Jumla may be in the heart of culturally conservative mountains of northwestern Nepal, but it has the most progressive municipality because it is the only city in which both the mayor and deputy mayor elected in last year’s local election are women.
Kantika Sejuwal was a school principal in Jumla, and not really into politics. But after her husband Manav Sejuwal, who was district president of the Nepali Congress, was killed in a plane crash five years ago, she was persuaded to stand for mayor of Chandannath Municpality and won. Her deputy is Apsara Neupane of the NCP.
“People have an outdated perception of Jumla, it is not the land of uneducated people anymore. Though there are social inequalities, there are also many educated and capable women. The local election has proved that,” Mayor Sejuwal told Nepali Times in an interview. Sejuwal did have to struggle inside her own party for the nomination, but she won the hearts of Jumla’s voters during the campaign. However, one year after she was elected, there are the usual grumblings, also heard elsewhere, that improvements are not as rapid as promised during election time.
The major problems of Chandannath Municipality, the capital of Jumla district, is still roading, electricity, and communication– the same issues that dominated the last local election of 1997. Although, since then, Jumla has been connected to the Karnali Highway, the airport has been upgraded and the town has more development. Not all ten wards are connected by road even though Sejuwal has opened tracks. There are still power cuts, but these may end when two hydropower plants go into operation.
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“There is still a lot to be done here. Yes, roads are being built all over, but they are destroying farmlands and forests. No one has time to think of those things now,” says Jumla resident Chudaraj Neupane. There is also concern that Jumla is not prepared for natural disasters like earthquakes, since the new buildings are not seismic-resistant. Sejuwal says she has been trying to balance the need to deliver fast on roads with proper environmental assessments concerns.
Another Jumla resident, Sushmita Thapa, is more concerned about waste management. After the road reached Jumla, it brought packaged foods and single-use plastic, which are just dumped on the banks of the once-pristine Tila River. Sejuwal is aware of the problem, and says a landfill site has been located and the Municipality is looking for funds to complete it.
Sejuwal, like other mayoral candidates last year, had promised to make Jumla a ‘Smart City’. Many residents don’t think the place has become any smarter, and accuse the mayor of just using a catchy phrase. But the mayor says a Smart City does not just mean better infrastructure. “We are trying to focus on improving governance, and a development model that suits our geography.”
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Has having a woman in that position made any difference? The people of Jumla say that access to services has certainly become easier, especially for women. The municipality building has also been made disabled-friendly. “Women, people with disabilities and the elderly come to me with problems like domestic violence, education and employment,” says Sejuwal, who has started an employment program for 400 women.
The mayor has also been trying to address engrained gender and caste discrimination manifested in crimes like chhaupadi. However, she says: “The government has banned these practices, but they are deep rooted and will take a long time to change.”
Since both the mayor and deputy mayor of Jumla are women, some wonder if they are up to the task. But Sejuwal says she is working with her deputy on not just the next four years of her tenure, but for the next 20.
“We don’t know if we will be elected to the next term, but we have a vision for beyond our tenures,” says Sejuwal, who is in Kathmandu this week to plan for an investment conference in Jumla in September.
“We want to encourage investors to come to Jumla and see that it has much potential in agro-industries, tourism and infrastructure,” says Sejuwal. “We hope the infusion of funds will help sustained development of Jumla in future.”
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