Rice for thoughtComing months will be challenging for farmers, consumers and national economy as a whole.
India’s decision to ban rice exports will badly hit Nepali kitchens. Nepal is highly dependent on its southern neighbour to feed the country’s growing population. No sooner had the Indian government on July 20 announced a ban on non-Basmati white rice export, Nepali traders quickly jacked up rice-price. Within days, its price rocketed. For instance, two weeks ago, a consumer who bought a 25-kg bag of Pearl brand rice for Rs2,150 now needs to pay Rs2,451 for the same. Nepalis have already been reeling under high inflation. As most people in Nepal consume non-Basmati rice, the sharp price hike will be a kick to their tummy. As India tries to keep its food reserves intact mainly in view of the threat of El Nino disruptions in coming months, Nepal seems ill-prepared for the fallout.
It is not the first time that India has taken such a drastic step. The country on which Nepal relies for two-thirds of its import had restricted the export of agricultural goods in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as well. But authorities in Nepal seemed not to have learned much, starting with the failure in market monitoring. Traders take forever to revise their rates when the goods they import becomes cheap and yet they spare not a day to drive up the prices at the first hint of increasing import costs. This time too the Nepali merchants enforced the new rates immediately after the news of the Indian government revising prices came out.
More worrying is that the rice shortage could be the tip of the iceberg. Nepal may be close to a serious food crisis. Initial reports show that paddy transplantation this season will be low. Over 50,000 cattle have succumbed to the lumpy skin disease that has spread to all 77 districts while over a million were infected across the country as of last week. Experts have already warned of a severe drought this year. The coming months are going to be challenging for the farmers, the consumers and for the national economy as a whole. As in the past, the government seems to have woken up from deep slumber rather late. Days after India’s ban, Chief Secretary Baikuntha Aryal on Sunday called a meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee and directed government agencies to start monitoring the market and start filling up granaries. The government should be working at both short- and long-term measures, and with a clear vision. Immediately, a request can be made to India to exempt Nepal from the export ban. After all, India likes to boast that Nepal is its closest friend and, frankly, the amount Nepal consumes is a drop in the bucket of what the southern neighbour produces.
Not long ago, Nepal was self-reliant in rice and other agrarian items. But with the passage of time Nepali farmers were rendered incapable of competing in the market against their Indian counterparts who not only got better irrigation facilities and fertiliser subsidies but also a guaranteed high floor price. The only way Nepal can regain a degree of its food independence is through focused production of select crops and vegetables. This will call for year-round irrigation facilities, reliable supply of fertilisers, mechanisation of farming, and commercial production of agricultural items. These things won’t happen overnight, and hence the need for a long-term vision. The country does not need a famine to start thinking about its food independence seriously.