Rice bank for indebted Punakha sharecroppers

Article in kuensel by Dawa Gyelmo

Rice bank for indebted Punakha sharecroppers

Farmer Tshering, 50, of Zarbisa village in Kabisa, Punakha, need not worry about buying rice until the next paddy harvest season.
The father of three is among 13 beneficiaries, who received seven bags of 25kg white rice each from the Voluntary Artists’ Studio Thimphu (VAST), yesterday.

Initiated by the VAST as the first step towards their fourth rice bank project, volunteers were there to distribute rice crucially required to relieve shortages that occur at this time of the year before the harvest.As Tshering’s family owns only 70 decimals of land, they are sharecroppers, who pay the landowner about 136kg of rice for every langdo (area ploughed by an oxen in a day) of paddy field they cultivate on. “It’s a blessing, we don’t have to worry about buying rice until harvest time” Tshering said, expressing his gratitude to the sponsors and volunteers.

Pem, 32, mother of four from Kabisa, said the aid has relieved her from borrowing rice for this season. She owns only five langdos of land, which, Pem said, was barely enough to make ends meet. Without an alternate source of income, and having to work on fields that belong to others, for which they have to pay back in rice, was a difficulty. Pem said she borrowed 400 dres (one dre is roughly about 1.7 kg) of rice from a landlord last year, due to shortage of rice and is yet to repay the debt. “The interest keeps increasing when we fail to repay on time,” she said.Most of the farmers are in debt to more affluent landlords and some debts are inherited. Om, another farmer, said the practice of borrowing grains in the past because of lack of shops had left many farmers indebted. “The debt is passed on for generations and the interest kept growing,” she said. “We’re happy to learn that the rice bank would last for five years,” she said.In one village, there was a woman who had inherited rice debts of her grandparents. Including her own debt, the woman owes about two to three truckloads of rice to other farmers.

VAST coordinator Kama Wangdi said rice was distributed to families identified with the help of local leaders. Kama Wangdi added that the pre-relief distribution is expected to avoid rice-borrowing practices of marginalised farmers until the next harvest. When farmers borrow rice they are also obliged to help in the fields of those who lent the rice. This leaves the borrower with less time to focus on their own fields and can create a situation where they will be more likely to need to borrow rice again in the future. Kama Wangdi said the distribution of rice this time was expected to help farmers avoid needing to borrow rice and spend more time growing rice for themselves.

“With the money we received from sponsors and based on information from local leaders, we conducted a baseline survey on food-aid and debt-relief last May, according to which the beneficiaries were selected,” Kama Wangdi said. This year, the volunteers focused on three villages Rangrikha, Rangrichuku and Zarbisa under Zarbisa chiwog. It is expected that farmers could eat the rice provided during certain period till harvest without having to work for others and work in their own fields. In doing so, they will be able to repay the existing debt without having to borrow more.

Kama Wangdi said the idea is also to help young volunteers see firsthand the real situation in rural Bhutan, thereby encouraging youth to develop for themselves a sense of responsibility for and connection to the well-being of others. He said the rice bank project is to help reduce the vicious cycle of debt, since borrowing from other villages is done at a high rate of interest. The rice bank project was first realised when 46 volunteers were on an art camp in a village in Punakha a few years ago. The volunteers learnt of the practice of borrowing rice back then. “We couldn’t imagine such a situation in a place like Punakha that has the highest rice cultivation,” Kama Wangdi said. A survey was carried out, during which they found that the only solution to the issue was to provide rice during summer. The volunteers then sought sponsors. The issue, however, was the durability of the project. The volunteers then worked with communities to form groups, comprised of locals, appointed chairpersons and members. A memorandum of understanding was also drawn that states that farmers can borrow rice from the rice bank but have to repay two dres for every 20 dres of rice they borrow. This would help ensure a continuous stock of community rice and solve the problem of borrowers needing to work the land of lenders.

VAST has created three rice banks in various villages in Punakha in former years. Kama Wangdi said the fourth rice bank would start in the Kabisa community, where 13 farmers would be members; VAST, through the help of rice bank sponsors, would provide rice at the initial period. The farmers can then borrow rice during summer season from rice bank and pay minimal amount of interest. Farmers have to pay two dres of interest for every 20 dres of rice they borrow from the rice bank. With every new harvest, members would put back two dres extra of red rice. After five years, when the rice bank project ends, members will divide the rice they have in rice bank equally. Alternatively, the members of the tshogpa can choose to continue the bank and even include other villages. “Our main intention is to ensure that, because of the whole process of rice bank, some families have something to eat,” Kama Wangdi said.

VAST is looking for more sponsors to help establish the fourth bank next year.

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