Wake up and smell the jamunKathmandu sets numerous national records in Nepal. It is the biggest city of the country, most populated and most polluted. As the country’s largest metropolis, its population composition is also hugely diverse. Furthermore, as the Valley holds much of the country’s wealth, it is Nepal’s biggest market.
Kathmandu sets numerous national records in Nepal. It is the biggest city of the country, most populated and most polluted. As the country’s largest metropolis, its population composition is also hugely diverse. Furthermore, as the Valley holds much of the country’s wealth, it is Nepal’s biggest market.
It’s good for producers and traders to have such a huge market in the middle of the country. Ideally, this would mean farmers around the Valley find a place to sell their produce easily. Since Nepal is predominantly an agrarian economy, the timely supply of fresh farm produce would benefit both buyers and sellers.
But this is often not the case. Due to inefficient transport and distribution systems, both farmers and urban consumers are at a loss. Fruits and vegetables grown by farmers in faraway hills rot in the field while city dwellers have to buy stale produce that may have been shipped from foreign cities and ports.
The potato is a crop that grows abundantly in the mountains, the lower hills and the Tarai plains. Given the country’s geographical diversity, the vegetable is harvested almost throughout the year. Yet, it costs up to Rs 200 a dharni (2.4 kilograms) in Kathmandu at present. The price is fivefold of what the popular food item is available for during peak production season.
So why doesn’t everyone cultivate potatoes and get rich?
This is a tricky question. The catch is in Nepal’s merchandise distribution system. The buyer pays a heavy price, the producer does not get good value for the yield, and the middleman claims a big cut in the deal. The result is that cheap agricultural imports from India rob quality local products of their market. Fish from Andhra Pradesh, in transit for a week across the border, are sold at the stalls while those from Tarai ponds are not easily available in Kathmandu.
Milk in Kathmandu costs double the price it is available for in Jhapa towns. Trucks and tankers take 15 hours to reach the Capital from the eastern border district. This still does not justify the difference in price. Clearly, middlemen claim huge profits in the trade.
In the past few years, a widely selling item in the autumn festival season has been the Mustang apple. Until a few years ago, the prime mountain product never made it to Kathmandu, not even to closer cities in enough quantities, as there was no road link to the region and ferrying by helicopter was not profitable. Meanwhile, across the country, Tarai and hill towns were awash with foreign apples that sold at prickly prices.
Tomatoes too cost between Rs 50 and 100 in the month long Dashain-Tihar-Chhath period. But in the following winter vegetable season, farmers in the Tarai and in the hilly fields higher up sell their produce to traders for unprofitable rates. This compulsion to sell perishable goods for throwaway prices is driving young farmers out of the country, to take up jobs mostly in India, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf.
But the government has not come to their aid. Farm products that don’t find good prices immediately could be preserved or processed into other forms to sell at more profitable rates even later. In the past decade, many hill farmers who generally cultivated cereal crops grew ginger in large quantities. Some seasons, they reaped huge profits—enough to replace their thatched roofs by corrugated zinc sheets so that their houses shone to others across the river and did not perish in a fire. At other times, however, the prices dropped so sharply that the selling price would not recover even harvesting and transportation costs. So they let it rot in the fields.
How the government fails here is by not helping people set up processing plants so that ginger can be turned to powder or preserved as paste, and marketed. The fate is similar for most fruits grown in villages. Lacking proper processing, pumpkin, bottle gourd and squash become cattle feed—pears can’t be turned into jam and guava rots in the orchard. Amla, a powerhouse of nutrients and a health treasure, sees no large-scale processing.
At our city supermarkets, we pay high prices for roasted pumpkin seeds imported from foreign countries. Pakistan earns billions of rupees every year by exporting pine seeds, which are eaten only by cattle herders here in Nepal. Our jamuns, black plums, reach local markets only occasionally.
Nepal has yawning trade deficits. We can’t compete with industrial powerhouses India and China in conventional exports. What we could do at least is utilise our resources for domestic consumption to replace or minimise imports. While promoting tourism—the government pins its prosperity hopes on an improved tourism industry—we can sell organic farm products for good prices. This could bring multiple dividends.
And we could explore the vast global market for our products. When India refuses to buy our farm growths such as ginger, we must be able to sell it beyond. Our mountain products such as cheese, buckwheat and medicinal herbs are second to none, and also rare. Sustaining and marketing them as niche products can benefit local communities living in harsh conditions while also bringing in export dollars to benefit the national economy.
All the while, we must pay attention to the potential pitfall of exploitation of resources. For instance, the costly aphrodisiac yarshagumba, picked on high-altitude slopes, is not found in plenty anymore. Here, the authorities’ role comes in saving the unique caterpillar-fungus from over-harvesting.
As the communist-led government continues to make lofty promises of prosperity, these little holes need to be plugged first. Utilised properly, our national resources and livelihood practices are capable of not only sustaining the population but also lifting Nepalis out of poverty. Unless we balance our accounts by increasing output, the youth will continue to be our major export. In that case, we’ll only have feeble hands to build the nation.
The writer tweets @guragainmohan