If all Madheshi leaders come under a single electoral umbrella, it would give the fight for Madheshi rights new boost and legitimacy
It is widely accepted that there is relative abundance of resources and opportunities in Madhesh compared to other areas of the country. This isn’t just about flat and fertile farmlands in Madhesh; the region’s climate is also ideal for year-round growing of a variety of crops; diary industry has a big potential there; and it is endowed with quality forest resources. One further and very special advantage of the region is the ease of access to the vast Indian market that can absorb an unlimited amount of surplus Nepal can produce for export.
However, the region continues to suffer from endemic poverty. Compared to less resourceful hilly regions, living standards and infrastructure are less developed in Madhesh. It may then be concluded that poverty and harsh living conditions in Madhesh relate to something other than lack of economic resources.
It is hard to pinpoint a specific reason that is holding Madhesh back, but a few overlooked factors may be responsible. The region is densely populated compared to the hills, with incomes from subsistence farming basically the only means of support. Remittance income from overseas has provided an alternate source of support but this has come at the expense of loss of labor for farm work and as such loss of farm production.
The absence of economic momentum in Madhesh, unlike in much of the country including the hills, can be explained in a number of ways but the best place to start will be to look at the condition of basic public services such as roads, electricity, public sanitation, water supply and, for an agriculture-based economy, irrigation and water- management infrastructure. Available evidence as well as a visual inspection of the landscape will show that all of these key facilities are mostly non-existent and even existing ones are badly managed and are nearly decrepit.
The sorry state of the region’s infrastructure generally, and of roads and bridges in particular, has contributed to isolating it from national trading hubs and cut off its export routes. Internally, cash-paying jobs are largely absent because of the dominance of subsistence economy and non-existent manufacturing. The poor state of the region’s infrastructure over many decades is something that defies reasonable explanation. This also means that the issue of Madheshi backwardness needs to be looked at in an unconventional way.
Political decision-making plays a big role—nationally as well as regionally—in boosting or subverting large infrastructure initiatives, especially when there in an ethnic edge to it. We can apply this logic, for example, in the case of Janakpur Railway that, after some 80 years of service, ceased operation in 2012. This facility was the only means of transport available to some three million people in the region but had received virtually no public assistance for its upkeep and upgrade. The railway was closed without any good reason and without much opposition from Madheshi leaders.
In another case, the Hulaki Rajmarg that runs through the entire east-west length of the country close to the India border has remained a dirt road for over half a century, despite repeated government assurances for upgrading it to a paved highway. It is unfit to be called a national highway.
In case of irrigation, too, this key infrastructure has been neglected for decades, which means that Madheshi agriculture has no defense against monsoon failures and no safeguards against floods.
Absence of water-control mechanisms has also upended efforts to control soil erosion and manage the spread of desertification along riverbanks. Also, non-farm job-creating potential of the region has been stymied by lack of effort to develop manufacturing and failure to provide government assistance for development of small industries.
The question then is why the region remains so poor and undeveloped despite the abundance of opportunities for income growth and job creation? This may seem hypothetical but there is an overwhelming case to be made that this reflects a willful neglect of the region to keep it in its present condition. In fact, the official neglect of the region is rooted in the country’s history. Those at the center in Kathmandu have traditionally neglected Madhesh and its regional leaders have also shown no intent in battling against the government neglect of Madhesh.
It is something of a taboo to talk of the country’s economic performance suffering as a result of the ethnic divide, and something which tends to be avoided in any serious discussion of development problems of Nepal. However, instead of trying to bury the ethnic issue under the rug, Madheshi leaders could have placed it at the forefront. In that case, lack of development in Madhesh could be investigated and people held to account, which could be done as a part of the drive for national integration.
Democratic governance, indeed, is something Madhesis can use to offset their disadvantage of Madhesiness. What this means is that Madheshis must create a united front to oppose the marginalization of Madhesh in national budgeting and planning. The myriad divisions and clashes we observe in Madheshi leadership not only ill-serves Madheshis but this also has led to an erosion of Madheshi clout in the framing of Madhesh development.
In practice, what this means is that Madheshis must unite to bring their collective strength to the bargaining table. If all Madheshi leaders can, for example, come under a single electoral umbrella, it would give the fight of Madheshis for their rights new boost and also increase the legitimacy of their agendas. In the absence of such electoral might, Madheshis will continue to remain at a great disadvantage facing the mighty forces that are unwilling to accommodate Madhesh.
If and when this happens, Madheshi unity will also benefit national interest. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the face of massive ethnic divides, Nepal’s development will continue to disappoint. It will be a barrier to opening up the country to the outside world.
Also, we can’t ignore that the country’s ethnic policy has resulted in the neglect—we can say exclusion—of half of the nation’s resources, which could have been used for productive purposes.
The economy has thus been running at half its potential. We can say that the old pledge in our national budgets and five-year plans committing “all-rounded development’’ of the country is not just phony and misleading and also a big lie.
The author teaches economics at Northern Virginia Community College in the US