Nepali Times Asian Paints

Back to Main Page

Trans-Karnali blues

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

AIR HEAD: Roads and airports have arrived at once remote-Rara lake, making the national park more accessible.

There are many reasons the trans-Karnali remains left behind, and some of them became glaringly apparent during a recent trip out west to Mugu district.

First is inaccessibility. More than one-third of Nepal’s area is in the Karnali, but less than one-tenth of the country’s population lives here. Villages are scattered across this exceedingly rugged, arid land. Roads are now being built, but most district capitals like Gamgadi, Manma, Dunai, Simikot and Jumla till two years ago used to be connected to the rest of Nepal only by flights to Nepalganj or Surkhet.

Formerly-royal Nepal Airlines has long abdicated its role of providing subsidised travel for people. Today the only thing still subsidized by the
state is the grain air-lifted to the chronically food deficit districts in what the World Food Program describes as the largest sustained airlift of food during peacetime anywhere in the world. Private helicopter operators and private airlines have cornered the lucrative market for government food contracts, and there is much talk here of a nefarious nexus between higher-ups in Kathmandu and airline bosses to keep the Karnali dependent so everyone gets his share.

Private airlines have stepped in to service remote area airports, but prefer cargo charters because they can earn more money. Tara Air (formerly Yeti) used to dominate, but now has been displaced by Goma Air which was started by pilots and staff who defected from Tara.

Strange, but most airlines that serve the Karnali seem to have the names of women: Tara, Goma, Sita. And there is a bitter dogfight going on over the Karnali skies between Tara and Goma with dark rumours that the fare agitation was provoked by one against the other.

Anywhere else in the world the competition would have meant that prices go down, but here in Karnali, they went up, which is why the women of Jumla went on warpath and closed down the airport. Then the district all-party committee got into the act because the populism dividend of raising slogans against private airlines was too tempting to ignore.

HIGH WAY: A new road snaking up on the high border ridge separating Jajarkot from Kalikot. Improvised highways like these are just built to spend budgets and will not last the monsoon.

The fact that Jumla was closed for three weeks before rulers in the capital finally woke up shows just how far off the Kathmandu radar the far-west really is. When the national government finally decided to act, it was again to earn brownie points by forcing private airlines to agree to a price freeze.

The day after the agreement in Kathmandu on 21 March, Surkhet airport was supposed to open but it didn’t. A few political hardcores were there rabble rousing and provoking passengers to extract further concessions from the airlines. The passengers, some of them agitators themselves, must have done a quick calculation about how much more they’d have to pay to stay another night in Surkhet as opposed to paying the extra money for the ticket, so pragmatism was finally victorious over dogmatism. This led me to the conclusion that the other reason the Karnali is left behind is because of the convoluted, in-grown and self-defeating politics of the Karnali itself.

The roads in this region, where they exist, are so poorly built that many are washed away in the first monsoon. Once the roads finally reach Humla, Mugu and Dolpo, you can be sure the same political mafia that now controls and benefits from the food airlift will siphon off the budget for road maintenance. The problems here are structural, the stranglehold of the powerful will let the people down no matter what. Most local leaders of all three parties are contractors, many own excavators and have taken bank loans to buy bulldozers.

Watching the netas whipping up the crowds, I felt this is probably why Nepal’s national politics is completely deadlocked. The ancestors of our national rulers in Kathmandu originally came from the Karnali. Infighting, and the inability to see a compatriot get ahead is probably ingrained in our genes.

Go back to previous page          Bookmark and Share         

7 Responses to “Trans-Karnali blues”

  1. Ragnhild on Says:

    Interestingly enough it seems no one has had any comments on “Trans-Karnali Blues”? I guess it only shows how far away Kathmandu really is!

  2. who cares on Says:

    only way to develop these remote, difficult to access areas but with natural gift is develop community- sweet home + farm house (seasonal business)- of a few thousand people each in a few dozen habitable places like entry point to trekking, where there is potential for tourism, herbs etc.

    community will always give opportunity to promote businesses like restaurant, cyber, school, packing industry, small industry, guest house, service centres…

  3. Dorji Tsering Sherpa on Says:

    The only way to develop the remote area is to have roads built but then the high cost and the long time taken does not solve the immediate problems of the people. So the affordable and cheap air transport specifically meant for the kind of our geographical terrain is to have many single engine aircrafts operated in various STOL fields. This can create a new avenues for the tourism industry. The KHAPTAD can easily be turned into a unique GOLF Course for the rich and affluent tourist. So many opportunities but lack of WILL power is what we have.

  4. lew on Says:

    If we recognize there is a lack of will power, let’s do something about it. If you have the wherewithal to make a difference, but sit back and let somebody else do it, you are just as calpable. As T.S. Eliot was quoted as saying “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Let’s push ourselves to make a substantial positive difference for many.

  5. Dorji Tsering Sherpa on Says:

    Yes, I went to meet the new Minster of tourism who told me that he is not in favor of increasing single engine airline operation. I told him that would be a big mistake for the people of remote areas. I then told him about the possibility of developing golf courses and resorts around the lakes like Phoksumbo Rara etc by allowing the single engine aircraft to land on those lakes by using floats. I also met the newly appointed chief of the Khaptad development committee and told him that they must take the initiatives and we the Nepal Golf Association of whose I am the Secretary can provide technical and operation support. So we have the perfect weather and land for such projects which can provide employment to the people.

    One can just show them the road and give an idea but cannot carry them and take them to their destinations.


  6. Tara supporter on Says:

    Hey, this report is not very well balanced. How about the subsidized flights that Tara Air conducts for the Karnali folks who fly to Simikot, Jumla, Dolpo and Bajura – Tara Air pays from it’s own pockets as no one subsidizes them!

    Don’t forget Tara Air ferry’s a huge amount of Indian pilgrims to Simikot on their way to Kailash and also trekkers to Rara, Jumla and Dolpo – it really helps the local economy in there!

    Give the devil his due!

  7. Tara supporter on Says:

    Do not be too hard on the STOL airlines Kunda sir – the terrain is unforgiving, runway and operating conditions terrible, fuel prices are one of the highest in the world, high freight charges and needless customs duty on aircraft spares, ridiculous insurance premiums and black mailing pilots and engineers…the list goes on and on. It all adds up to very high operating costs – direct and in direct.

    Airlines have to survive by matching revenue with costs… as no know the only private STOL airlines that has lasted over 12-14 years is Yeti/Tara. If the pickings were so plum you know there would have been many more!

    Sure there must be some sort of mechanism that checks profiteering but expecting privates airlines to operate at a loss means that the Karnali will continue to be under serviced for a long time.

    Perhaps the UN/World Bank/ADB geniuses can help – oh, they are already?

Leave a Reply