25 July, 2009

Economic yo-yo

By Sushma Joshi

A charming little vegetable bazaar sets up at evening at the public plaza near my home. Candles twinkle in the dusk, temple bells rings, and clusters of children gather as the vendors set up piles of colourful vegetables and fruits for sale. One of the vendors has claimed me for his own, and insists I buy watermelons and mangoes even on days when I don't need them. To humour him, I oblige. I found out, however, the last few days, the prices get crazier. One day it's Rs.60 for mangoes. The next day is Rs.85. The day after it was Rs.110. Then Rs. 170. I feel guilty as I pick up my plastic bag with the mangoes. Other customers clustering around me give a baffled look of surprise when quoted the going price, then walk off in disappointment.

This wild seesaw of prices (an almost unheard of swing of 40% within one day) is just the tip of the economic iceberg that is sinking Nepal's Titanic attempts to rebuild the country. With no regulatory mechanisms to keep prices stable, citizens can barely budget for their daily expenses.

Can you wonder then that crime is high? How can a humble office worker or a taxi-driver making Rs.10,000 a month feed a wife and two children on that money, especially when the price of everything from rice to oil to salt keeps yo-yoing day by day?

Economic instability is just a reflection of the political instability. In the Sarbajanik Sunwai program on Kantipur, I watched with the other people of Nepal as three experts battled out what was wrong with the budget. Bishwambar Pyakuryal, the economist, said the budget was enormously inflated. This kind of budget would reduce the value of money. He evoked the image of Eastern European countries where people came out with piles of paper money whose value had become worthless.

The Maoist spokesperson denounced the budget and said the Maoist party had refused to accept it. Despite their tolerance for violence from their youth wings, I have to say the Maoists appear the most convincing actors on the political stage — and the people acknowledged this with bursts of applause.

The CPN-UML candidate, dressed flamboyantly in a Jawarharlal waistcoat, spent the entire time berating the Maoists instead of explaining how the troublesome budget would tide 26 million Nepalis out of rising food prices and monsoon-deficit non-harvest in the coming months. In fact, he did not mention a single concrete issue — no water, no food, no electricity, no education, no healthcare, no road. He also couldn't really counteract his opponent's claim that in fact a substantial portion of money had been divided and distributed between political cadres.

This of course is what happens on the political stage. In another small stage in central Kathmandu, I was invited to attend a Yuwa Bhela (a youth gathering) and to think about the ways in which young people could make a difference to Nepal. Anil Chitrakar was the chief speaker. “Do you know who ruled Italy when Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel?” he asked. We all shook our heads. “The answer is…” Mr. Chitrakar looked around, and then said: “The answer is: who cares?” Would Italy really have become the wild whirlpool of creative arts and cultures if it had spent all its time thinking about who the rulers were and what they were doing? Mr. Chitrakar's point — we spend way too much time thinking about inept leaders, instead of focusing on getting things done. Of course, one cannot ignore politics. But in the thralldom that holds Nepalis captive as we watch a very badly scripted play with terrible actors (even our political leaders are not professionals and don't really know what to do) we forget our own roles.

Of course, our quality of life is dependent on what political leaders do or don't do. Water is political. So is electricity. So are roads. And while we surely can't forget or ignore politics and must be aware of what is going on, how can we balance our obsession of watching what is akin to daily soap opera with a bad script and instead channel our energies into creating new young leaders? How do we leave traditional party politics behind and groom a new generation of youth leaders with an ethical mindset and priorities? As we raise these questions, I see that the Madhesi youth group leader, who's sitting with us on the same table and giving us an exquisite speech that is a close copy of party rhetoric, is being ignored by his tablemates. The two — an USA returned entrepreneur and a USA returned journalist — have leant behind him to continue their own interesting conversation as the youth leader forges onward with his clichĂ©-ridden speech. As I watch this scene, it occurs to me that what is missing is the linkage between these two groups. How can the young people who have left the country and acquired new and globalised skills see it in their benefit to pass them onto the future political leaders of the country so that twenty or thirty years down the line, we won't have to bemoan that politics is business as usual?

