Tashi Dema 

The recent chilli problem exposed all shortcomings and now as price skyrockets, some charging as high as Nu 800 a kilogramme, the demand is for consumer protection.

People took to social media to raise their concern when chilli price skyrocketed to Nu 800 a kilogramme amidst the shortage. Many people said they would not mind paying the price if farmers are benefitting from the increase in price but alleged it was vendors, who were taking advantage of the situation.

Some people raised questions on the role of the government, agriculture ministry and Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) to protect consumers. Many accused OCP of failing to protect consumers although the Consumer Protection Act 2012 and Consumer Protection Rules and Regulations 2015 mandate them.

The views are varied if not the chillies.

A Thimphu resident, Karma, said the government should intervene and allow import of chilli until the local production hits the market. “Tobacco products are imported without restrictions and alcohol is produced within and distributed freely.”

Another resident, Kuenga, said consumers have no right to blame farmers even if they charge Nu 500 or even 1,000, as farmers put in lots of effort to produce the product. He explained farmers are forced to sell chilli at Nu 30 or 40 a kg during production season. “When we are not concerned for farmers that time and if there is no minimum price support from the government, it is not fair.”

He said all these problems call for a systematic approach towards vegetable production and marketing. “It is time we have to use cold storage system.” But as much as the chilli price impacted consumers, suppliers and farmers are equally worried.

A chilli supplier from Dagana is worried the exorbitant price would force the government to lift the ban on chilli. “If that happens, many farmers would suffer.”

He pays Nu 250 for a kg of chilli to farmers in Lhamoizingkha and sells it for Nu 300 a kg to vendors at the Centenary Farmers’ Market.

“Since I am not allowed to come out of my vehicle because of the pandemic, I don’t know how much the vendors are selling it for,” he said. “They are making 100 percent profit even if they sell it for Nu 600 a kg.”   

A farmer from Umling said they sold at Nu 400 a kg but could not believe it fetched Nu 800 at Gelephu market. “But how long will people buy at that price?” she said. “It will only force the government to allow import or fix a price, which will only affect farmers, as vendors have a way to sell it at a high price.”

An agriculture extension officer in Gelephu said farmers in his gewog sell chillies for Nu 400 a kg. “I think it is the vendors who charged Nu 800 to consumers. A farmer in Shompangkha said he was surprised when his chillies fetched him Nu 500 a kg recently in Sarpang. He said he never expected his chillies would fetch so much money but with prices of all commodities increasing in the market, he thought it was a good opportunity to sell his chillies for the price.

He, however, said he knows the high price will not last long. “Consumers will make noise, as vendors are selling it for Nu 800.”

But it is not just local chillies that are costing consumers huge money.

Vendors are also selling imported chillies for similar prices. A Lobesa resident, Choden, said a vendor charged Nu 400 for half a kilogramme of imported chilli. “It’s only vendors who are benefitting from this shortage.”

Meanwhile, OCP officials say except for the price of chilli, they managed to retain the price of essentials as it is before the pandemic.

The chief programme officer, Jigme Dorji, said OCP requested Sarpang dzongkhag to review the matter and strategise price control mechanism to ensure the goods are available to consumers at affordable rates.

He said they agriculture ministry had set fixed selling prices for vegetables and fruits during the lockdown and OCP monitored based on it.

According to Jigme Dorji, OCP had to impose penalties on 71 business entities amounting to Nu 214,577 for hiking prices during the lockdown. “We had to recommend five shops to close and cancel dealership license of four vegetable vendors for repeated violation and not adhering to government directives.

He said all relevant government agencies should work together to protect the economic interest and health of consumers especially during such difficult periods.

Agriculture minister (Sanam Lyonpo) Yeshey Penjor said it is a dilemma where farmers are complaining of low price, threatening the ministry of abandoning farming, consumers complaining of unaffordable prices and forcing the government to import.

The minister met the vendors on January 28 and 29 and requested them not to hike price.

He said that many think vendors are enjoying the profit but when we meet them, they claim they are suffering and not being able to meet their rent and educational expenses of their children. “The say chilli is expensive from the source only.”

Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor said Department of Agriculture and Department of Marketing and Cooperatives (DAMC) are working on a ‘buyback price’, which will protect the farmers if price falls below lowest threshold farmgate price. “The government would bear the loss.”

He explained the ministry has no legal teeth to fix market price. “We set the price during the lockdown through Cabinet directives.”