EDITORIAL: The heat’s on

When the country is having to import rice worth billions of rupees annually, declining output due to droughts and other reasons is worrisome

With precipitation far above average across the country, this monsoon was an extremely wet one. Or so we thought. But parts of the country were subjected to such a dry spell that it destroyed the main harvest, rice, devastating the livelihood of many farmers. The drought in Narainapur rural municipality of Banke district in west Nepal could not have come at a worse time, bogged down as the country is in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, with the virus threatening to infect anyone any place. The farmers there are left with no option but to borrow food to feed their families this year. As there is no food or relief programme in place for the poor, many others are heading for Indian cities in search of work, defying the travel ban due to the pandemic, to escape hunger caused by the drought and unemployment.

The monsoon that lasts from June till September used to be predictable in the past, but in recent times, rain-fed agriculture is becoming vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. Farmers can no longer rely on the monsoon to grow rice, the staple crop of the Nepalis that requires a lot of water. Rainfall is erratic, and droughts are becoming more common, posing a threat to the country’s food security and food sovereignty. At a time when the country is having to import rice worth billions of rupees annually, declining rice output due to droughts and other reasons in parts of Nepal is worrisome.

Banke, for instance, is a major rice growing area in the Tarai, accounting for 14 per cent of the midwest region’s output. The weather apart, Nepal’s farmers have other woes to attend to year after year before they can expect a good harvest. They range from lack of chemical fertilisers to pest attacks to labour shortage during plantation and harvest time.

For certain, climate change is here to stay, which means we will be seeing more of adverse weather conditions, including increases in average temperatures and a fall in precipitation, in the future. But regardless of the climatic conditions, food must be grown to feed families and the country. If neighbouring India can expect a bumper rice harvest this year and see a big jump in its exports, there is no reason why Nepal cannot do so with proper planning, research and incentives. As advised by rice experts, farmers will need to switch to drought-resistant varieties so that the crop can be grown even in less water.

The intense heat in Narainapur, for instance, has hardened the soil, making it unable to recharge groundwater, on which the farmers depend heavily to grow crops. Thus, using organic fertiliser, or green manuring during ploughing could improve the fertility of the soil. This will also allow water to seep into the soil, raising the groundwater level when there is rain. Irrigation is a must to modernise the agriculture sector. Unfortunately, farmers in Nepal still look up to the sky during the farming season. And then there is the need to have other inputs in place such as fertilisers and pesticides. But above all, the government must have a policy to compensate farmers for an unexpected poor harvest or no harvest to encourage them to stay in the field.

Sugar supply

There will no shortage of sugar during the festive season. As per the Salt Trading Corporation (STC), the first consignment of around 2,500 metric tons of sugar is scheduled to reach the Birgunj dry port by Wednesday. The government has allowed the STC to import 20,000 tons of sugar for this fiscal.

Sensing that the stock of sugar in the STC warehouses is depleting, the retailers have started hiking the price of sugar. Currently, STC is selling sugar at Rs 70 per kg, while consumers must cough up between Rs 85 to Rs 95 per kg in the retail shops. As per the law, a retailer cannot charge more than 20 per cent as profit of the wholesale price of any commodity.

But consumers are helpless as the government agencies remain mute spectators and fail to take action against those who charge higher than regulated by law and the price fixed by the wholesalers.

STC can help stabilise the price of its goods by setting up more outlets in the cities and the rural areas.

The government agencies should also take stern legal action against the retailers for cheating the consumers. It is the government’s duty to protect consumers’ rights.