As I mull this, Mr. Chitrakar has already shared with us how challenges could become opportunities. “There are going to be 20 million Chinese tourists entering via the train in Kodari in 2020. Do you know how many Nepali entrepreneurs are ready to provide Chinese-speaking tour-guides? Now what about the Chinese — do you know how many Nepali speaking tour guides they are already starting to hire and plan for?” China, that behemoth of forward looking thinking, is surely ahead of us in that game. This is a striking example of how we never plan for the future but only for the hand-to-mouth present. But as Mr. Chitrakar points out, there are plenty of opportunities in Nepal, if only we are willing to see it and take it for what it is.

One of the greatest challenges — and opportunities — for the new generation might be global warming. Girija only cares about the weather (will it rain or will it be sunny? is the extent of his concern), but the future generation must care about the climate, as one young journalist explained to me. As the planet's temperature rises, young people must ask themselves how they can adapt, independent of party rhetoric and what did or did not happen in Kathmandu's political circles. A recent visit to Nepalgunj brought home this point to me. A Chidimar village watched helplessly as their water sources dried up, their jungles vanished and they were pushed to the edge of mass migration, but a few kilometers down the road a settlement seemed to be thriving. They'd taken herbs like mint, chamomile and citronella and with the help of national and international agencies, started to extract herbal oils. Before long, their income had quadrupled --one liter of oil sold for Rs.33,000 ($500). Half the plants, found in the jungle, were wild. The forest, preserved, ensured a cool flow of water irrigated their maize fields when other land dried up. And the hot weather had even been a boon — instead of 4 liters, the heat had thickened the oil and now they got 8 liters from the same plot. Alcoholism and seasonal migration had stopped, and people exuded a sense of well-being and economic security.

If they had waited for the political leaders to solve their problems, would they have reached this level? Surely not. Waiting wouldn't have done them or their children, now in good boarding schools, any good. But maybe out of this experience will come more leaders who can see not just their own benefits but the benefits of others. For the farmer who's done so well with this new venture, his purpose is very clear. “There's so much demand for these oils we hope the government will help spread the farming techniques and provide seeds to other farmers in other parts of Nepal so they too can benefit,” he says simply. I look at him and realize he's totally sincere. He sees a whole country blooming with herbal flower gardens. Now when farmers like these enter local politics, maybe then we will see a real new class of politicians.

In the meantime, can the current actors stop their confused running around in chia-pan and bhetghat sets, and instead of fighting about “consensus” and “harmony” (neither consensus nor harmony will feed the people, people) focus on putting a price regulatory board in order? You can always ask the big bad foreign hands for help in case you're too busy fighting about consensus.

(Sushma Joshi is the writer of
“End of the World,” available in Pilgrims, Mandala, etc. She posts to www.sushma.blogspot.com

19 July, 2009

Regression

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post, 2009-07-19

During the Jana Andolan time, we heard a lot about “regression.” Regression, as far as I understood, stood for “going back to a darker time and place.” With the establishment of the republic and the Constituent Assembly (CA), we haven't heard that word with such frequency. Admittedly, the peace process still has to come to a “logical end” through the fabled use of “civilian supremacy” but the more we head towards the second year of the CA, the more it appears that the end is far from logical and the civilians, instead of reigning supreme, are now suffering from having a carpet they never knew they had — a regressive carpet of feudal but still functioning bureaucracy — whisked out from under them. They are on the floor and bawling, but who's there to hear?

For instance, the fabled feudal bureaucracy of the Panchayat actually had gotten it together to do that most basic of therapies — oral rehydration therapy for those suffering from diarrhoea.

From the eighties to the beginning of the twenty first century, Nepal had carefully build up a gigantic campaign around oral rehydration therapy — salt, sugar, water — so people no longer needed to die from what is actually a fairly elementary disease. People, this is not rocket science. This is boiling a bit of water and putting salt and sugar and applying it to a person before they dehydrate enough to die. Now how horrible can the conditions be that in Jajarkot and associated districts people are dying by the hundreds of something Europe got rid of centuries ago? Why on earth is Nepal now facing a diarrhoea epidemic with fatalities in the hundreds? Knowing the mid-west, I'd hazard a guess that even salt and sugar may not be as easily available as we think it should be. And boiling water — that requires firewood. And most of all, it requires clean water. Want to guess how many of those who died had all of these four things in place?

This may be a good time to apply the word “regression” but since the Loktantriks have reserved this word exclusively to refer to evil feudals of Panchayat era, maybe this won't really work. The problem is that the evil feudals are soon going to look like heroes at this rate, if the government doesn't get into the act fast and provide at least that basic of services. If nothing else (no food, no water, no education, no employment) at least the Nepali people could always rely on Jeevan Jal, right? Now, apparently, no more. We've become so advanced the government has shut down the only Jeevan Jal factory.

