Bishnu, Bikas and LimiFor the periphery to develop, the centre must not hold
The Simikot airstrip is a bustling one, despite its STOL (short takeoff and landing) status. The sky is filled with the whirring of helicopter blades as soon as take-off is authorised in the morning, with some helis landing as late as 6.30 pm. These helicopters are filled with Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims, mostly Indians. The Nepali border post of Hilsa is 20 minutes away by air, and tour groups ensure most passengers that they can fly out to Hilsa from Simikot as soon as possible, prompting more inflow of tourists.
Humla has in recent years become the easiest access point to Kailash. Nearly 12,900 people used this route last year, and while we were in Simikot, in the early part of September, more than 10,000 pilgrims had already travelled to Kailash. These numbers are great for tourism, but what is the impact of such a rush of tourists into Humla and Simikot?
By most accounts, Simikot has derived little benefit from the Kailash pilgrimage. Several guest houses have opened up for the travellers, as a night’s halt is most preferred by pilgrims. But very little of the trickle-down effect of such tourism onto other parts of Humla is seen on places such as Limi Valley, whose tourism potential remains untapped and undiscovered right now.
In my previous column, I gave a brief overview of Limi Valley in Namkha village municipality, which, despite being one of Nepal’s remotest regions, is filled with opportunities in several sectors, especially because of its proximity to China. Although local residents have already been pursuing trade and employment in Taklakot (as Purang, the Chinese town 30 kms from Hilsa, is known in Nepal), the nature of such practices is informal and subject to Chinese government requirements. What is perhaps needed is targeted intervention in key sectors, which could also work later on as case studies in transforming livelihoods in Himalayan communities across the region.
A conversation at 3700 m
Namkha municipality chief Bishnu Bahadur Lama ‘Tamang’ (the erroneous surname of Tamang is another story altogether) has been running around Halji village since the morning, despite the drizzle that brings cold winds into the Halji valley. He instructs locals to stand in file to be ready to greet the VIPs—the Karnali chief minister, the local MP, the tourism minister, etc.—who are to arrive by choppers to inaugurate the two-day Cross Border Travel and Trade Fair (which took place on September 4-5). The fair is meant to highlight the issues local residents face, and to seek solutions from the centre and provincial government. The helipad is a rudimentary ‘H’ shaped out of strips of white cloth in the middle of an uwa field. There is a delay in the arrival of the VIPs, but the welcome party is ready nonetheless. There is a lot riding on the fair for LimiValley, and for Namkha.
The previous day, Lama and I sat out in the sun while I listened to him talk about his municipality and the possibilities it offered. “Biodiversity, agriculture and tourism,” he emphasised, “I see great potential in these sectors in Namkha.” He spoke about Lapcha Pass, the only place in Nepal from where one can see both Kailash and Mansarovar, and the 11th century Rinchenling monastery in Halji village, which is currently being threatened by a glacial lake outburst. He got more animated as he began to talk about the possibilities Namkha offered in trading herbs like Ban Lasun (‘Wild Garlic’, Allium wallichii), which currently fetches almost Rs 16,000 a kg in China. Currently, all herbs are collected and sent to Nepalgunj via middlemen, despite inevitably ending up in China. The collection of these high-value herbs can add nearly Rs. 1-1.5 lakhs per annum to the incomes of households in the municipality. “If only we had a collection centre here in our own municipality,” Lama wistfully said.
Lama was most emphatic when he discussed the commercialisation of agriculture in Namkha. “Agriculture and livestock—these have been our primary income sources historically,” he said, referring to the historical salt-for-grains barter trade between Tibet and the lowlands of Limi. Today, Lama looks to the north once more. “If we can commercialise agriculture here, we can make Taklakot our primary market and easily sell our products there at much cheaper prices than currently available. In Taklakot, they sell potatoes for Rs. 170 a kg. We can easily supply the crop at Rs. 100 a kg.”
So what’s stopping them? “We’ve been talking to the Chinese at a local level. They are willing to provide a market for our products. But they’ve always maintained we cannot export any agricultural products or livestock without a quarantine centre at Hilsa. We’ve put forth our demands at the Centre, and I’m hoping to raise these issues with the chief minister once again when he arrives tomorrow.”
Periphery versus centre
The VIPs’ delay notwithstanding, one could see that Limi, and Namkha municipality, had invested tremendously in the trade fair. All six ward chiefs had come prepared to discuss the issues they faced, and there was a wide-ranging discussion with the government functionaries who had travelled to Halji. The challenges in infrastructure and connectivity have hampered the development of tourism in the region, but this could be overturned by the region’s natural advantage: its proximity to China. A trekking circuit could be developed between Hilsa and Lapcha with basic infrastructure along the route, targeting, in particular, the Chinese trekker. Limi has also preserved its pre-1950 Tibetan roots, and this culture could be an additional selling point for any traveller.
It may seem surprising that one argues for exploring connectivity with another country when the district itself is not connected to the rest of Nepal. But all roads in Humla lead to Simikot, which is still years away from being connected to the national road grid. “We pay anywhere between Rs 80-100 for a bar of washing soap that costs Rs 10 in Nepalgunj,” Lama told me, since most goods are brought by air. By the time even basic necessities such as vegetables reach Simikot, their prices shoot up. A kilo of tomatoes costs Rs 260, while green chillies, ginger and garlic cost Rs 400 a kilo. In circumstances such as these, with air cargo costs more than doubling the local prices of commodities, the only alternative Limi Valley has is to look towards Taklakot as their economic centre.
In a region where all supplies end up being ferried by air, transportation is the biggest cost factor. As the conversation veered towards the inevitability of roads, the north once again overshadowed all talk. Excavators in Humla have been brought in from China, but the diesel required to run them is in short supply. Lama said the Chinese have agreed in principle to supply them with petroleum products, but only after anofficial requisition through a petrol pump. “We’ve put forth our demand for a pump, but there has been no movement towards this end either.”
Any conversation about development and national connectivity will tend to focus onconnecting border regions with the centre. But perhaps there is an alternative for Himalayan regions that can benefit from China’s economic and infrastructural growth. In Limi’s case, to deny its natural competitive advantages vis-a-vis China would be to prohibit any sort of improvements in livelihood. There is a historical argument towards a freer cross-border trade across the Himalayan region, considering that communities here survived on the basis of such trade. With modern political borders and geopolitical sensitivities, the trade of the past has collapsed. Even if one does not vie to return to the past, one must seek out new advantages.
In Limi, these advantages lie across the border. For the periphery to develop, the centre must not hold.
Travel to Humla was made possible by Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) through an ICIMOD story grant