08 March, 2004

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Sushma Joshi

Inside the Khokana Oil Mill, a bit of the past still remains in the form of a wooden soli press. RamBahadur Lama, a young man who has migrated from Makwanpur and now works for this family enterprise, roasts crushed mustard seeds in a traditional wood-fired oven. These seeds are then put inside a fold of woven bamboo. SuryaBahadur climbs nimbly onto a large wooden wheel of the press, pulling it down with him as he enters a square cavity in the ground. The wheel spins from his body weight, and dark brown oil trickles out of the spout at the bottom.

Khokana, the name of a small Newari town a few kilometers outside of Kathmandu, was synonymous with mustard oil. The oil, extracted from roasted seeds, was prized for its smoky taste and purity since the early seventeenth century, when it was exported to China and Tibet. It was used widely in cooking, and was valued as a therapeutic massage oil for new mothers and babies. The Insight Guide to Nepal published a panoramic photo of a field of bright yellow flowers in the early eighties, turning the winter crop into a tourist attraction. Old men with bamboo kharpans on their shoulders vending their wares were a well known sight around the old towns even as late as the 1990s.

Today, Khokana is lit with electricity, but the brightness of the flowers is no longer to be seen. The fields lie empty. The town of Khokana, we are told, no longer grows mustard commercially.

"We can not sell it," says Mina Maharjan of the Khokana Oil Mill. "People say its too expensive. They don't look at the quality. They are just looking at its price." Large numbers of oil mills have closed due to the lack of demand. The Khokana Mill, one of the last remaining mills in town, has sustained itself by good marketing - its oil, packed in plastic bags, priced at Rs. 115 a litre, is available at the Ason Market in the city.

Devbahadur Maharjan of the Buddha Oil Mill confirms that consumers find the oil too expensive. How did this staple of the middle class suddenly get branded as a high-end, luxury item? The first was the takeover of the mustard oil market by the industrial giants - the Dugad Group, a large corporate group, markets its competitively priced Dhara brand via sophisticated television advertisements to a national audience. One of the reasons for lack of consumer confidence for local oil was adulteration. Middlemen were known to add Mobil, which had the same consistency as mustard oil, drastically reducing demand. The Dhara advertisement, addressing this issue, stresses purity. The imported vegetable oils from India, especially soya and sunflower oils, also took a giant share of the market with their affordable prices and appeal to a healthier lifestyle. Safflower oil was branded as low in saturated fat, and therefore good for the heart. But besides that is a more insidious reason.

Far more damaging to the economy is the import of raw mustard itself, which displaces the local crop with foreign produce. The mustard currently milled in Khokana is imported from different parts of the southern terai lowlands, India and even Europe, specifically from France and Denmark. At Rs. 34 a kilo, the crop is an easy sell. But imported mustard has its flip side - it becomes more expensive in the long run.
"The fields produce too little. Its not worth growing," says SuryaBahadur Maharjan, who co-owns the Khokana Oil Mill with Nandaram Dongol, his nephew. Suryabahadur has worked in the family business for the last twenty-five years. "We barely get five pathis from one ropani. We buy our seeds from Chitwan. And also from France and Denmark."

Not enough mustard is grown from Khokana to fulfill his press's needs, Devraj Maharjan confirms. The Buddha Oil Mill buys its seeds from Pharping, Dang, Nepalgunj and Chitwan, the lowlands of the south where land is fertile and labor cheap.

Europe seems like a long way to import mustard, especially when the fertile fields of the Valley stand fallow right next door. What makes this transaction feasible are the generous subsidies that farmers receive in Europe, along with trade policies which favor export.

Back at the Khokana mill, the cake left from the log press, high in oil content, is collected by NandaRam and put inside a modern electric expeller to get the last percent of oil out. The oil from both the traditional and modern press tastes the same, he hastens to add.

Devraj Maharjan disagrees. The traditional milled oil, he says, has a different flavor. In the Buddha Oil Mill, there is no modern expeller, only two log presses. The log presses caused an economic boom for the Newari kingdoms of the 1600s when they were first introduced, and today they are still functioning efficiently, affording people without big start-up funding a steady livelihood. The traditional press costs around 15-25 thousand rupees, and is an affordable investment for small farmers. The industrial strength machinery can cost up to one lakh rupees, and are out of reach for most of the town's farmers. The cake left behind by the traditional mill is sold on the market for Rs. 16 per kilo, and is used for chicken feed. The cakes, I am assured, are a well tested antidote for dry skin if used as a bath scrub. They are also an excellent remedy against dandruff. But this natural goodness is not enough to persuade consumers. "Business is down," Devraj says. "We do not sell as much oil as we used to." The marketing strategy of the Buddha Oil Mill - word of mouth - seems pitifully inadequate when compared to the national TV ads of its corporate competitors.

Near the bus-stand, a teashop owner confirms that they use both types of oil - locally pressed, as well as imported oil, to cook their food. The whole debate about saturated versus unsaturated fat, which has drastically altered the consumption habits of urban populations, seems to be far from this quiet town. At the same time, signs of the times and proximity to the center, probably the most major factor in changing the culture of Khokana, are everywhere. A cyber-cafe has sprouted in one of the lanes, advertising CDs and DVDs. A couple of elaborate mansions, build by wealthy migrants from the city, stick out like landmarks. One of them, we are told, belongs to the affluent owners of the popular Ranjana Cinema Hall. The road back to Kathmandu is filled with upscale, newly constructed suburban houses built with the influx of remittances from the Gulf, Europe and America.

Young people, attracted by the easy proximity to the capital and the restless lure of migrant labor, no longer want to farm as a living. But whether they are leaving for the glitz and the glamour of the city, or whether they are being pushed out, is a moot point. The aggressive undercutting of price from generously subsidized farmers in India and Europe, and the free flow of imports into the country, is one of the chief causes of decline of the mustard crop, and the local oil industry. Seeds flown in on jet airliners from Europe become a luxury item as transportation charges get slapped on the price tag. Losing its mainstream base of consumers, a thriving industry suddenly becomes a dying one. The tailspin of the industry continues, affecting farmers, mill-owners and consumers.

A way of life is dying out in Khokana. Whether the death of this industry will make a small town lose its means of livelihood, pushing independent small farmers into the migrant labor market, or whether it will open up new opportunities for them in the form of new urban opportunities remains to be seen.