The risk with trying to step into an unknown territory is that you have to be ready to confront many questions from just about everybody, and if you don’t have answers to all the questions you don’t get the support you need, which can be quite frustrating, especially if you are convinced that the idea you want to implement would work and all you were looking for was that ’yes’ from the people. But sometimes you come up with such an answer that not only convinces people right away, but the answer lingers in your memory for a long time, and you see its reflection in many other occasions.
A similar answer lingers in my mind even after two decades, and with a strong reflection in the aftermath of the big earthquake. It was during an informal meeting more than two decades ago, when we were trying to explain to a group of planners, journalists, friends and well wishers the beauty of ropeways and how they could bring about a change in the living conditions of the people in the mountains that we all have aspired to see for long.
The case we were discussing was from Lalitpur, where the plan was to establish a short-haul material ropeway to help farmers export milk to the market who, due to lack of quick transport, were instead forced to make Khuwa, which not only was environmentally damaging but economically less profitable than selling fresh milk. The proposed ropeway would connect the mountains making transport of milk quick and easy. But the explanation was not attractive enough to convince people. Most of the responses were sort of ‘ok…., you connect the mountains…, then what?’ So, we needed something more graphic to tell people how the economy and the living conditions of the people change across every valley from the nearest road head, and how the ropeways fit in the dairy industry that makes up a large part of the livelihood across each valley.
The story that I explained went something like this.
When you go to South Lalitpur, you see mountains after mountains after mountains separated by valleys with small Kholas (see the diagram) flowing through them, which swell very high during the monsoon making mobility even more difficult. (By the way, that is the case throughout the mountain region in the country). The villages in the first mountains can be reached within 3 hours from the road head. Since they are close to the road, they sell milk to the dairy corporation. They live in two storied zinc-sheet roofed houses with separate cowsheds. Their children go to high school and colleges, sometimes even in Patan city.
The villages in the second mountains are about 8 hours away from the road, because you have to cross the valley to go to these villages. Hence, dairy farmers there can’t sell milk. Instead, they sell khuwa and earn about 70% of what their peers in the first mountains would earn. They live in thatch- roofed houses. Their children go to secondary schools.
The faraway villages in the third mountains are more than a day’s walk from the road, because you have to cross two valleys to reach there. Just because of the distance to the market they end up selling Ghiu instead of Khuwa, and with the same input in raising animals, earn only 40% of what their fellow farmers in the first mountains would earn. They live in one storey thatch-roofed houses, and keep small animals in the same house. Their children don’t normally complete schooling beyond primary level.
I hadn‘t even finished explaining my last point about the conditions in the third mountain, a senior journalist jumped to ask ‘what is there beyond the third mountain?
Without taking a second to answer his question, I said ‘the Maoists’. Everyone in the room burst into laughter. The Maoist insurgency at that time had just begun and one would hear about stories of their activities in the border areas of the districts where the presence of the state is generally insignificant. But that answer that I gave, which changed the mood in the room at that time, lingers in my mind even today because the villagers beyond the third mountain don’t have anything to sell – no milk, no Khuwa, no Ghiu. And perhaps that is the reality even today. In the case of Lalitpur, the area beyond the third mountain borders with Makawanpur and South Kavre. They are the ones mostly, unreached, unattended to, and faraway from all service centers, which makes them quite vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation from implanting ideologies to conversions.
The answer also stunned people in the room, as it opened eyes and helped them get some understanding of why our [development] efforts normally do not reach the ones most in need, the ones who have been left politically and economically very weak.
The mountains haven’t changed nor have the valleys or the economic gradient across the landscape (the diagram presented still holds true). Amidst this, let’s place-over this physical reality over what might have happened now with the earthquake of April 25th and try to reconstruct the picture for whatever services the state has to offer in the days ahead.
When the earthquake shook the mountains, it jolted all at once from first to the third mountains and beyond. Perhaps the damages are even more serious in the third mountains and beyond, but, our efforts of rescue, relief and reconstructions begin from the first mountains because that is where we reach first and also because damages there are not any less. And perhaps with more pressure the help reaches the second mountains. In the third mountains, where the capacity of people to recover and re-establish is very weak, may be the help has not reached yet or if it has, it has reached very late and very little.
Unless, we have plans to bring the third mountains right at the center of our attention, for planning, budgeting and programming, and especially at a time like this, we will not be able to begin to correct the sharp economic gradient that exists in our society.
With support from Irene Upadhya