The rice-growing farmers continue to grapple with manpower shortage issues 

Agriculture: It’s the time of the year again when farmers in the western dzongkhag of Paro remain unusually occupied with paddy transplantation.

Preparation of the paddy fields and transplantation began since the end of last month. Except for a few villages where fields are still being prepared, works are ongoing in most of the gewogs.

An issue that frequently bothers farmers at this time of the year is shortage of labour and power tillers. Despite its location and development, Paro valley has been grappling with the issue of labour just like other dzongkhags during the harvest and transplantation seasons for a couple of years now.

Labour issues

Farmer Nima Dorji from Bondey has to hire some 25 people to help him prepare his two-acre wetland for paddy transplantation.

Nima Dorji is hopeful of starting transplantation by this month’s end if he is able to gather all the workers as expected. “It no longer depends on my convenience but on the availability of helping hands,” he said, emphasising on how it was getting increasingly difficult to find help.

Until early 2000, farmers said things were relatively easier when villagers from the neighbouring district of Haa used to visit them to help during the transplantation and harvest seasons.

Not only were the daily wages cheaper then but the arrangement a convenient one.

Today, farmers pay Nu 500 to 600 a day per head as daily wage besides providing three meals, tea and snacks and transportation to the workers. While wives of army personnel are available to work the fields during the season, it was difficult to get them, as not all preferred to work in the paddy fields.

Until a few years ago, another farmer, Sangay, said expatriate construction workers were of immense help. They worked at a lower wage rate and were considered more efficient.

“But with frequent inspection and people aware of the immigration rules, the expatriates refuse to take chances,” she said.

With all her children working in Thimphu and other dzongkhags, Aum Pema from Shaba didn’t have a choice but to give up most of her wetland for sharecropping given the labour issues. “To cultivate the two paddy fields that I kept for myself, I have to ask my daughters to take leave to help us out,” she said.

Shortage of power tillers

Over the years, farming has been made more convenient in places like Paro with access to farm mechanisation that helps increase production. A majority of the farmers, whose land is near the road, avail machines from the Regional Agriculture Machinery Centre (AMC).

In 2013-14, about 1,582 acres of land belonging to 1,000 households in Paro benefitted from AMC’s hiring services. The number of households availing hiring services increased to 7,816 in 2014-15 covering 3,853 acres of land.

Hiring services started in Paro since 2013. Machines are deployed following requisition from gewog tshogpas to whom the farmers submit their requirement.

However, issues remain.

Shortage of power tillers during the season and frequent breakdown of machines are some of the issues that AMC faces. When a power tiller breaks down, officials said some of the spare parts cost up to Nu 45,000 at times.

If 10 machines are deployed, another three are kept as back-up. However, to meet the demand, those kept as back-up are also hired out.

AMC’s regional manager Lhakpa Dorji said the shortage is further aggravated with all farmers transplanting paddy at the same time. “Farmers refer the zakar (astrology) before they begin plantation resulting in all farmers carrying out works at the same time,” he said.

Despite deploying 30 power tillers from AMC currently and some farmers hiring private owned power tillers, the valley still faces shortage of power tillers and labour. With just 19 power tillers at the centre, the rest were brought from regional centres of Wangdue and Samtse.

Lhakpa Dorji said demand for machines from farmers this season was almost double of what was available at the centre.

AMC officials said farmers are provided the power tillers based on first come first serve basis. They can use the power tillers for as long as they want to after paying the daily hiring charge of Nu 1,400. AMC has eight power tiller operators on contract. During the peak season, more operators are hired and paid Nu 500 a day.

AMC officials said farmers prefer to hire from the centre given the cheaper hiring rate. Almost 90 percent of the wetland in Paro has access to road.


Strengthening farm mechanisation

Farmers said that AMC’s hiring services had benefitted them immensely. However, farmers call for better management and facilitation process in hiring out the machines.

Hiring privately-owned power tillers cost farmers more than Nu 2,000 a day. Some villagers also complained of power tiller operators turning up late for work further aggravating the issue of shortage of power tillers.

“We’ve been complaining to the tshogpa but he cannot monitor it alone,” farmer Damcho Tshering from Jagathang said. “The AMC should look into such issues as we can’t visit the centre to file complaints given our tight schedule during the season.”

Aum Om from Gongju village said despite the increase in daily wage every year, helpers were hard to come by. “We used to get helping hands from other gewogs but not anymore with children leaving villages for higher education and work opportunities,” she said.

When Haaps used to visit during the season, Aum Om said it was more convenient as they stayed with the host family and left only upon completion of the works. “The daily wage was also reasonable back then,” she said.

The labour issue, according to farmers, is only expected to worsen in the coming years unless the government intervenes by providing affordable farm mechanisation processes, among others. However, AMC officials believe that the shortage would ease if strong cultural beliefs among farmers wane away.

Kinga Dema | Paro