03 July, 2009

A national crisis

Sushma Joshi

“Subsidized food turning Mugu fields barren.” This rather astonishing news was reported by the Kathmandu Post on June 15. The article quoted District Agricultural Officials who stated that Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) and World Food Programme (WFP) rice had increased dependency, and that people have lost interest in cultivating their land in favor of standing in line all day to get a 10 kg rice ration. According to one official, subsidized rice rations made people so dependent they've stopped growing crops.

Of course, one cannot really understand the situation without visiting the district. I have yet to visit Mugu. But what I found in my trip from Nepalgunj to Surkhet to Humla is that the worst drought in 40 years -- four months without rain from December to March —has been followed by a delayed monsoon, which was supposed to start on June 15. This has affected food crops on a massive level. The rice seedlings which some farmers chose to sprout have dried. For the surviving seedlings, the growing season is cut by crucial weeks, meaning the rice crop won't be as big.

Farmers all over Nepal, including in districts where rice is subsidized, have turned up to plant their seeds. They have planted their precious seed stock on an act of faith — mainly, continuing a farming tradition dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

But winter drought, delayed and rain-deficient monsoon, and drying water sources have hit farmers with a triple whammy. “It's a convergence of factors beyond their control,” says Richard Ragan, WFP country director in Nepal. And this is just this year's bad news. Many districts have been hit with droughts and floods that have affected their seed, food stock and assets for the last four to five years.

There are 26-30 million people in Nepal. Sixty-six percent farm for a living. We are looking at a food crisis of national proportions if the monsoon is further delayed. Look out the window. Do you see the rain?

Chaya Shahi, 20, of Humla, shows us her wheat harvest. They recovered the seed. Behind the seed is the food that is supposed to feed the family for three months. The small pile, says Chaya grimly, will feed them for a week. Dhanbahadur, her husband, speaks in the hushed voice of a frightened man, and with good reason. He shows us how high the maize is supposed to be by mid-June — six or seven feet tall, loaded with green cobs. The drought has left the plant in the dust, barely a feet high.

Farmers need quick and immediate assistance with irrigation, water harvesting systems, drought resistant crops, seeds, alternative cash crops, and stocks of food to pull them through the upcoming months. Where is our government? What is it going to do? Even if the government immediately jumped in to make agriculture (instead of squabbling) the top priority, even if it started putting in massive investment in small-scale, sustainable irrigation, the situation would still be bad.

It's easy to blame farmers for laziness. It's easy to blame WFP. District officials disgruntled with the food distribution policy of WFP — all food goes to poor areas outside of the district, and not to district HQ — are not likely to say happy things about it. Interestingly, WFP was not acting unilaterally, but has designed its programs acting on the Ministry of Agriculture's request. After an assessment of food needs, the Ministry requested WFP to provide food for the gap months when food stock was low. It is clear, however, that government officials are not clearly informed about the real situation of the food crisis in the country.

In Srinagar, a small Humla VDC, people have been harvesting everything from grains to beans to vegetables to herbal oils to cotton ever since they can remember. Recently, they stopped planting cotton. The reason was not subsidized rice — it was lack of water. The hills around Srinagar, where I found myself, were severely deforested. Their one water source had dried. The food shortage is now compounded with water scarcity. “We roasted and ate our rice a few weeks ago because there was no water to cook it with,” said a staff member from the Himalayan Conservation and Development Association. Men, women and children walked up and down the path, carrying polythene pipes which they planned to lay down to tap a second source miles away. But the idea that the groundwater needs to be recharged was missing. To reforest Srinagar will take at least a decade. Meanwhile, the population keeps rising.

Srinagar is a microcosm of our planet as it faces global climate change — a captive and growing population caught inside a small landlocked space, slowly running out of water and food. Isn't it our humanitarian duty to provide food until the people can take a breath and figure out a way to manage the crisis?

It's not like people haven't looked for solutions. There are success stories, even in Humla. In Srinagar VDC, one village planted a thousand apple trees. Despite hail, the trees are still loaded with fruit. Last year, the trees were so loaded one of them fell over because it couldn't stand its own weight. If there was a road to Srinagar, the farmers would be rich from their apple crops.

Three rosy-cheeked children pick and eat the barely ripe fruit, despite their fathers' warnings. There may be no market and the crops may rot from overproduction, but one good thing has come out of it — apples have added micro-nutrients and vitamins to the village's diet. WFP provided 40 days of rice so 27 people can construct an apple storage unit — the idea is to store the apples in a cool space so they can be available after the harvest season is over.

Nobody's denying white rice doesn't satisfy all the nutritional needs of people used to harvesting a dozen crops. But will people show up to build irrigation canals and roads and apple storage facilities and fish ponds, which is what the WFP provides the rice for, for the same equivalent of barley or millet? White rice has status in Nepal, even if it lacks nutritional depth. The food habits of people have changed. “It's like a crow eating a bug,” says a journalist from Jumla, talking about foxtailed barley. “I've become used to rice.” (Note: I myself am a white-rice critic — but my “white rice imperialism” article died when I saw the reality of what people face in mountain districts with acute food shortage.)

