Nepali Times
Hungry season in the hills


This is the time of the year when a large number of Nepali migrant workers traditionally return from India to their remote homes in western Nepal to harvest winter crops and prepare for the monsoon cropping.

It is the notorious 'hungry season', the weeks between mid-March to mid-April when food stocks are down and farmers need to dig into their savings to survive.

For centuries, food supply has always been precarious in Nepal's remote districts especially during pre-harvest season. And when shortages are acute, villagers migrate temporarily to neighbouring districts or down to the plains in search of work. But the national media has confused these shortages with famine conditions and has drawn the false conclusion that it is due to the conflict.

"If there is food crisis according to what is reported in the media, then it should be based on facts and not speculation," says Erika Joergensen, representative of the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in Nepal, "rumours should not set the agenda. Our monitoring shows no sign of a large food crisis."

Since October 2002, WFP has surveyed food security situation in 32 districts of Nepal where 30 field monitors collect household and community data to provide information about the food situation in the country.

The conclusion is that Nepal has not yet reached a situation where lack of food is leading to a severe humanitarian crisis.

The UN is concerned that exaggerated media reports will delay response when there is a real crisis in the future.
"The problem is that most of the news about the situation of the remote areas is taken from the district headquarters. It is very important to visit remote parts of the country by which we can assess the actual situation," says WFP's Subash B Singh who has travelled extensively across the midwest.

In the last few months, the news of a food crisis was highlighted after the government's Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) was unable to airlift rice into some remote districts due to the Maoist blockade. This temporary shortage of subsidised rice in the district headquarters was described as an 'impending famine' in alarmist media reports.

Relief groups working in western Nepal say rice unloaded from choppers mostly feed civil servants stationed at district headquarters, it doesn't really get down to the poorest of the poor farmers away from the town. Paradoxically, some of the subsidised rice is turned into raxi in many district headquarters to meet the local demand for alcohol.

"The most affected are government officials, the airlifted rice makes no difference to the villagers," said Jiwan Shahi, the ex-DDC chairman of Humla. In the outlying villages, farmers eat wheat, millet, beans and maize
as they always have. Rice is a luxury anyway.

In Simikot, the local food depot provides 15 kg of rice per person every month at subsidised rates. Villagers from more than a day's walk away can't travel all the way to the Humla district headquarters to buy rice and even if they could, they can't afford it.

Shahi thinks a road to Humla would solve the chronic food shortage this time of year. "The government should stop wasting money on airlifting rice and plough the money into a highway," says Shahi whose project to connect Simikot to Tibet is half-complete.

And the insurgency doesn't seem to be a problem for relief organisations working in food deficit districts. "If we maintain our neutrality they don't bother us," says Pitamber Acharya of the non-government group, DEPROSC-Nepal which carries out irrigation, cash crop cultivation and farming technology projects in 21 districts unhindered.
A donor-supported Quick Impact Program (QIP) in conflict affected food deficit districts of Bajhang, Bajura and Mugu is helping the farmers develop mule trails, bridges and off-season vegetable and orchard cultivation. "As long as the programs are pro-poor there is no obstacle from the Maoists," says economist Narendra KC of another relief group, SAPPROS-Nepal.

Agriculturist PB Singh also doesn't believe that the conflict has reduced food production. "Low production or barren fields in Bajhang or Bajura are not a direct result of conflict, they were there even before the conflict," he explains, "the media has got it all wrong."

Lack of planning, management, poor distribution and storage and lack of efficient response have always contributed to food shortages in western Nepal, and today it is no different.

'Millions of small farmers, landless rural families and unskilled urban workers are food insecure but it is less clear whether there has been a real decline in food security over the past five years, and whether any decline can by attributed to the conflict specifically,' write David Seddon and Jaganath Adhikari in their report Conflict and Food Security in Nepal.

Agencies like WFP, however, continue to monitor the food situation closely and say they want to be prepared in case things really take a turn for the worse.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)