Onions are available, but not affordable. With the help of the government of India, the country started importing onions. The quota is 150 metric tonnes of onions a month. There should be enough.
A kilogram of onions cost between Nu 180-200 in most shops as of yesterday. The expected price was Nu 96 or a maximum of Nu 100 if we round off given that the Food Corporation of Bhutan is distributing the bulb. But many are left teary eyes as vegetable vendors and shops are making the most of the shortage of the spice. However, nobody seems to be bothered except consumers venting their frustrations on social media.
Where are the authorities responsible in ensuring fair prices? Hiking the price of essentials like vegetables is not new. It is the trend. Every time a fresh vegetable hits the market, our vendors skyrocket the price.
The problem, without authorities protecting consumers, is not only with price. Another big issue is the practice.
Before the government closed the Centenary Farmers’ Market, which is now partially opened, everyone knows that vendors on the first floor are supposed to sell local products and those on the ground floor imported vegetables. Talk to any vendors and allegations are rife that the local produce are sometimes the same produce coming from the ground floor.
There are stalls selling ‘organic’ vegetables and fruits from Tsirang. But when the border gates were closed to contain Covid-19 earlier this year, our organic chilies and bananas from Tsirang were not available.
Such practices are not just in Thimphu. Vendors selling farm produce along the Thimphu-Wangdue highway allege each other of adulterating the produce. Many are aware that some use additives to artificially ripen bananas before it reaches the market. Then we hear stories of mixing bananas in butter, green leaves in Sep (flattened rice) and many more.
While we want to maintain that Bhutan is a special place with sincere and compassionate people guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness and values drawn from Buddhism, such acts present an ugly reality. Bhutanese consumers are dealing with shrewd vendors driven by the lust of profit.
How do we control prices both in the interest of vendors and consumers? How do we ensure our “local” produce are not adulterated or our “organic” produce pure? Brand Bhutan alone will not sell if we are not sincere with our practice. There are instances where what we called organic produce were rejected in the international market.
There is definitely a need for strict monitoring. Consumers should also be made aware of their role. Agencies should use social media platforms to deal with the issue.
What role should the government, the Office of the Consumer Protection or Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority play? There is a lot of focus on growing our own food or substituting import. We cannot ban the import of many things because of our trade rules. If our products are better or price competitive, we will find a market, the biggest problem today.