During early 70’s the Royal Government of Bhutan embarked on a program to encourage farm production and the cultivation of what was popularly known as “cash crops” - such as apples, oranges, potatoes and brown cardamom. While subsistence farming was obviously seen as adequate to meet the food requirements of the rural population, the villagers were cash strapped. Thus, cultivation of “cash crops” was seen as a means to supplement the farmers’ income through generation of cash that they could use to purchase/acquire their requirements for none-food essentials.
To make it even more attractive for the growers of these “cash crops”, particularly brown cardamom, the government offered a ready market - in the form of Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB). As the specialized marketing arm of the Government, the FCB was charged with the responsibility to purchase and market the cash crops. In particular, brown cardamom was singled out for special treatment - both by the government as well as the farmers. The reason: it was high value, low volume item that had enormous export potential and fetched very attractive price for the farmers. This was also the only spice grown in Bhutan that had no domestic consumption. Thus, whatever was produced was shipped abroad to earn precious hard currency.
The consignments of our cardamom took a strangely snaky route - it was first dispatched to Calcutta port in India where it was stuffed into containers and loaded on board ships bound for Singapore and from there on to Pakistan and then on to its final destination: the Middle East where they ended up at the bottom of some poor Arabs’ tea cup. The rich Arabs did not use brown jacket cardamom in their tea - they preferred the more expensive green cardamom grown in the Western Ghats of India.
Why the cardamom consignments had to take such a long serpentine route is another interesting story.
The Bhutanese cardamom growers not only had ready market for their produce - the deal was further sweetened by the offer of what was then called “cash incentives”- over and above the attractive prices offered by the FCB. The FCB was mandated to buy up every single Kg. of cardamom brought to their collection centers, located in every exit points such as: Phuentsholing, Gaylegphu, Samchi and Samdrupjongkhar.
During those days (late 70’s and early 80’s) I was heading the export section of the Export Division under the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Forests. During our time there was a strong push for exports - I don't hear of them now. We use to export fresh fruits, potatoes, limestone, gypsum, timber logs, canned fruit products, women’s kera, milled wooden rods, textile shuttle blocks, gum rosin, crystallized menthol etc. etc. I suspect that some of you don't even know what they are and how they look like.The following images should help you understand better:
Wood Shuttle Block
Bhutanese Lady's Kera
Milled Wooden Rods
Raw Coniferous Logs
Canned Fruit Juices
Our biggest export in monetary terms was: brown cardamom. I remember that at one time I negotiated an export order for which a Letter of Credit was opened in our favour - valued at over a million dollars! I dare say that even to this day, that Letter of Credit has got to be the single highest value negotiable instrument.
Then, as the Americans would say, shit hit the fan!
I wont go into the gory details of what happened. But to give you a hint: my organization failed to fulfill the export order - and nearly got sued in the international court of law. Consequently, I was nearly forced to resort to blackmailing the Managing Director of the FCB (an Indian by the name of Hadi Ali) with revelation of certain impropriety that I discovered in his organization, for which he could be held personally responsible. This came to pass because for obvious reasons, he would not part with the stock of cardamom the FCB was holding in their godowns across the country.
Fortunately, it didn't have to come to that because the MD realized that I was prepared to go to any length for the sake of my organization’s reputation. He agreed to release a substantial amount of cardamom stock to us. However, it was too little, too late - it wasn’t enough to meet our export commitment. We had to resort to purchasing from the open market. One unethical supplier (he is now dead) had poured hot water into the dry cardamom - to increase its weight before delivery to us. That resulted in fungal growth in the cardamom by the time it reached Singapore, in addition to loss of weight as a result of loss of moisture during the long ocean journey. My organization lost money and I was handed a long, long Audit Memo - not by the RAA but by an organization even more draconian that existed those days called: Royal Advisory Council - with auditing mandate.
I was in no mood to take anything lying down - not for something that I wasn't responsible for. So I responded to the Note with uncharacteristic candor. My Audit Reply ended up on the desk of the late Finance Minister D. Tshering who was incensed by the audacity of my reply. He wrote to my Minister and sought his permission to throw me out of my job :) My Minister was rock-solid in his support for me and thus informed the Finance Minister that the Trade Ministry was quite capable of taking action against its erring officers. Given my unblemished reputation for honesty and hard work, my Minister did not even ask me for an explanation. Instead he called me into his office and laboriously explained to me that I need to be level headed about any future Audit Memos and that they should be responded to in the humblest of tone and tenor - with folded hands and imploring humble words.
In the middle of all the ruckus, something totally incredible came to light: to mine and every one else’s consternation, Bhutan was, that year, declared as the biggest grower and exporter of brown cardamom – IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!
How that came about is truly ticklish!
How that came about is truly ticklish!