Two paradoxesAssessing irrigation projects just in terms of cost and benefit could marginalise the poor
What is the point of taking an irrigation scheme to a place where the majority of the people have already left and absentee landlords are simply leaving their lands fallow?” Director General Madhav Belbase asked when we went to him to seek government support. This was his second meeting with Ghoksila Bikas Samaj, and he must have collected vital information in the intervening period about Ghoksila, through his field staff, to allow him to speak so candidly. The director general was perfectly right when he said that the number of people served by the project would be small as many locals had migrated elsewhere leaving the area largely deserted. The place is dominated by Dalits and absentee landlords.
People had started leaving Ghoksila as early as the 1980s, and the rate has increased since then. The rich were at the front of the migration queue. They found the life in places like Janakpur and Mahottari in the Tarai to be relatively easy compared to the subsistence farming in their villages. They first bought some farmland in the Tarai before deciding to live there permanently. Gradually, others followed when they saw that those who had preceded them had prospered. Better health facilities and educational opportunities were among the other reasons that continuously attracted people to the plains where they found more amenities than in their impoverished villages.
The trend of leaving one’s village was not so widespread until the locals started witnessing several difficulties, many of which may be a result of climate change. Long periods of drought started becoming normal occurrences in Ghoksila. This led to frequent crop failures, and all kinds of water sources ranging from ponds to drinking water holes started drying up. Subsequently, migration became more of a compulsion than a choice. In particular, those who had options decided to move out. In recent years, two migratory patterns have emerged: local and non-local. Those who have the resources to buy land in the Tarai or the district headquarters in Sindhuli opt to move there. Those who lack such resources but have inherited land on the valley floor opt to move there because of a better water supply and greater farming opportunities.
Choice and compulsion
Director General Belbase was, of course, right. A majority of the people in the villages have already fled. The situation has worsened after the earthquake as many houses have collapsed or become uninhabitable, and the people neither have the capacity nor the incentive to rebuild them. Only those who cannot afford to migrate down to the valley floor or the Tarai remain in their original place, many of them living in tents provided by donors.
The villagers belonging to the Dalit community like Damai, Kami and Sarki are forced to stay back simply because they have few alternatives to choose from. This situation compels us to question the director general’s remark. Can we defer the idea of an irrigation project until the deserted area once again fills with people? Certainly not. Who will want to return to their original place unless there is a dramatic improvement in the prevailing situation? They would not have left their villages in the first place if the situation had been manageable. So we simply cannot expect them to return to their villages in a situation that is characterised by the status quo in terms of recurrent droughts resulting in frequent crop failures and widespread depletion of all the available types of water resources.
Bringing them back
The situation is further worsened by a virtually defunct educational and health care system and lack of alternative employment opportunities, which have forced people to desert their homeland. Reverse migration may probably not be impossible. It may be hypothesised that people may return to their original place once they find that the situation has changed through a number of means including irrigation. Making the number of people who would be served by the irrigation project could mean that it will never see the light of day. In this scenario, the sufferers would be the ones who have few alternatives.
This is not to say that Director General Belbase’s idea of appraising the irrigation project through a number of criteria such as the “minimum number of people that may be served by the potential project” is simply untenable. A cost-benefit analysis would probably be necessary to assess its financial viability. But assessing the project just in terms of financial cost against the benefits might obscure its social and equity dimension by further marginalising those who are already marginalised and are forced to live a wretched life, while those with enough financial resources have already escaped.
The idea of postponing the project until a sufficient number of people return to Ghoksila (or similar other places with climatic or socio-economic problems) may be likened to the chicken/egg conundrum. People may return to their villages once they start seeing more secure prospects, but the reverse would most likely not happen. The government, non-governmental organisations and civil society need to join hands to reverse this rather bizarre socio-economic anomaly that has hit the country due to adversities emanating from climate change.
Baral is a former joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests