Karnali bluesThe government interventions in Karnali are mostly of a palliative nature with short-term benefits
Hunger, food crisis, malnutrition and mass migration to India for survival— they are what come to our mind when we think of Karnali. Before 1990, we did not know much about its situation. The government-controlled media either did not reach there or suppressed the information. Despite some attempts by the government and donor agencies to ensure food security in the region, the problem keeps compounding.
According to historical reports and writings of locals, the people of Karnali have been suffering from hunger since the late 1950s. Specifically, the state’s exclusive policies and its rigid adherence to geographical exclusion led to the lack of road and irrigation facilities. These structural problems are still plaguing Karnali and causing regular food crises. The discrimination against low caste and women is still prevalent, and accessibility to education and health is limited.
Road not taken
Development interventions by the government and development partners since the 1990s, especially in the form of food-aid, have not really solved the structural problems of the region. These interventions are mostly of a palliative nature with short-term benefits. Like many other development initiatives in Nepal, the larger part of monetary development-aid ended up in people’s pockets. It is still very expensive to supply food and other materials to Karnali as well as to retain experts, government officials and service providers like health workers and teachers. As a result, a larger part of the budget meant for the development of Karnali eventually goes out of Karnali.
When local production declines—which could happen due to factors beyond human control like new diseases—efficient road networks help in the quick supply of essential commodities at a cheap cost. But this essential and basic service was not available in Jumla, the headquarters of Karnali zone, until recently, and all the commodities had to be flown there using costly helicopters. Nonetheless, after the Karnali highway, which connects Jumla with Surkhet, became operational, the cost of supplying food and other necessary materials reduced drastically, despite the fact that this road had been poorly constructed and it would take three days just to cover a distance of about 220 km.
After seeing the road and some of its benefits, I wondered why the government had to wait until the mid 2000s to build this road properly. If the government was not capable of building the road, it could have solicited international support for this purpose. I know that roads can result in some disadvantages for the local economy, but they are essential for reaping the benefits of the market economy and for integrating with other regions for mutual benefits.
Because of past injustices to Karnali that kept it excluded geographically, food-aid became a major form of external support. The abrupt disruption of trade in 1959—popularly called salt-trade, but which included many other commodities—between Tibet and Nepal further worked against the region as it lost many economic advantages that could have helped the people in Karnali to earn income or food. This loss meant that Karnali was not able to cope with food shortages that could happen from time to time owing to drought or crop and animal diseases. Moreover, after the trade with Tibet came to a halt, the government virtually did nothing in Karnali to provide economic opportunities for the people through new infrastructures like a road to link it to other regions and facilitate trade.
As a result, the prosperity of Karnali gradually eroded, while other regions like Mustang and Manang, which were similar to Karnali prior to 1959, pursued alternative economic enterprises partly because of the government support and development of infrastructures and enterprises. Karnali did not get this privilege, and so when a major food crisis happened in 1972, food had to be flown in. Since then this trend has continued to be one the major ways to support Karnali until now, which again changed the local food-habits leading to permanent dependence on external food. Disregard for local food culture and traditional infrastructures like old irrigation systems has also taken its toll on the region. Traditional and indigenous foods would also have contributed to food security, but are sadly lost because of modern ideas about food and development.
The food crisis that is reported in Karnali recently is linked to climate change impacts like drought, absence of snowfall and drying of water sources. But this is also a part of the social and political problems. If there was political commitment, state agencies would have helped to build irrigation facilities and other infrastructures to cope with droughts that occur almost every year in the region. In fact, Karnali has enough resources to meet its food requirements. It is unlucky in some ways, but lucky in many other ways. It has enough resources that can be harnessed for improving production and productivity, and to generate income.
Given the unjust treatment of Karnali by the Nepali state, it has a great deal of obligation to the people of this region. I hope the government realises this reality and acts before it is too late.
Adhikari is a social scientist and the author of ‘Food crisis in Karnali: A politico-historical perspective’