During a survey of the Manaslu Trail in northern Gorkha three decades ago, the noted botanist Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha and I talked as we walked about developing such remote regions of Nepal.
One day, as we rested near a stone spout, I came up with a somewhat provocative thought that it was futile to try to come up with an economic development model based on service delivery to such small populations in remote areas.
“Would it not make economic sense to just take all the people and settle them outside the Ring Road in Kathmandu?” I asked.
The good doctor is known for his understated wisdom, and answered: “If we do what you suggest, some day there will be Nepalis, but there may be no Nepal.”
These remote areas of Nepal continue to receive services, allowances and projects from the Nepali state at enormous expense. Donors pour money into these regions, and the cost of projects is high because of their isolation.
The hope that the people there will stay in their villages and prosper is not a new one. In the Panchayat days, kings went on winter tours to these areas to be ‘with the people’. They royal entourage included the entire government machinery that travelled with the king, and unfortunately, left when he left.
Last week, I moved upcountry from Biratnagar to Ilam and Phidim with New Zealand-trained environmentalist Shailendra Thakali. The roads are good, there is access to government services, technical schools and banks have opened up. Entrepreneurs are looking to strike it rich through tourism, the high value commodities and agriculture, and a range of energy projects.
Yet, the young are leaving in droves, and wealth also is moving out as soon as it is created. Men and women are moving to the cities, and many from these parts were in Tundikhel in Kathmandu last week to celebrate Udhauli. Their villages back home are empty.
How can we ensure that the hills will stay alive with the sound of music? Historically humans have always sought greener pastures, so this is nothing unusual. Yet, under Nepal’s new federal map, we have seven provinces and 753 local governments – and they have been allocated more resources than ever before in the country’s history.
The government is fond of telling us how much more revenue it has raised, but it seems to be unable to spend it. And if they do much of its effectiveness is questionable. The bigger question is will this be enough to keep Nepalis in the remoter regions of Nepal?
What is the central purpose of such spending? And how effective is it when delivery is still through beaurocrats, doctors, engineers and teachers who do not really want to go there? Federal Nepal could be the answer, but not in the hands of half-hearted people with a letter of appointment from Singha Durbar.
As we drove along the winding roads above the Tamor River, Thakali showed me the picture of a village north of Pokhara with one of the most stunning scenery in the world. It was empty. His clan spent a lot of money for the upkeep of their deserted villages. There is money for caretakers, the expenses of keeping the livestock. All because it was emotionally not justifiable to sell off ancestral homes and property.
Like many Nepalis, Shailendra Thakali has a plan: high-end tourism, energy project, and cultivating high value natural commodities for export. But for this to happen the government has to invest, it cannot just be a tax collector.
Let us hope that in 2019, all three levels of elected government are more accountable to every Nepali and start behaving like a shareholder of Nepal, Inc.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.