It was as a schoolboy in Kathmandu in the '80s that I first came to know about Humla-Jumla. The names of the two districts were always bundled together, as if they were geographical Siamese twins. And the very name, Humla-Jumla, evoked such images of remoteness and difficulty that they could well have been tracts of arid land somewhere on the moon.
Our maths teacher used to joke that we should pay attention if we wanted to build bridges in Humla-Jumla someday. What Siberia was to the USSR, Humla-Jumla was to Nepal. Thirty years later, visiting Humla, it seemed things were a little different from what I had imagined, but not all that much.
Politics: Humla's politics are the same as in most places in Nepal. Humlis say that they elect their representatives, who then take up residences in Kathmandu where, engrossed in the details of party politics, they hardly find the time to either visit Humla or raise Humli concerns in parliament.
Old Humlis complain that the nature of local politics has changed too. Young, politically active Humlis are more eager to trade blows on behalf of their political parties than for Humla's development. The result is that the old fear the young, and stay away from matters of local governance, and the young have splintered themselves into party-political factions Ė which makes getting anything done locally a maddeningly byzantine all-party appeasing task.
NGOs: NGOs get knee-jerk bad press in the Kathmandu media, in part because it fits in with the smugly unexamined narrative that 'NGOs are bad'. But the media never points out that in places like Humla, both an elected local government and the private sector are absent. Either the locals fend for themselves as they have done for hundreds of years or they seek help. NGOs are there to help.
Indeed, in village after village, NGOs have helped construct taps, toilets, schools and trekking trails, transport food grains for distribution, vaccinate people against diseases, and share knowhow related to selling apples and herbs. It's hard to justify the unrelenting criticism of NGOs when they are often the only bodies that appear actively concerned about Humla's development.
Infrastructure: Humlis complain that they have not been able to use the mighty Karnali River, which just flows into and out of Humla. Because of Humla's harsh geography, this resource has not been utilised at scale for irrigation, drinking water, or hydropower. During the 10-year Maoist insurgency, many suspension bridges were destroyed, rendering trade, transport and travel all the more difficult. A slow rebuilding of bridges is now underway.
These days, just as Nepalis living in the Tarai border towns look at the wide roads being laid down in Nitish Kumar's Bihar and ask why we can't do the same, Humlis look at Chinese infrastructure on the other side of the border and wonder what's stopping the development of infrastructure in Humla and other high-altitude regions. Clearly, it's possible.
In many ways, Humla is hardly the moonscape I had visualised as a child. It's similar to most other places in Nepal: full of hard-working people who want to lead better lives as far as health, income and education are concerned, full of promise and potential for further growth in trade and tourism opportunities. Humlis may be hobbled by dysfunctional local politics and ignored by political representatives and national parties. Yet the district is inching forward, through NGO-assisted local efforts.