Hunger doesn't make headlines, war does. The deaths of over a hundred policeme and Maoists in the Jumla battle last week was big news for the papers in faraway Kathmandu. But here, in the remote hills of western Nepal and away from the glare of media, hundreds of thousands of Nepalis face an imminent and catastrophic food shortage. If nothing is done now, local officials warn, there will be famine by Feburary across these hills.
There are many reasons: the food blockade by the security forces, the Maoists looting what little the farmers have, the worst drought in 50 years, roads and bridges not maintained regularly.
The effects of malnutrition can already be seen in the children. Able-bodied men have migrated to find work, to escape forced recruitment by the Maoists, and avoid being caught in security dragnets. Only the children, women and elderly remain, and they are all hungry.
"We are all going to starve to death this year, that's for sure," 82-year-old Surya Prasad Giri at Kolti village tells visiting reporters. "Please take this message out, journalist sir." Officials in charge of the regional administrative offices in Dipayal and Surkhet seem oblivious of the looming calamity.
Locals say this year's meagre harvest of rice, kodo and karu will last them a few more months. When we ask Giri what will happen after that, he looks up to the sky and shrugs: "We will eat poison plants. There is plenty of that up in the mountains."
In village after village in these rugged mountains we hear tales of struggle, survival, and despair. Food grain production in the district is down by 60 percent because of the drought, according to the District Agriculture Office in Bajura. "We can't grow rice here, but this year the drought even destroyed the kodo and the bears came and ate up the maize crop," says Harka Bogati, pointing at his fallow fields. The out-migration of able-bodied men also means there is no one to farm the terraces.
"The number of people, especially from northern Bajura leaving for other parts of the country as well as India is on the rise," says Mukti Narayan Bhandari, at the CDO office in Bajura which estimates that a quarter of the region's population of 800,000 has already left.
Southern Bajura is slightly better off because of access and soil conditions. But even here, the fertilisers have not arrived this year and much of the stored high-yield seeds have been eaten. "Next year looks very bleak," concludes Bhandari. The district suffers an annual shortfall of 7,800 tons of grain.
The Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) could only get 780 tons to the district last year. This year there won't even be that. The local NFC depot in Martadi hasn't received a single grain of food this year, and there is now only enough subsidised rice to last another seven days.
The "food for work" programme had in the past provided grain to the neediest farmers. But after the Maoists looted godowns, the programme has been stopped. Then the Maoists destroyed both Sanfebagar and Kolti airports, and roads are blocked due to security reasons.
Even if the situation improved, the road from Doti to Sanfebagar is in such a bad state that only tractors can make it. What little food there is in Sanfebagar moves on human back, or is transported by mules, sheep or even cattle to Martadi. Along the route, there are no police or army to be seen. Maoists from Accham often raid con-voys, in September they looted rice ferried on 100 mules.
Now, to prevent food from falling into the hands of Maoists, the security forces allow only small quotas of food on a weekly basis by private traders. But the margins are too small for the merchants to want to make the dangerous eight-day roundtrip from Sanphebagar. It's not just food that is stopped, the security personnel have also banned batteries, canvas shoes, cooking oil, instant noodles. "We have to walk barefoot, we have nothing to eat, we are back in the stone age," says Jasiram Shahani, a shopkeeper here.
The food blockade has hit the local people more than the Maoists. A villager in Pandusen told us: "The Maoists come in groups and force us to feed them at gunpoint. They don't care whether we have enough food." The Maoists also ask for a grain tax from farmers who have no cash, and they are forced to five ten pathis of grain per household to feed the proposed rebel barrack in the hills of Kandha.
At Kolti, we see the charred hulk of the airport control tower, the remains of the NFC godown, the government buildings that have been torched in the past six months. And then we see a Maoist grafitti scrawled along the side of a building: "Let's construct physical infrastructure in the base areas."
To avoid a serious famine here, the road from Doti to Bajura has to be repaired immediately. It is the lifeline not just for Bajura, but for Mugu and Humla as well. Security is needed so food can move up. If that is not possible, the food should be escorted and distributed by human rights and relief organisations.
And, finally, western Nepal needs a government that cares. Giri's message: "They have never come to see our hardships since Kolti was destroyed by the Maoists.
Why did they join the public service if they don't care?"