Perhaps by now we do not have to repeat that agriculture still contributes to the bulk of our national economy (around 38 percent of GDP). It is also crystal clear that farming in Nepal is still subsistence-oriented, despite the fact that more than 90 percent people are directly or indirectly involved in agriculture. Productivity of most crops is still low and has remained more or less stagnant from early eighties and nineties. Production has increased due to the increase in cultivated land. More and more forest, marginal and high-slope areas are being brought under cultivation to feed the growing population, which has brought many environmental problems. The situation is pathetic in many places like Katmandu valley with very small areas of land left for cultivation. Population growth, coupled with migration and unplanned urbanization, has rendered Katmandu a concrete jungle.
The fertile alluvial soil which once produced bumper harvest of paddy and other crops are now occupied by houses and tall buildings. Experts fear that if the current rate of urbanization without proper planning is to continue, within 20 years there will be no land left in the valley for cultivation. This will add to the already worsening food production and distribution system in the valley. If the current trend of strikes and bandhs is to continue along with haphazard construction of buildings, Katmandu soon might face severe food shortages. Other places like Pokahara and Bharatpur will meet similar fate if clear cut demarcation is not made between the land to be cultivated and the land to be used for construction and housing.
Another important issue is land fragmentation, land distribution and fertility. Land fragmentation is on the rise, the ever-increasing population again the cause. Per house hold (HH) landholding has already dropped to less than a hector in both Tarai and Hills, where major portion of cultivation takes place. It is difficult to cultivate in small parcels of land in mechanized manner. It is equally difficult to use agriculture inputs (seeds, fertilizers etc.) to increase productivity in fragmented land. The production in these lands will be minimal as well as expensive. The land distribution pattern has also played a significant role in meager production and productivity in Nepal. Land reform, though it started as early as 1950, has failed to promote equal and equitable distribution of land. According to recent figures, 10 percent of total population still holds more than 50 percent of total cultivable land. On the other hand, even today, thousands of people are landless and force to work as bonded labors.
Although the freed them, it has failed to provide them with proper land for cultivation. This issue has been unnecessarily politicized. There are many landlords (top bureaucrats, technocrats, politicians, army men, policemen and so-called high caste people) who possess large chunks of land. These lands are cultivated either on shared cropping basis, remain fallow for long time or are cropped once in two or three years, contributing to low production and productivity. Nobody to date has dared touch this problem though high sounding pledges have been made from many quarters.
Another major concern of our agriculture is depleting soil fertility and productivity. In developed countries like the US and Japan, productivity is high and at the same time they have maintained good fertility rate and high soil biomass. The trend is just the opposite in our case. We are losing soil fertility with each passing season, with rapid loss of top fertile soil due to constant soil erosion, land slide, flood and faulty land management practices. Soil in many places (for instance, many areas of Chitwan) has become too acidic which has forced people to abandon cultivation of their regular crops and to keep their land fallow.
Research is the pillar of success in every sphere. Systematic research in agriculture began with the establishment of Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC) in the early nineties. Though equipped with enough infrastructure and manpower, NARC has not been very successful in changing the overall scenario of stagnant agriculture. Except for publishing thick volumes of reports, it has so far failed to meet the expectations of the people and the nation.
Another major problem in the development of agriculture sector is the continuous failure of agriculture development plans and policies, of both government and non-governmental sectors. The government started prioritizing agriculture from the seventh five year plan, at least in theory. In all five year plans thereafter, agriculture development has been an overriding concern, however, resource allocation, seriousness and technology improvement needed for the purpose has been lacking. Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) arrived in nineties with much hype and high expectation, but failed utterly. Expert fear that the Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) developed by the government recently to substitute APP will meet with a similar fate as it has been prepared without taking the country’s socio-economy into concern. Such donor-driven plans, pushed without wider consultations between different stakeholders including the grassroots level farmers, is bound to fail.
The main reason for the failure of most plans is treatment of agriculture as an isolated entity. Agriculture is closely linked to sectors like infrastructure development, market linkage, even electricity generation for irrigation and other purposes and most recently the issue of climate change. Any plan to develop agriculture should incorporate these factors. Agriculture plans should also cover wide spectrum of this sector like floriculture, herbs processing, tea and coffee development, mushroom farming, value addition on fruit and vegetables and even establishment of small agriculture processing industries which can earn foreign currency and contribute to balancing the country’s alarming trade surplus. Unfortunately those involved in planning are yet to abandon their stereotypical thinking. It is hard to believe that they will accommodate these factors in future plans like ADS.
The time has come for all stakeholders to seriously think about the uplift of this sector, without which there can be no national development. This is the only sector that can work as a vehicle to achieve the envisaged new Nepal. The country has already entered a number of international treaties and organizations like WTO; and new challenges and opportunities await us. At this critical juncture all relevant stakeholders in the field of agriculture must play their part to boost this vital cog of national economy.
The author is with the Poverty Alleviation Fund, Nepal