Agriculture modernisation: Basic things should be fixed first

It is not that the government has been parsimonious when it comes to the agriculture sector. But lack of efforts to get the basic things right and fixing the ‘first thing first’ has made all the previous programmes ineffective

The launch of Prime Minister Agriculture Modernisation Project (PMAMP) this fiscal has created quite a buzz among rural farmers. The Ministry of Agricultural Development has identified 30 zones of 500 hectare land and 2,100 small pocket areas of 10 hectares in seven provinces in line with the objective of the Agriculture Development Strategy (2015-2035) to make the country self-reliant on food grain and boost the employment opportunities in agrarian sector, ensuring food and nutrition safety and environmentally friendly agricultural practices. Schemes such as Rs 55,000-Rs 900,000 subsidies for the solar irrigation system also have been there. There is also the provision of 50 per cent subsidy on the purchase of agricultural equipment.

Against this backdrop, how basic things are taken care of will be an acid test for the new federal government of Nepal when it comes to modernising agriculture and making it a profit-oriented profession, as envisioned by the PMAMP. It is not that the government has been parsimonious while allocating funds for the agrarian sector. However, lack of efforts to get the basic things right and fixing the “first thing first” has made all the previous programmes aimed to uplift farmers’ status ineffective.

Further, the macro-economic policy framework on agriculture seems to have been formulated without understanding the ground reality of rural people. Basically, the supply intervention comes without taking the demand-side issue into consideration.

There is nothing wrong with the introduction of multiple projects at once but these programmes will be ineffective if efforts are not made for setting up proper platform for the farmers. First and foremost, the larger chunk of investment must be dedicated to enhance irrigation mechanism.

Programmes on efficient use of available water, especially in drought-prone areas, must be introduced. Further, the groundwater augmentation and management programme for ensuring adequate and timely availability of water through the development of watershed management can be a major driver for addressing the deep-rooted problem of irrigation.

Second, majority of farmers are still exposed to weather-induced risk. The Economic Survey of 2016/17 says excess rain caused damage to paddy, vegetables, maize, fish ponds and fruits of in 127,158 hectares of land area in current in 2016/17. Similarly, it damaged 60,520 hectares of land in previous fiscal 2015/16.

Continuous exposure to uncertainty due to weather-fluctuation makes farming households prone to falling into poverty trap. This negates the effect of many other programmes.

Third, getting the right price for the output produced by the farmer is another necessary condition. Introduction of Minimum Support Price by the government is a welcome intervention. The Cabinet, a few months back, had approved the proposal of the Ministry of Supply (MoS) to fix the minimum support price of paddy. This is an encouraging step, but its restriction to a single crop may discourage farmers from focusing on diverse crop portfolio. So, this should be extended beyond a single crop.

Fourth, focus must be on the sustainability of farming practices such as usage of bio-pesticides and fertilisers in minimising the excessive use of chemical fertiliser. It has been found that there has been an acute negligence on the part of farmers in maintaining soil quality. This arises from the lack of proper training and methods of cultivation. During a visit to the plains of Mahottari, it was found that farmers had the perception that higher usage of fertiliser led to higher yields. Thus, programmes like monitoring and checking of soil quality and then the distribution of soil-quality card can be an effective tool. Programmes related to biodiversity and environmental conservation can be clubbed with the agriculture commercialisation and modernisation project.

The benefits of mechanisation can be realised only after addressing these above issues. Mechanisation in Nepal has been labour complementing technique rather than labour displacing due to the alarming rise of out-migration in recent years.

Efforts from the concerned authority in subsidising heavy and expensive equipment like tractor, thresher and power tiller are another encouraging step. But there seems to be a lack of understanding about ground reality, hence such programmes have failed to yield positive results. The necessary condition set up by the government to have five hectare cultivable land to be eligible for the subsidy in the purchase of the tractor and 1.5 hectare cultivable land in the case of power tiller is not fully justifiable if we consider the scope of the rental market.

Finally, there is an urgent need of establishing monitoring committees at the local level through a participatory approach in order to monitor the farming related activities.

The authorities must ensure the involvement of small farmers and women in the committee. These issues are not certainly sufficient to modernise the agriculture sector in Nepal but are necessary conditions derived from demand-driven study to build a basic platform for the farmer to operate their daily activities.

Sharma is a consultant at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi