It is a common sight every day on the inner streets of Kathmandu to see four-wheeled push carts (thela) loaded with colourful fleece jackets and trousers, being sold door to door. A seller tells potential buyers that his business is really bad this year because it has not been as cold as in previous years.
He then looks up at the sky with a bit of cloud cover and utters a short prayer. If it rains, prevailing wisdom has it, winter will set in and his business will pick up.
Sooner or later winter will be upon us and people are getting ready: dry-cleaning down jackets, stacking firewood and charcoal, and sealing gaps in windows. Diets are also changing — momo soup is on the menu.
Homeless in winter, Om Astha Rai in
From Khumbu to the Kathmandu Valley, and all the way to Hilsa on Humla’s border with China, people are hunkering down for the winter. And if the half-metre of snow in Himachal is any indication, this will be another frigid one.
The hills and mountains are prepared, but why is it that it’s in the Tarai where people freeze to death? The person selling the jackets from the cart had a few insights. His first and immediate answer was: because they are poor.
Those words are supposed to end all conversations — the Ultimate Truth. In a country that has witnessed 10 periodic plans and almost 7 decades of foreign aid, thousands of NGOs with glossy impact reports and PowerPoint presentations with bullet points, why are Nepalis still poor and dying of cold?
Where does the government’s budget allocated for poverty alleviation go? How are our tax rupees spent? How is it that remittances do not seem to make a dent in the problem? The Tarai districts have the highest proportion of young men working overseas, yet that is where deaths due to cold are highest.
Mountain farmers have been moving down to the Tarai for centuries because of the flat, fertile land and multiple crops. The Tarai has mango groves, rivers and wetlands, endless fields of rice, mustard and sugarcane, fish and duck breeding ponds, the East-West highway and a ready market across the border in India. So, why are people poorer there?
Turning on the heat, Ajaya Dixit
The first news of death from cold this winter will prompt collection drives for warm clothes. Selfies on Facebook posts will prove that the country has no shortage of do-gooders. Yet, teachers are not preparing students with the knowledge of how to stay warm — home insulation, keeping classroom doors and windows closed — and about the dangers of indoor pollution.
The Tarai winter fog is getting worse every year because of a combination of factors: industrial pollution and smog, the spread of winter irrigation that raises the concentration of water vapour in the air, climate change. The sun does not shine for weeks on end — a phenomenon that stretches right across the Indo-Gangetic plains.
It is time to find local, long-term solutions that are creative, based on indigenous knowledge, resourcefulness and the desire to lead healthy, prosperous lives.
The past prosperity of the Madhes can be seen in Mithila art: the plentiful clothes, jewellery, food, feasts, houses and livestock, which reveal a people who did not suffer from want and were definitely not dying from the cold.
These illustrations give us a vision for what was and what can be. Engineers and architects can train builders in environment-friendly indigenous designs using local materials like clay and tiles. People at the palikas need to be directed on what designs should be approved to keep people warm in winter, and in the searing heat of the Tarai summer.
The get-ready-for-winter awareness campaigns can start during Chaat, when measures to stave off the cold can be disseminated. There is no excuse in this day and age for any Nepali to die from the cold. So, let us stop looking for excuses.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.