DUNAI-The villages in this arid and remote district are all empty. No, it's not because of the Maoists. Every able-bodied person is up on the mountains collecting yarsagumba.
This unique Himalayan fungus that grows like a worm out of the soil after the snow melts is in high demand internationally. Called 'Himalayan viagra' for its alleged potency, prices have shot up as China becomes more affluent.
The effect is seen here in Dolpa, where the nearest road is two week's walk away and there is only an erratic daily flight to Nepalganj. Yarsagumba collection started this year from 26 May and is expected to last till mid-July. "This is when we earn, yarsagumba is the district's lifeline," says Laliman Buda, president of the Commerce and Industry Association in Dunai.
All teachers and 44 students of the local college are on leave, farmers and shopkeepers have all moved up to the higher valleys of Tarap. "Officially we aren't closed but we have to be practical," explains Campus Chief Laxmi Neupane, "nobody wants to miss this opportunity, they have to earn enough now to last them the whole year."
Dolpa's yarsagumba harvest draws young people from as far away as Rukum and Jajarkot. And, as in previous years, it has also attracted the Maoists who see the herb as a great tax opportunity. In the absence of government, the Maoists have now monopolised revenue collection from yarsagumba in Dolpa.
Maoist district Chief Ram Bahadur KC 'Yuddha' presented the rebel movement's annual budget in February and noted that there was Rs 180 million revenue from yarsagumba taxes. Last year the government itself collected only Rs 1.6 million from yarsagumba. One Maoist worker boasts that Dolpa's financial contribution to the 'people's war' is the highest in the region.
In April, the Maoists called on traders to bid for this year's yarsagumba collection. The tenders were opened on 10 May and the Maoists reportedly collected Rs 7.5 million just as deposits. They expect to earn Rs 220 million this year from taxes.
One kg of yarsagumba costs Rs 5,000 in Dolpa and Rs 18,000 by the time it gets to Nepalganj and $3,000 by the time it gets to Shanghai. Each Dolpali will be lucky if he can collect 1,000 pieces which he can sell for Rs 70. "It is very difficult to see the yarsagumba, you have to have very keen eyes," says a teacher from Tripurakot who collected 500 pieces last year, but stayed back to till his fields this year.
Ever since 2000 when the Maoists attacked Dunai, their first-ever Maoist attack on a district headquarter, and Jufal airfield in 2002, they have established supremacy in Dolpa. The security forces control Dunai, Suligad and Jufal but the rebels hold sway over the rest of this vast district that borders China. The Maoists have been working through their front organisation, the Dalit Mukti Morcha and wiping out vestiges of Hinduism, like the Chhalmasta temple that they destroyed last year.
"The only reason they haven't sacked the Tripura Sundari temple (pic, above) in Tripurakot is because they fear a strong public backlash," points out local journalist Bishnu Debkota.
The Maoists tax Rs 800 from government teachers in the district every four months. Although no one admits it, all civil servants, traders, NGO workers and shopkeepers pay the 'revolutionary tax'. Besides this, villagers regularly provide free food and shelter to the Maoists. Teachers and students are made to dig bunkers and trenches to thwart an 'Indian invasion'. In Kalika VDC, which the Maoists consider their district capital, the Maoists are using forced labour to construct an administrative building.
All this high-handedness hasn't gone unnoticed. The villagers of Ralli captured two Maoist workers Bam Bahadur Sarki 'Suman' and Janak Sarki 'Prasiddha' on 9 April and handed them over to the security forces. The villagers fled to Dunai anticipating a Maoist reprisal.
All but two families have now returned home when local human right activists mediated with the Maoist Dolpa Chief, Ram Bahadur KC. After the Ralli incident the Maoists have changed their policy towards locals and the district chief has been replaced by Ram Lal BiKa.