Editorial: Bitter sugar policy

Nepal can become self-reliant in sugar provided that the government comes up with a farmer-friendly policy

While addressing a function of the Confederation of Nepalese Industries in the capital a few weeks ago, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli lamented that the sugar mill owners became dishonest when it came to stabilising the retail price of the commodity during the festive seasons. The government imposed a quantitative restriction on sugar imports at 100,000 tonnes for the current fiscal at the request of the domestic mill owners. The mill owners had said they could not sell their stock of sugar in the local market due to import of cheaper sugar. The government took this decision hoping that the mill owners would be able to pay back the dues owed to the sugarcane farmers by selling their stock. The sugarcane farmers, however, have yet to recover millions of rupees from the mills although their stock of sugar has been sold at a price higher than the one fixed by the government. Despite the PM’s public anger over the mills’ ill-practice, the government has decided to extend the quantitative restriction on sugar import till the end of this fiscal, a move opposed by the Consumers’ Rights Forum.

The government had, in fact, imposed a quota on the import of sugar last September till mid-April this year at the request of the mill owners. Data shows that the domestic sugar demand stands at around 280,000 tonnes a year while the domestic sugar mills produce around 120,000 tonnes. Hence, the country needs to import sugar to meet the shortfall. The consumer rights activists have called on the government to bring an end to the quota system that has failed to support the sugarcane farmers due to the non-compliance by some sugar mills with the agreement reached with the government. However, some sugar mills in the far-west are doing fine and also paying the farmers on time. The government has fixed Rs 536 as support price for a quintal of sugarcane and a subsidy of Rs 60 for this fiscal.

The quota on the import of sugar must be scrapped if it does not benefit the farmers and the consumers. A report from some eastern Tarai districts has revealed that some mill owners have already closed their mills without purchasing sugarcane from the farmers, causing huge financial loss to the latter. The quota system will actually benefit those mill owners who double as importers and hoard the stock until the price goes up. There are 12 sugar mills in the country, and most of them are running in profit. Why should some be an exception? Nepal has huge potential to become self-reliant in sugar. At one time, Nepal was even exporting it to Tibet and Bangladesh. Now, it is importing almost half of its annual requirement. Imposing a quantitative restriction on sugar will not give a boost to sugar production as long as the farmers do not benefit from growing sugarcane. The government’s monitoring mechanism must be strong enough to take action against those who take advantage of the quota system. In order to stabilise the price, the mill owners should not be allowed to import sugar as it involves a conflict of interests. The government should provide a level playing field to all mill owners, farmers and importers. The government also needs to seek a business plan from the mill owners before taking any decision based on whims.

Children’s survival

We thought that Nepal’s immunisation programme was a success story, but the Nepal Demographic Health Survey 2016 has shown that 22 per cent of children below two years of age were not fully immunised. Altogether 11 vaccines are administered to children below the age of two in the country under the government’s immunisation programme. What is particularly worrisome is that one per cent of the children in Nepal were completely out of the immunisation programme. What immunisation does to a child’s health is shown by the sharp drop in the mortality rate – from 142 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 39 deaths per 1,000 live births today. And an infectious disease like smallpox is history now.

The country must, therefore, intensify its efforts to administer the required vaccines to all children regardless of where they live. This might demand more than just enhancing their access to the cost-effective health interventions. Increasingly, parents in South Asia are keeping their children away from routine vaccinations because of the growing anti-vaccine activism in the social media that raises fears about vaccine content. Let this not be a cause of an outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and polio.