The death toll in five years of the Maoist "peoples' war", according to official figures, is now nearing 1,700. But there is another casualty: development.
Poverty and government neglect drive the insurgency and feed public frustration. But, ironically, development projects aimed at addressing those very problems are grinding to a halt because of the violence and fear accompanying this conflict.
This is happening not just in "Maoist-affected areas". Across Nepal, non-governmental organisations and community groups say they are finding it increasingly difficult to carry on. Caught between suspicious security forces, and Maoist threats and extortion, grassroots workers are lying low-affecting vital projects in education, health, water supply, micro-credit, agricultural extension and training. One of the few achievements of 10 years of democracy was the empowerment that came with local self-governance, and this could be one of the most irreparable casualties of the insurgency.
"I was working as a social mobiliser, I really believed we could change Nepal by motivating people to be self-reliant. We had started seeing the transformation resulting from our work," said one dejected NGO activist. "Today, when I walk through villages, I see people cowering in fear. They are afraid to come out, afraid to speak, afraid to take the lead." Most Nepalis and expatriates interviewed for this article asked that their names not be used, indicating just how pervasive the fear psychosis is. Some didn't even want the district where they worked to be named for fear of reprisal by Maoists or police.
Paradoxically, there is another side to this. Despite the silent terror that stalks the land, highways are still being built across Maoist-controlled areas with donor-funding, , community development activities of NGOs are going on even in the Maoist heartland of the mid-west. The presence of NGOs is proof that not all development work is at a standstill. "We have met local Maoist commanders, and they tell us: you are doing social mobilisation, so are we. Let's work together," said a Nepali staff of an international development outfit in the far-west.
Another leader of a development agency with projects all over Nepal told us: "We try to be neutral and offer to work with anyone willing to be our partners, as long as their interests are to help the poor. In some cases we have worked effectively with Maoists." An agency that had packed up its bags to leave one of the mid-western districts because its workers were being picked up by police along the trails, was approached by the local Maoist commander who asked them to stay.
Elsewhere across Nepal, there is proof that as long as the organisation has a policy of transparency in its budget, local villagers want and benefit from their activities, and it is carried out by Nepalis there have been no problems. Said one NGO working in Kabhre: "We put our entire budget, with even the smallest details of how much a bag of cement cost us, in charts up on the wall. When the Maoists come, we show them what we are doing and they don't disturb us." Still, Maoists have often attacked projects they don't like. On Tuesday night, they torched a car belonging to an EU project in Gulmi.
So, have the Maoists have succeeded where countless workshops and seminars on aid strategy, donor reform and ensuring cost-efficiency in aid have failed? It is tempting to think so. But Maoist policy on development and foreign aid is muddled, and there are too many contradictions in the way in which local Maoist leaders have treated development projects.
One reason could be that the leadership structure and hierarchy is decentralised and the goals and strategies formulated at the top don't reach local commissars.
International charities whose projects are tolerated in one district are attacked in a neighbouring one. There is also a lot of misinformation doing the rounds. We were told a private foreign group in Rasuwa had folded up because of Maoist threats, but last we checked, they were still there. All it took was one phone call to find out that another voluntary organisation in Mugu, also rumoured to have left because of Maoist threats, was in fact continuing its work in the area.
"There is a real difficulty in planning in Nepal now," admitted one frustrated head of an international relief group in Kathmandu. "I have to know whether I am wasting time here or not. Either I have to piss or get out of the pot. If they don't like us, let them tell us, and I'll take my money and go somewhere else."
In many places from which development workers have actually been forced to leave, the effect has been devastating. The Maoists are too busy fighting, the government virtually doesn't exist and development work has come to a standstill. "The Maoists run us out, they can't fill the void and they are too preoccupied to get on with grassroots development work that needs outside resources or expertise," said one activist who is now back in Kathmandu.
Aside from rhetoric and slogans, Maoists have shown they have no coherent policy on how to deal with external development agencies, bilateral aid, or even international charities. Maoist ideologue Babu Ram Bhattarai writing in his 1998 pamphlet Politico-economic Rationale of the Peoples' War in Nepal, is not much help: "Foreign aid is the entry of imperialist and expansionist financial capital in disguise.In keeping with the imperialist plan of checking the mounting crisis in oppressed nations from breaking into revolutionary upheavals, billions of rupees have been pumped into rural areas in the name of NGOs/INGOs."
Except for the 40-point demand announced six years ago, party literature is mum on a vision for development. Said one leftist analyst in Kathmandu who has closely followed the spread of Maoist influence: "I haven't seen a clearly articulated plan of action." Revolutionary land reform tops their developmental agenda, but aside from saying that they would "take from the rich and give to the poor" there is little clue about how this will be carried out. Nor is there a plan to address unemployment. Although there is an emphasis on self-reliance, the Maoists' present methods of tax-collection, extortion and outright robbery of banks and community savings schemes means it cannot resist the need to depend on outside resources.
