Decentralising governance to improve the economyMustang apples are a brand of its own. But producing them on a commercial scale mandates an autonomous local government.
Within Nepal, Mustang is famous for its apples, among other things. But after interacting with apple-growing farmers in Mustang last month, I realised that local governments have not been given the required autonomy and support to make decisions pertaining to the use of local resources so that apple production could be increased. The bureaucracy too lacks understanding of the diverse governing styles present in different social and cultural settings. Hence, there is much to be desired to make local governments functional in the truest sense. This also means realising where each area’s comparative advantage lies and working to capitalise on that. In Mustang’s case, the comparative advantage lies in producing apples on a commercial scale.
Apples are in demand
Nepal’s import bill continues to balloon. From vegetables to crops to fruits, everything needs to be imported. Nepal imported fruits worth Rs10.64 billion in 2017-18—a jump of about Rs2 billion from 2016-17. In terms of importing fruits, apple tops it all. In the first three months of the current fiscal year, Nepal imported apples valued at Rs1.66 billion, which accounts for about 22 percent of the total fruit import. If this trend continues for the next nine months, Nepal would be importing apples worth about Rs7 billion. The country imports its apples mainly from China, India, New Zealand and the US, with India and China being the major source countries. We might be importing apple from different places, but Mustang apples, which has almost become a brand of its own now, is still in great demand. So much that traders sell imported apple as Mustang apple; in many cases, they were seen mixing imported and Mustang apples.
The importance of self-sufficiency
Nepal seriously needs to augment its production of apples (and as a matter of fact, all foodstuff). Agricultural imports have drained much of the hard-earned remittances, which could have been used in other income and employment generating activities. We have also realised the importance of self-sufficiency. Onion is a good case in point. Once India restricted onion exports, its price soared and businessmen started importing it from as far as Namibia. This is a sad story for a country like Nepal, which has so much potential to produce onion. Globalisation has made it possible to import food from distant lands like Namibia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina (from where cooking oil and wine are imported in a large amount). Such imports not only have economic impacts, but transportation across such long distances also increase the carbon footprint of everyday foodstuff. Local production would help to cut the import bill as well as the environmental impact.
In the case of apples, it is unfortunate that we have to import—when we have the capacity to produce them ourselves. After interacting with farmers in 17 villages in Mustang’s Baragung Muktichettra Rural Municipality (BMRM), I found out that there is a great opportunity to expand apple production. Farmers also see a good market opportunity for them. Traders come to the villages to purchase the apples. Local farmers also organise themselves in transporting apples to markets like Pokhara and Kathmandu. With road access to most villages, it is easy to market the produce.
Local governance for apple production
The local government expressed their dream of making Mustang an apply country by increasing its production. But the big question here is about the ability of the local government to lease public land for apple production. The bureaucrats argue that local governments cannot lease public land under the present legal structure and that such a move would be illegal. Due to the ambiguity in the law, and with federalism not being properly implemented, the BMRM government has been unable to put unused public land to productive use. Local government representatives argue that there is a great deal of public and unused land that can be made cultivable if leased to individual entrepreneurs and small farmers on a co-operative basis to make apple orchards. Irrigation is another constraint, but people think that this is more of a technical issue rather than a severely limiting one.
Laws must be changed if they are stifling entrepreneurship and hampering the ability of local governments to exercise more authority to promote development and growth. If the present legal system is constraining, then it should be changed as soon as possible. It is up to the politicians at the provincial and federal levels to be proactive and make governance in a federal set-up effective.
Many think that apple production in Nepal faces economic or technical constraints. On the contrary, the issues that currently affect it are more governance-related, as local governments feel disempowered. This certainly does not align with the spirit of the present constitution.
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