Even as agriculture is Bhutan’s biggest sector that employs more than half the population, it has been in receipt of the smallest share of budget.
The outlay for the sector has been declining since the since the first Five-Year Plan that began in 1961. The largest share of budget the sector ever was received – 44 percent – was during the fourth Plan. Its contribution to the nation’s economy so has been less than 14 percent. Since then, budget share for agriculture sector has been declining to the extent that in the 10th plan, the sector was allotted only 5.5 percent of the total budget, which further dropped to 2.3 percent in the 11th.
For the 12th Plan, the sector had proposed for outlay of 9.45 billion but was given budget share of Nu 3.05 billion budget. The ministry had proposed 387 broad activities under the different programmes that would have improved food self-sufficiency and nutrition security, highland development, coordination and support services, climate-smart and disaster resilient, and value chain and enterprise development, among others.
The reality today is there has been fast decline in the hectarage of cultivated land resulted in Bhutan. In the last two decades, Bhutan lost more than 31,300 tonnes of rice, which could have fed one-fifth of her population for at least twelve months. In the period of a little more than thirty years, the extent of land under cultivation decreased from about 28,000 hectares to 20,547 hectares. This means, between 1981 and 2017, we lost about 18,417 acres of cultivated land.
Reports might tell us that we are today about 80 percent food self-sufficient, but this fact ought to be read against the backdrop of rising food imports. For example, going by some reports, while we are not even 50 percent rice (staple diet) self-sufficient, rising import of meat and dairy products, among others, contribute greatly to the trade deficit. Bhutan imported food items worth about Nu 8 billion and exported worth about Nu 3 billion in the last nine months.
The country expects to increase rice production by 15 percent by bringing at least 50 percent of the fallow land under cultivation. Other interventions like priority sector lending, rural enterprise development, and micro-finance are seen as means to boost the sector’s productivity. Water scarcity, increasing rural-urban migration and human-wildlife conflicts are some of the major challenges facing the famers.
Addressing all these issues effectively will be challenging without substantial budget.
Agriculture minister said that although the sector would have to make do with small outlay, he was optimistic. In the face of great difficulties, such optimism is welcome.