Despite the sustained political stalemate that has exacerbated over the last year, the Bhattarai government has planted some visible markers of “progress.” The road expansion drive in Kathmandu is touted as the cornerstone of this “development.”
It is ironic that the Maoist government’s greatest achievement has been to widen the roads in Kathmandu. They fought a long war under the rubric of rural marginalization but once their path to the city was paved with blood money, they have forgotten their base entirely.
Far too many Nepalis live in terrible circumstances, with little access to education, healthcare, and markets for the state to continue to pour scarce resources to please the capital alone.
Then again, it has become unofficial state policy to outsource rural development to NGOs while the political heavyweights blast their sirens to countless pointless meetings across the capital.
THE STATE THAT WASN’T
When I first went to Dandaghari (name changed), a village in hilly, rural Chitwan three years ago, we had to walk over seven hours from the East-West Highway to get there. Residents of this predominantly Chepang village had to walk hours to even get drinking water.
The village children had to walk over an hour each way to reach either of the two primary schools in closest proximity. The walk was made all the more torturous because of the hilly terrain, further accentuated by the numerous landslides as a result of heavy monsoon. Enrolment at one of the schools had dwindled significantly because of teacher absenteeism and poor results.
The other school benefitted as a result, but was not prepared to deal with the consequences. The school had only one room to accommodate all the students from the first to the fifth grade, and one teacher would teach all those students at the same time. The teachers took turns doctoring their attendance records, while the rest doubled their pay by teaching in the cities.
Three years ago, the first private “indoor” toilet was constructed in the village, as a result of a miscommunication. Upon my arrival, I had noticed that the health post had a cemented toilet, which was locked. I had asked if the villagers were allowed to use it. My hosts mistook this as a demand for a toilet, and so constructed a bamboo-based pit nearby. The rest of the village, including even my host’s family, continued to use the fields rather than the toilet during the entire summer I was there.
This was a central village in that it housed the local health centre and the VDC office. The chief attendant claimed to be a doctor but the villagers reported that he was really a senior health attendant. The health assistant lived locally and was well respected but the so-called doctor lived in Bharatpur, making only sporadic visits to the village. I met him rather inauspiciously during one of his visits, as he was turning away a patient because he was in a rush to play cards at the local shop.
The political powers might have forgotten about the margins, but rural Nepal has thankfully not remained static. When I returned to the same village this month, I was both amazed at the progress as well as surprised at how irrelevant the state continues to remain.
First, my preparations for another gruelling trek proved unnecessary, as a functional road had been bulldozed by Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN), an NGO with headquarters in Kathmandu, in the past year. Only motorcycles and large four-wheel drive vehicles could navigate that terrain, but villagers now had an alternative.
The road’s utility is rooted in its ability to provide easy access to markets in the cities. As I was returning from the village last week, the jeep doubled up as a cargo vehicle, bringing with us 700 nibuwas, about 60 kg tomatoes, and significant amounts of beans and spinach. Only three years ago, commercial farming was almost nonexistent in these parts, but the road has connected many villages here to the cities. The roads have provided villagers with means to livelihoods in their own localities now.
RRN’s support has extended beyond roads to also provide water for both drinking and irrigation purposes. RRN funded the construction of three local reservoirs to collect water, and provided pipes to distribute water to the interspersed houses throughout the village. Villagers do not have to walk hours to get drinking water and they have enough now to irrigate their fields and increase agricultural output.
The local school without enough classrooms received support from a German organization, and villagers donated their labor to build a new complex. The school only provides primary education, however, and remains over an hour away. However, there has been a significant exodus of school-age children to nearby cities with support from various NGOs and INGOs, including Hindu and Christian faith-based organizations. As a result, more village children have easier access to education now.
Another NGO called NEWA has partnered with other organizations active in the region to construct toilets for each house in the village. Over the course of a week, five households in the village built new toilets with this support, and almost all houses have their own functional facilities now.
The health centre and the VDC office remain in the village, but were mostly locked. One day, I met six people waiting outside the centre, two of whom had walked three hours to get medical attention. They left after waiting for a couple of hours, when it was clear that the centre would remain closed for the day.
If this experience is at all representative, rural Nepal is not static but the level of the state’s engagement with it remains minimal. Basic services such as healthcare, sanitation, education, water and access to markets remain beyond the scope of state mechanisms, but some non-governmental organizations have stepped up to fill the void.
This is not to eulogize the role of NGOs, however, for they face their own set of significant challenges and shortcomings, which are not the focus of this piece. In Dandaghari, NGOs are playing a crucial role in service delivery. These changes are not just materialistic, as the discourse itself has changed at the local level.
Most villagers I spoke to talked about “dollar kheti” (or dollar game) and how NGOs use their name to raise funds for themselves (maagi khane bhaado). Given the greater concern for accountability from NGOs, the villagers are also becoming more forceful in asking for recognition from the state.
For instance, during a meeting organized by an NGO, some people spoke out openly against the VDC Secretary, who was in attendance as a special guest. The villagers demanded that he establish residence in the village immediately, as his absence meant they were inconvenienced in getting official documentation such as birth, marriage, and death certificates.
Through engagement with non-governmental institutions, they were now able to engage more meaningfully with state mechanisms.
As the state withers away into relative oblivion amidst political bickering in the centre, some organizations are helping provide livelihood opportunities to villagers in rural Nepal. Perhaps there is hope that sustained engagement will support the creation of a more conscious rural citizenry that will make more explicit demands on the state supposed to represent it, and perhaps provide for it.