NEPAL: No government, no irrigation
SINDHUPALCHOWK, (IRIN) – For maize farmers 100km from the seat of government in Nepal, an ongoing national political stalemate which recently dissolved parliament is far from their concerns. They are more worried about their dying crops.
For 55-year-old Dhanmaya Tamang and her family, poor seasonal rains have hit their only income source. Farmers make up nearly 80 percent of the district of Sindhupalchowk, bordering China and with a population of 300,000.
“At least we had hopes from the gods. But they have also abandoned us this year,” Dhanmaya told IRIN in the district’s remote Harekolpata village.
Usually by July each household has 200-400kg of maize depending on their farm sizes – enough to feed the family and bring in extra cash. This time, it is not even 20kg, barely enough to last a week, said Dhanmaya.
The Central Region, which includes Sindahupalchok District, fared well in last year’s July-September harvest, seeing a 16 percent growth in both rice and maize cultivation, according to a preliminary government estimate carried out in late December 2011 with the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The outlook for 2012 crops was “so far good across the region with few exceptions”, noted the assessment.
But half a year later, dozens of families in Harekolpata village are planning to send their children to the nearby cities of Bhaktapur and Kathmandu to find work, they told IRIN.
“We have no choice but to ask them to leave school this year,” said 40-year-old farmer Kajiman Tamang, father of two sons.
“We have lost 20 years of opportunity to develop our nation due to the [1996-2006] Maoist war and then an unsuccessful peace process that has only ended up with the major political parties fighting for power,” said Sirupati Pakhrin, who used to work with the Sindahupalchok District Development Committee (DDC).
The Maoist insurgency left almost 18,000 dead, according to government estimates, and concluded with a peace agreement which has been haltingly carried out.
No elected local government
The biggest “failure” has been the lack of locally elected bodies for 15 years when the last local elections were held nationwide, said Pakhrin.
For each of the country’s 3,900 village development committees (VDC) – units of local governance – there is supposed to be 10 elected officials plus a government-appointed clerk.
But since the last local election, there has only been the one clerk overseeing village governance. Each DDC contains a chairman from each of the 75 VDCs in a district. They, too, have been operating with one clerk for the past 15 years.
The delivery of a new constitution – promised in 2010, but delayed four times most recently on 27 May – would have decentralized governance under a federal system.
But now, political deadlock has broken up the national Constituent Assembly (CA) elected in 2008 and the country is under a caretaker government led by a prime minister who faces growing pressure to step down.
“Nothing has changed for us. We don’t even have drinking water,” said Sita Tamang, a 35-year old mother of three whom she cannot afford to send to state school. Even without school fees, she said, she still needs to find money for clothes and school supplies.
Unsafe drinking water contributes to the deaths of some 13,000 children in Nepal under the age of five annually, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“If these politicians come again asking for votes, I will shut my door in their faces,” said Sita angrily recalling how during the 2008 CA elections, local political candidates promised to bring drinking water, road, schools and irrigation projects. They never returned after the elections.
“We have no choice but to rely on each other because we have in reality survived without a government in the last 20 years,” said Uttam Khadka, a local hotelier.
Uttam said the district has become self-reliant. “We often interact with each other to trade each other’s goods and have managed quite well but we still need a lot of investment on irrigation, especially in the remote hills,” said Uttam.
Sindupalchowk has been classified a “food insecure” district by the Ministry of Agriculture – where people do not have access to enough food to keep them healthy – but with unpredictable rains even the more productive farms will be at risk because they are dependent on rain, according to the government’s District Agricultural Office.
“The only way to improve our farms without waiting for the rain is irrigation. The central government has promised it for so many years, but nothing has happened,” said Jitman Tamang, 40, whose half hectare of maize plants all shrivelled with the late rains. Last year, he harvested 200kg of maize.
Less than half the country’s cultivable land – 47.5 percent – is irrigated.
“We are already living in a bad situation due to political instability and it cannot get any worse than this,” said a fisherman, Singa Bahadur Majhi.
Meanwhile, 600km away in Nepal’s Terai region bordering India – a plains area known for its relative agricultural productivity – farmer Kul Bahadar Shahi, 53, said he remembered when officials came from the land survey department 16 years ago. “Since then, no one has come back. No one is really listening. Politicians take care of their own VDC.”
When asked about his elected representative in the recently dissolved national CA, he said: “Our leader had a low profile and was not much help.”