Against the grain

  • It’s time to revise the Panchayati model of farming and lift agriculture from subsistence to industry
- UJJAL RAJ ACHARYA
Against the grain

Oct 22, 2014-

Periodic news about the plight of farmers is common, and each time, there is a restlessness to show that agriculture actually has huge potential to help develop the nation. The government never forgets to put agriculture (not farmers) at the top of its priority list, for instance when it comes to allocating the budget. But farmers’ problems continue to persist. Despite their significant contributions (two-thirds) to the GDP, farmers have never been happy, which clearly reflects a flaw in policies.

Milk, sugarcane, vegetables

Sugarcane farmers in the Tarai are being forced to sell their products at a rate lower than the sugar mills in India. Loss of sugarcanes as they dry in the field and deferred payments of the previous year are recurring news. Market insecurity for this cash crop has resulted in a series of protests, strikes, and even the loss of lives.

In the case of milk, our country produces around 160,000 tonnes of milk every day. Approximately, 80,000 tonnes reach the market. Milk produced in rural areas does not reach the urban market because of supply constraints and inefficient market policies, resulting in a shortage elsewhere. According to recent statistics from the National Dairy Development Board, there is a daily shortage of 400,000 litres of milk. Surplus milk in rural areas, however, is being poured down the drain.

To add insult to injury, we import milk from India throughout the year. Milk is also imported in powder and condensed forms from several European nations without scrutinising their quality. At the same time, the government has allocated a budget to provide subsidies on cow farming, but little significant efforts have been made towards installing plants that can be used in case of overproduction. Also, no satisfactory work has been done by the state to guarantee an ‘appropriate price’ for farmers’ milk to prevent wastage.

In that same vein, the destruction of agricultural products without consumption (for example, the recent dumping of tomatoes on the streets) needs innovative long term strategies to prevent a repeat. We are producing vegetables in large quantities and are nearly self-sufficient. But barely any attention is paid towards the sustainability of our agricultural produce. Although plans and policies have given great emphasis to enhancing agriculture production, farmers are merely subsisting, with a majority of them poor and unable to turn a profit.

Old men methods

An estimated 400,000 youths enter the labour market every year. More than 1,500 fly abroad for employment every day, which means a clear shortage of labour in agriculture. Simply increasing the annual budget for agriculture without suitable programmes for relevant infrastructure development and without coordination for innovative research to uplift farmers’ lives is unlikely to bring a revolution in the sector. If this gap is not properly addressed, Nepal might face production failure, from which it will be difficult to revive the agriculture scene and bring it back to its present state.

Nearly 35 percent of youths in the country are below 15 years of age. About 64 percent of the population is in the working age group and around 70 percent of the population still depends on agriculture. So, this is the right time to revise the Panchayati agricultural model, though well-run in the past. The Panchayati model encouraged production to some extent and reduced poverty caused by insufficient production. The model was strategically right in abandoning traditional ways of farming, adequate only for the purpose of subsistence, but it did not try to reach farmers’ huts. In the lack of modern technology, improved seeds, and well-organised markets, ‘old men methods’ were good enough to prepare butter from milk, sugar from sugarcane, and vinegar from lime. People were content with their products, selling when in surplus.

Policymakers then were not able to recognise the magnitude of Nepali agriculture and its production capacity. Even today, our agro-economic model has not taken proper shape; the same long-established trend is in place. Inefficient resource allocation, due to a lack of coordination among policymakers, bureaucrats, research institutions, and concerned stakeholders prevents Nepal from functioning as a self-sufficient agriculture country. The government cannot even properly address the efforts of private investors and entrepreneurs who acknowledge the existent worth of national products. As a result, investors and businesspersons are reluctant to invest in agriculture.

Plan in perspective

The government, therefore, must optimise available resources and develop agriculture as an industry. This process should focus on food security, sustainable agriculture development, tourism development, and value chain production. The overall course must be based on efficient market strategies. The government must plan to price commodities according to their production costs so as to create a safety net for producers. Otherwise, farmers will choose alternative employment opportunities. Likewise, it is not wise to import milk, rice, and sugar in massive quantities, especially when these items are produced locally in the country every year.

Currently, the government is working under the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) prepared for 1995-2015, in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The APP has several strategies, such as accelerating agricultural growth by prioritising irrigation, agricultural roads, fertiliser use, enhancing the technology system of research, and generating employment in the rural non-farm sector with the help of agriculture. Now, close to 2015, it’s time to ask if any constructive work has been done in the field of agricultural growth. Unfortunately, we still import 10 times more from neighbouring countries, as we lack methodology to save our produce and ignore our own production capacity. It is essential, therefore, that the next APP is not superficial. Without a long-term guiding principle and its proper execution, merely insisting on agriculture production will only make famers poorer.

Undoubtedly, Nepal can move towards sustainable agriculture by increasing technical manpower, market information, and making a perspective plan that regulates export-import. There should be a farmer-friendly market so that the market, and not a middleman, attracts farmers. Similarly, best research practices must be implemented in the farming community, not only to enhance agricultural productivity but also to increase their standard of living. A scientific production system should be employed to meet the country’s growing demand of basic food staples. Education in and awareness of the proper use of insecticides, pesticides, and chemical fertilisers should be provided to farmers because they are the initial victims of all chaotic agriculture practices. Intensive use of agro-chemical substances must be discouraged and replaced with innovative local technologies such as converting urine, night soil, and solid waste into fertiliser. These techniques will help integrate agriculture, environment, and public health.

Acharya is a research fellow at the Asian Institute of Technology Management

Published: 23-10-2014 08:46

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