Fate of agricultureThe sector is set to worsen as youths remain unenthused by the prospect of farming as a career
In Nepal, the plight of the common people can either be ameliorated by monsoon or by bhansoon (connection to big shots). A good monsoon does not only benefit the farmers, but also the economy. This is so because Nepal’s agriculture sector suffers from a lack of adequate irrigation facilities, access to markets and skilled manpower, among others. The transformation of agriculture from the traditional subsistence farming to a commercial one, accompanied by the use of machines, seems to be an uphill task here. Unless commercial agriculture production starts, neither can the country be self-reliant on agriculture nor will the status of food security and nutrition improve.
Moreover, due to a large number of youths leaving villages for employment abroad, one can observe a paradox in the rural parts of both the Tarai and mountainous regions of Nepal—agricultural land left fallow. One of the main reasons behind this situation is the feudalistic structure of ownership and production in the agricultural sector. The youths who leave their villages in the Tarai are either landless or close to being one. Absenteeism is widespread and most of the owners do not like to cultivate the land themselves. Sharecropping the land, using family labour is not profitable. Many believe farming is not profitable or prestigious.
To bail agricultural activity out of this structure, strong commitment from the government and political parties is required. Some people think that scientific reformation of land ownership is required to end the feudalistic structure. However, if the state builds institutions to provide incentives to farming activities, the structure will no longer remain an obstacle. Big farms, by leasing many land holdings and cultivating using appropriate technology, will reduce the fetters that limit the growth of agriculture.
Agricultural subsidies—for chemical fertilisers, seeds and tools—as stated in every fiscal budget are not enough. The government efforts so far do not seem to contribute to removing obstacles in agricultural modernisation and increasing agricultural production. That the economically active population is not attracted by the prospect of cultivating land sends an alarming message: Agriculture is set to worsen further, leading to decreased GDP contribution and increased import of farm products.
There is a growing sense of disenchantment among farmers to cultivate land on a sharecropping basis. The owners—satisfied by the incoming rent—do not cultivate the land themselves. In case the real cultivators remain reluctant to rent the land on a sharecropping or contract basis, they conveniently leave their land fallow. Especially during winter, a large part of the land is left fallow as the cultivation of winter crops on a sharecropping basis is extremely low. Unless the owners cultivate the land themselves or the state creates institutions to provide incentives to the farming enterprise, commercialisation of agriculture will not be viable.
A large part of cultivated land is under dual ownership. A policy to put an end to dual ownership of land does not exist. This situation has given rise to unfavourable conditions like unwillingness for investment, or worse, leaving the land uncultivated. Neither the owners nor the tenants are willing to make the required investments. The tenants are incapable of making enough investment to modernise agriculture as they hardly have any surplus left after consumption of the produce. The government policies fail to create a conducive environment to encourage investment in cultivation.
Another impediment to modernising agriculture is the lack of market access. Cultivators either have to sell produce to middlemen at low prices or risk having no access to the market at all. The government should ensure that farmers get access to markets easily for their surplus. It is necessary to make provisions to buy farm products from the farmers at a reasonable price or give compensation to them in case products cannot be bought. Unless farmers are ensured access to the market or compensated, commercialisation of agriculture will remain an unfulfilled aspiration.
Lack of appropriate technology remains a bottleneck in agricultural production. Although every year the government plans to establish fertiliser factories and develop other prerequisites, such plans suffer premature deaths. It is doubtful that the government is serious about correcting flaws in its agriculture plans and policies, and bringing out appropriate programmes. Dearth of energy and lack of an investment-friendly environment represent setbacks in developing agricultural enterprises.
Commercialisation of agriculture is not possible within one fiscal year. A single budget is not enough to correct the flaws in the agrarian structure. However, it can present signs of reforming the sector. The foremost task is to liberate agrarian relations from the shackles of feudalism. Agriculture should be made a prestigious enterprise like any other occupation so that the educated youths are attracted to it. This can be done only through appropriate institutions that encourage modernisation and ensure better proceeds for the farmers. The farmers should also be ensured access to a market for their produce so that they are not discouraged from raising production. The prevailing condition does not encourage farmers to funnel investment into agriculture. This means that even if the monsoons are favourable, production will not rise remarkably and farm imports will not decrease.
Sharma is a professor of Geography at Mahendra Multiple Campus, Dang