Will celebrations lead to higher paddy output?

Kathmandu – The government started celebrating the 15th day of Asar (popularly called ‘Asar Pandhra’) as the National Paddy Day or National Rice Plantation Day since 2005 in a bid to increase the country’s paddy production and productivity in the context of increasing import of rice.

However, the fact that Nepal still imports almost Rs 25 billion worth of the commodity every year to cater to the domestic demand belies the government’s claim that it has taken initiatives in the past decade-and-a-half to actually raise paddy production and make Nepal self-reliant in rice.

Since the past few years, the National Paddy Day, which falls today, has become an occasion for entertainment in paddy fields dotting the landscape of the country, especially among high-ranking government officials and political leaders though they say nothing throughout the year regarding how agriculture output can be increased.

This has certainly questioned the essence of celebrating the National Paddy Day — is it merely a photo opportunity or an occasion to ‘plant’ awareness and knowledge among farmers to increase the productivity of the cereal crop?

For instance, prominent political figures and government officials, such as Minister for Agriculture, Land Management and Cooperatives Chakra Pani Khanal, Chairman of Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba, Defence Minister Ishwor Pokharel and Coordinator of Naya Shakti Party-Nepal Baburam Bhattarai, among others, could be seen in the paddy fields today merely gathering the masses and entertaining enthusiastic photographers in the name of planting paddy seedlings.

Former agriculture secretary Suroj Pokhrel said the National Paddy Day should be an occasion to impart knowledge on new agriculture technologies to farmers. “The National Paddy Day has to be symbolic and should incorporate activities that help farmers increase paddy output,” he said.

Despite claims made by officials of the agriculture ministry that awareness activities and farmer-supportive programmes are conducted not only on Asar 15 but round the year, the country has not been able to substantially increase paddy production.

The government had missed the paddy production target of 5.4 million metric tonnes in the ongoing fiscal as the annual paddy output was limited to 5.23 million metric tonnes. The government’s target of 5.6 million metric tonnes paddy output in fiscal 2018-19 seems far-fetched considering limited irrigation facilities and high dependence on monsoon.

Also to be noted is that Nepal’s per hectare productivity of paddy is below 3.5 tonnes compared to average per hectare paddy productivity of 3.9 tonnes and 6.6 tonnes in neighbouring India and China, respectively.

According to the World Bank, most of the poverty reduction between fiscal 2004 and 2011 occurred in rural areas and was driven by rising agricultural incomes. Much of the increase in agricultural income, however, came from gains in prices, not yields.

At the same time, the contribution of land was negative, indicating that there was a contraction of the area under cultivation despite increased food prices increasing farmers’ incomes.

In this regard, a recent WB report titled ‘Climbing Higher: Towards a Middle-Income Nepal’ points to the need for Nepal to address several underlying causes of low yields and productivity in its agriculture that range from low rates of adoption of improved technology due to subsistence farming to limited investment in the sector.