Paddy-whackedNepal’s agriculture sector needs immediate attention from the government to make use of the coming normal monsoon.
This year’s monsoon has begun the last leg of its journey into South Asia. Riding on the back of Cyclone Amphan into the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the most important season for agriculture for most of South Asia is likely to be on time, for the most part, and provide sufficient rainfall. Farmers in Nepal will have reason to cheer, after two seasons of bumper harvests, the country’s agriculture sector had faced a worrying monsoon last year, with some parts of the country getting less rainfall than desirable. An erratic and unequal monsoon diminishes productivity in certain regions while increasing the risks of floods in others.
It is then good news that, in the midst of a pandemic that has hit the global economy, the Nepali agriculture sector will be able to supply the domestic market with a sizeable harvest—particularly high output of rice—due to the normal monsoon predicted. However, the pandemic, the very thing that has made self-reliance and mobilisation of labour domestically a priority this year, also threatens to derail paddy plantation during such a crucial period. This is because most of the economy remains under lockdown, making it difficult for people to keep the supply chain going. But with early signs of Indian rice traders restricting supply to Nepal, and more people returning to the country—faced with an uncertain global job market—it is imperative that the government must map out the most feasible path to reopen the agriculture sector. Moreover, it must do so without risking the gains made during the forced distancing measures currently active.
Rice is usually planted beginning in early May in the hilly regions and in June in the Tarai. But farmers have found it difficult to work in the fields while lockdown measures are enforced strictly. As many have left their temporary residences to go back to their original homes, many regions, where hired labour in agriculture is a necessity, have found it more difficult to secure workers due to the lockdown. The lockdown has also affected the planting season in indirect ways. Farmers rely on two major kinds of fertiliser, diammonium phosphate and urea. The lockdown has affected the movement and purchasing of much-needed fertiliser. Further, lack of enough stock, trade disruptions, the lack of available labour near production centres and other difficulties in restarting production after a 50-day hiatus means that the required amount of fertiliser is not available in the market. This means that, as the paddy plantation period begins, many farmers will be unable to, even if the government allows them full access to the fields.
The above example shows how an unplanned decision can have far-reaching ramifications. While the need to move away from Nepal’s overreliance on rice, over other indigenous grains, is important in the long run, the decreased supply of rice from India must be shored up with domestic production in the short term, so that Nepalis have enough food to eat, and more Nepalis find work in the agriculture sector. But this may not be forthcoming because of the stalled economy.
As the government makes its next moves regarding anti-Covid-19 measures, it must realise the importance of proper research and planning. Nepalis cannot afford to go hungry due to a lack of food and work: that will be as devastating, if not more, than the direct effects of the pandemic itself. It must immediately work to ensure a steady and adequate supply of fertilisers, and provide safe transportation to workers to reach regions where there is a shortage of labour.