Development indicators show that the tarai lowlands are doing better than most hill and mountain regions of Nepal.
The traditional Nepali term for the Inner Tarai and the Tarai lowlands is madhesh — a geographical extension of the madhya-desha (heartland), referring to the Gangetic plain. Until the late 1950s, the prevalence of endemic malaria made the madhesh a peripheral region. In the last three decades, however, large-scale migrations and development activities have transformed it.
Over the last 30 years and earlier, a process of “spontaneous migration” has directed two-thirds of the interregional migrants and most immigrants to the lowlands, which experienced a rapid population growth of 2.5 times in less than three decades. Population growth was high both in Tarai villages and towns. The average rate of urban population growth in the lowlands was 7.8 percent compared to 3.5 percent in the highlands (Mountain and Hill). Overall, the lowlands (Tarai and Inner Tarai) had an average annual growth rate twice that of the highlands.
Levels of development, too, have been higher in the Tarai. In economic development (including agriculture, industry, transport, banking), the Tarai led all other elevation zones. Among geographic regions, Kathmandu ranked first and Central Inner Tarai second. Most lowlands regions except the Eastern Inner Tarai had a higher economic development level than the highland regions except Kathmandu Valley.
In socio-cultural development (education, health, communication), the Tarai and Inner Tarai ranked higher than the hill and mountain zones of Nepal. Kathmandu Valley ranked highest in sociocultural development; The eastern and Central Inner Tarai and the Central Hill region came next; the Western Mountain and Hill regions had very low levels of sociocultural development.
Kathmandu Valley, the Central Inner Tarai and all three Tarai regions ranked high in regional development. Of the 18 Tarai districts, 17 had regions ranked high in regional development. In the Inner Tarai, three districts were above and three were below the national level. In the Hill region, 10 districts had higher and 23 had lower values. Of the 15 Mountain districts, only two had values higher than the national average. Thus, 20 of the 24 lowland districts had levels of development higher than the national average.
(The conclusions regarding economic, sociocultural and regional development are based on a 1980 study by Shrestha and Sharma. The National Planning Commission has also done some exercises on levels of regional development.)
The aggregate value of development for the Tarai and Inner Tarai was much higher than those of Mountain and Hill districts. Kathmandu Valley appeared as an island of high-level development in the generally backward highland area. In macro-regional terms, one could say that the higher the elevation of a geographic region, the lower the level of regional development.
Development indicators of recent years show the comparative advantage of the Tarai region. In terms of the road length/area ratio, for example, the Tarai leads with 11.0 followed by the Hill Region with 22.9; the road length/area ratio for the Mountain region is 245.8. Three mountain regions (Midwest, West and East) have no road to speak of. All five Tarai regions rank high in road length/area ratio. An exception to this pattern of underdevelopment in the hills is the Central Hill region (with Kathmandu Valley), which ranks second. (Data source: National Planning Commission, 1987)
The physical quality or life index (calculated on the basis of average life expectancy at birth, infant mortality, and literacy rate) also places three Tarai regions at the top followed by two Hill regions, the Central and the East. The Far Western and Midwestern regions in the Mountain and Hill zones rank very low in physical quality of life.
Of the total development expenditure of NRs 3,297 million during fiscal year 1985-86, the Hill region claimed 59.8 percent against 33.9 percent for the Tarai and 6.2 percent for the Mountain. Central Hill (including the capital region) ranked first in development expenditure followed by Central Tarai. But most Tarai regions were placed higher than other Hill and Mountain regions except Western Hill. The five Mountain regions ranked very low in development expenditure.
The total estimated GDP of Nepal was valued at NRs4,174 million at 1984-85 current prices. Of this amount, 56.5 was contributed by the Tarai regions. The share of Hill regions was 39.2 percent and that of Mountain regions was only 4.3 percent. Central Tarai ranked first and Central Hill second; Eastern and Western Tarai ranked third and fourth in GDP contribution.
The level of development based on 25 variables placed Central Hill (including the capital region) in the first rank. The next four places were taken by Tarsi regions. The last four in level of development were Mountain regions. As a general pattern, Tarai regions had a comparatively higher level of development except for Central Hill, with metropolitan Kathmandu.
The lowlands with their concentration of infrastructural and production factors has emerged as a dominant region of demographic and economic transformation. Once it was a region associated with large estates of absentee landlords; today, however, increasing numbers of landless households encroaching and squatting on forest and common land have generated political tension. The problem of squatters, a new expression of increasing poverty and economic inequality, is basically the outcome of increasing migration from the resource-poor highlands. Therefore, interregional migrants are directed to the lowlands for agricultural settlement. The lowlands, particularly the Tarai, is also the prime destination of immigrants. Unlike internal migrants, the immigrants are moving to lowland areas that were settled earlier and to urban areas. The dynamism of the lowland economy has attracted immigrants, many of whom intend to stay permanently. With a few exceptions, Tarai districts with a high percentage of foreign-born and foreign citizens have a comparatively low percentage of internal migrants. Thus, interregional migrants and immigrants are moving into different ecological niches: the former into frontier lands and the latter to settled areas and generally in secondary and tertiary occupations.
Harka Gurung is a Nepali geographer. This article forms part of his monograph Regional Patterns of Migration in Nepal, East-West Population Institute, Hawaii.