Nepali Times
State Of The State
Food for thought


The SPA and the Maoists might delay a resolution for short-term political gains, but neither dares discontinue the peace process. The SPA leaders can't afford to let peace talks fail, for that would allow right-wingers to raise their heads again. Prachanda and his cohorts need an agreement with mainstream parties, or hotheads in the CPN (Maoist) could force them out of the scene.

With the complete UN team in Kathmandu, bigwigs on both sides have even less excuse for backtracking. The deadline for constituent assembly elections is set for mid-June next year, and the procedural details must be clearly spelled out by the negotiating teams so the UN experts have clear, consensual terms of reference for their operation.

But the country can't wait for complete resolution of the conflict, a procedure long-drawn by definition. There are vital issues of governance and development that the interim government must begin to address even as the peace chariot trundles along.

Influential sections of society want their preferences to top the government's priority list. For non-resident Nepalis, dual citizenship is more important than the resolution of statelessness of Madhesis. Bank defaulters are more interested in tax-waivers than in loan rescheduling. University teachers on temporary contract must have automatic tenure no matter what it implies for the shaky structure of their sick institution. In this melee of staking claims and counter-claims, farmers are nowhere on the stage. The feeble cry of the largest section of Nepali society is too muted to create an impact at the centre.

Agriculture, the mainstay of Nepali economy, has been utterly neglected by the government and donors for over a decade. Despite conspicuous successes in farming cash crops such as vegetables, spices, medicinal herbs, and other niche products, the overall performance of the farming sector is rather bleak.

This is almost harvest season in the country's rice bowl, the tarai, but farmers aren't smiling. Grain production hasn't actually declined, but it hasn't kept pace with population growth. Even a country charting a new course must eat to think, and agriculture can't be relegated to a secondary status.

Unbeknown to major players in the political arena, large parts of the country are slated to face an unprecedented food crisis if preventive measures aren't taken immediately. The market mechanism works fine for families kept afloat by remittances. But for everyone else, farm produce needs to be increased to stave off slow starvation.

The solution isn't all that difficult. The gap between potential and actual yield of foodgrains in most of the country is so large that even incremental improvement measures can have a spectacular impact. Floods, dreaded by urban dwellers for the inundations they cause, are nature's way of replenishing the soil in the tarai.

The real challenge is to create irrigation facilities for the dry season. This can be done at relatively low cost with minimum damage to the environment by installing shallow tube-wells recharged around the year with a network of ponds and water tanks.

Over three-quarters of the price of rice in some mountainous regions is to cover the cost of transportation. This is clearly an unsustainable food supply mechanism. Farming in the hills and mountains requires an appropriate produce mix and location-specific seeds. Easy credit, assured minimum price, and guaranteed access to market are common facilities that farmers of the mountains, hills and tarai need alike.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal was trained as an agricultural scientist in the Rampur Campuses. To survive encounters with the Americans in Hetauda, Rampur, and Dhangadhi in the 1970s, you became a wheeler-dealer or a communist. A self-declared emotional person, Dahal chose the latter. If he succeeds in establishing sustainable peace in the country, the excesses of the Maoist cadres under his command will eventually be forgiven, if not forgotten. But if he fails to address the plight of Nepali farmers, he will be guilty of betraying his calling. Ploughshares beckon the gun-wielding chairman.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)