The air is not clear of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but there is a lot of clarity emerging even as we find ways to fight the virus and its impact.
We are convinced that what we are going through is the normal. We have to fine-tune a way around the pandemic. One thing that is crystal clear is that the impact of the pandemic is going to stay. If there are no lockdowns, there will be restrictions unless a solution, in the form of a vaccine, is found.
The reality, like many realised, is that life has to go on with or without Covid-19. While we adapt to live with a pandemic, what we are also clear is that we are getting a better sight of our priorities. Take, for instance, import substitution. This is not an overnight thought. We have been talking about this for a very long time now. The only difference is we have had to wait for the pandemic to get us really working on it.
How do we substitute import as a landlocked country totally dependent goods and services from the neighbouring countries? There are so many things that we cannot produce. For instance, cars or computers. But the Covid-19 pandemic taught us what matters the most. When we were locked-down for nearly a month, we were after basic necessities. Everything else was secondary. What we needed was food and safety.
If we ran through the import list and the cost, the numbers are mind blowing—Nu 10.2 billion (B) worth of fossil fuel for a country known to be carbon neutral, Nu 1.5B of meat for a Buddhist country known to be against killing, Nu 2.3B for charcoal for a country known to be 72 percent forested. We import Nu 7B worth of rice almost every year.
There is something inherently and terribly wrong. The pandemic has opened our eyes. The focus of the government, even as it meets different sectors, is to look into import substitution and enhance export.
We have not looked into our potentials. In other words, we have not made the most of our strengths. To the world, Bhutan is known as a clean country, one of the few spared by the greed of commercialism. We boast about our snow fed rivers, the clean Himalayan air and the unpolluted soil. We call it brand Bhutan. How effectively are we making use of it?
Now is the time. There are other benefits like creating jobs for the thousands who suddenly lost their livelihoods or the thousands who are readying to join the workforce. Judging by the import figures, substituting even 50 percent of import would mean jobs, food, and sustainability.
There is a focus on local produce. It should transcend just the “Made in Bhutan” name. If we import all the ingredients and package or bottle it here, it is not made in Bhutan. It is an eyewash because it is cheaper and easier to import raw materials than using locally produced goods.
At the same time, the name local, in our context, means expensive. Whether it is vegetable, cereal or meat, everything is beyond the reach of most Bhutanese. This drives people to buy imported goods, which is by far cheaper.
How do we make locals buy local produce? How do we encourage competitiveness among growers and sellers? Most important of it all, how do we make the whole initiative sustainable?
There are more questions than answers.