The ongoing session of Parliament brings a ray of hope for rural Bhutan. Several important deliberations and decisions underscore the government’s focus on enhancing the economic opportunities and welfare of rural Bhutan. This renewed attention reflects a deep-seated recognition that the majority of Bhutanese, who live in rural areas, are integral to the nation’s prosperity.

A significant highlight of the session is the allocation of Nu 910.5 million for agriculture marketing and cooperatives in the 13th Plan. This substantial investment is poised to bolster the agriculture sector, which remains the backbone of rural Bhutan.

Additionally, the proposal to increase the rural life insurance scheme from Nu 30,000 to Nu 150,000 is another testament to the government’s commitment to rural welfare. The current insurance amount, unchanged since 2017, is inadequate to cover even basic funeral expenses. The proposed increase is a necessary step to alleviate the financial burdens rural households face in times of bereavement. The finance ministry’s ongoing feasibility study on this increase demonstrates a proactive approach, although it also highlights the challenges of balancing fiscal constraints with social welfare.

The discussions on opening four new trade routes between Bhutan and India are particularly promising. These routes—Samdrupjongkhar, Nganglam in Pemagatshel, Gelephu in Sarpang, and Lhamoizingkha in Dagana—are expected to facilitate smoother exports of agricultural produce, especially areca nut, which is a primary source of income for farmers in southern dzongkhags. The high transportation costs within Bhutan have long been a barrier to profitability for these farmers. Reliable export gateways will not only reduce these costs but also provide direct access to Indian markets, enhancing the competitiveness of Bhutanese produce.

However, even as Parliament deliberates on these initiatives, persistent challenges facing our farmers are in the news. For example, the plight of eastern farmers struggling with declining auction prices for potatoes is a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities in the agriculture sector. The auction prices, influenced by external factors, often leave Bhutanese farmers at the mercy of external market forces. The lack of cold storage facilities in Bhutan exacerbates this issue, forcing farmers to rush their produce to auction before it gets spoilt, often resulting in low prices.

This scenario raises critical questions about the sustainability and resilience of Bhutan’s agriculture sector. How long should Bhutanese farmers be at the mercy of external buyers and traders? There is an urgent need for infrastructure development, particularly cold storage facilities, to allow farmers to store their produce and sell it when prices are favourable. This would not only stabilise farmers’ incomes but also empower them with greater control over their livelihoods.

Moreover, the establishment of cold storage facilities and other value-addition infrastructure should be coupled with enhanced market access and diversification strategies. Strengthening domestic and regional market linkages can reduce dependency on a single market, thereby mitigating risks associated with price fluctuations in neighbouring countries.

The deliberations in Parliament are indeed a positive indication that rural Bhutan remains a priority. However, the effectiveness of these discussions will ultimately be measured by their implementation. The government’s initiatives, from increasing life insurance to opening new trade routes and allocating substantial funds for agriculture marketing and cooperatives, must translate into tangible benefits for the farmers and rural communities. Addressing the systemic challenges, such as the lack of cold storage and market dependencies, is essential for sustainable rural development.