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Welcoming FDI in Nepali agriculture

Welcoming FDI in Nepali agriculture

The recent government decision to allow foreign direct investment in agriculture is a bold step. It will boost competition in otherwise moribund sector. Although the decision has been criticized in some quarters, as the inflow of foreign investment and technology will supposedly marginalize domestic investors, it was nonetheless essential in order to break the cycle of low investment and cultivation of sub-standard products in agriculture.

The business community has objected on the ground that the Foreign Investment and Technology Transfer Act (FITTA) 2019 bars foreign investment in agriculture. The council of ministers made the decision by going against the act. You could argue that this represents a massive breach of standard procedure in policy-adoption in a sector that touches the lives and livelihoods of nearly 70 percent of the national population. This may be true. But with the parliament under heavy influence of lobbyists and industrialists, there really seemed no other way out.

Foreign investment in agriculture will not negatively impact farmers. They will rather get better prices for their products in competitive markets. The hardship will rather be felt by the industrialists who have been exploiting both farmers and consumers without being accountable for their sub-standard products that are costly too. On one hand, farmers are not getting fair prices for their products with domestic industrialists forming cartels to buy farmers’ products. On the other, domestic industries do not produce quality products at competitive prices for consumers.

Nepal’s agriculture has always been stunted in the absence of outside disruption. The Agriculture Development Strategy (2015-2035) is being implemented after the completion of the implementation of the previous Agriculture Perspective Plan or APP (1995-2015). But there have been no meaningful changes in farmers’ lives or the way they do agriculture in all this time. The reason again is lack of innovation. The sector’s condition is not much different to what it was in 1995 when the government started implementing the APP. Farmers have not seen any meaningful changes in their lives in the past 25 years.  

Allowing foreign investment in agriculture was discussed during the formulation of the new FITTA in 2019. But a parliamentary committee directive ended that discussion. The directive was the direct result of the political economy of bill drafting and interest-groups’ access and influence in the process. The same group of traders and businessmen that blocked the FITTA is against welcoming foreign investment in agriculture.

The government decision applies only to export-oriented items. It will enhance the ability of our agri-based industry and support those willing to explore global markets and bring more investment. Consumers at home can enjoy export-quality products and farmers get better prices. The only group that will be hurt is a coterie of businesspersons who are holding the entire sector hostage by imposing a monopoly on prices and quality of agricultural products.

Again, the cabinet may not have gone by the book. But this decision made in public interest was both bold and right. We have to differentiate between real farmers and domestic industrialists while making policy decisions. The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI) and other associations have objected. But the FNCCI and likeminded associations do not necessarily speak in favor of common folks. Let’s not forget these are the same people who forced sugarcane farmers to beg for the payment of their dues.