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.

Inadequate and insulting

 

Terrible job!

Farming in Bhutan is difficult work. Our farmers toil from dawn till dusk, in the sun and the rain, and with rudimentary tools, just to secure a basic harvest, which, at the best of times, is barely enough to feed their families through the year.

Farming in Bhutan is also a notoriously risky business. Rain, drought, floods, storms, hail, insects, disease and wild animals combine to keep our farmers on edge till they have harvested and safely stored their produce. But even after that, our farmers face one more big risk: markets. There’s absolutely no guarantee that their produce will fetch the money needed to make the hard work – and the anxiety – worthwhile.

That’s why, yesterday, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Agriculture Minister two related questions. One, I asked how the government would help our farmers secure more predictable prices for their produce. And two, I enquired when the government would start a crop insurance scheme.

The Agriculture Minister’s answers to both the questions were inadequate. And they were insulting.

To introduce my first question, I had reported that that the prices for cash crops – cardamom, mandarin oranges, apples, and potatoes, for example – are set by foreign buyers; that, as such, our farmers have absolutely no say over the price for their produce; that the prices are erratic and change every year; and that, last year, the price for potatoes fell three-fold in 7 weeks, from a high of Nu 21 per kg in October to Nu 7 per kg in late November.

Staying with last year’s potato disaster, I reported that, when I visited the Phuentsholing auction yard, I saw more than 150 truckloads of potatoes. Most of them had already been there for more than a week, paying Nu 500 per truck per day in demurrage, as the yard was able to auction only 20 to 25 truckloads a day.

Some farmers admitted to purposely holding on to their produce expecting the price to rise, but most others had no such intention; they just couldn’t get their potatoes to the auction yard earlier for a variety of valid reasons.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister if the government could look for ways of expanding local demand for cash crops; or ways of tying up with more reliable and established Indian buyers; or ways to do business with buyers from other countries.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that our farmers were gambling, that they were spoilt, and that the government would not spoil them any further. He also complained that when cash crops fetched good prices, farmers did not credit the government and expected even higher prices the following year. But he didn’t commit to, or for that matter comment on, doing anything to make the price of cash crops more predictable.

To introduce my second question, I had recalled that, last year, just before harvest time, a terrible hailstorm wiped out a lot of the paddy in Shengana; that 150 families had lost almost their entire crop; and that Aum Dorjim had cried inconsolably on national television bemoaning her misfortune and lamenting that she wouldn’t be able to feed her family or service her loans in the coming year.

I went on to report that, every year, many farmers face similar situations; we just don’t hear about them. Disasters routinely undo a whole year’s worth of hard labour, undermining the fortunes of entire families, and effectively trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty.

I also reported that way back in September 2008, the Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan and the Ministry of Agriculture had submitted a joint proposal to the government to begin a crop insurance scheme. Crop insurance is, no doubt, complicated. But it is possible. And it is necessary. It would remove much of the uncertainty and anxiety that dominate the lives of our farmers today.

So I asked the Agriculture Minister, to tell us what happened to that proposal, and, if possible, to let us know when we can expect crop insurance to be launched.

The Agriculture Minister’s answer, which was inadequate and insulting, was that his ministry had started a human wildlife conflict endowment fund, and that none of the members of Parliament had contributed to that fund. He totally ignored the question about crop insurance.

Farming in Bhutan is a difficult and risky business. Let’s take the plight of our farmers seriously. Let’s protect them from unscrupulous syndicated foreign buyers. Let’s guarantee them fair market value for the hard work. And let’s provide some form of basic crop insurance.

Nomads

Taken for a ride

Taken for a ride

The Nomad’s festival that was recently organized by the Ministry of Agriculture was a good idea. The event, which was meant to show off our nomadic culture, heritage and traditions, also sought to help our nomads sell their produce while, at the same time, promoting “off season” tourism.

But, the choice of the location is questionable. Transporting 90 nomadic groups from eight dzongkhags to Bumthang was not a good idea. Tourists perceive Bumthang to be too cold at this time of the year. And, Bumthang does not have a large enough local population to interact with the nomads and buy their produce. Hence, the low tourist count, and complaints from the nomads themselves.

If the idea was to spread the benefits of tourism, the festival should have been organized in Trashigang. The winters there are milder and the entire Brokpa community descends to the valleys naturally at this time of the year. So, the festival would have created a rare tourist attraction in the East. In addition, the local population there is big enough to naturally sustain a market for seasonal nomadic produce.

Otherwise, the festival should have been organized in Punakha, where the entire nomadic community of Gasa spends their winters, and is easily accessible to the nomads of Haa, Paro, Thimphu and Wangduephodrang.

And Bumthang? It already receives a disproportionate share of attention. Five of the 15 festivals advertised in the TCB website take place in Bumthang, and the valley already hosts other government-sponsored tourism events like the Mastutake Festival.

So why Bumthang?

Photo credit: Kuensel