Veggie trade in the eastern hills seesaws with the seasonsSankhuwasabha, Tehrathum and Dhankuta districts export cabbages valued at more than Rs500 million to India annually.
The vegetable trade in Nepal's eastern hill districts seesaws with the seasons, with shipments flowing one way and then the other way as the temperature rises and falls.
In the monsoon, local farmers gather bumper harvests and export fresh produce worth millions to India's insatiable markets. In the winter, it is the other way around, as Indian vegetables worth millions are brought in to make up for the drop in output.
During the monsoon season that lasts from June-September, farms in Sankhuwasabha, Tehrathum and Dhankuta districts are covered in a sea of cabbages. The hills also turn into an agro-tourism destination as visitors flock in to see the vegetable fields.
The three districts export cabbages valued at more than Rs500 million to India annually. Local traders have been shipping cabbages in the thousands of tonnes to India amid a steep rise in demand for organic vegetables.
But as the winter season begins, the situation is reversed. These districts have to import vegetables worth millions from India as plants don't grow in the harsh cold.
“Vegetable crops do not flourish in the winter due to the low temperature. Most of the time, heavy snow destroys the crops,” said Tek Bahadur Gurung, chairman of Mahalakshmi Municipality-1, Dhankuta.
“Farmers are not aware of the technology of growing vegetables in greenhouses. As a result, most of the eastern hill districts have been facing a shortage of seasonal vegetables,” said Gurung.
India is the largest export destination for Nepali vegetables. A bilateral trade treaty between Nepal and India allows duty-free market access to primary and agricultural products on a reciprocal basis.
According to farmers, vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and peas are exported to India.
According to a study report of South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), the eastern hill districts, especially the Dharan-Basantapur highway corridor, have the potential to export seasonal fresh vegetables to Kolkata, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The highway corridor produces 10 types of vegetables. Each farmer here makes Rs200,000 to Rs700,000 per year, according to villagers.
Most of the vegetables are exported to Siliguri and Bagdogra in India. The contractor supplying foodstuffs to Bagdogra Military Camp is one of the bulk buyers of Nepali vegetables, the report said.
But the districts that feed millions of people are dependent on imported vegetables during the winter. Farmers say they buy vegetables produced in India, Bangladesh and China from mid-November as winter sets in.
Yogendra Gadtaula, president of the District Farmers’ Network, says the inability to adopt modern farm techniques forces farmers to become dependent on imports.
Fresh green vegetables are imported through Jogbani and Kakarbhitta border points. Onions, potatoes and garlic come from China.
According to the Department of Customs, in the last fiscal year ended mid-July 2022, Nepal imported vegetables worth Rs36.54 billion.
In the first four months of the current fiscal year, vegetable imports plunged by 29.44 percent to Rs11.35 billion.
Rajeev Dhungana, president of the Tehrathum Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says large quantities of potatoes are coming from Bhutan.
Kailash Shah, a trader in Basantapur, says vegetables like potato, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, mushroom, squash, broccoli, carrot, capsicum, green chilli, green beans, gourd and cucumber are being imported from India.
The district shipped vegetables worth Rs1 billion during the summer. These fresh vegetables are mostly produced in Jorpati, Dhankuta and Lasune, Tehrathum. Mudhe Sanishchare in Sankhuwasabha is also popular for vegetables.
With the winter season having started, the fields lie abandoned. Vegetables are still grown in the warmer lower parts of the district, but output is small and does not fulfil the requirements of the district.
Local traders say that imported vegetables contain pesticides, but they are not being inspected properly. Indal Shah, a vegetable seller at the Basantapur market, said he was not aware of pesticides.
Province 1 relies on imports to fulfil its daily vegetable requirement due to lack of adequate farm labour.
Gadtaula said imports from India had swelled. Traders estimate that more than 15 tonnes of vegetables are being imported into Tehrathum daily.
Megendra Gurung, chief of the Sindhuwa Agriculture Store which collects vegetables from Dhankuta and Tehrathum districts for export, says plastic tunnel technology is an appropriate option to produce vegetables during the winter.
“But farmers lack knowledge,” he said.