Nepali Times
Milk and Maoists

These rugged mountains south of Kathmandu Valley are so far, and yet so near. From the ridge, you can see the city of Kathmandu to the north, to the south are areas so remote they could be in Jumla. This area has always been by-passed by development. Forty years ago, there was hope that the Tika Bhairab highway to Hetauda would change things, but Nepal's first experiment with democracy was dismantled in 1960, and with it this incredibly quick shortcut from the capital to the tarai was abandoned.

The Mahabharat Lekh here shows a unique economic descent as one travels from North to South. It's called the "milk gradient"-people closer to Kathmandu can sell milk at the nearest roadhead, and they live a visibly better life. Those who can't walk to Bhatte Danda in a few hours before the milk goes bad have to boil the milk down to khuwa, which fetches less money than fresh milk. But even khuwa goes bad in a week, so beyond the khuwa area is the ghew region. Ghew is an even lower-return commodity, and it is more energy and time-intensive. So the ghew farmers are poorer still. The effect of all this is here for us to see: the farmers get poorer and poorer, and hills get more and more denuded as you travel south.

What lies beyond the ghew, you may ask. Well, that's where the Maoists are. They thrive in remote areas that are dirt poor because of government apathy, and hopelessness. So it is at this tri-junction of Kabhre, southern Lalitpur and Makwanpur where you feel so far away from Kathmandu you could be in Timbuktu. This is the face of the real Nepal that is yet to awaken. Peasants here have nothing to sell because they don't even grow enough to feed their families. Despite some health care support provided by missionaries over the years, infant mortality rates are double the national average, illiteracy is three times higher.
Four years ago, villagers here used to talk about Maoists like they talked about wild animals that come at night. They had heard of them, but no one seemed to have actually seen them. There were stories about how an old village headman was beheaded, or how a landowner was looted, how ownership papers from the agriculture bank were burned to free villagers from debt. Local government officials were helpless, the few police in remote posts wore hunted looks. Stories about Maoists had a Robin Hood quality, the stuff of legend.

Meanwhile development extension workers carried on their work and reported progress to their headquarters as they have done for the past 40 years. Everyone here knows about who actually benefited from all the aid. There is no sign of the poorest farmers becoming any more self-reliant, of having improved their lives even slightly. Gradually, the areas "affected by Maoists" grew beyond the ghew region to the khuwa region and even to the milk region. Last year, Maoists attacked a police post near Bhatte Danda--the nearest area of Maoist activity to the capital. Villagers liked the slogans and took the path of violently liberating themselves because no one else ever offered them any hope. There are many Nepals. The Nepal of Kathmandu Valley, the Nepal of the district headquarters, and the Nepal of areas like Ikudol. The development wallahs tried "extension" activities in the 1970s, tried "trickle down" and "peoples' participation" in the 1980s, and now we are trying out "participatory approach"' in "sustainable human development" with experts from within the country and abroad. We have used just about every development model to bring changes in the Nepals of Ikudol. But all it did was kill off the little self-help there was around here, the donor-driven and Kathmandu-centric dependency took care of that.

One effective effort to break the "milk gradient" in Ikudol was a cargo ropeway to bring fresh milk to the Kathmandu market. This would have allowed family dairies as far beyond as south of the Bagmati River in Makwanpur to benefit from higher income. Better economic status would have opened up possibilities for development activities, and perhaps made extreme political ideologies less palatable. Because of mismanaged development efforts and lack of a clear understanding of this development model using a new transport system, the cablecar has nearly ground to a halt. Here was one effort that could have proved how giving farmers access to market can dramatically improve their lives.
The Maoist ideology is no doubt misguided. But what we could not achieve in 40 years, the Maoists may have done in four short years: mobilised peoples' participation, empowered women to join their ranks. Why did development fail, and what is it that they are doing right?

(Madhukar Upadhya worked on a rural development project in southern Lalitpur Dristrict between 1986-98)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)