IN normal circumstances, Ashar 15 (which fell on June 29 this year) is a joyous time for farmers. The National Rice Day marks the beginning of the cultivation season of paddy, the country’s main crop which accounts for a whopping 35 percent of gross national product (GDP). But this year, the celebrations were muted. An acute shortage of chemical fertilizers and delayed monsoon has meant that this fiscal’s record output resulting in a surplus of 800,000 tons of rice is unlikely to be repeated in the new fiscal year. Successive governments’ lukewarm policy towards development of better irrigation facilities has made farmers disproportionately reliant on the unpredictable monsoon. When the monsoon is good (and chemical fertilizers are in abundant supply, as was the case last year) there is a bumper surplus. This is not one of those years. The onset of monsoon has been delayed by a week. The import of chemical fertilizers from India has been put off, mainly owing to lack of coordination between the Ministry of Agriculture Development—which subsidizes fertilizers—and the Agriculture Inputs Company (AIG)—which sells fertilizers.
The problem this year has been with the import of Diammonium phosphate (DAP) that is used to increase yield. The government seems to have turned a deaf ear to AIC’s request to ratify procurement of 30,000 tons of DAP from India. Although AIC sent the request to the ministry around three months ago, the ministry responded only on Thursday. In a bizarre turn of events, the ministry, after three long months of silence, has replied that AIC does not need its permission to procure the fertilizer. AIC maintains that the government is merely trying to pass the buck. But according to inside sources, AIG officials are themselves reluctant to go ahead with procurement of DAP at a time the fertilizer’s chief supplier, the Indian Potash Limited, is being investigated by CIAA, the government’s chief anti-graft body, for allegations that the fertilizer sacks it was sending to Nepal were underweight.
The government must step in to ease the woes of farmers, hundreds of whom have flocked to Kathmandu from all over the country to petition for timely import and distribution of chemical fertilizers, while they should ideally have been busy back home planting paddy. Each passing day’s delay means thousands of tones of lost productivity. The prime minister, who also holds the portfolio of minister of agriculture, should have played a more proactive role on an issue which he seemed to have taken to his heart during his tenure as finance minister in 2008. That was the year subsidies on fertilizers were reintroduced to make Nepal’s crops competitive against the heavily-subsidized Indian crops. In the long run, in order to end Nepal’s crippling dependence on imports, there is no alternative to developing better irrigation facilities and switching to organic home-produced fertilizers. For now, the prime minister should step in to the clear the procedural hurdles that are restricting timely import and distribution of fertilizers. This is one more opportunity to prove to a skeptical public that he is a pro-poor prime minister.