Agriculture, the mainstay of Bhutan’s economy, is under severe pressure today. In the few decades since the beginning of the planned development, the sector’s growth has been declining rapidly. In the more recent years, the sector’s contribution to the national economy has seen a dramatic fall—from 44 per cent to 2.3 per cent.
The trend is worrying because the fact that the sector employs more than half the Bhutanese population, implications will be far-reaching. The theme of Bhutan’s successive development plans since the early 1960s has not changed significantly—to achieve food self-sufficiency. This national ambition has to be seen and understood in the light of the critically important roles that the nation’s sovereignty and independence can play in the long run. However, the agriculture sector has been increasingly taking a back seat in the scheme of the nation’s development strategy. Perhaps it is time we reconsidered our development objectives and prioritised agriculture so that our interventions are meaningful. The greatest advantage we have today is the time in our hands and the problem is very much reversible.
Today, the challenges facing the sector are many. Agriculture productivity is significantly impacted by the high proportion of fallow land in the country. About 23 per cent of the rural households reported leaving agriculture land fallow, resulting in about 26.3 per cent of total arable land being left unused. Once, a pattern visible in the eastern part of the county, fallowing of agriculture land is today a common development narrative in every part of the country. Increasing rural to urban migration, the highest in South Asia by some estimates, has given rise to the shortage of farmhands. Perhaps the biggest irony facing us today is that being a water-rich country, there is shortage of irrigation water everywhere. And the problem is becoming more acute by the day. Small landholding is another problem with the rural population. It is, therefore, not very surprising to learn that rural poverty is a growing problem in the country today.
The fact remains that achieving food self-sufficiency is increasingly becoming a distant dream even as it features prominently in our plan documents. Between 2012 and 2017, a total of 893,436.70MT of food commodities was imported—rice constituted the biggest, about 50 per cent (467,192.930MT) of the total import. Today, Bhutan is only 45 per cent self-sufficient in rice.
But then, we also have some reasons for optimism. We have set a target to bring about 80,000 acres under improved irrigation systems to ensure food security. We cannot falter and that means allocating sufficient budget to the development of the sector.
As a poor and landlocked country, agriculture is our strength. And given our smaller population, food self-sufficiency is very much possible. All that is needed, perhaps, is to bring some innovation in the sector so that it becomes an attractive venture for young Bhutanese. This succeeding, there is also the potential to solve one of the biggest problems facing the country today—rising youth unemployment.