There is no doubt that COVID-19 will result in mass unemployment in non-agricultural sectors. This could bring a vast majority of youths back into agriculture sector.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the villages of Nepal were almost youth-less. Agricultural lands were barren due to labor shortage. But the scenario has now changed. Young people are moving to rural from urban areas and abroad. In this sense, we can say that the COVID-19 is in favor of agriculture by addressing the issue of labor shortage. According to the Nepal Labor Force Survey 2018-19, an estimated 908,000 people, out of a total labor force of 7.08 million, are without jobs. Even among the employed, 39.3 percent are underemployed. Every year, about 500,000 individuals enter the labor market. The unemployment rate before the COVID-19 pandemic was 11.4 percent. A task force formed by the government to study the impact of COVID-19 on foreign employment sector has reported that around 225,000 migrant workers are likely to return. The task force also says that Nepal needs 1.5 million jobs to avoid unemployment crisis. Hence, agro-based activities and enterprises focusing programs on employment and food security should be the key elements for the post-COVID-19 agriculture.
Agriculture and job creation
Agriculture can play a vital role in job creation and economic development. Agricultural growth based on productivity-enhancing investments and the integration of farmers into markets not only improves food security but also improves incomes and creates jobs in farming. Jobs are to be created in agricultural industries both upstream and downstream. Upstream includes inputs to agriculture, such as seeds, fertilizer, machinery and technology for commercial agriculture. Midstream is food production, including meat, fish, animal feed and dairy, while downstream is the food processing industry. If programs are properly planned, attractive jobs can also be generated down and up the agricultural stream. With the demand for aggregation, storage, processing, logistics, food preparation, restaurants and other related services are also becoming increasingly important and many employment opportunities will emerge from the agro-food system. Thus many good job opportunities on and off the farm remain in agriculture. The challenge is to make the agricultural sector and its up and downstream activities competitive through innovation and public investment.
Lacking concrete programs
Considering the impending return of migrant workers and other issues, the budget for the fiscal year 2077/078 should have come up with measures to encourage their participation in commercial agriculture and its supply chain. However, the budget lacks concrete programs to address this issue. Programs for job creation in agriculture are not encouraging. There is lack of technical elements to revitalize the rural agricultural system and economy. The provision of one technician each of agriculture and livestock per local unit is not adequate for providing technical services effectively. We need them in each ward but there is no program to recruit more field technicians. There is also no program to reform fertilizer supply, though subsidy budget has been slightly increased. There are mega-projects of irrigation but we do not know when they are going to be completed. Under such situation, how will youth be attracted in agriculture?
The extent of the effect on the harvest of the 2019/20 growing season is not that much. But the coronavirus pandemic may likely have an extensive and long-term influence on the agriculture industry in the years to come. If the situation persists and restrictions on movements continue, there is a risk that agricultural production would be impacted, with consequent longer-lasting and deeper impacts on food availability, prices and ultimately overall food security. If proper measures are not taken in time, food insecurity crisis may emerge globally. In Nepal, the delivery of fertilizer via international markets has been a problem since there is no fertilizer plant in the country. Over the coming months crops like rice, maize, potatoes in the high hills and other summer crops are going to be affected due to fertilizer shortage.
Measures to be taken
Reverse migration of youth due to COVID-19 provides an opportunity for hinterland to engage the returnees in farming. Especially labor-intensive sectors like horticulture, livestock, fisheries and food processing can be developed by engaging these people. There is no doubt that COVID-19 will result in mass unemployment in non-agricultural sectors. This could bring a vast majority of youths into agriculture sector. In order to employ them and ensure food security for all, we need to take urgent actions at the local level.
We should not leave any land fallow. Good seeds, fertilizer and other farm inputs must reach farmers in time regularly. At the same time, it is necessary to prepare trainers at government institutions to train farmers about the farming methods. Focus on kitchen gardens in rural areas and rooftop gardens in urban areas would help the family to be self-sufficient in vegetables to some extent. Upgrading agricultural operations regularly is essential to increase productivity. One of the options for this is to promote protective agriculture and this is achieved by both simple and advanced techniques. In fact, protected cultivation is becoming the most attractive method of cultivation for the youth. The other key elements for attracting youth include reforming access to land, credit, irrigation, agricultural markets and extension services.
The state of agriculture will be improved only when 1) all agricultural lands in Tarai are irrigated; 2) there is improvement in input supply; 3) there is consolidation of land; 4) there is a strong research base and 5) functional structures particularly at local units with adequate skill manpower are in place. Only if the government is committed to addressing these challenging issues, can we think of minimizing the aftershock of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More investment is needed in agriculture but the government has allocated Rs 41.4 billion for the fiscal year 2077/078. It is an increment by Rs 6.6 billion. Without private sector investment, agriculture cannot be commercialized. But there is no incentive package to motivate private sector in agriculture. Investments in irrigation and small-scale agri-business can help revive food production and create jobs. Specialization should be realized to make agriculture innovative and profitable.
Majority of returnee migrants have started to express that agriculture can be a sustainable business if there is structural change in conventional agriculture. So the federal, provincial, and local governments should work together to engage them in agriculture by creating enabling environment. The priority for any coming short-term strategy should be to minimize the aftershock of the COVID-19 pandemic by involving youth in agriculture. The future budgets should, therefore, be focused on the issue of employment and technology based agriculture. Agro-processing should now emerge as a major economic activity. The role of agricultural growth in lifting people out of poverty should also be well-recognized. Nepal should also try to balance its food imports and exports. This is also the time to consider agriculture as a respected occupation.