Print Edition - 2017-06-17  |  On Saturday

You reap what you sow

  • Agriculture might be the backbone of Nepal’s economy, but does it get the attention it deserves?
- MOHAN GURAGAIN
But at some point, our societal investment in farming shifted. From being the fulcrum on which lives functioned, farming slowly moved to the back-burners of many a new and indifferent government programme

Jun 17, 2017-

Last month the Newars of the Valley paid homage to the Rato Matsyendranath with a month long jatra inviting bountiful harvest. Amid the din of the jhyali, and pomp and fanfare, revellers followed the Rain God’s chariot as it made its way from one tole to another in Patan’s urban core. Surrounded by concrete buildings, and lit up by camera flashes, it was easy to overlook that the Matsyendranath is one of the few remaining links that the inner Valley has to its agrarian past. The myths and symbolisms surrounding the festival tugging at how agriculture—and the man-made and god-sent forces that surround it—once occupied a central role in the imagination of the people. Elsewhere, legends like that of Bhimsen flattening out the southern landscape to make it tillable and the many Kirati festivals rooted to nature lie testament to the fact that farming is deeply entwined with Nepalis’ culture. It influenced the way we lived, the way we ate, the way we built houses and the way we built our communities. 

But at some point, our societal investment in farming shifted. From being the fulcrum on which lives functioned, farming slowly moved to the back-burners of many a new and indifferent government programme. 

Today, agriculture is still the largest sector of employment and the second largest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product. Unfortunately, it is a sector that suffers the most from the government’s indifference. Farmers do not get seeds and fertilisers on time; middlemen rob producers off their income from cash crops; there is no minimum support price for crops like ginger and tea, which create losses for cultivators despite their potential to yield high profits. 

In fact, the fate of the country’s agriculture sector is as unpredictable as the weather that it depends on. In the lack of processing facilities, ginger is dumped when its price plunges. Sugarcane farmers do not get payments from mills for years, all milk does not sell; and tea planters do not get a profitable deal as they have no control over its processing. 

The government announces ad hoc programmes in the annual budget but it lacks a sustainable policy on agriculture. There is no sufficient investment in irrigation facilities, farm implements and rural roads. Since the country’s export is less than a tenth of its imports, the country fulfils the foreign exchange deficit by exporting labour to difficult foreign destinations to bring in sweat-dollars.

The migrant departures, in turn, create an acute shortage of farm workers. This has resulted in large swathes of land going barren. This recession has hit animal rearing as well, which is evident, in part, in Nepal’s ballooning import bill of goats and buffaloes for meat. There is a dearth of animals for milk. The dwindling workforce could be compensated for by mechandising farming and providing farmers with well-bred animals, but the government has not been able to exploit this alternative either.

Many take federalism as a cure for much of the unitary state’s ills but unsystematic activities of the three tiers of government at the local level, provinces and the centre threaten to create an unmanageable mess in our young republic. 

One group facing the state’s utter neglect is migrant workers, the absent population numbering in millions, most of them sons and daughters of farmers. The émigrés are exposed to all kinds of danger: terrorist assaults in Afghanistan, low wages in Malaysia, merciless homeowners in the Gulf, scorching heat of the desert, closure of industries in recession-hit countries, and, lately, a blockaded Qatar. And how does the government respond? With silence, and a lack of plan and action. 

There are occasional reports of those experienced in Arab or Korea jobs earning handsomely by starting up agro-businesses once returning to Nepal. But there are no efforts to replicate their successful models to benefit a larger mass. Like cottage and small-scale service industries, there is a huge scope for agro-based family enterprises in Nepal. Combined with tourism, this could be a good source of earning foreign currency if the government made careful plans and implemented them.

The government is currently spending lavishly to conduct the local level elections. There are equally high unproductive administrative expenditures, allowances for underprivileged and weakened social groups and grants for geographical-administrative units. But there is no sustainable effort to empower communities, support industries and reward entrepreneurs.

In the dash for laying the federal structure, all should not be compromised. Important matters should not be overlooked in the transition to a new order. People at the grassroots need services of agro-scientists, information and communication experts, bankers, security officials, social mobilisers and mediators. Other than the local social workers, a large number of these troubleshooters are professionals in the government service who will have to work in cohesion with elected people’s representatives. One of the biggest challenges to federal decentralisation appears to be an equitable distribution of the state’s natural, financial and human resources, and facilities to the benefit of remote villagers. Civil servants’ deputation under the local federal units is unlikely to be smooth. If corrupt and visionless officials are assigned to assist elected office-bearers, as huge numbers of VDC secretaries have shown, a new episode of funds misappropriation in villages could easily play out. 

Take a look at this example of the government’s utter disregard for farmers. The government celebrates Asar 15 (June 29 this year) as Dhaan Diwas (Paddy Day). By this day, most paddy transplantation is over in the upper Hills while the work gets underway in the lower valleys and river basins. In the Tarai, the food basket of the country, with monsoon in full swing, most farmers are busy preparing the paddies. The government has no regret for announcing to hold the local level elections in three provinces a day before the farmers’ day.

No doubt the polls are important but they do not have to clash with other crucial dates. This year’s record economic growth of 7.5 percent was possible due to a favourable weather for farming last planting season. But now it is more important than ever that agriculture—the backbone of the country’s economy—gets the attention and investment that it deserves. Without firm policies and actions, rural welfare and much of the oft-talked-about decentralisation will never truly take off.

Published: 17-06-2017 08:24

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