Weather service

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Waiting for the sun

I woke up to a glorious morning today. The skies were clear. And the heavens promised a warm, sunny day.

That’s how it’s supposed to be at this time of the year – warm, sunny and bright: perfect weather for harvesting paddy. And that’s why some of our farmers, prompted by BBS’s forecast for sunny weather, have begun to harvest their crop.

But the farmers who harvested their paddy a few days ago and, as is required, left them to dry in their fields were in for some anxious moments yesterday. It had rained the previous day and almost all of yesterday. And they feared that another day of rain would destroy their crop and an entire year’s worth of hard labour. So, naturally, they are delighted at the possibility that today’s sun will quickly dry their rain soaked paddy.

This happened last year too. And the year before. Our farmers had to deal with unseasonal rain and were left literally praying for the sun to come out so that the paddy they had harvested would not rot in the rain.

Our farmers forecast weather at this time of the year by expecting the previous week’s weather to continue for the next two to three days. Some of them combine that estimate with BBS TV’s weather forecast. But BBS’s predictions, which are based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture’s meteorological center, can be notoriously unreliable. So every year, at this time of the year, our farmers spend many anxious days trying to guess the best time to harvest their crop.

Much of this anxiety is unnecessary. Many websites – AccuWeather and BBC, for example – provide free satellite images and weather forecasts for Bhutan. Their forecasts are also not accurate. But at least they provide satellite images and show weather patterns. And gewog administration officers, RNR extension workers and the farmers themselves could use that information to develop a clearer picture of the weather pattern.

But we can do a better job; we can go much further to reduce the anxiety among our farmers. That would be possible by purchasing professional weather forecasting services, and distributing that information, as and when needed, through TV or other media, to our farmers. That wouldn’t cost much. But that would help our farmers immensely. And that’s what the government should be doing.

Expensive talk

The Ministry of Agriculture says that the prices of local vegetables is increasing. They are right. In fact, the prices of local vegetables have not just increased; they have skyrocketed.

Between this time last year and now, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the price for local cabbages increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75. That’s an increase of 30.25%. The price of local chillies increased from Nu 270 to Nu 300 or by 11.11%. And the prices of potatoes and beans have jumped by a massive 47.22% and  39.40% respectively.

So what’s driving the prices of local vegetables?  The Ministry of Agriculture has blamed inflation, the seasons and the rupee crisis.

Yes, inflation would have caused price increases. The last quarter recorded inflation at 13.53%. That’s the highest rate we’ve seen in years. But that’s nowhere near the 47% increase in the price of local potatoes. By comparison, the price of imported potatoes, which was Nu 17.83 per kg last year, increased only slightly, to Nu 20 per kg this year. We import most of what we consume from India. So inflation rates here follow those in India. And since the price of imported potatoes (and other vegetables) went up only marginally, inflation cannot be blamed for the huge increase in the cost of local potatoes (and local vegetables).

Nor can we blame the seasons. In their report, the government compared vegetables prices between two years but at the same season. So when they say that the price of local cabbages have increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75 per kg, they are talking about  prices in June last year, versus prices in June this year. More significantly, the government has found out that production of local vegetables have gone up. All this means that we can’t pin the blame on the season.

The third excuse that the Ministry of Agriculture has offered for increasing vegetable prices is the rupee crisis. I agree, the rupee crisis is to blame. But not for the reasons that the Ministry of Agriculture thinks; not because the ngultrum is fetching fewer Indian rupees at the informal exchange market.

The rupee crisis did indeed cause a sudden hike in vegetable prices. But they went up due to an unlikely event. On 12 April the prime minister went on national TV to talk about the rupee crisis. During that talk, the prime minister announced that the government would no longer permit vegetables to be imported from India. Prices of local vegetables went up immediately. And haven’t come down since.

Pep-say

Leech buster

Thank you for participating in Big Picture -12. It was fun to follow your comments – most of you recognized the picture, but you still spent the time to craft interesting answers. Thank you.

