Successive governments in Kathmandu have been talking about a Karnali Highway linking Surkhet to Jumla in western Nepal for decades.
After 1990, in response to pressure from local electorates, money was finally sanctioned. The World Bank stepped in with a loan but lethargy, bureaucracy, and the insurgency have delayed a highway that everyone hoped would be the lifeline for Nepal's most neglected and deprived zone.
This year, Rs 460 million has again been earmarked and work has resumed from both the Surkhet and Jumla sides. The two ends of the road reflect two distinctly different philosophies: in Kalikot the work on a 73 km stretch has been handed over to the army and in Jumla local communities are digging 32 km.
The army's section along the Karnali River traverses some of the most rugged terrain in Nepal. The military argues that since a lot of dynamite is needed, it doesn't trust anyone else with the job. Because of rebel activity, it needs a forward base every few kilometres to secure its workers.
Contractor Yudistir Khadka is waiting behind a rock for a dynamite charge to go off. After the explosions, he says, "It is difficult, the rock has to be blasted and despite the army presence we can't get enough workers." Five of Khadka's workers from Dolakha were among the 35 the army mistakenly killed at Kotbara airfield in February 2002.
But here in Jumla, the terrain flattens out and local communities have been given 500 m of road each to dig. Ratna Bahadur Shahi of the Karnali Integrated Rural Development and Research Centre (KIRDARC) says the self-help model is working well. "If we don't build this road ourselves, no one else will," he says. Indeed, the two models for road building may also be a lesson in how to sustain development activity in areas under rebel control.
At Tatopani, 20 km south of Jumla, hundreds of villagers are hacking through the rock with their bare hands. Each community is paid for a stretch of road, locals get jobs and benefit from the road. "I have seen mothers dying while giving birth on the side of the trail because they couldn't be carried to a hospital in time," says Dhan Bahadur Buda of a grassroots group.
At the rate of construction, the Jumla end of the highway will be finished in six months. But the Surkhet part will take another three years even if the Maoists allow it. And it doesn't look like they will. Local Maoist in-charge, Makar Bahadur Shahi, says: "We will not let the army use the excuse of the road to encroach on our territory." In Jumla, because locals are involved, the Maoists say they support the road. Many local youths have decided not to go to India since there is work at home.
Even if the road from the south doesn't get to Jumla, KIRDARC wants to start a local transport cooperative to run electric minibuses in the 32 km stretch to Jumla. Electricity won't be a problem. The Jumla powerhouse has been rebuilt after it was destroyed in a rebel raid two years ago and the Maoists run their own 30 kw mini-hydro in Rarali VDC.
The Maoists have also started farm collectives, more out of necessity than ideology. Because of the exodus of young people from the villages there aren't enough farmhands. "Some families have land and no one to work it, others have people but no land. With the collectives everyone shares work and harvests," says Mani Kesh Gautam, a soft-spoken comrade who is area in-charge at Kudari.
Indeed, social reform seems to be rapidly taking root in one of Nepal's most conservative and underprivileged areas. Women are treated more equally and they don't have to give birth in the cowshed anymore. Untouchability is on the way out and dalits eat with other castes. But, was it necessary to kill people for change that was happening anyway as education and awareness spread? Maoist student leader, Comrade Parbat, has the intense gaze of someone steeped in party doctrine, and replies: "Chairman Mao said history has taught us that entrenched feudal domination cannot be uprooted without armed struggle."
Jumlis have been empowered by the launch of their own community radio station, Karnali FM. It broadcasts news, political interviews and information on health, environment and other issues. In an area with no other media, the radio has raised awareness levels. "You can actually see the self-confidence in the people after the station started," says announcer Hari Debi Rokaya at Karnali FM, "The people of Jumla already feel like it is their own radio." Maoist leaders in the surrounding mountains listen to the station as well but complain there isn't enough news and current affairs.
KIRDARC's Min Bahadur Shahi says the radio and the highway have proved that it is possible to deliver services to the people and ensure development even in insurgency areas. "You just have to be straight forward about it, do genuine good and have a channel of communication with both sides," he says.
Jumla has a district hospital but the doctors have gone home for Tihar and there are only seven patients because it is difficult for villagers to travel due to Maoist restrictions. That is why Shri Bahadur Bhandari and his group decided to take health care to the villages through a network of 3,000 trained mothers. "The Maoists leave us alone because they know the people need us," he says, "and we can't just sit here and say there is a war going on and not do anything."
Just outside Jumla, Tirtha Bahadur Buda takes a break from road-digging and yearns for peace to return: "We can live without food, we have done that before, but we can't live without peace."