Bhutan’s Rice Bowl being emptied of bounty

The age-old Punap tradition of cultivating rice twice a year has now changed to once a year

All is not well with Bhutan’s Rice Bowl, Punakha Dzongkhag.

Farmers who mainly depend on rice for food and income are facing a gamut of problems and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more challenges causing a disruption in their livelihoods.

Punaps not only depend on rice production for a living but also on rice products like mekhu and beaten rice (zaw). (soft, hard, spicy)

However, residents of Dzomi gewog in Punakha focus solely on zaw and rice production while those from Guma gewog sell rice products like mekhu.

Aum Kinley Bidha from Dzomi said that they could not bring their rice and zaw directly to Thimphu due to the pandemic so they had to sell to local vendors for at minimized prices.

Further, she was scared of contracting the virus if she visited the capital. Previously, people from Haa and Laya used to buy the majority of their zaw but due to the pandemic, their zaw business is suffering. They deal only with rice.

Aum Cigay, 58, said they had to follow the health protocols, which demanded she stay at home.  She could not irrigate her rice field which remains a necessary element in rice production.

Cigay said she has not been producing zaw because people of Messina are already in the business. “Since we are not able to earn the expected profits, we market rice instead,” she said. In previous years, she usually earned an annual income of Nu 100,000 from selling her produce but this year she is uncertain about the amount because she faced labor shortage to top her farming woes.

Punaps even had to buy imported Indian rice, which they had never purchased in prior years. “I called up the gewog administration to reach me three bags of Indian rice as I was unsure when the unlocking would begin.”

Another villager from Toewang Gewog, Zati, 64, said his village does not have access to farm road and that makes it additionally difficult to sell their rice. “We still use horses for marketing our rice as our village is situated 5km away from the road point,” he said, “I could earn an annual income of Nu 50,000 only but if we have access to road, we can earn more.”

Yangday from Walakha in Guma produces mekhu and zaw. The price of mekhu ranges from Nu 60 to 100/packet (soft-Nu 100, hard-Nu 60, and spicy- Nu 80) and the prize of zaw is Nu 200/packet. The price of rice is Nu 200/Kg. “I sell my products at Lobesa and I earn around Nu 150,000 a year,” she said.

Tendrel Zangmo from Gumkarmo of Limbukha gewog sells products purchased from the people of Guma. She used to earn Nu 10,000-15,000/day and Nu 100,000 annuallybefore the pandemic. However, her business was affected during the lockdowns. “I could have earned Nu 30,000-Nu 40,000 in 21 days, the pandemic has affected me hugely,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mangmi of Dzomi, Dawa Tashi said the pandemic has affected the gewog as people were not able to continue with regular business. “Though the people were ready with their products, they were restricted to move,” he said, adding some had to stop their business.

Rice varieties in Punakha

There are several types of rice produced in Punakha that differ in taste and market price. The popular rice varieties produced in the Dzongkhag are Ngam-Ja, Tan-Tshering, and Shelngap-Maap. Apart from these, other varieties such as Chum-Ja, Zhum-Ja, Bonday, Maap, and Upa-Thungku are also produced. The price of the rice is determined by the flavor and preferences of the people. The cost of a traditional measuring bowl (Drey) of Ngam-Ja and Tan-Tshering ranges from Nu 130 to Nu 200 and the rest Nu120-Nu 150.

According to the Deputy Agriculture Officer of Punakha, Gaylong, of the 11 gewogs in the Dzongkhag, Dzomi produced the highest yield of rice with 2,246.71 MT in year 2019-20. The gewog has the highest population with 257 households and 1,350 people living over an area of 21.92 sq. km. The gewog has remained the highest producer of rice as of 2020.

Plantation of rice seedlings in Punakha starts in April. After the nurture of seedlings, plantation begins from May to June. Until the time to harvest, weeding and irrigation is carried out. From August to September, the paddy is harvested- the work might prolong till November.

Besides other issues, labor shortage also emerged as a challenge due to the pandemic. Though the farmers had completed their plantation, they faced difficulties in pooling labor for weeding. “We had to pay a huge sum of money (Nu 600/day) as labor fee,” said Aum Cigay, adding that her son was sick and her grandson started attending school so she had a difficult time with the harvest.

However, the advent of modern technology in farming has definitely made the farmers’ lives easier.

Kinley Bidha said that the power-tiller specifically is a boon. “Before the power-tiller was introduced, it would take days to complete the cultivation but now it takes just a couple of hours.”

When the first lockdown was enforced people faced difficulty in getting labor for weeding but they had no choice but to abide by the rules, said Mangmi of Dzomi. “However, the work definitely becomes easier with power-tillers during paddy plantation. In the past, it would take two weeks with two oxen but now it takes a few days.”

He said a machine had been provided to the gewog a few years ago but since they were insufficient in number and people were careless in handling it, it was returned to the gewog authorities.

Water woes

Among the gewogs of Punakha, four gewogs of Guma, Dzomi, Lingmukha, and Toewang have been facing water shortage since decades. Aum Cigay said that due to the water shortage, they have to guard their irrigation channel so that others do not steal their water. “Some people stay guard the whole night.”

As Dzomi‘s water source is located in Shelngana gewog, at a lower elevation, not enough water can be sourced for irrigation.

The Mangmi of Guma gewog said the dzongkhag administration has helped villages facing water shortage to develop an irrigation channel. These villages depend mostly on seasonal rain for water but when the rains are delayed, the irrigation channels are used. However, a permanent solution to the water crisis is yet to be discovered.

“It is very difficult to predict the rains,” he said.

Meanwhile, the age-old Punap tradition of cultivating rice twice a year has now changed to once a year. The Mangmi believes that due to climate change, the tradition is lost. “Farmers have to stay guard even during the day as wild-life would destroy everything.”

Further, due to increasing rural-urban migration, interest in paddy cultivation is increasingly and steadily waning.

(The story is funded by Department of Information and Media, MoIC).

Tenzin Lhamo from Punakha