The Prime Minister, Lyonchen Jigmi Y Thinley in recently stated on national television that the government will stop the import of vegetables from 5 May. Ten days remain before the actual halt. However, the decision has invited questions and skepticism from various quarters on its timeliness and feasibility.
The month of May and June is a time when there isn’t much local produce. The main harvesting time is between June and September. Vegetables available in the market include Patsa, damru (wild fern), coriander, spinach, spring onion, dried chilli and dried turnip leaves (Lom kam).
Vegetable seeds have just been sowed and it will take at least two more months for the farmers to supply their products in the market, said a vendor at the Centenary Farmer’s Market (CFM) in Thimphu.
From June on till November, the country is self-sufficient and farmers even produce more vegetables which are exported, said an official from the Department of Agriculture and Marketing Cooperatives (DAMC).
“We do not produce anything at this stage and we need two more months to fill the CFM with local supplies,” said the Tshogpa of the CFM, Dhendup.
Another retailer at CFM said that surviving through the ban is impossible.
From the ‘concerned’ departments
A series of meetings have taken place between the agriculture ministry and the vendors at CFM in the light of the rupee crisis.
In one such meeting on March 23 which took place after the notice passed by Royal Monetary Authority to stop issuing rupee from mid-May, concerns were raised regarding the high cost of the local vegetables, limitation of varieties, sale of produce on roadsides and inadequate rupee issue from banks.
Three options were put forth including vendors’ commitment to buy local produces, Food Corporation of Bhutan’s (FCB) engagement to buy vegetables directly from Falakatta and the possibility of FCB buying from local producers.
As per the decision taken, the vendors agreed to buy from farmers within the country, have a long term linkage and business partnership between the two, an estimate of the total quantity of sales to be submitted to DAMC and DoA, a buyer-seller workshop to be conducted soon, and that vendors could start contracting the producers.
Annually 10,000 metric tonnes (mt) of vegetables including potatoes are being imported. During the peak vegetable production season, 5000 mt of vegetable is supplied to the CFM, she said.
Most of the officials The Bhutanese talked to said that the stopping of import is unlikely as there are vegetables like onion and garlic which Bhutan does not produce and has to import.
“Few vegetables should be allowed but the ban should be faced boldly,” said Agriculture Specialist with Department of Agriculture (DoA), Ganesh B Chettri. Further he also said that the danger could be unnecessary increase in the price of local vegetables as the demand increases.
On the contrary, the DAMC official said that once vegetables are grown on a commercial scale, this could give competition in pricing, which would ultimately bring the prices of vegetables down.
She added saying, “This is good news for the farmers. The market is there for them. They have to gear up.”
The Agriculture Secretary, Sherub Gyeltshen said that there will be no direct ban on the import of vegetables but the statement by the Prime Minister has to be taken as an opportunity to be self-sufficient. “We have great altitudinal advantage and throughout the year we can produce vegetables,” he said adding that another advantage is that vegetables grown in the country are by default organic.
Linkage between farmers and vendors
So far, the concerned departments have not been notified on the ban. However, a lot of drastic measures are in put in place to encourage farmers to grow more and suppliers to buy from them.
Last Friday, another meeting was convened between the ministry and the vendors. In the meeting it was decided that vendors in groups of 30 each would be taken to four dzongkhags including Thimphu, Paro, Haa and Chukhha to consult the farmers.
Later, Samtse and Sarpang would also be included as these two places have the potential to supply vegetables during the lean season on the higher altitudes between November and April.
According to Tshogpa Dhendup, the groups would tentatively move out the coming Monday.
Secretary Sherub Gyeltshen said that through this, an important link in the chain can be established as the sellers would connect to the producers.
A team visits India
A team of officials from the concerned agencies led by Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) left the country yesterday to visit neighboring production centers in India.
The Tshogpa, also one of the team members visiting India said that it is important to learn how the farmers grow their crops. For instance, he said the tomatoes imported from India stay fresh for more than a week whereas those produced inside the country lasts only a day or two.
“So we need to know how it is done,” he said.
If the country is to be self-sufficient we would have to know how to grow vegetables India does it, said Sherub Gyeltshen.
Further he said that inputs like how the vegetables are gathered, how is it exported and how pricing is done are necessary to know.
The Bhutanese also tried contacting the agriculture minister, the Prime Minister and other agriculture heads but they were on tour.