Forever FamishedEvery year, Humla’s chronic food shortfall makes the headlines. Could new projects linking the district to China break the cycle?
Moga Bohara arrived at Simikot—the district headquarters of the north-western Humla district—after a gruelling three-day walk from her home, in Kalika Village Development Committee (VDC), to purchase subsidised rice at the National Food Corporation (NFC) depot. Bohora, a 60-year old widow and a mother of five, is not as supple as she once used to be, but with food scarce in her remote village, she has little other options but to make the trek down to the headquarters,
several times a year. Once at Simikot, Bohora falls back into a routine she is all too familiar with. She wakes up early in the morning, makes up the numbers at a serpentine queue at the NFC, where sacks of rice flown in from Nepalgunj are stored, only to return empty handed to a room her son has rented for his studies. Some days, she will reach the depot before dawn and sleep on the floor, hoping to beat the crowd, to no avail.
After 10 days in Simikot, Bohora finally receives a 30 kg sack from the NFC. The next day she departs for home, now further slowed by the weight on her back, fully aware that she will have to make this journey all too soon. The rice, her family’s staple daily diet, will feed them for less than a month.
Like most other residents of Humla, Bohora feels deceived and forgotten by the State. Living in one of Nepal’s highest and poorest regions is understandably a challenge. But the mismanagement in food distribution, political manipulation of the food supply and the lack of motorable roads has further compounded long-standing problems of hunger and malnutrition among the residents of this isolated and chronically poor region. And while recent efforts to initiate the opening of the border crossing at Hilsa has given residents a reason to hope, the belaboured progress on the Hilsa-Simikot road means that the district looks set to remain mired in a vicious cycle of hunger and dependency for the foreseeable future.
Clutching at straws
Humla consistently brings up the rear on the Human Development Index (HDI) and Human Poverty Index (HPI) among the 75 districts in the country. Its treacherous mountain terrain, coupled with abject lack of infrastructure, means that Humla, over the past decades, has consistently had a shortfall of produce. Just 1.5 percent of Humla’s total land area is arable, according to the District Agriculture Development Office (DADO). The district requires 10,470 metric tonnes of food every year, but the farming output amounted to only 1,459 metric tonnes of crop in the last fiscal year. Four out of ten children in Humla suffer from malnutrition, which affects nearly two-thirds of children under five years old.
“Modern agricultural technology is not emphasised, and local agricultural production is also not modernised—this is one of the primary reasons why there is a food crisis in the district,” Tirtha Raj Rokaya, former VDC Secretary, said. Of the region’s 27 VDCs or municipalities, seven VDCs produce food that is sufficient for six months, primarily barley and millet, according to Rokaya. Eighteen VDCs produce food sufficient for less than three months, while two villages produce even less.
As early as April this year, reports were already surfacing of yet another mass crop failure in the region. The prolonged drought in the region in the first half of the year meant that both summer and winter crops—like Uwa (Himalayan barley), barley and wheat—were badly hit. With 5,020 hectares (out of 8,618 hectares) of winter crop severely affected, DADO estimates that food production in the district could decline by up to 70 percent this year. Dinesh Prasad Raya, the chief at the DADO, confirmed that similar decline was estimated for summer crops as well.
As a result, a cabinet decision endorsed a “Karnali Special Programme”, through which additional food grains were to be airlifted to Simikot, which functions as a nerve-centre for depots in Shreenagar and Sarkeghat as well. According to the NFC, in addition to supplies being brought to the headquarters, 4,500 and 3,500 quintals of rice were to be flown into Shreenagar and Sarkeghat, but only 59 and 60 quintals have been ferried thus far. The two towns further supply food grains to settlements in Maila, Madana, Srinagar, Kalika, Jair, Mimi, Darm, Shreemasta, Melchham, Gothi, Rodikot, Saya, Barai and Sarkideu.
