Karnali 2.0The picturesque region is rich in resources that makes one optimistic about its future
What comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘Karnali’? You might instantly imagine a place that lacks basic infrastructure and institutions essential to drive local level economic opportunities. Or you might think of a place that has one of the most diverse geographic and climatic conditions in the country, if not the world. Or you might think of Karnali as a place where people who appear in picturesque photos depicting extreme poverty in the media, social media and photo exhibitions live. I have found out from my interactions with some of the country’s noted politicians, bureaucrats and representatives of development partners that you are not the only one who often describes Karnali as the country’s most cheated region, not only by geography and politics, but also by the government, private sector stakeholders and most of the active development partners.
There are plenty of empirical evidences that explain why most individuals view Karnali this way. As per the Nepal Human Development Report 2014, Karnali’s Human Development Index (HDI) value increased from 0.347 to 0.445 between 2001 and 2011, but it was still the lowest compared to other parts of the country. In addition, the HDI value for all five districts remained below 0.45 with three of the districts—Humla, Kalikot and Mugu—scoring less than 0.40.
In addition, the region’s Human Poverty Index (HPI) for 2011 was the highest in the country at 44.6 and far behind the national average of 31.12. Humla and Mugu, two districts in Karnali, had the highest HPI values for the years 2001 and 2011. In terms of life expectancy and adult literacy, Karnali’s five districts have an average value of 63.64 years and 42.99 percent, compared to the national average of 68.80 and 59.57 respectively. Moreover, indicators like mean years of schooling and per capita income show the poor condition of the entire region. The mean years of schooling is 2.51 years and the per capita income calculated with purchasing poer parity (PPP) is $811 compared to the national values of 3.90 years and $1,160 respectively.
The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) released recently by the National Planning Commission and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative has found that one in every two citizens in Province 6 lives in an MPI poverty trap. Being part of this province and also having poor performance in major human development indicators, the overall poverty rate across all five districts of Karnali is much higher. Even though the available data paints a somewhat miserable picture of Karnali, as a native of the region and someone who has spent more than half of his lifetime studying, working and travelling across all five districts, I view Karnali from a different perspective, rather a positive one. After studying Karnali’s history and contemporary potentials, personally, I think the perspectives of locals and outsiders about Karnali need to be transformed. If we can achieve this, I am sure we can lay a stone for the region’s rejuvenation plans.
The first thing that comes to my mind whenever I hear the term Karnali is the region’s glorious history. Home to the ancient Khas Kingdom and modern Sinjha Valley, Karnali used to be one of the most prosperous states in western Nepal between the 11th and 14th centuries. After the 14th century, the kingdom was divided into about 22 kingdoms, however, one of them, the Jumla Kingdom, maintained its stronghold in the region.
In the late 18th century, this kingdom’s armies fought bravely and even defeated King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s Gorkha armies 13 times; but eventually in 1789, it was annexed into the Gorkha Kingdom. This marked the formal beginning of the fall of not only the Jumla Kingdom but also the entire region. Despite the availability of countless opportunities, the region could not rise to prominence compared to other minor kingdoms that the Shah kings and their armies annexed into Gorkha in the subsequent years. The Khas and the subsequent Jumla Kingdom, at their highest points, had seen several cultural and social transformations that are still worth discussing. For example, the credit for the origin of the modern Nepali language goes to Sinjha Valley, the headquarters of the then Khas Kingdom.
Similarly, on the intellectual side, this region has produced and also hosted some of the country’s key scholars. The late Saubhagya Jung Shah, noted anthropologist and founder of the Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies at Tribhuvan University (TU), was born in Mugu district. He also prepared a course titled Power and Politics for TU’s graduate Sociology and Anthropology students.
Similarly, Dilli Chaur in Jumla district hosted the Karnali Institute, a research institute established by country’s best known anthropologist who is also called the father of Nepali anthropology—Dor Bahadur Bista. Related to the academic sector, the Karnali Technical School in Jumla was considered to be one of the most promising technical schools of the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT) in the country. However, due to the decade-long Maoist conflict (1996-2006) and associated political and bureaucratic dysfunctions, the former centre of technical academic excellence now struggles to regain its former influence.
On the entertainment side, Karnali has also contributed a lot. Himalaya, a 1999 film directed by French director Éric Valli which carried a simple story still prevalent in the northern part of Dolpa, not only gained fame in Nepal and outside but also became the first Nepali movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. In 2016, Kalo Pothi (The Black Hen), a movie that portrayed the lives of people in Karnali during the Maoist conflict, represented the Nepali movie industry at the 89th Academic Awards. A young film director from the Mugu district himself directed the movie.
Whenever I think of Karnali’s major problems, I also think of the region’s major potentials. When I equate the potentials with the prevalent problems, I find more hope than discontent. Karnali, without doubt, is one of the richest regions in terms of natural resources in all of Nepal. Some of the most notable contemporary natural resources and infrastructure that make me optimistic about Karnali’s future are Rara National Park, Shey Phoksundo National Park, local herbs, Himalaya-originated rivers, best places for high altitude sports and the Karnali Academy of Health Sciences (KAHS).
After the construction of Karnali Highway, the inflow of local and foreign tourists to Karnali’s two conservation areas, most prominently Rara, has been encouraging. As this trend is likely to grow in the future, Karnali can generate huge revenue from the tourism industry. Similarly, according to the Nepal Herbs and Herbal Products Association, Karnali is home to herbs that provide the most market value. As per the District Forest Office in Jumla, 1,262 quintals of non-harvested herbs were collected in the district worth Rs3.1 million in taxes this fiscal year. If locals and outsiders could invest their time, effort and resources in properly harvesting these herbs, it could boost not only Karnali’s economy but also the overall economy of Province 6 in the future.
Like a few other districts in Nepal, each district in Karnali is rich in rivers that run 12 months a year. Though some parts of the rivers in Karnali are being used for irrigation and household activities, the utilisation of major economic benefits from these rivers through hydropower investments and water sports still remains a dream. Likewise, the government has recently conducted a feasibility study to establish a high altitude sports training centre at Chhumchaur in Jumla, the highest elevation in the world where rice is grown. This is a good sign for all local and international athletes.
Finally, institutions like the KAHS in Jumla have proved how a substantial investment in Karnali’s health sector can produce spillover effects over the years. This experience is paving the way for stakeholders to invest in other sectors of Karnali to achieve balanced long-term development goals for the region. As the entire country heads towards federalism, Karnalians need to plan properly to realise the Karnali 2.0 dream for the long term. For this, locals and outsiders need to change their mindset and not pursue development goals at the cost of the local environment, natural resources and rare plain lands in the region.
Mahat is a public policy researcher