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The neglected sector

Bhutan worked towards achieving food self-sufficiency since the first Plan. After more than 50 years of planned development, we are only 47 percent self-sufficient in rice. 

The state of agriculture sector today shows that Bhutan is an agrarian society that does not prioritise and value the agriculture sector. The sector employs 57 percent of the labour force but is today suffering from farm labour shortage. Efforts are made to mechanise farming but what used to be the backbone of the economy remains back – burnered. 

Until the fourth plan, the agriculture sector received a large share of the planned budget. After receiving 23 percent of the budget in the fourth Plan, which began in 1976, resource allocation to the renewable and natural resources (RNR) sector slumped in the following years.  In 1981, when the fifth Plan started, the agriculture sector received only seven percent of the outlay, three times less than the previous plan. While it increased to 9.2 percent in the following Plan and then to 16 percent in the seventh Plan, budget allocation dropped to 12 percent in the eighth Plan.  Since then, the share of resources to the sector nosedived. It received 6.5 percent in the ninth Plan, which further dropped to 5.6 percent in the 10th Plan.  The share of 6.3 percent in the current Plan is almost at par with the 6.2 percent share the sector was allocated 52 years ago when the first Plan began. 

Resource allocation is an important indicator of the priority accorded to the sector.  The challenges the country is facing today of human-wildlife conflict, irrigation and farm labour shortage and increasing food imports are the consequences of the sector’s stunted growth. Its potential to generate employment and feed the people was until recently sorely neglected. 

National Accounts Statistics, 2017 show that in 2016, the primary sector’s growth, which comprise of agriculture, livestock and forestry slowed to 3.65 percent, down from 5.07 percent in 2015. The sector contributed 0.46 percentage points to the overall GDP growth in 2016 and the sector’s poor performance is attributed to the forestry sector.  The national council’s policy review of on the agriculture sector found that the sector’s share of GDP has reduced from 24 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2013. 

These findings are not new. Yet they do not appear to be informing policy making. So reliant we have become to imported food that it does not surprise us that the self-sufficiency rate of rice, the country’s staple diet, which was 47 percent in 2005 is still the same today. How then would the sector boost rice self-sufficiency to 60 percent in three years when it couldn’t in 13 years? How does this reliance on imported rice measure to achieving the current plan’s objective of self-reliance and inclusive green socio-economic development?

As Bhutan works on the 12th Plan, it is important for us to learn the lessons that neglecting the agriculture sector has taught us. We cannot afford to ignore it any more.

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