The INGOs (no state presence has been witnessed, apparently) who made it out to Jajarkot to provide services are scrambling to buy up the last remaining oral rehydration salts commercially from pharmacies. Wasn't there a regressive age in which this stuff was distributed for free?
Is it possible to reverse development gains? Don't we think that certain things we could take for granted were fights already won? Hadn't we graduated to worrying about a non-existent pandemic of avian flu and stopped thinking about life threatening diseases like TB and malaria? The lesson to be learnt from Jajarkot is one we have always known — that no matter how representative the hype of government, the biggest chunk of cash is always reserved for the rich (how many Tamiflax in Kathmandu, as opposed to packs of Nava Jeevan, available? Want to bet?), and the poor will always be at risk and vulnerable from every tiny environmental factor.

With climate change, water shortages are on the rise. People don't have drinking water and sanitation in many places in Nepal. In Humla, we witnessed a grandmother take a newborn baby and wipe its ass with a sharp stone. “Don't do that,” we called out, upset. The woman just ignored us and continued to do her work. Later we realized the obvious — there was no water to be had. And apparently, even the shrubs around the overpopulated village had dried out so even a leaf couldn't be used to clean the baby.

Has the political stalemate reversed development gains that no matter how small had still made a significant difference in people's lives since the seventies and eighties? Can things get worse instead of better? In areas outside Kathmandu, state presence can feel thin if not non-existent, in much the same way as during the conflict. When the state bureaucracy is not really present, and the main body of government is missing, how can the pills the donors pop be effective? These saline dribs and drabs of donor funding which build a road here and a health post there, talk about uterine prolapse in one village and income generation in another — how useful is it for Nepal in the long run? More to the point, will it last? Or will we see the thriving income generating, gender empowered, community forestry wielding group of one area suddenly fall to the wayside when the project “phases out”?

It's not just outside Kathmandu that the state is missing. Anybody who watched the budget speech a few days ago will wonder where those highly paid 601 CA members were when the budget speech was going on. The room was empty. Where are the people representing the people? Surely they were not in Jajarkot taking care of the sick.

What other state institution like Jeevan Jal is about to collapse or be taken over by political interests? Everything from shoe factories to cement factories, from airlines to Jeevan Jal has shut down. These, despite talk to the contrary, were not evil Panchayati institutions. These were functioning state institutions that were providing a service, however basic, to the people of Nepal. This we know for a documented fact. What do we have in its place except empty rhetoric? Which way are we regressing?

10 July, 2009

Will work for food and water

Sushma Joshi
With the rising population, many communities in Nepal are on the edge of a major drinking water crisis

“Do you know who the current Prime Minister is?” we ask. The people of the Chidimar village eye the team of journalists scornfully and reply: “We don't know. Last time we checked it was Girija. Maybe now it's Fatteh Singh Tharu.”

They are being facetious. News media is too widespread these days for people not to know who is currently prime minister. But their answer, given with the shrug of indifference, underlies how the majority of Nepal's people feel very removed from the daily activities of the tiny handful who purport to rule the country.

The majority of Nepal's 26 millions have more important matters to think about. For instance, food and water. For a Chidimar community who live close to Nepalgunj, their main concern is water security. A project came in and installed 6 hand-pumps for 18 households. Now, only two work. The rest have dried up. This is a story heard with frequent and agonizing frequency all over the country. Communities who had water taps and handpumps installed within the last decade are now seeing a soaring ratio of dried out water taps.

Even more worrying than the dried out taps are the drying sources. A tap may dry out through a cut pipe, or water diversion into another household or community. But a dried out water source often signals that dreaded Nepali disease – chronic deforestation, absolute illiteracy about the need to maintain and recharge aquifiers, and a downplaying of traditional knowledge regarding alternative water harvesting, storage and management. Traditional methods like wells, which have served water-poor countries for millennia, were disregarded for the more sophisticated modern hand-pumps – leading to water being taken out, but never being put in.

With the rising population, many communities in Nepal are on the edge of a major drinking water crisis. But instead of solving the crisis in a more environmental friendly way which includes local water harvesting as well as forest conservation, the NGOs and government insist on their own wisdom – seek another source, further away, put polythene pipes, tap water. This robotic method neither questions itself to its own efficacy, nor wonders about how long this time this money-intensive method will serve the water needs of its users.

