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.