After a short flight from Kathmandu to Bhairahawa, there were interesting things to observe. Lumbini was gearing up for the International Buddhist Conference and expecting a lot of visitors. Roadside eateries and hotels were stocking up on meat and alcohol to cater to the visitors. This reflects the dichotomy in our society. We love the non-violent Buddha, but also to celebrate his birthday with good portions of meat and alcohol. As a diplomat wrote on my Facebook page, one cannot understand how people who worship Buddha and believe in a clean environment dump garbage right in front of their houses.
The Butwal-Bhairahawa corridor is bustling with economic activities. Good, wide and well-painted roads give one an impression of development, as roads have been seen as a key indicator of development since the Second World War. Butwal, along with Itahari in the east, has always had the distinction of commanding high real estate prices. There are more hotels opening, from small to medium sized ones. And there are a lot of interesting stories to hear. Many Indians from across the border have been coming this side—even upto Mahendranagar in the far west—for marriages, which occupy a big chunk of the local business. One can see vehicles with Indian plates on the road, many of them coming to beat the scorching heat and drive to the Nepali mid-hills or going on pilgrimage to Swargadwari, the place referred to in the Mahabharata as the gateway to heaven. Western Nepal can still be the automatic choice as a tourist destination for Indians across the border, as the Indian hill cities in the western Himalayas are getting more congested and distant due to ever-growing traffic and sky-rocketing prices. The drive may not offer you a great view of the Himalayas, but the greenery—whatever is left after rampant ‘dozer terror’—gives you an impression of driving in the eastern Himalayas of Bhutan, India and Nepal.
It is interesting that cities and towns that have a large number of development organisations have created great rent-seeking models. Hotels survive on training programmes and conferences conducted by various agencies, which are much easier to organise than doing the actual work on the ground. Centres close to the highway jostle for the boards of different projects, and one can see a laundry list of organisations that were involved in building infrastructure. We also see dilapidated structures that could not maintain themselves after the donor support ended, or perhaps the group involved in the project found another venture to build and sustain its rent-seeking habits.
One can see a more entrepreneurial mindset in far-flung regions where roads, infrastructure and multiple organisations have not reached. It is interesting to meet farmers who have decided to get into the trade of crops and then graduate to buying vehicles to transport the produce. Inside their houses, there is a refrigerator and a computer for the children who also have nice smartphones to show off. The farmers want to improve their lives and their children’s future through entrepreneurship and without receiving aid from agencies. They are not much interested in the political discourse in Kathmandu or the fate of the constitution. They are fed up with the political transition that began with an insurgency in their backyard taking away the lives of many of their family or community members.
Then there are a different set of people in the more accessible areas. In the offices built by some donor’s support, there are people who know all the development jargons to use to find that next project, form that next committee and secure their next source of income. Using chaste Nepali bikase (development) language, they do not blink an eye as they get down from their brand new motorcycles—perhaps bought with some project money—and lament how they are poor farmers and how they are far away from the city! They use the Nepali used earlier in the palaces—still spoken in the Army and in many parts of the bureaucracy in Kathmandu—to request for money and support. One is reminded of the well-to-do speaking to the king decades ago, leading one to think that perhaps the development bosses and the closely connected political masters are the new mini-monarchs. They seem to love having people swarming around them and demonstrating their political and financial power by doling out patronage.
Unleasing Agriculture’s Potential
A farmer in a successful agricultural area of Kapurkot, Salyan makes a powerful statement. He says that by investing less than Rs 20,000 and growing and selling vegetables, farmers can make a minimum of Rs60,000 a year. A good crop planning system, resulting in greater devotion to agriculture and better prices, can even fetch upto Rs150,000. He says this amount can be a supplement to the income from regular farming and livestock rearing activities. He wonders how one can complain about labour when it is rewarded so well. According to him, farmers definitely earn more than what people send back from Qatar or Malaysia, but farming is not considered a prestigious occupation. A farmer who makes half a million rupees has less social status than a guy who draws half that money working for an NGO.
There is lot of competition, of course, from India as Indian vegetables enter the Nepali market freely through the porous border each day, but Nepali vegetables face quarantine and other hassles on their way to India. If all the donors working on agriculture can do something collectively, it is to set up world-class labs providing certification to products that meet quarantine requirements in India and anywhere else in the world. Vegetables from the Nepali mid-hills, due to their taste and texture, command higher prices and are also sought after in the Indian border towns. Perhaps, for India too, this could be a good way of supporting bilateral trade and earning some goodwill that has been eroded by the recent blockade.
Irrespective of the domestic and international politics, 60 million meals are consumed each day in Nepal. This is a market that no one can ignore, and some trends do give us hope.