“We used to have springs before,” says Hasnu Chidimar, 70. “But after installing hand-pumps, they got forgotten.” The second source of their water is now 400 meters away, and many women have to go there to collect water.

Is the water shortage due to deforestation and the resulting aridity that comes when aquifers are not recharged? “There used to be jungles from here to Kohalpur,” says the old man. “Now they're all gone.”

For Radha Chidimar, 40, feeding and educating her children are her primary concerns. With three children, and a husband who works and makes Rs.100 per day, food is always a struggle. In her small and bare hut, I see the remains of the morning meal. We don't ask what they have eaten, although we do ask how much food costs – Rice is Rs.25/kg, Lentils Rs.100/kg. The villagers also eat vegetables – potatoes, tomatoes and gourds, which are grown easily in the fertile Tarai lands.

During strikes and bandhs, husband Maiko Chidimar (40) still finds casual work in bricklaying or yard work. But their income remains less than $50 per month. Despite the cash crunch, Maiko forbids his wife to go out and work since women only make a pittance compared to men. “I'll let you go and work on the day you make the same money as me,” he replies. “I don't want you breaking your back for Rs.10 per day.”

The most urgent need, says Maiko, is employment and agriculture. Would they be willing to take the 12 bigha of land in front of their village, now arid land owned by the local school, and use it to build an income generating activity like fishponds? “Of course,” they all reply. “We want it.”

It's not like the Chidimar, traditionally bird-trappers who made very little income, don't have access to credit. The local savings and credit group already has 2 lakhs in its account. So why is it not being used? “We don't dare take it because we don't know if we can pay it back,” Radha says simply.

For Hasnu Chidimar, 70, who comes and goes in politics matters little. His primary concern is his old age stipend, which arrived for three months, then stalled. When, he wants to know, will they restart the stipend? “There's money for the poor. The netas take it. Only when people like us rise, will something happen for people.”

As for the drought: “We don't care if there is no rain,” says Hasnu. “We'll leave and go to another country. We gave votes, we made kings. We got nothing in return. We will migrate to another place where we can grow something.”

Of course, this cocky statement of disregard for nationality doesn't really provide the easy, hoped-for solution. With global climate change affecting all countries with its own devastating specificity, Hasnu's plans for migration may not really provide him with the easy alternative he seeks. Television provides an all too heartbreaking reality check --drought in Manipur, migration of camelherders from Rajasthan to some wetter area till rains soak their own lands. The loss of bird species, which the Chidimar used to trap and sell, have already given them a clue that biodiversity is getting lost – and makes it easier for them to understand how water, trees and birds are inextricably linked.

More than migration, the answer may lie in planting trees and reviving dead forests, and in doing what our ancestors have done for centuries – digging deep wells which act both as water storage units during the rain-rich monsoon, and as irrigation and drinking water sources during the dry winter months. One day, the Chidimar, like urban dwellers, may have to think about concrete water harvesting tanks for each house. For now, wells may be a stopgap measure. Of course, wells by themselves are not the answer, but may be one potential solution, if somehow monsoon water could be stored inside it after it's taken off tin roofs and routed through those fabulous polythene pipes straight into the wells.

Hasnu listens to me attentively as I tell him water shortage is a global crisis, and would he be willing to dig a well for his community?

“Of course we can dig a well,” he answers readily. They used to have gaddas, 15 meters deep and 30 haat wide, before. This traditional water storage fell into disuse with the introduction of handpumps. “If somebody gave us rice to eat, we'd do it. Otherwise we'd have to go out to work to feed ourselves.” The fifteen crucial days it would take to dig the well is dependent on one simple fact – without food, people who live hand to mouth can't spare the time and labour that it would require to ensure the water security of their village.
(Joshi is the author of the "End of the World." You can find the book at Vajra, Mandala, Quixote's Cove, Pilgrims, United and other bookstores.)

Sushma Joshi

sansarmagazine@gmail.com
Posted on: 2009-07-10 20:30:33 (Server Time)

05 July, 2009

R.I.P

Sushma Joshi
“Is there any other person whose death would evoke the same global response in this century?” wondered a well known journalism professor in his Twitter posting. The answer seems to be no. Michael Jackson, love child of the American Eighties and its fantabulous excesses, is probably going to be it.

