The never-ending chilli issue

On Wednesday, frustrated vegetable vendors at the Centenary Farmers’ Market like a pack of vultures circled and pecked on a bolero pickup truck that arrived from Dagana.

As they yelled and hurled themselves at the bags of fresh chillies and then at each other, it became obvious the supplier, who was restricted by Covid-19 protocol from stepping out, didn’t stand any chance to profit. At the end of the melee, the supplier claimed a substantial loss. He didn’t come again.

Chilli is indispensable to Bhutanese. Therefore, the absence or shortage of it creates panic. What happened at the vegetable market is proof of that. Most dzongkhags are experiencing shortages of chillies. The agriculture ministry is frantically trying to fill the gaps. Aggregators are calling chilli growers every day trying to pick up any amount. But there is not much in the fields.

All point fingers at the pandemic and late monsoon that devastated most chilli nurseries. The first factor is inevitable. But using the weather projections in farming could have saved the nurseries. We could have averted the chilli shortage drama.

Anticipating such a scenario the government invested a huge amount in winter vegetable cultivation months ago. There is no dearth of farmers growing winter crops, especially chilli. Over the past few years, they realised the returns are good. They are willing to toil harder and produce more.

But farmers in Sarpang were embroiled in land use approval issues. The dzongkhag received the highest funding for winter vegetable cultivation and also has huge production potential. While one department in the ministry gave the money to grow vegetables, another stopped it. The problem has been dragging for two years now without a solution.

Amidst all this chaos, Farm Machinery Corporation Ltd, an agency created to carry out and promote commercial farming has been silent. It is sad its large collection of machinery and expertise couldn’t help.

As always the shortage has prompted some to import chillies illegally. Shopkeepers triple the price and sell them discreetly. The average Bhutanese buyer doesn’t care where the chillies come from. The authorities have to disseminate the results of tests carried out on imported chillies and make people aware of the dangers. Nobody wants to die from eating contaminated chillies.

One easy way out seems to be lifting the ban. But that is not the solution. It will only crush whatever little progress the extension workers and hard-working farmers have accomplished in the last five years for our food self-sufficiency. Substitutes must come from within and production must be sustained.

Those from traditional families have no part in this chilli drama. They have enough ema hokam, ema shurkam, ema kam, chilli powder, and a large collection of dry vegetables too.

When supply goes down, the poorest of the poor are affected the most, especially in urban Bhutan where they cannot dry chillies. After two lockdowns, many are struggling to make ends meet. Loss of income and livelihood for many has resulted in growing debt from unpaid rents, and the soaring price of food items is like rubbing salt on the injury.

The two nationwide lockdowns have given us enough lessons. Devising a functional distribution system for local produces is a priority. That is if we have learnt the lesson.

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