As mentioned in my earlier post on hazelnut project, this project is a transformative project that has the potential to change lives for thousands of farmers. From accounts related to me, poor farmers in the East benefited immensely - they have been able to afford new Ghos and Kiras for themselves, and new shoes and gumboots for their children. Some of them earned enough to be able to send their children to far flung schools and colleges.
But a decade since it all began, the latent element of Mr. Hyde in the splendid Dr. Jekyll has now begun to rear its ugly head. The project is currently marred in controversy and a whole lot of people are expressing disgust and displeasure at the way things are going. A number of branches of the government, regulatory authorities, heads of local governments and farmers are expressing annoyance at the way things have turned out.
Clearly we have now entered a phase that could spell disaster for the dream project that is the hazelnut project. Before the problem goes out of hand, there is a need to take a hard look at what ails the project. Let us look at what are the charges that is drawing so much bad press against the project. To begin with, let us start with the five or six most serious accusations - we will deal with others, later.
1. Secretive nature of the project:
It all starts at the start - people accuse that the project was started in great secrecy. That it is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know who signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) - some even say that the MoU is untraceable. No one seems to know the basis of the fixation of the floor price for the crop etc. People are clueless about the terms and conditions of the MoU.
2. Even after seven years, farmers have not earned anything from their plantations:
The promised income has remained an illusion – farmers have not seen any income. The incredible potential profits have remained just that: incredible, as in fictional – no different from the incredible profits that were supposed to accrue to Bhutan from hydropower. The earnings mentioned earlier above accrued to the farmers not from the harvest of hazelnuts, but from working as labor hands in the project’s nurseries.
3. Environmental pollution & threat of introduced pests and diseases:
The project is accused of being in conflict with the national policy of 100% organic farming. The project is said to be distributing synthetic fertilizers and harmful chemical pesticides to the farmers. There is also fear that imported pollenizer saplings could introduce alien pests and plant diseases. Although a system of random sampling of the saplings is being worked out, authorities fear that this is not a foolproof system. Quarantine requirement for imported saplings is also said to be resisted by the project authorities, which is understandable given the risks involved, but that is not an option.
4. The project is in deviance to its stated objective of using only barren and degraded land:
The project is also accused of infringing into prime agriculture land. From what little is known of the MoU, it is said that only degraded and barren land would be allowed to be used for planting the hazelnuts. Incidences have been reported where hazelnut trees have been planted in irrigated lands, including farmlands.
5. The myth about hazelnut plants growing on barren and degraded soil:
There is strong disagreement among many that hazelnuts will grow on infertile land. The prevalent view is that profitable commercial hazelnut plantation requires fertile soil.
6. Need for a proper cost benefit analysis
There is serious concern that the economic returns to the farmers from planting the hazelnut needs re-calculation. Most believe that the picture is not as rosy as it has been painted – far from it. Those who have a grasp of it believe that it is a total loss.
A slew of perplexing questions are doing the rounds. It is beyond doubt that there is a serious problem with the project. But there is always a solution to any problem. I hope that the project authorities and the government, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture and the concerned departments within it, will work towards solving the problem. It is important to save this very important project. Nothing this big has ever been attempted before. If this succeeds, the success will be stupendous. By the same token, if it fails, tens of thousands of farmers will end up clutching the fruitless hazelnut trees.
The pointed questions that are being asked are: why has the problem not been reported for the past many years? What was the Ministry of Agriculture doing? What was the Department of Agriculture doing? What were the Agriculture Extension Officers doing? What were the Dzongkhags (Districts) and Dzongdas (District Governors) doing?
When the initial 6 Dzongkhags where the plantations were piloted failed to report fruiting for the past many years, why was the plantation allowed to proliferate to rest of the 14 Dzongkhags?
Hard questions, but they will need to be answered.