The Nepali state in the HimalayaThe food shortage in Limi Valley has highlighted Nepal’s weak state presence in the Himalayan borderlands.
The visuals were striking: A group of men and women crossed over the 5,000 metre Nyalu Pass covered in three-feet deep snow, came to Kathmandu and asked the Nepali state to provide them with food. As expected, the issue of food scarcity in Limi Valley, Humla, drew widespread coverage and derision at the state’s inability to feed its citizens. Humla Member of Parliament Tsewang Lama said in an interview that Limi residents were forced to come to Kathmandu because Simikot, the district headquarters, itself did not have adequate supplies.
Food scarcity in the remote Himalayan regions is not a new phenomenon. The primary historical reason, beyond local agricultural output being insufficient to last the year, is the collapse of traditional trans-Himalayan trade, which was based around the exchange of salt and wool from Tibet and food grain and other goods from the lower hills, after the 1962 India-China war and the militarisation of the Himalaya. While such reports had become less common in the 21st century, upper Himalayan settlements in Gorkha, Sankhuwasabha and Dolpo have begun to report food shortages after the Covid-19 pandemic. Why is this so?
China's “Go West” campaign
The answer to this conundrum lies in the transformation of the Himalayan economy by China's investments in transportation networks and urbanisation in Tibet.
In 1999, China implemented the "Go West" campaign emphasising infrastructure development in Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), both to secure their land borders and to incorporate the restive plateau better into the mainland through material progress. As I argue in my book, Beijing’s decision transformed not just Tibet, but also the lives of Nepali citizens living across the border. In 2002, China and Nepal issued documents to citizens who live within 30 km of the border allowing them to cross the border without a visa and work within 30 km on the other side. Subsequently, Nepali citizens in districts such as Humla and Rasuwa began to find employment or start businesses in TAR towns such as Burang and Gyirong. Trans-Himalayan settlements such as Limi then began to build roads down from Tibet mostly on their own initiative, prioritising such access due to the availability of food supplies and other goods in TAR, and bringing down construction equipment by using TAR road networks. As bilateral relations progressed, China began to provide development assistance in the form of food supplies to 15 Nepali border districts.
This annual assistance, in the form of 4,680 sacks of flour and 800 sacks of rice, was stuck at the Hilsa border due to excessive snowfall. Limi residents thus had no alternative than to cross a snow-covered pass and appeal to Kathmandu to resolve their food shortage. While the Nepal Army eventually airlifted the food aid to Limi Valley, its residents had sought the Nepali state’s assistance in 2020, too, during the pandemic. The Hilsa border was then opened just for a day after 10 months to allow 16 Chinese trucks carrying food assistance to cross over.
China has closed down its land border points with Nepal since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nepali workers who were employed across the border have been sent back, and even trade has been affected, not just at the major trade points of Rasuwagadhi and Tatopani, but also at smaller junctions such as Olangchung Gola. The closure of the border has reverted trans-Himalayan settlements such as Limi to a previous era of food shortages and lack of economic alternatives. The asymmetry in infrastructure and other facilities between Nepal and China is stark. The pandemic has highlighted the weak Nepali state presence in the Himalayan region. The question before Nepali policymakers now is whether to continue making reactive policies based on media pressure such as the airlift of food and relying on China to provide its citizens with alternatives, or to proactively expand its presence in the Himalaya by prioritising the region.
Statemaking in the borderlands
Borderlands are a curious place from the state’s perspective. They are essential to affirm the state’s territory and sovereignty, but those who live in the borderlands often have an ambiguous relationship with the idea of citizenship. The border itself turns into an "economic resource" for its citizens, as geographer Emily Yeh has documented in Limi. Further, the Himalayan region is traditionally a fourth world space that was inhabited by indigenous groups historically beyond the firm control of the state. Seen as a frontier essential to uphold a state’s sovereignty, its inhabitants are rarely acknowledged as active participants in the state, not just in Nepal but in China and India too.
Statemaking in such regions usually follows a militaristic pattern—as seen in Tibet after the 1959 uprising—or development policies that incentivise or attract border citizens to incorporate themselves into the state—such as the "Go West" campaign. While the first has obvious limitations, development-oriented statemaking by itself does not fully imbibe a borderland unless it is accompanied by other policies.
In Nepal, statebuilding in the Himalaya needs to incorporate its citizens beyond claims of territory alone. This means, as Humla MP Tsewang Lama told me some years ago, that policies for such regions must follow and understand local ecologies and geographies. "The men who rule at the centre come from the lowlands and do not understand the highlands, their ecology or the issues," he said. To resolve this, the Nepali state must deploy administrators who understand and speak the local language, and are intimately familiar with the geography and cultures of the borderlands. Building barely functional schools and health posts are not enough; the state has to make itself felt, not just by the extraction of tax revenue or the presence of security forces, but by appearing to its citizens as a benevolent figure that desires their welfare.
Further, while north-south corridors such as Hilsa-Nepalgunj and Korala-Bhairahawa have been initiated by the state, their progress is far too slow, especially against the background of greater India-China tensions. Kathmandu must prioritise all-weather roads that connect upper Himalayan regions to the rest of the mainland, both as an expression of territorial control and as a method to open up opportunities for its citizens.
Finally, statemaking in the borderlands must go beyond the narrow concept of territory alone. Land by itself may establish a state’s control, but sovereignty comes from the people. As we’ve seen, residents of the Himalayan borderlands have charted out and negotiated the border and the two corresponding states by their own initiative. But as scholar Berenice Guyot-Rechard describes in Shadow States, the citizen must make claims on the state, either by making greater demands of the state for representation or by ensuring they have access to the state itself, for sovereignty to be asserted.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the dependence of Nepal’s Himalayan citizens on China. The irony is, historically, much of Tibet depended on the lower hills to supplement their food stocks. The situation is now reversed. During normal times, Kathmandu did not pay much attention to its Himalayan citizens; only a display of extreme duress jolted it into action and forced it to airlift supplies to Limi. Now, it has to match up to the asymmetry with China in a time of great geopolitical contest.