SAM KANG LI
Nepal's easternmost district of Ilam is known for its diligent citizens and scenic tea gardens, but it is also showing the way about how towns can be cleaner and greener with community participation and competent leadership.
The main strength of this district bordering Darjeeling in India is its educated population, and the visionary leadership of its elders. The district capital is now a model municipality promoting health, education, and an environment-friendly outlook by being the first district in Nepal to ban plastic bags.
"The town council has a clear workplan to develop infrastructure while conserving the environment," says Kamal Mainali, environment officer at Ilam municipality, "and it is all geared to improve the quality of life of our people."
Ilam has shown that the absence of district and municipality elections for the past 14 years does not necessarily mean a lack of accountability. The municipality has for the past 30 years worked closely with visionary local non-profits like the Namsaling Community Development Centre (NCDC).
NCDC's climate change officer Aava Shrestha told us during a recent visit: "Natural resource management and energy efficiency are central to the concept of developing Ilam as a Green City and that is what we are working to do." (see box)
Ilam's network of micro hydro power currently benefits 20,000 people in and around Ilam, and has only three hours of power cuts a day. Two wards are using bio gas for cooking and to generate fertiliser for vegetable farms, and work has started to install solar-powered street lamps.
Ilam banned the use of plastic bags in 2010, earning it the Green City credential. The scheme is working well: shopkeepers are fined Rs 500 and shoppers fined Rs 200 on the spot for using plastic bags. The fine was a deterrence in the beginning, but most people now voluntarily shun plastic bags.
"We had to take this drastic step not just because plastic was littering the streets, but also because it was polluting water sources, clogging water pipelines, and producing toxic fumes when burnt at garbage dumps," says Dharma Gautam, a civil society activist. The municipality has set aside land to process bio-degradable waste and turn it into compost.
One of the major focus of Green City is on solid waste management and the municipality is raising awareness to create zero waste at source. Each shop has a large green bin for disposing waste, and many have started sorting waste. There are dustbins attached to every electricity pole on the road, and litter-free zones have been declared to protect water sources.
Namsaling is working with the municipality to develop community managed water supply systems. The town's population has doubled to 32,000 in the last 10 years, yet there is reliable water supply.
The 25-bed district hospital will soon start recycling all its water by filtering it through a reed bed. Green belts have been set up by reforesting denuded slopes around the town.
The key to Ilam's success has been that unlike national politics, the local political parties have worked together on good governance. "The co-operation of all the political parties and the decision of locals on priority projects have helped Ilam even during tough times," explains Gautam.
It also helps that Ilam's budget has increased by almost 25 per cent in the last few years because it was rewarded for its performance in overall development indicators. It was declared the best municipality in the eastern region last year and stood sixth nationwide. Now, Ilam's success is being replicated in other municipalities in eastern Nepal and the rest of the country.
"We have been to many districts in the west including Humla to train communities there based on our experience in Ilam," says Aava Shrestha.
With its close proximity to Darjeeling, education has always been a priority in Ilam. The Mahendra Multiple Campus here now has a masters program, and it is expected to not just retain locals but also attract students from other districts.
Hotels in Ilam are gearing up to boost income from tourism. "There is a lot to be explored in tea tourism with Ilam's rich history and scenic beauty," says Kedar Sharma, a journalist turned entrepreneur in Ilam who has moved back to his native town from Kathmandu (see box).
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Partnering for Ilam
Inspired by a Peace Corps volunteer, Homnath Adhikari started Namsaling Community Development Centre (NCDC) to uplift rural development in Namsaling VDC, Ilam 30 years ago. Today Namsaling is a strong partner of the Ilam municipality in implementing successful development projects that have put Ilam on the national and international map.
With the strong foundation laid by the Environment Protection Act of 1997, NCDC now runs a large number of programs in cross-cutting environmental themes that has helped the locals of Ilam and surrounding districts improve their quality of life. Ilam's success has been replicated in other parts of Nepal as well.
NCDC in collaboration with Alternative Energy Promotion Centre has been advocating sustainable energy not just in Ilam, but in the entire eastern region and also installed 84,000 improved stoves (pictured above) to reduce the use of firewood and improve health. The group is also involved in biodiversity conservation and the revival of community forestry along the Indian border.
"The incidents of illegal logging and poaching have decreased after the community and officials began working together," says Hira Bahadur Ghale of NCDC.
For journalist Kedar Sharma returning to his village in Karfok, Ilam after living in Kathmandu for almost three decades was anything but planned. It's been a few months since he and his wife Kiran headed east to give life to their long cherished dream of starting a restaurant and the couple admit they are loving every minute. Says Kedar : "We are still getting used to the laid back way of life in Ilam while also working on setting up our restaurant Barpeepal Bisauni in Aitabaare."
They have turned their abandoned ancestral farm in Karfok into their new home and started organic farming there. Sharma says Ilam's potential as a toursit hub is yet to be explored. He hopes that with Barpeepal they will be able to introduce local delicacies of Ilam like niuro (fern) and makai chyakhla (cooked corn grits) to travellers and also promote tourism. "We don't want to be like any other eatery that you find in Ilam bajar serving momo, chow mein and burger," says Sharma, "we want it to be a place where people can come, lounge, enjoy good food and learn what Ilam has to offer."