In Humla, people say they will show up to work for any grain. Humla inhabitants spent six to eight months in India, engaging in seasonal labour to supplement their income. Now, with the meager harvest, they are looking at 10 to 12 months. With subsidized rice to tide them over, the men had time to return to the village and implement alternative income strategies, like the apple, banana and citrus farms now in full bloom. But people cannot survive on fruits alone. The tragedy of our mountain districts is that they would be the most productive — were roads and markets to reach the remote VDCs.

For people in Humla, cash itself does not guarantee access to food. Food and goods may be too expensive (the Rs.80 packet of salt being a case in point, or the Rs.112 soap that goes for Rs.10 in Nepalgunj), or the markets inaccessible.

It is not just remote mountain districts that are hit. In Nepalgunj, a visit to Nava Kiran, an organization that works with another marginalized group, people who are HIV positive, confirms what we already know. “The biggest problem of HIV positive people is that they live hand to mouth,” says Mahesh Gyawali, volunteer. “People don't die of HIV. They die of poverty.”

Almost all of Nepal — even Kathmandu's spoilt elites — are hit with rising food prices, low food stocks and a meager or non-existent harvest. This has already led to a food crisis in pockets of Nepal and will continue to do so in the coming months. In such a scenario, our strategy should be to unite strongly against hunger, especially for those most poor and marginalized who will have to face the brunt of this brutal harvest. Indulging in the blame game hurts only the poor.

The government must expand the quantity and types of food it subsidizes and distributes to districts with food shortages, so that people can regather and recoup for a new strategy of agriculture, irrigation and water management more in tune with changing climate conditions.

Will tiding over people for the lean months between harvests cause dependency? For all people in Humla, the answer is clear. Over and over, we hear the same thing. “If you don't provide rice, we will die,” they say simply.

As we enter late June with the worst winter drought behind us, and a meager and late monsoon staring us in the face, the Nepali government must join hands with international organizations at all levels to advocate strongly for its own people. The food crisis must be elevated to a red alert, and multilaterals must be pulled in to explore multiple solutions. We cannot leave the farmers to solve this by themselves.

The role of India
On the Nepal-India border in Rupediya, I observe a policeman flick his baton and poke a man in his testicles. The Nepali man, towing a bicycle, holds a polythene bag of rice. He stands humbly, holding his bag up, realizing any reaction will only lead to more abuse. The rice, five kilos at the most, hints at the desperation with which the man has gotten on his bicycle and cycled kilometers in the heat and braved the border guards to save a few rupees.

But the Indian border guard doesn't care. He is there to ensure that the Indian Government's policy — only five kilos of sugar and rice, and no more for individual consumption — is observed. The Indian government has put this policy in place in order to safeguard its own dwindling supplies of food. For the border guard, there is a measure of sadistic boredom and enjoyment in torturing this man who can't fight back, and who can't even afford a few rupees as a bribe.

The torture the poor face to get food by the borders doesn't end there. As they enter Nepal, they are checked again and again by Nepali guards, who too seem to have set up their own arbitrary system to extort a few rupees off those who are forced to go back and forth across the border to feed their families. As one man in Humla said: “We would come back after working months and they would steal it all at the border. Both Indians and Nepalis get together to rip us off.”

There is little evidence the Indian government is trying to appropriate land in Nepal. But it is surely guilty of international treaty violations by restricting food access to a landlocked nation. The dialogue between India and Nepal should shift from the baseless accusations that India is trying to move the border markers (it is not), and more towards how India can become more sensitive to its neighbours as climate changes and people face acute food crisis. How can India ensure that the food import-export policy remains humane? How can it ensure that the poorest people in neighboring countries don't die from artificial food shortages?

As we buy cloth in Rupediya, I ask the cloth merchant accusingly: “How come your border guards are torturing your customers?” He explains to me he can do nothing, the government has set up restrictions on food export (but not, interestingly, on cloth), and it is the duty of the guards to ensure this policy if followed. “Well, tell your government that your customers are going to die if you don't allow food to enter Nepal,” I say. For the first time, the merchant, wrapped up in his own daily routine, gives me a startled look. The idea that the Nepalis are not just consumers of grain but also buyers of other Indian goods, and that having all your customers face food shortage would affect his business had just struck him. When will this strike the government of India?

We need an international dialogue, involving more partners than India, about how a small landlocked nation can survive the global food crisis. What do international treaties say? What's the moral and ethical responsibility of countries like India which form a natural barricade, restricting access of movement and food? What are the moral responsibilities of global leaders and international organizations in such a situation? More importantly, what should a neighbor do?
Posted on: 2009-06-26 20:49:05 (Server Time)

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