My favorite answer comes from “Thinlay”, whose keen sense of observation, meticulous research and precise composition bags our prize: bragging rights! Here’s the scholar’s complete and  completely correct answer:

It is a white plastic bottle with narrow neck and closed with modified wooden cap, and tied around the waist to ensure that it does not fall off while walking. The content could be anything from alcohol to insects (including leech) killing potion concocted with ingredients ranging from herbal extract to lime, acid, salt to tobacco solution. It is carried by people who have to walk through, work or live around the tropical forests.

The complete picture shows Budhalal Rai of Yaba village in Sombaykha with his “pep-say”, a container carrying a strong solution of tobacco, lime and salt. Budhalal Rai, like his fellow villagers, carries the contraption throughout the rainy season and uses the potent mixture to easily and effectively remove leeches that climb up on him.

So far, however, Budhalal has found little reason to use his pep-say. It hasn’t been raining in his village, so the leeches are staying put. In fact, it hasn’t been raining in most parts of Bhutan. The rains this year are very late, and have caused drought-like conditions in much of Bhutan with disturbing reports coming in from  Trashigang, Trashiyantse, Lhuntse, Pemagatshel, Tsirang, the South and the western dzongkhags.

But our farmers don’t have a choice. Rain or no rain, they must do their work. Our farmers are doing their part. They are working their fields. And they are praying for rain.

We need to do our part too. If the rains don’t arrive, and don’t arrive soon, we will need to go on a war footing throughout our country to save our crops. If that fails, we will need to quickly come up with new ideas to grow alternate crops.  And if that fails, we will need to start preparing to fight a nation wide food shortage.

Whatever it is, we need to act now. We must act now, unless it rains, and the leeches come out, and Budhalal and farmers throughout the country dab them with pep-say.

But nat!

At school, we, like all children, all over the world, loved playing pranks. Our arsenal boasted an impressive range of innovative pranks. But the simplest and the most popular of them by far was the very versatile but nat! prank.

This is how it was administered: We’d go up to a fellow student and excitedly declare, “I found your wallet!” And then, very slowly, add, “But nat!”

Or we’d tell him, “Our math test is postponed … but nat!” Or, “She says she likes you too … but nat!”

The but nat! was meant to negate whatever news had just been delivered.

For obvious reasons, the prank would work only if the victim had really lost his wallet. Or if he hadn’t prepared for the upcoming math test. Or if he had confided that he was in love with a certain girl. And if, by some chance, the victim had lost a lot money, or really hated math, or was madly in love, the prank would triumph.

The prime minister, who, incidentally, also attended the same school, has pulled off a but nat! on the entire nation.

Last month, he went on live TV and confidently broadcast that the government would ban the import of vegetables from this month onwards. But last week, a month after his announcement, he seems to have changed his mind, and slowly added … but nat!

There’s no doubt that we can grow our own vegetables. In fact, we must grow our own food. But we’ve done precious little to encourage domestic production. So we’ve been relying almost exclusively on imports.

We can, and we must, grow our own food, especially vegetables. But that’s not possible overnight. Our dependency on imported food has come about from years of inefficient farming combined with lazy government policy.

Yes, we can, and we must, work towards substituting imported food with domestic production. But we must work carefully, deliberately and intelligently. An immediate and outright ban on vegetable imports will do more harm than good.

So I wasn’t surprised to hear the government say but nat! and negate the vegetable import ban.

But I am surprised at their decision to allow only one agency, the Food Corporation of Bhutan, to import vegetables. The FCB, as far as I know, does not have any experience in importing vegetables. As such they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate, buy and transport a wide range of perishable goods every week to Thimphu and other parts of the country. They don’t have the experience to do the job. And they don’t have the incentives to do a good job.

It’s clear that we will be compelled to import vegetables for some time. As such, the government should permit the vegetable vendors to continuing importing vegetables. They, not FCB, are the people who know how to do this business the most efficiently.

But in the meantime, the government must encourage domestic vegetable production. The government must take food self-sufficiency seriously.

Playing but nat! at school, with students, is one thing. Playing around with government policy, without understanding the ground realities, is quite another.

