Nepali Times Asian Paints
Humla’s class struggle


For the people of this far-flung and neglected region of northwestern Nepal, life has always been a battle against cold, hunger and disease. For the past six years they have battled another foe-the Maoist insurgency.

Indeed, the conflict is just another hurdle in the hardscrabble lives of the Humlis.

Time has stood still for the people of Daraphai, a village several hours walk away from the headquarters, Simikot. There is no government presence in Daraphai, and it is so impoverished and out of the way that even the Maoists don't bother. Child mortality here is three times the national average, literacy is three times less. Children are undernourished, gender discrimination is rife, and there is nowhere to go when a person is sick.

"The way I see it, it will take many generations to improve their lives," says school principal Buddhi Sagar Neupane from Chitwan who has worked in Humla since 1988, "so many leaders have made so many promises that the people here have lost all hope of things ever getting better." It is so difficult to just stay alive in Humla, that for many villagers, the Maoists are the least of their concern.

It's the same story in most of Humla's 27 VDCs stretched across this arid and rugged trans-Himalayan district. While the attention is on those displaced by conflict in Nepalganj and Kathmandu, the condition of villagers in Daraphai is actually much worse. And they are not even displaced.

Humlis traditionally migrate to the higher mountain pastures with their livestock as spring sets in. There, they find a fertile patch of land, sow seeds and raise animals. Come October, they're back in their villages. Daraphai's 160 households are all getting ready to move up to high valleys like Gwale, Khor, Thaya and Naula. They say they don't need and expect anything from anybody anymore.

"Humla has always been the last place that Kathmandu will think of," says Jeevan Shahi, a pilot who decided to quit so he could raise the living standard of his home district by getting himself elected DDC chairman.

As elsewhere, children are most vulnerable. Raised in the sooty interior of windowless homes for four snow-bound months in a year, four out of 10 never live to be five because of acute respiratory infections. Most of those who survive never go to school. Of those who do, most drop out after six months to help the family at home.

Back in Simikot, the airport is now open after the snowbound runway stopped flights for most of winter. Government employees here depend on the flight for food supplies and sometimes have to live on one meal a day to conserve supplies.

Says one civil servant: "The conflict has been an excuse for the government not to undertake any development projects in the villages. So the little that gets done is confined to Simikot."

Food has always been the overriding concern for generations of Humlis. "From the moment they wake up in the morning, people have to worry about how to find food," says school teacher Bal Bahadur Shahi. But some, like ex-DDC chairman Jeevan Shahi, think the government's food dole has increased dependency. The strategy should have been to make Humla self-sufficient, something he says he has tried to do as the district's elected leader.
"There are many opportunities to develop food security in the district," says Shahi.

The government's neglect of Humla grew worse after Maoist violence escalated in Karnali. No employees ever venture out of the district headquarters anymore. Many teachers have fled to Simikot or Nepalganj, even if there is no Maoist threat in the villages.

"A lot of teachers are making Maoists an excuse," says a local teacher on his way to Thehe village to resume his work in a primary school. Political strikes and blockades don't really affect this remote region and schools are more likely to close down due to the absence of teachers.

"Teachers are becoming irresponsible," agrees Madhu Bilas Khanal of the Mansarobar High School in Simikot, "if they go on leave for 15 days, they disappear for months." The government has a budget for Rs 70 million in education in Humla, more than half of that pays the salaries and allowances of the 420 teachers here. Most of that money is wasted because only one of the 134 Humla students who appeared in SLC passed this year. The DEO in Simikot says only 32 days of classes were held in most schools last year.

The government's nationwide 'Welcome to School' campaign to get underprivileged children enrolled in school from 15-23 April was, unsurprisingly, a failure here. In only 12 VDCs, the government was able to admit children to school. "Enrolment is not as important as retaining children, most of the children dropout by the end of year," says headmaster Neupane.

Of the 235 children enrolled during last year's enrollment campaign in Bargaun village four hours from Simikot, only 35 are still in class.

Says teacher Ram Raja Shahi: "We have to start seriously thinking if it is indeed any use trying to teach children who are chronically hungry."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)