Nepali Times
Food crisis epicentre


HUNGER PANGS: A child satisfies herself by gnawing on a piece of wild yam while awaiting rice distribution by the Nepal Food Corporation at a depot in Jajarkot.
When the road to the Jajarkot district capital Khalanga was finally completed last year, the first jeep to arrive was garlanded and sprinkled with vermilion.

The road, it was thought, would mean cheaper rice an end to chronic food shortages. A year on, that euphoria has turned to misery and hunger. The highway is in such poor shape that no pick-ups can use it.

Jajarkot and neighbouring Achham and Dailekh are the districts worst affected by Nepal's nationwide food crisis. These midwestern districts had suffered five seasons of drought only to be hammered by hailstorms and blizzards this spring.

Within Jajarkot, it is the six VDCs in the north of the district that are worst hit. Ram Chandra Jyoti of Rami Danda points to the empty Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) godown and says: "The rice was finished in a week and the depot has been closed ever since." Jyoti and other villagers simply cannot afford the Rs 50 per kg the rice in the market costs.

The people of western Nepal have only one way to cope when they run out of food: they go to seek work in India. And that is what they are doing now, out-migration has turned into an exodus.

"No one has come up with a way to solve this crisis," says farmer Chandra Bahadur Khadka, who is walking down to the nearest road-head to take a bus down to the border at Nepalganj. "There is no way to fill our stomachs by staying here so we need to go to other places."

Jyoti explains: "We had some wheat but it was destroyed by hail. Now we can't even buy food because it's too expensive."

The only hope for farmers here is the maize crop that should be ripe in a month's time. Some well-off traders have been using horses and mules to bring in wheat, but the transport costs have also risen and the flour is too expensive for most people here.

Even at the best of times, Jajarkot's peasants could only grow enough food to last them three months in a year. Rugged and infertile land, a lack of irrigation and virtually no agricultural extension have kept this district dependent on the outside.

Jajarkot relies on the government's NFC to bring in rice, but the quota for the district has dwindled. After the civil servants get their share there is almost nothing left for ordinary people. Harihar Shrestha, head of the NFC office in Nepalganj, says the food quota for the district has been met and is surprised to be told that there is a food crisis in Jajarkot.

"We have increased the food quota this year because of increased demand, it should be enough," he told Nepali Times. Of the 3,400 quintals of rice allocated for Jajarkot, he says 1,300 are stocked in the district capital and the rest is on its way.

He suggested that the crisis could be a result of the difficulty in taking the food to remote VDCs. The NFC uses tractor trailers to bring food to the district headquarters, then mule trains distribute it to the villages. But even if the road was repaired and food could be trucked in, the 35 per cent increase in freight costs announced this week would make the rice more costly and beyond the reach of most people.

Reporting also by Rajendra Karki in Khalanga

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)