Bhutanese food

Eating out

A couple of friends and I went out for lunch the other day. We ate at Cousins, a new restaurant that specializes in authentic Bhutanese food. You’ll find the restaurant on the first floor of the new building opposite the BNB.

The food at Cousins is good. We had ribs (with dried red chillies and spring onions in a hot garlic sauce),chopped dried beef (in a chilli and cheese sauce), kewa-datsi, dal, rice and, for desert, fresh apples in cream.

The food, like I said earlier, was good. And it was mainly traditional Bhutanese fare.

But in fact, there was very little that was really Bhutanese on the table; almost all the ingredients had been imported. Pork, beef, green chillies, cheese, onions, garlic, cooking oil, salt, potatoes, apples, cream, rice – they’d all been imported; they’d all come from India. As far as I could tell, the only ingredients which had been produced locally were the dried red chillies and the spring onions.

But it wasn’t just the ingredients that had been imported. The plates, bowls, cutlery, shakers, napkins and table cloth all came from outside, as did the wooden tables and chairs. And the building itself was built by Indian workers using mostly imported material.

Cousins is not alone. All restaurants, throughout the country, rely, almost completely, on imported ingredients. And almost all restaurants, throughout the country, are housed in buildings that have been built using mainly foreign material and foreign workers. But it’s not just restaurants. The story is repeated throughout our country, in every school, every hospital, every monastery, and in almost every home.

We don’t grow our own food. We don’t build our own houses. And, besides hydropower, we don’t produce much else. So it’s no wonder that we depend so heavily on imports. It’s no wonder that have such a huge trade deficit. And it’s no wonder that we’re facing such serious currency crisis.

 

Big ideas

House No. 7

I stayed at Yangtsena yesterday. It’s a small village on the southern slopes of the Pu-la overlooking the Amochhu river.

Yangtsena has only seven houses. But all of them are handsome, traditional farmhouses. It wasn’t always like that – just 14 years ago, they lived in basic bamboo huts.

That’s about when, when Yangtsena’s residents got together and decided that they, all seven households, must have better houses. Individually, no family had the resources to build a farmhouse. So they decided to pool their resources, especially labour, and collectively build all of their houses, one farmhouse at a time.

Contributing labour to build houses is not uncommon in our villages. Almost every house in rural Bhutan has been built using at least some form of free labour from their neighours.

But what sets Yangtsena apart is their resolve to build the entire village collectively, an idea that engaged every man, woman and child, almost every winter, in construction. Last winter, they completed their seventh, and final, farmhouse. And with that they completed an idea that began 14 years ago.

Yangtsena is a small village. But they have big ideas. Their next project is to improve their irrigation channels and then, again collectively, build more paddy fields. The idea – a big idea, and one that they will surely achieve – is to become self sufficient in rice.

Farmers’ produce

Not much

Not much

Our economy grew by 8.1% last year. That’s not the 9% growth per year promised by DPT. But, given all that happened in those 12 months, from a host of national celebrations to the global financial crisis, 8.1 is really not too bad.

The share of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors to our GDP are 16%, 45% and 36% respectively. And, during the past year, the primary, or agriculture, sector grew by 1.7%; the secondary, or industry, sector grew by 7.5%; and the tertiary, or service, sector grew by 12.1%.

These figures were given to the National Assembly by the Finance Minister. Let’s see what they could mean for the majority of the people – our farmers. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 79% of our population depends on agriculture. Yet, they contributed only 16% of our GDP. This means that our farmers are a lot poorer, economically speaking, than the other Bhutanese. But, we all know this, don’t we?

Now the agriculture sector grew by only 1.7% last year. And that’s much lower than last year’s inflation, which averaged about 7%. So, in real terms, our farmers produced less last year than the year before. That is, they became poorer. This, we didn’t know.

The news for the next financial year is not good either. Our government forecasts that the share of the agriculture sector to the GDP will fall even further, from 16% to 14%. Obviously, we need to focus a lot more on the agricultural sector. After all, most of Bhutan depends on it.

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