There are six directions in the Karnali: north, south, east, west, up and down. The rugged topography and remoteness of this roadless region has held Karnali Zone back for centuries.
But the real reason the Karnali has not been able to develop is not lack of resources. It is the lack of imagination. Over the decades, the Karnali has been deliberately made dependent on the outside world by keeping it reliant on rice flown in from Nepalganj. If the money spent on food and air freight over the past 30 years was added up and invested in irrigation, highways or energy the Karnali would, by now, be feeding the rest of Nepal.
We, the people of the Karnali, are pastoral people, we have relied on our livestock and traditional trade between Tibet and the midhill valleys. But one of the unintended side-effects of the success of the community forestry program has been the ban on free-grazing of livestock herds. And the centuries-old trade for salt, grain, wool and essentials between the Tibetan plateau and the tarai that sustained the people of the Karnali has been crippled by the insurgency.
Planners in far-away Kathmandu have little understanding (or the will to understand) our plight. Donor agencies may show interest but quickly turn elsewhere when they realise just how difficult life in remote Humla, Mugu, Dolpa, Jumla or Kalikot is: our harsh winters, erratic flights, the shortages of just about everything.
Karnali is poor because it is neglected, not because it lacks resources. Our assets include timber, fuelwood, hydropower, eco-tourism, biodiversity and herbal products. Our remoteness means we lack a market for these products. We need a road to the border: to India or China whichever is closer.
The marginalisation of the indigenous people of the Karnali and their migration in search of work has lead to the loss of cultural autonomy and environmental degradation. There are entrenched problems of traditional gender inequality, female illiteracy and the low status of women and disadvantaged groups.
Abandoned by Kathmandu's political elites and ignored by development partners, our people have become distrustful of outsiders. The forced dependence on outside food has caused an erosion of our traditional self-sufficient pride and dignity. The people of the Karnali are deeply cynical because of years of political and administrative alienation that span the Rana regime, Panchayat, democracy and the present direct rule by the king.
Development should be area-specific, appropriate for local conditions but the government in Kathmandu has a one-size-fits-all policy. It is trying to keep our people acquiescent by airlifting rice and salt to the Karnali. This may keep people quiet for the time being but it has created a debilitating dependency. This is not the right approach to development.
We have been using Tibetan rock salt for more than 200 years in the Karnali. Now, in the name of goitre control, they are airlifting iodised salt from Nepalganj paying Rs 65 per kg aircargo rate and distributing insufficient salt at a subsidised rate of Rs 7 per kg. This is an example of the medicine being worse than the disease.
On the one hand, the government is unable to ferry enough salt and on the other, subsidies have discouraged traditional salt traders from bringing rock salt from Tibet. A better idea would be to set up an iodisation plant in Simikot or Gamgadi to iodise local salt.
Development in Nepal has rarely been demand-driven, it is proposal-driven. We have to start planning according to the people's needs and not according to the government's or donor's needs. The people of Karnali now have a slogan: "Instead of salt give us iodine, instead of rice give us irrigation, instead of sympathy give us hydropower." It's the old adage about giving a fisherman a net.
Food aid to the Karnali should be phased out and gradually replaced with a strategy to boost local production of millet, barley, buckwheat and high-altitude potato which are suited to local conditions. Our farms are rain-fed and the growing season is short, the best option is to irrigate the low-lying valley floors using small affordable hydropower stations for lift irrigation by daytime and lighting at night. The irrigated farms can grow enough food to feed the Karnali and yield cash crops like local fruits and herbs.
Government civil servants have always looked down on us Karnali people. They have treated people who don't eat rice as pakheys. Who is more uncivilised: those who can't grow their own food and who would starve if they didn't get their daily ration of subsidised air-freighted rice or those who grow their own nutrition-rich millet and buckwheat and don't depend on the outside world?
It's not that Karnali people haven't seen rice in their life. In fact, paddy is grown in the southern regions of the zone. Once and for all, Kathmandu needs to realise that the Karnali is not a food-deficit area but only a rice-deficit one. And we don't mind, as we can do perfectly well without the rice, thank you. We won't starve just because you don't send us your rice.
The population of Nepal's remotest district, Humla, is just 40,000. Let's say 10,000 of them are babies. If the 30,000 adults needed one kg of rice a day, the whole district would need 30 tons of rice a day and nearly 11,000 tons a year. But the government is only supplying 6,000 tons of rice a year to Humla. So how come people aren't starving to death?
This is proof, if proof is still needed: if we could encourage the people of Humla to grow more of their own food, provide irrigation and an additional cash crop, they could take care of themselves. And it would save Kathmandu billions of rupees a year that it could earmark for some needier area of the country.
Oh yes, the transportation mafia will lose its lucrative contracts. The civil servants won't be 'civilised' any more because they have to eat dhindo but it will rescue the Karnali from the clutches of our crippling dependence on the outside world.
It is now the 21st century, across Hilsa in Tibet, there is now a highway there is electricity and living standards are soaring. On our side of the border we are still in the medieval ages. This can't go on much longer, we have to start changing now. And we will do it ourselves if Kathmandu is not interested.
(Jivan Bahadur Shahi is the former elected DDC chairman of Humla)
Most-affected by Conflict
Even before the attack on the army's road construction site in Pili of Kalikot on Sunday that killed at least 100 people, the Karnali's four districts were already more-badly affected by the conflict in per-capita terms.
Statistics till December 2004 collated from human rights organisations show the number of abductions here is proportionately nine times the national average. The number of internally-displaced people is 15 times the all-Nepal figure. While the conflict has claimed the life of one Nepali in every 2,000 in the past ten years, in the Karnali, two people out of every 1,000 have been killed-making the killings here four times higher than the national average.