My mother's still convinced he died of cancer. When I asked her, “Do you know this singer called Michael Jackson?” she was irritated. “Yes,” she said, then burst out: “Why did that nice black man have to go and turn himself white? All those chemicals! His skin turned white, his nose fell off, and then he died of cancer.”

I said he couldn't sleep for four days before his death, and he'd asked for strong sleep medication, and that he'd been found the day of his death on the floor with his stomach full of prescription drugs and he probably died of overmedication. My mother was adamant. “I saw it on TV. He died of cancer.” (I have my own theory. Apparently Michael called some nurse up and said he felt very hot on one side of the body, very cold on the other. That's called a Kundalini rising in tantric talk, but lets not get into that in case people start to think you're one major kook.)

Well, Michael tried his best. Nobody can deny he tried his best, and he's not to blame for all of the world's problems. But at times you can't help staring at that chalk-white face and wondering: what happened? How did the glowing boy of the seventies turn into this sinister cyborg of a man? What was it about that particularly American commercial version of fame that led him down that path of reconstruction and deconstruction?

If the 1980s was the American decade, with Reagan, the Cold War, big cars, and MTV as its symbols, then Michael Jackson was probably its ambassador. Or perhaps even its king. He hopped across the Iron Curtain and made love to the Russians. He won the hearts of everybody from prisoners in Filipino jails to Saudi sheiks. And the more outrageous he became, the more people seemed to love him.

But the love ended, as the hysteric, infatuated kind always does, on a bad note. Before long, Jackson was being reviled for sleeping with boys who he claimed were like his children. People didn't believe him. Lawsuits started to pile up. Accusations followed, and before long he was in deep debt.

Kind of like America is right now. Crashing from the great heights of excess, America struggles to regain its posture, regain balance, get back on the dance floor. America has its own Neverlands to deal with — Madoff, mortgage companies, banks with shifty histories. Jackson style transactions in finance emerge, and people shake their heads, one big crash after another, trying to figure out who did what.

Like Jackson's Rwandan nanny, who pumped his stomach many times to clear it of the toxic drugs, Obama now struggles to pump the American economy off its toxic investments. Will he be successful? Can he cut through the accumulated decades of bad policies and investments to make way for a new beginning? Will America stop its addictions to petrochemicals and start living a healthier lifestyle? Will it embrace its multicultural histories and stop pretending its all white? Will the curtain rise again?

MJ had a truly global appeal (as does America.) I was sitting at the Organic Garden CafĂ© the day of his death when the music system turned on and Thriller came on air. All of a sudden, I heard a sudden volley of twittering behind me, and turned around to see — two caged parrots, previously silent, which'd now joined into the chorus. Don't ask me. Just try it. Bring some caged parrots and see what they do when you turn on “Thriller.”

The whole planet responded to the death of this singer who has come to be emblematic of America. Now can America return the favor and think of the planet in return? “Betraying the planet,” said economist Paul Krugman of the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. Although it was passed, 212 American political representatives rejected this bill. America refuses to believe it's excesses, it's petrochemical addictions, it's oil wars, has anything to do with the hurt the planet is facing. Millions of people are (or will soon) face hunger as the climate tips towards an irreversible point of no return. But does America want to pump its stomach free of oil and stop the cancer? No, it doesn't. It would rather die.

It may be no co-incidence that the song that made MJ most global was “We are the world.” The song was written in a day or so by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The concert was held to raise funds to alleviate famine in Africa. MJ was concerned about famine. The most globalised man on the planet, who was living a life of wealth beyond people's wildest dreams, was concerned about hunger. Is this a paradox?

Oddly, it's not. And like the singer, his country too has always had this side. America's excesses have surely sickened it, but now we wait for it to get back on the stage to sing and dance, not just about its own glory and wealth, but also about the planet which has made it possible. Can the self-absorption be turned around for a few crucial years, and we ask the smartest, the most innovative, the most inventive, and the richest people to pause on their path to deconstruction and think about how they are part of this interconnected world? Or will we have to bid it goodbye like MJ, with three letters: R.I.P?
(Joshi is a writer. Her book “End of the World” is available in Quixote's Cove, Vajra, Mandala, and other bookstores)

sansarmagazine@gmail.com
Posted on: 2009-07-03 21:44:04 (Server Time)

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)