From survival to prosperity

  • If Nepal is to graduate from LDC status, productive agriculture that propels overall economic growth is key
From survival to prosperity

Apr 21, 2015-

In Latin, ‘ager’ means field and ’culture’ means cultivation. Throughout history, agriculture has been pursued both as an art and the science of crop production. Even during Vedic times, rice, wheat, barley, sesame, and millet were not only grown, but were ingrained as a way of life. In recent years, with the need for greater food production, agriculture has become more reliant on science than art, with ever-improving techniques of crop production being essential to sustain a world population that has grown seven times in less than a century.

In Nepal, the history of organised agricultural development started in 1922, when the first government office was established and a few Nepali students were subsequently sent to India to study modern agricultural practices. The first five-year plan singled out agriculture as a priority, which continued in all subsequent plans. However, more than 90 years later, the pace of agricultural expansion in Nepal remains sluggish, with inadequate emphasis on research and adaptation. To begin redressing this, a nominal increase—of nearly 22 percent—of the budget of the Ministry of Agricultural Development has been proposed for next year, with the expectation that this will grow sharply in the coming years as new programmes pick up.

Modernising agriculture

When I was barely in my teens, I recall a conversation that my father and uncles were having: wheat flour was being dispatched to our village through American assistance and the issue being discussed was how to distribute that food aid and how to collect money? Until then, wheat flour was used in the village only when someone was sick or during some festival. I remember that wheat flour was also brought to India for public distribution and the money collected was kept under ‘PL-480’. When we went to India to study agriculture, we did so with the funding of the United States government (USAID). The Indian government also paid for scholarships from the same PL-480 scheme. We closely observed how the ‘green revolution’ in India was succeeding. The effect of Indian agricultural research and development inspired us and impacted the way we approached our work within Nepal.

With both technical and financial nudges from our foreign friends, modern cultivation of wheat and other crops took root, making agriculture a much more attractive vocation. Nepal started exporting rice officially under the aegis of the ‘DhanChawal Company’. Over time, however, the country’s planners ignored the fact that while food production was increasing, so was the population of the country, and at a faster rate. Furthermore, people were becoming much more conscious of nutrition. The demand for ‘quality food’ was also rising.

The development of agriculture has been more of a slogan than a strategic long-term programme for years. As a result, several districts of Nepal that used to grow sufficient food are insecure today. The productivity of major crops has remained stagnant. Soil fertility has declined. Investments in agriculture have been grossly inadequate. With economic liberalisation, and Nepal becoming an engaged member of the World Trade Organisation, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), and the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta), the country has not been able to expand exports. Indeed, with the prolonged energy crisis and remittance-fuelled consumption spree, imports are on the rise and the trade deficit is ballooning.

Just last month, a UN review deemed Nepal to have become eligible for graduation from the status of ‘Least Developed Country’ for the first time. If this eligibility is repeated again at the next triennial review in 2018, Nepal is likely to graduate as early as 2021. However, something is amiss. According to the UN’s criteria, Nepal’s eligibility rests on two out of the three criteria usually used for assessing graduation prospects: structural economic vulnerability and human assets. Without the third criterion—average income per capita—also considered strong and durable, there is a fear that Nepal’s graduation may not be meaningful. It is because of this that the government has been re-emphasising “high and sustained growth that is inclusive,” at the heart of which is a much more modern, productive agriculture that propels overall economic growth while lifting the wages and fortunes of our farmers.

Soft coordination skills needed

People working in agriculture often forget that theirs is a multi-sectoral field. Without this basic but fundamental understanding agriculture-related problems will remain unsolved. Agricultural production needs a breakthrough which can only be achieved by strong coordination, steered by the National Planning Commission (NPC), between the Ministry of Agricultural Development, Ministry of Irrigation, Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, and the Ministry of Education, not to mention other stakeholders from the private sector. Research, education, and extension have to be conducted in a much more coordinated manner. Agencies involved in supplying inputs like fertilisers, seeds, and pesticides also need to work more closely for providing timely inputs to farmers. Keeping this in view, the Ministry of Agricultural Development approved implementation guidelines for the agricultural technical working group (ATWG) about seven years ago.

Yet another strategy

To make the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP), which ran from 1995 to 2015, a success, the government has prepared the Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS). It is said that the APP did not perform well because of a low level of investment and weak coordination among a diverse group of stakeholders. The ADS seeks to remedy some of these weaknesses by ensuring more investment in agriculture, better coordination among partners, and the promotion of commercialisation and competitiveness. It was also said that the APP under-emphasised research, an area that the ADS is expected to foster more directly.

However, there is a lingering concern that in the absence of a better coordinating institutional mechanism, the ADS might suffer the same fate as the APP. There should thus be a greater role for the private sector, with its investments aimed towards  crucial agricultural inputs and distribution. A clear commitment is a prerequisite from concerned ministries, especially Irrigation, Forests and Soil Conservation, and Science and Technology not only to provide technical assistance but also to generate greater awareness about modern farming practices.

The commitment from donors is also essential to implement the ADS, which will increasingly need to take into consideration governance issues arising out of a federal structure and the growing challenges posed by climate change. While the Ministry of Agriculture Development will continue to be in the driver’s seat, both the quality of the vehicle it is driving and the skills of the driver need an overhaul. A lot is clearer on what ought to be done and the NPC remains vigilant on the direction of new programmes and the methods of implementation. The challenge in Nepal is really one of honest implementation. With headway made on these fronts, the country can become food secure and the nation nutritionally rich.

Mishra is a member of the National Planning Commission and a former Executive Director of the Nepal Agriculture Research Council

Published: 22-04-2015 09:22

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