Chencho Dema | Punakha

PUNAKHA — As the “valley of rice”, Punakha enters the peak season of paddy planting, its residents are hard at work. However, amidst the bustling activity, worries about the future of paddy farming have begun to loom large.

The labour-intensive nature of this age-old practice, coupled with the ever-increasing daily wage rates, has raised concerns about its sustainability in the years to come.

The daily wage rate for agricultural labourers has experienced a notable upsurge, rising from Nu 250 to Nu 400, and sometimes even exceeding Nu 1000, excluding meals and beverages. Such wide variations in wage rates across Punakha’s 11 gewogs have posed a serious challenge for farmers.

They now seek a consistent daily wage rate or a cap to address the growing issue of escalating pay rates that makes crop cultivation increasingly challenging.

While smaller landholding farmers may not feel the immediate impact, those with larger parcels of land are struggling to attract and retain workers, severely limiting their ability to cultivate their crops effectively.

According to local gups and farmers, the rising wage rates, alongside rural-urban migration and human-wildlife conflicts, contribute significantly to the increasing areas of fallow land in the region.

Out of Punakha’s vast land area, comprising 8,373.2785 acres of wetland and 2,347.423 acres of dry land, a staggering 7,457.6 acres of wetland and 1,732.4 acres of dry land remain uncultivated, with an additional 143.2 acres designated as orchards.

Farmers interviewed by Kuensel expressed concerns about the rising costs of rice production, with the expenses of hiring labourers often exceeding the income from crop sales.

Some farmers acknowledged that the competition for scarce human resources among households has led to self-imposed pressure to raise wage rates, creating an unsustainable cycle.

While there are calls for government intervention, the absence of clear regulations has left farmers uncertain about the future of rice cultivation. Many are appealing for a unified wage rate or a maximum cap, similar to the standard laws governing more serious offences.

Various gups concurred that the pay rates have been steadily increasing in recent years, leaving them with limited options to effect change. Some local leaders emphasised the need for collaboration between elected representatives and the government to address this nationwide issue, which affects farmers across the country.

Agriculture and Livestock Minister Yeshey Penjor acknowledged the lack of a defined daily wage rate for farmers and explained that the government does not have the authority to set such rates.

He proposed exploring the possibility of importing seasonal labour as a potential solution to address the labour shortage and stabilize wage rates in the farming sector.

As the government considers importing seasonal labour, the issue of fallow land and its repercussions on the nation’s agricultural landscape remain under scrutiny. A case study is currently underway to assess the feasibility of this approach.

Amidst the challenges, records from the dzongkhag agriculture sector reveal that over 1,455 acres of land, encompassing both wet and dry areas, have been left fallow across the 11 gewogs of the dzongkhag.

With Punakha Valley’s rich agricultural heritage at stake, the community awaits proactive measures to preserve this “valley of rice” and secure the future of paddy farming for generations to come.