We have heard about onion prices soaring.
Last heard, retailers were making a profit of 100-120% vis-a-vis the price at source. What gives? Of course, the problem is increased demand and limited supply. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has been aggravated. There is limited import from India.
Earlier once, we faced a shortage of onions and similar skyrocketing of prices when India’s supply of onions fell due to conditions including drought and limited rain fall hampering the usually plentiful supply of the bulb.
So, what is the solution to this? Do we even have a fool proof solution as such? We could go to certain examples back in time. When the import of eggs was banned in the country, the prices of eggs shot up. But now we have enough locally produced eggs to feed the masses. Similarly, when the import of chili from India was banned due to presence of high pesticide content, there was a hue and cry from the people. The Bhutanese thought we could not survive. But currently, local farmers are producing plenty of chilies in our very own fields. And they are fresh and organic compared to the Indian chili.
What then could be the next step of action to address the volatile prices of vegetables in the country? The solution is to be self-sufficient in vegetables. When we have a steady supply of vegetables including the ever evasive onions, we are fortifying ourselves against drastic market forces. And especially during these times, when the pandemic is wreaking havoc on our business transactions with the outside world, it would be a good point to start producing our own vegetables, which are an essential commodity.
How do we go about it? Though the pandemic has caused many people to be laid off from their jobs, prompting many of them to venture into agricultural production, it is also a given that people have limited land holdings, limited resources and for the uninitiated, limited know-how. So, we have to address all these three problems. Further, Bhutan does not have unlimited supply of arable land and farmers who are trying to thrive on agriculture are facing several challenges such as lack of or very little amount of irrigation water and facilities, human-wildlife conflict and shortage of labor that is required to run the fields.
Bhutan must focus on policy initiatives and program interventions. How can rural to urban migration be curbed? How can agriculture enterprises and farming be made innovative and attractive, especially for able-bodied youth? How can the government facilitate access to resources to build up infrastructure in the villages? How can the government disseminate information and knowledge for better quality and quantity yield?
Currently, the authorities are taking the lead in taking up initiatives like winter vegetable production where the southern group of dzongkhags will be producing vegetables when the rest of the country will be too cold and dry to do so. But these efforts need to be sustained by incentives, good prices, access to market and transportation facilities. We need to encourage our farmers to work hard but also reward them commensurate for their diligence. At the end, it is not rocket science-there will be consumers, producers and middlemen but everybody needs to make a living.
Thinking survival is key.