According to the Humla NFC, the rice was stuck in Nepalgunj and Surkhet, due to lack of helicopters to airlift them to the district. “We had planned to transport rice at Shreenagar and Sarkeghat villages using Nepal Army’s helicopters after having disputes between locals and concerned stakeholders. There are no helicopters available at the moment,” said Narayan KC, chief at the Humla NFC, speaking to the Post, in the first week of September, adding that they have been coordinating with the NA for helicopters. More recently, some trips have been made in view of the looming festive season but a large share of the corporation’s food continues to be distributed to families living in the district headquarters, forcing families from far-flung villages, like Moga Bohora, to make the arduous trek to Simikot.
CB Lama, a former assistant minister hailing from Humla, pegs the endemic shortfall on the spike in the population in the region—the population has doubled in the past 30 years—and the failure to adapt to the changing times. For many generations, the residents of Humla sustained themselves, despite the harsh conditions, by operating caravans transporting goods to and from Tibet. “Just 30 years ago we used to sell food (barley, rice, wheat, oat, and buckwheat) through our caravans and then get salt in return from Tibet,” Lama says, “but today we are submerged in a whirlpool of food scarcity.” Lama points out that because of the infrastructural leaps made in the Tibetan plateau in the past decades, the ancient trade route has now become obsolete, further pushing residents of Humla into a state of dependency on the state apparatus. And because Simikot, and the regions beyond, are not connected to the national grid by motorways, transporting food grains by planes, helicopters or caravans, comes at a high cost, one that authorities are unable or unwilling to pay.
Two legs good, four legs better
Humla residents, however, maintain that it is not just the region’s remote, rugged terrain that has perpetuated the chronic shortage of food and that galling disparities plague the food distribution mechanism.
“There are so many instances where we have had to return empty handed, and sometimes we even have to fight to get food,” Rani Pariyar, another local waiting at the Simikot depot, says, “The NFC office remains closed most of the time. There are days when we are forced to put our children to sleep on empty stomachs every month.”
NFC officials in Humla agree there is ‘mismanagement’ in the food distribution system as well. Bhim Thapa, the former department head at NFC in Humla and the current head of the Surkhet NFC, said, “There is some reality into the allegations relating to mismanagement in the distribution of food materials.” But he is quick to insist that politics gets in the way of a well-managed and fair system. During the last election cycle in November 2013, political leaders allegedly distributed food to villagers in return for votes. It is also common knowledge that major political parties handout chits authorising the imbursement of supplies to their party cadres, which take precedence over locals who have trekked for days to wait in lines.
Chief District Officer (CDO) of Humla, Dr Krishna Bahadur Ghimire, maintains that the district office hands out food chits to medical patients, families that have lost a bread winner and people who have walked long distances to get to the district headquarters. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Rita Shahi, a lawmaker from the Nepali Congress, for instance, insists that political leaders have little choice but to bend the rules. “There are 100 to 200 people lining up in front of my house asking for food,” She said, “What else can I do (but hand out chits)?”
After decades of indifferent, bungled bureaucracy, locals only remain cautiously optimistic about the proposed infrastructural development in the region, despite being aware that Humla’s full potential is yet to be unleashed. Two projects in particular—a motorable bridge linking Hilsa with the Tibetan Autonomous Region and a 38 km road connecting Hilsa to Simikot—have been touted as long-term solutions to Humla’s long-standing troubles.
Simikot, the highest district headquarters in the country and the closest route to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in Tibet, has the potential to grow exponentially as a hub for tourists. Mount Kailash, venerated as an axis mundi by Shaivites in Nepal and India, is a popular destination for religious tourism. Currently, Simikot serves as a departure point for those trekking to Hilsa, before driving out to the holy site from Talkakot in China, providing the settlement with much needed injection of cash during the six-month-long tourist season. Those who cannot trek prefer overland routes via the Tibetan plateau. Were the road between Simikot and Hilsa to become motorable, experts believe that the region would significantly benefit from the windfall. Simikot also has the potential to emerge as a hub for other trekking routes that meander into other north-western destinations including the Rara Lake.
The road would also enable residents to fully capitalise on the region’s rich potential in the production of medicinal herbs.
As of now, however, the Hilsa-Simikot road continues to progress only at a snail’s pace. And for locals like Rani Pariyar and Moga Bohara, this festive season, like so many others through the decades, will have very little to celebrate about.
(Bhandari is an independent multimedia journalist and filmmaker. He tweets @RajneeshB)