So far, the only consistent pattern seen in the attacks on development activities seems to be violence, threats and intimidation directed at village leaders with allegiance to the Nepali Congress. There have also been instances where foreign aid workers have been asked if they are American, and at least one international aid organisation was reportedly attacked because local Maoists said it was supported by "imperialist Americans".
Said one agricultural specialist who worked with a US-funded air programme in Dang: "They are somewhat allergic to Americans, but it does not mean they target Americans. Also, they have no problems if funds are coming from the US as long as the work in the field is effective." Instances where development workers have been killed are mostly due to personal conflicts and disagreements with local Maoists. One multilateral-funded agricultural project with field activities in 40 districts is being implemented without hindrance from Maoists, according to project managers. Said one: "We sit down with them and tell them what we are doing with agro-forestry user groups, training and savings schemes, and as long as we are transparent about what we are doing and we are not arrogant and ostentatious they give us full cooperation."
Said another farming expert back in the capital from a field visit: "You realise they are not ogres, they don't have horns. They tell you what they want, and you tell them why you are there and usually it is for the same reason: to make Nepalis more self-reliant, better fed, better educated, more healthy." He adds that what the Maoists say strikes a chord in most Nepali villagers outside the district headquarters: "They say Kathmandu is looting us, and we poor have to pay the price. We have to bring them in line."
Even so, police records show Maoists have ransacked 18 field offices of donor agencies in the last five years. But there have been many more unreported threats and attempts to extort and intimidate staff. One development worker from the far-west told us local Maoists used to ask for money from time to time, but now it is very organised. "Everyone in the village has been asked to pay one month's salary every year as tax to support the Peoples' War, and there are threats if you don't pay," he said. The field worker is in a dilemma because his regional office in Nepalgunj will not reimburse him his salary, and it has to come out of his own pocket. He says civil servants, and even police, pay the Maoist tax.
There is a tendency among local Maoist commissars-not very different from the general Nepali mindset-to look at infrastructure projects as "real" development, and other processes like social mobilisation, training and awareness building as a waste of time. Local Maoists tend to piggy-back on local community groups set up by development agencies to spread their doctrine. Refusal can lead to conflicts.
In a few remote pockets, Maoist commanders have warned development workers to stay away from villages where they carry out training. They target high-profile programmes with fancy four-wheel drive vehicles, and projects with a large and showy presence. But is all pretty arbitrary, depending on the local situation, the perceived need for the type of development activity, and the whim of the local Maoist commander. Nepal's biggest development project to date, the Kali Gandaki-A, even has a slogan written in chalk at the entrance to the power house in Beltari: "Let's support the ongoing Kali Gandaki A Project, NCP (Maoist)". Three members of the Melamchi Project, including a Canadian consultant looking at social and environmental mitigation, were briefly detained last week near Mahankal by armed Maoists. The three were quizzed on project goals and benefits to the local community, and later released unharmed. Large infrastructure projects that benefit the nation, tourism and trekking on which ordinary porters and villagers depend on for income appear to be deliberately left alone.
In three mid-western districts where the Maoists have declared the formation of "people's governments" they have built bridges, maintained village trails and drinking water systems and erected lots of gates to commemorate dead comrades. But there is no clear pattern or strategy for village development. An important gain has been in gender equality (at least among the Maoist cadre) in areas of Nepal where the status of women has traditionally been the lowest. Maoists have shown a puritanical streak, but it is whimsical and quite random: threatening women who cut their hair short in Itahari, warning women not to wear jeans in Biratnagar, and banning alcohol in areas where they are in firm control. There is much genuine support for the Maoists' goals, but there is a lot of disagreement about the violent methods and the public acquiescence is largely driven by fear of retribution so there is no overt opposition to the Maoists.
But a more worrying aspect is the seeming lack of central policy and control. While in the first three years of the insurgency, Maoists carried out populist punishment of known village criminals and corrupt officials, today incidents of extortion, "taxation", looting of village savings schemes and brutal murders of popular local leaders have also affected their image. It is now often difficult to tell the difference between "Maobadi" and armed criminal "khaobadi"-robbers who loot a bank and leave shouting Maoist slogans, or those who steal from savings and credit groups. "There's no way to tell if they are real Maoists," said one village elder whose savings and credit programme was looted recently.
With more and more police posts being pulled back to secure areas, large parts of the country have been left in the hands of local criminals. The Maoists have their own Peoples' Courts to address local disputes and carry out public punishments of khaobadis. The police retreat has actually made remotes districts more peaceful, giving the sense that once the Maoists are in control things return to normal-as long as no one disagrees. This is why there is apprehension about the government's recently announced Integrated Security and Development Programme (ISDP) providing the security umbrella for development activities to take place with the help of the police, paramilitary and the Royal Nepal Army. Many development workers who had got used to the return to calm now fear a return to fighting. One health worker from the mid-west told us: "We had just got used to working with the Maoists after the police moved out, now with the ISDP it will be uncertain again."