Despite the fashionable cynicism in the capital, Nepal had made dramatic progress in the past two decades. Child mortality has been halved in 20 years, goitre which was endemic is nearly gone, and 80 percent of the population has safe drinking water.
All this was made possible because elected village and district officials were becoming increasingly accountable, and some central policy was working. But the advances of the past 20 years are now threatened by systematic attacks by Maoist rebels against development projects, elected bodies and infrastructure (See also: Rampage #88).
The destruction has a snowball effect. Attacks on hydropower plants, for instance, don't just deprive villages of electricity-it disrupts the cold chain for vaccination programmes. Women, children and the poorest bear the brunt of the impact.
"Children and women suffer the most in conflicts," UNICEF's Stewart McNab told us in an interview. "When a water supply system is blown up, it is again women who have to fetch it from somewhere up the hill." McNab has proposed that schools be declared "zones of peace", but no one seems to be listening.
It is clear that Nepal's progress in child health and literacy is going to take a beating if the attacks continue at this pace.
"Our development has been pushed back 50 years," says Prem Narayan Premi, DDC chairman of Okhaldhunga. "The devastation in Rumjatar and the villages around it will make you want to weep." Two weeks ago, Maoists wrecked Rumjatar's brand new water supply system, cutting the intake pipes and threatened to cut off the limbs of anyone who tried to repair the Rs 18 million project which had taken ten years to build.
In the past two weeks, 25 VDC buildings in Lamjung have been destroyed. "I don't know how and when we'll rebuild them," says MP Hari Bhakta Adhikary. In Lamjung's Dhuseni village, the building was not just the VDC office, but also housed a health post and post office. Some locals pleaded with the Maoists to spare the building. They were told: "Our orders are to destroy them, we don't care what happens."
It is hard to understand why the Maoist leadership has methodically targeted water supply and VDC buildings, since it affects ordinary people. Even in remote Humla district, 27 VDC buildings have been destroyed, only Simikot remains. Water supply lines have been cut. Last week, Humla's dynamic DDC Chairman, Jivan Shahi had his home burnt to cinders, his property and livestock looted. In a phone interview from Simikot on Wedensday, Shahi told us: "I don't care what happens to me, but the Maoists are really hitting the poorest of the poor. It is now wholesale plunder and vandalism on an unprecedented scale."
In Kathmandu there appears to be little interest to gauge the implication of this nationwide pillage. No government agency is even keeping a tally of the destruction. Only at the National Planning Commission did we get a hint of concern: officials admited the normal planning cycle now needs to be totally revised. "We are considering a shorter emergency plan to rebuild and rehabilitate," Jagdish Chandra Pokhrel of the NPC told us. "We are already looking at 2-3 years of reconstruction before we can get back to regular development."
In the donor community, there is a feeling of despondency and frustration. "The panic, fear and terror has effected the overall development climate," says Peter Rhode, director of the German aid group, GTZ. "Our partners are vanishing, VDCs are decreasing and local officials are fleeing either because they have been threatened or for fear of violence." It's not just that future progress has been stymied, but Nepal's development parameters will soon start regressing. For instance, the child mortality rate which had come down to 100 per 1,000 live births from nearly double that figure 20 years ago could start rising again. Immunisation rates could go down again from 90 percent to 70.
"This year we can only do about 60 percent of what we would have," says Sanjay Adhikary of UNDP. He heads a project that does social mobilisation in many of the hotspots of the midwest. "Work is challenging, but development must go on."
But it is not only the Maoists causing problems. "It appears that both sides are using \'food as weapon'," says Douglas Coutts, representative, World Food Program. "All that is happening in the most food insecure areas." This hits the poor hardest.