Nepali Times
Do we need a ministry of agriculture?


BUTWAL - A recent official pronouncement mentions that Nepal has doubled its agriculture production in the past three decades. Oh? The item goes on to say there has also been a further 60 percent increase in the land under cultivation in the same period. Double-oh.

So, this increase in yield had nothing to do with the Ministry of Agriculture and all to do with the Ministry of Forestry providing additional land for cultivation under the government sponsored resettlement plans, politician-sponsored squatters' plan or just good old fashioned land grabbing.

Half-seriously, I now propose an alternative plan to develop agriculture in Nepal since it seems the billions spent by the Ministry of Agriculture over the years have not made any difference at all. I have been farming for 20 years now, and I know it for a fact that the only thing green that our rulers recognise is the Rs 100 note.
If a fruit tree becomes barren, we don't just curse it as a certain mythical man in the Middle East once did. We chop it down. If our water buffaloes become terminally ill we call in the butcher. Even our holy cows are pragmatically trucked across our south-eastern border where there are people who find the oxen nutritious. Similarly, closing down the Ministry of Agriculture, far from hurting the country, would actually benefit us. There are many ways to evict employees: the golden handshake, the boot on the backside, or for those who covet their chairs, a quiet posting in one of the midwestern hill districts where an alternative form of government is being tried out. But we must spare the ministers-we need them to sell us dreams of turning Kathmandu Valley into Singapore and washing the streets of the capital with the stolen waters of the Melamchi. After all, if we can have ministers without portfolios, why can't we have a ministry without employees?
There are numerous advantages of having a ministry without anyone in it:

consider first the enormous savings in wages, allowances and overheads. This will free up resources to allow the prime minister to actually appoint more ministers in his next reshuffle. The employees themselves will now have more time to devote to moonlighting for NGOs and take on lucrative consultancies. After all, there are more and more donor resources going into non-government than government. The recently retired agricultural apparatchiks can then speak and write the latest mantras of sustainable agriculture in English and attend seminars and workshops which go on in the virtual world of development that has no bearing whatsoever on reality. All our experts who have proved to be helpless in helping farmers because they were helping themselves to greater harvests of greenbacks can then contribute to the country's GNP.

The cleaning up of the Ministry of Agriculture will also help donors who have the tendency to function like the mosaic virus that sometimes infects my potato crop. By itself, the virus is just a string of genetic material, a chemical code in a sheath of protective protein. But once it gets in the DNA of my potato, it takes over the functioning of the cells and forces it to produce more virus than tuber. Once infected with the donor virus, our politicians and elite begin to act and speak like the Nepali version of World Bank bureaucrats: "free market. privatisation. market forces. no subsidies. no welfare. no safety net." We've seen it happen everywhere, politicians who forget the mandate of voters and citizens and become the implementers of donor policy. So they stop sending grain to food deficit areas, they put irrigation beyond the reach of most farmers by scrapping the subsidy on shallow tube wells. These wells could be the cheapest and most tangible form of irrigation for most of the tarai, and could be the viable alternative to grandiose donor-backed tarai irrigation projects. But we have put them out of the reach of the poor. Without a body of agricultural bureaucrats to infect, the donor virus may actually wither away. And once they move away from government, our afflicted leaders can begin the journey to de-toxification so that they remember who they are actually supposed to work for. Those seriously addicted to the donor virus can be sent for rehab to the western districts. In fact, such rehab centres should be opened in all parts of the kingdom. Only then will they begin to see the citizen farmers as their ultimate masters, and not just a means to get periodically elected to office.

So now, we have a community of resource-rich, voter-sensitive ministers and a large population of resource-poor farmers. What next? I have a gosling in my farm that latches on to the first moving thing, taking it for its mother. Our politicians have similarly been brought up exposed to feudalism and life in opposition: leading strikes, hijacking planes and beheading people they didn't like. It will take time for them to learn the ways of parliamentary democracy, to learn their responsibilities towards present and future citizens of Nepal.

We farmers don't expect our chicken to go swimming or our cows to lay eggs. We treat poultry and livestock according to their nature. Our present crop of politicians from all parties are feudal in their habits, and they have to be treated as such-not as the parliamentary democrats they pretend to be.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)