EDITORIAL: Monsoon irony

Instead of agriculture, the government’s priority lies somewhere else – on multi-billion-rupee mega infrastructure projects

What an irony that farmers should be demanding water to irrigate their farms in the midst of the monsoon season. Irate farmers of Gadhimai Municipality, Rautahat of Province 2, held demonstrations in their fields on Monday, demanding water for irrigation as the paddy crop was dying even when we are within the monsoon window. Nepal’s major crop, paddy, is heavily dependent on the monsoon rains, which normally start on June 10 and last till September end. But the monsoon this year was delayed by almost a month, which delayed the transplantation of paddy seedlings. Although there has been near cent percent paddy transplantation across the country, the rains have been erratic, and the fields in some parts of the country remain parched for lack of water. The poor rains would not have been much of an annoyance for the Rautahat farmers had there been water in the irrigation canal. What is bewildering is that fifteen years after the subsidiary canal of the Bagmati Irrigation Project was built, it has yet to release water in it. This has left the farmers high and dry, many of them without even compensation for the land provided for the canal.

Nepal is an agricultural country with more than 65 per cent of the population engaged in the sector. But year after year, the government’s attitude has been anything but supportive of the agriculture sector, which accounts for more than a fourth of the total GDP of the country. Irrigation facilities apart, the farmers in Nepal are facing a critical shortage of chemical fertilisers, as the Agriculture Input Company Limited (AICL) and the Salt Trading Corporation (STC) have run out of stock as the government has failed to provide additional budget to procure them in time. Paddy is grown on about 1.5 million hectares of land, and the staple crop contributes nearly a fifth to the agricultural GDP. Paddy output largely determines the status of food security in the country and also the amount of food to be imported. Rice imports alone total more than Rs 24 billion annually, not to speak of other cereals, which is indeed worrisome for this agricultural country.

When basic infrastructure like irrigation and agro inputs are hard to come by, it will be very hard to retain the farmers in their fields, especially when they do not get a good price for their produce after having gone through great anxiety and trouble. There have been cases where the sugarcane farmers have not been paid for years even after selling their produce to the mills. The agriculture sector – in essence the farmers – must be paid due attention by the state, and not just lip service, if Nepal is to become self-sufficient in agriculture. Unfortunately, the government’s priority seems to lie somewhere else – on mega physical infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, airports and hydropower that cost tens of billions of rupees. Not that they are not important, but the overwhelmingly lopsided development that is being pursued by the government takes a toll on other sectors, namely agriculture. Should this continue, the sector will lose many more highly capable farm hands to the Gulf and other labour destinations, while agriculture imports will only surge at the expense of our economy and our people.

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Financially ailing Nepal Airline Corporation (NAC) is preparing to reassess the worth of its Boeing 757 200 series aircraft “Karnali” after it failed to receive any buyers. Earlier, NAC had set Rs 760 million as the minimum price for the aircraft put up for auction. NAC had issued tender calls to auction it twice - first on June 26 giving a 45-day time limitation and the second one on August 14 with a 15-day deadline. However, it did not receive any proposals from any airline company or individual for the 190-seater aircraft purchased in 1987. NAC officials said they would issue a third tender call only after reassessing its value.

No aircraft is considered old if it is maintained well and its engines are changed in time. If it is not suitable for passenger service, the old aircraft can be used for cargo. If BB Airways can press the other old Boeing 757, which it had bought from NAC, why cannot the national flag carrier do the same for Karnali? Should NAC find no buyer, the only option left for it is to operate it for cargo business. But NAC will have to come up with a robust business plan to operate a cargo service.