Rapid urbanisation and ever-increasing demand for infrastructure development is pushing agriculture or food production to the backseat. Close to 700 acres of paddy fields have been lost to road, building, and township development; about 323 acres more to illegal conversion of wetland and natural disasters. According to a recent study, at least 6,345 acres of paddy fields in the country are left fallow, which, if cultivated, could produce no less than 10,323.315 metric tonnes of rice.
If the country is to be rice self-sufficient, Bhutan will need at least 160,000 acres of paddy fields, which will produce about 260,320 metric tonnes of paddy annually. Today, the country faces shortage of rice by almost 180,068.225 metric tonnes. According to trade statistics, Bhutan imported rice worth of Nu 1.9B. And the import figure is expected to grow in the coming years. Agriculture, a sector that provides livelihood to 62.2 percent of population, is in a critical stage of development and calls for urgent intervention.
Of Bhutan’s 7.8 percent arable land, only 2.93 percent is under cultivation today. Drying water sources makes agriculture difficult for most Bhutanese farmers, giving rise to food shortage in the rural areas. In 2015, an average of 18 percent of farming households faced food shortage due to decreased rice production. It has been found that the shortage of irrigation water is one of the main factors that contribute to large-scale fallowing of land and increased rural to urban migration. Out of 79,740 target acres in the 11th Plan, only 47,424 acres could be irrigated. This means of the total cultivated land, only about 18 percent is being irrigated. Decreasing public investment, low yield and high production costs, losses due to human-wildlife conflicts, limited access to markets, credit, inputs (seeds) and machines are the other factors that we need to look into to improve the sector as a whole.
Achieving rice self-sufficiency will need a major target and practice shift. And that will require some real will and courage. Subsistence farming is no more relevant. What is needed today is greater participation in the sector. Demand for water will only grow with growing population and production intensification. What we know is that we actually do not have shortage of water. We do not tap the resource efficiently.
A quick run through agriculture budget over the year gives us the clear picture of what went wrong and what could be done to improve the sector’s capacity. Agriculture sector was allotted 44 percent of budget in the 4th Plan which dropped to 33 in the 5th Plan. In the 10th Plan, the sector received 5.5 percent of the budget which further dropped to 2.3 percent in the 11th.
Rather than encouraging farmers to shoot feral pigs as a way to combat human-wildlife, agriculture minister might want to push agriculture as the priority sector as we approach the 12th Plan if we are to achieve food self-sufficiency. We cannot excuse foot-dragging anymore.