The COVID-19 lockdown by the government is an effort at ‘primary protection’, and builds on the experience of how other countries have flattened the peak. Nepalis have taken the lockdown in their stride, perhaps because of the hardships suffered during ‘bandhs’ past, as well as the earthquake and Blockade of 2015.
A survey last week showed that there is strong support for the measures the government has taken so far against the virus. Awareness about the virus and what we must do to protect ourselves is high. But people are afraid of the disease, and are worried about the future.
Indeed, as a nation we must now look beyond the horizon of the national quarantine period to matters related to food security and employment. Job loss in the country and a slump in overseas employment will introduce great social distress.
While employment generation is a medium- to long-term concern, more urgent is sustaining agricultural production, ensuring a fair price for farmers, and access to market. The climate and soil of Nepal are fertile and productive, but past neglect, the drift of educated youth away from the land, and now the climate crisis has affected agriculture production.
Across Nepal, fields and terraces are barren or are reverting to jungle. The elderly are left managing the farm, while others move to the roadhead for schooling, or living off remittance. In the Tarai, once Nepal’s grain basket, agricultural activity is affected by urbanisation, salination and depletion of ground water.
And now we have a pandemic lockdown. The message that has to go out is that farm work cannot wait, and it is safe to be in the fields. Some farmers are waking up at 4AM to bring in the harvest, such secrecy is not needed. It is the maize planting season, and that should be allowed to go ahead as normal.
A group of nine eminent citizens this week put out an ‘Appeal on Agriculture: Save the Farm, Empower Farmers, Enhance Agriculture’ which insists that agriculture is an essential activity during the COVID-19 crisis. It also urged the government to embark on a long-term strategy to make farming a sustainable and employment creating sector.
There is a surplus of milk and vegetables right now, and immediate action needs to be taken to ensure that there is market access for both consumers and producers. The government must support distribution, and Nepal’s much vaunted cooperative sector which has mostly concentrated in money lending must come forward as a partner.
Farming in Nepal has suffered depletion of resources and interest, which is why Nepal has turned from a nett exporter to an importer of most foodstuff. It is not enough, of course, to ask citizens to go back to the land. Farming has to be made attractive and profitable as a profession.
It is clear that those who have abandoned farming will not go back to the back-breaking work of their parents and ancestors. Young people who remain on the farm are seen by society as failures in life. This attitude needs to change.
The coronavirus pandemic provides Nepal with an opportunity to bring back agriculture as a pillar of the economy, providing employment and food security for the people and self-sufficiency to the nation. Nepal can create jobs in the service industry and manufacturing, but these will not be enough for the volume of returnees from Gulf, Malaysia and India due to the global economic downturn.
Farming must adjust to new realities and find a mix between tradition and innovation. For example, the organic produce could open up as a good source for internal consumption as well as export, as has already begun to happen. System of Rice Intensification to raise paddy harvests, mechanised agriculture, new methods of irrigation, from drip farming to aquaponic agriculture must be promoted. While we must try to save indigenous seeds and livestock, we must not shut ourselves off from new cash crops suited to Nepal’s diverse topography and climate.
The world economy and industrial agriculture has been on an unsustainable path because of the way it damaged nature. Going back to normal after the pandemic subsides is not an option. It was this ‘normal’ that got us in this mess.
Agriculture Minister Ghanshyam Bhusal must take it as a campaign to restore priority to the kind of farming that can create jobs, distribute income, ensure sustainability and resilience to fight the next crisis the world throws at us.