Seeds of conflictThere is a vast socio-economic disparity between communities and regions in Nepal. Province 2, which lies in the Madhes, and Karnali and Bheri zones are usually identified as being backward in terms of the economy and infrastructure.
There is a vast socio-economic disparity between communities and regions in Nepal. Province 2, which lies in the Madhes, and Karnali and Bheri zones are usually identified as being backward in terms of the economy and infrastructure. But Karnali is not as deprived as the Madhes. Studies show that state discrimination in the form of cultural deprivation and economic exploitation against Madhesis has created an identity crisis among them. As a result, Madhesi dissatisfaction has surfaced in continuous movements since 2007. Following political changes in 2006-07, inclusion and federalism have been adopted; and the representation of Madhesis and other marginalised people have increased slightly. It was thought that there would be peace in the Madhes after federalism and inclusion, but that has not happened.
Exploiting discontent by elites
Some say that political development and implementation has been progressing at a slow pace. At the same time, personal interests of the political elite have dominated socio-political issues. For this reason, there has been no proper solution, and chances of complexity and conflict have grown. The pace of development is still slow, and citizen dissatisfaction and anger have risen. The elite have been exploiting this discontent for their benefit.
Take, for example, the socio-economic and infrastructural development in the 10 VDCs of Belhi, Mauwaha, Phulkahi, Kachan, Khadagpur, Manraja, Banaula, Bhuthi, Sarswar and Malhaniya in Saptari district in Province 2. They are located near the Postal Road close to the Nepal-India border. The VDCs have a combined population of 48,746 as per the 2011 census. The level of development here is pitiable. Each VDC has just one sub-health post. There are no labs or doctors. The literacy rate is 25 to 39 percent, much lower than the national average of 67.5 percent. There is a wide gap between male and female literacy rates. Similarly, the number of schools in these VDCs is insufficient in proportion to the population, despite education being considered as one of the most important components of overall development.
Similarly, economic activities in these areas are dismal. Agriculture is the prime occupation of the people. About 80 percent of the area is covered by paddy fields. Paddy and wheat are the main cereal crops grown here. However, most of the households do not have enough to eat. In Bhuthi VDC, for instance, paddy is grown on 442 hectares and production amounts to 1,137 tonnes which is very low. There is no proper irrigation system, so local farmers depend on the heavens for water.
Stagnant economic activity
Surface irrigation is provided through the Western Koshi Canal, but it is not properly managed. Only a few farmers have private tube wells. There is little commercial fishing and poultry farming. Commercial agriculture is not found in the area. Similarly, there is no market nearby where farmers can sell their produce. Agriculture is the main source of household income; it contributes 60 to 69 percent. Remittance ranks second in terms of total household income as it contributes 15 to 23 percent. Remittance has improved household incomes, and people have more money to spend. This can be clearly observed from their household goods, mobile phones, TV sets, dish antennas and motorcycles.
Half of the VDCs do not have electricity. Sarswar, Malhaniya and Kachan VDCs have partial electricity provisions and 15 to 20 percent of the households have electrical power. There are no factories or financial institutions except one women’s cooperative in Manraja VDC. Therefore, people have to go to Rajbiraj to conduct financial transactions or take loans. These areas are also not connected by blacktopped roads. About 75 percent of the roads are dirt roads and 25 percent are gravel roads. Therefore, economic activity in the area is almost stagnant. In the absence of education and economic development as well as infrastructure development, social change has been slow. These situations are considered to be favourable for conflict. We should not forget that the People’s War launched by the Maoists spread from Rukum and Rolpa districts in 1996. These two districts were represented as backward districts in the past.
Therefore, one argument may be raised that the socio-political movements that happen in the Madhes from time to time are due to the backwardness of the area. We have been engaging to resolve Madhes issues since 2007, but conflict has been ignited repeatedly. Many issues related to the Madhes such as inclusion, federalism and proportional representation have been included in the constitution. But some Madhesis complain that they are not being properly implemented.
Amid these socio-political issues, economic issues have been given less attention by politicians, activists and writers in our country. Many Madhesis are in the lower to lower middle class category, and policies to address their concerns have not been worked out properly. Besides political and constitutional solutions, development that benefits the people directly should be pursued simultaneously in order to bring them into the mainstream to avoid conflict.
Chaudhary is the author of Tarai/Madhesh of Nepal and Nepalako Madhesi Samaj