that we have lost to urbanisation. Bajo township was built on the land that housed the erstwhile Centre for Agriculture Research and Development (CARD) that complemented the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)-funded Punakha-Wangdue Valley Development project. Instead of building on the foundations of such noble projects, the area became a model township with same buildings and centre of controversial sand mining business to fuel urban development on agricultural lands on other parts of Bhutan.
It is not incorrect to say that our new towns export nothing but import everything to sustain it from chips to meats to vegetables to clothes to carbonated drinks. Most of the infrastructure and buildings in these towns are built by the masons and carpenters from India, adding to the informal leakage of the revenue earned from tourism and hydropower.
We have been investing in the industrial estates and since 2006 with limited success and questionable sustainability. Bondeyma in Mongar, Jigmeling in Sarpang, Dhamdum in Samtse, Montanga in Samdrupjongkhar cost government Nu 2,450 million and many are yet to take off.
Given the geopolitical situation in our region, investment in agriculture must be seen an opportunity. Agriculture is an integral part of our culture, the foundation that supported the claims that Bhutan has always been an independent nation. Our directives need to be supported by policy actions. Bhutan can learn and do better than Falakatta or Sikkim that share similar climatic conditions like ours. Our policymakers must not just make a one day visit to these places for Facebook photographs but aspire for Sarpang-Gelephu, Sibsoo-Samtse, Bhangtar-Daifam, Punakha-Wangdue, Thimphu-Paro Agricultural Corporations. Such an investment will not only mitigate the imported and inorganic vegetable flooding in the markets of Bhutan but, more importantly, reinforce our sovereignty and food security.
Institutions like the College of Natural Resources, National Research and Development Centre for Aquaculture and Centre of Rural Development can collaborate with North Bengal Agricultural University and improve on University-Industry partnership concepts like Experimental Farms, Farmer’s Clubs and Organisations. The investment arm of the government, DHI, must incorporate agriculture as an important avenue to strengthen Bhutan in the next decade. It must look to invest in agricultural economics in coordination with agencies like MoEA, MoAF, FCB and the financial institutions to expedite the self-reliance project. DHI’s investment in a dairy plant in Chenary in Trashigang is a good example.
Above all, the government must urgently declare agriculture an all-time national agenda.
Contributed by, Dhrubaraj Sharma
2nd year PhD student
Queensland University of Technology, Australia