Grow your ownWhen it comes to staples, Nepal needs to get back to its roots.
News reports of Indian rice traders suspending the signing of export contracts does not bode well for Nepal. Although agriculture experts have been allaying fears of any immediate shortage, due to Nepal holding three months' worth of stock, worries persist. This is because there are no indications to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic, which is causing these disruptions, will end in the coming three months. What is more likely is an on-again, off-again isolation regime imposed periodically by governments throughout the world, hoping to stabilise the number of infections at any given time to manage the risks associated with the disease better.
What this can mean for Nepal in the later parts of 2020 is a major shortage of rice—preceded by a market with fewer and fewer preferred products. Such is the curse on relying on imports to sustain a national staple. This is combined with the fact that diversity in food staples has continued to erode over time—with rice out-competing all indigenous grains. But this was not always the case. There was a time when Nepal was a net exporter of Asia’s favourite cereal. Moreover, the people of Nepal, reflecting the diversity in ethnicity, religion and culture, were found to have a variety of staples. But in the past decade or so, the number of Nepalis shunning their traditional staples for rice has increased manifold. This is a dangerous trend, one that needs to be reversed.
As countries in South Asia continue to show robust economic growth (besides the periodic global downturns), food patterns have changed to reflect this. But this has also changed the flavour profile that Nepalis are accustomed to. While Nepalis used to rely on a diverse set of cereals, such as barley, millet and kaguno, more and more have begun to rely entirely on rice now. The government and the World Food Programme’s implementation of subsidised rice programmes in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have actually fuelled a food scarcity crisis, with preference for rice ballooning demand.
In the last fiscal year, Nepal’s agricultural goods import bill was an astounding Rs220 billion. Of this, cereals, vegetables and live animals and meat accounted for Rs51.80 billion, Rs28.66 billion and Rs8.11 billion respectively. Staggeringly, rice alone constituted Rs32 billion of the total cereal bill. Given factors such as politics, cost and geography, India is Nepal’s main import partner, accounting for most of the aforementioned trade bill, and almost all of the rice imports.
The current measures from Indian traders seem to stem from two issues: A labour shortage and logistics disruption due to India’s lockdown, meaning rice cannot be currently processed, and the Indian government’s programme to provide wheat or rice to each needy citizen, meaning a greater strain on the current stock. As with the onion crisis of 2019 and the rice shortage of 2008, India will prove once again that its own needs, naturally, come before anyone else’s—including the needs of a friend and important trade partner like Nepal.
The current pandemic offers Nepal an opportunity. If SARS-CoV-2 continues to transmit at the current pace through summer, current supply shrinkages will remain in place through 2021, with farmers in India continuing to be impeded. The Indian government itself might put up stricter measures to feed its own populace. There is no time better than the present to realign domestic preferences to incorporate indigenous grains to replace food habits picked up in the recent past. Moreover, the federal government must work with its provincial counterparts to boost agriculture programmes that boost the productivity of all grains, including rice.
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