A Hazardous Strategy
The World Commission on Environment and Development in its celebrated report called for “economic growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.” But how can this general principle be turned into concrete objectives so that the Commission’s work is more than a new chapter in the long history of development rhetoric? Road building in Nepal provides an interesting case study.
Of all development activities, roads probably have the most impact in socioeconomic terms. But is the building of roads and market integration the panacea against decreasing living standards and over exploitation of resources? Several studies indicate that it is not. In the late 1970s, a British team concluded that roads in the Nepali context might even be counter productive.
A recent study on the new road to Jiri in Dolakha District east of Kathmandu comes to a similar conclusion. It reports that the highway has led to substitution of locally produced goods, and reckless exploitation of local resources by outsiders. Improved accessibility has rendered the region more dependent on policies made by an urban elite. The region had been exposed to rapid social change, economic exploitation and superior economic competition. The study blames the unrealistic ideas on the part of development planners regarding the process of agricultural transformation. The ongoing process of change for the worse is easily observable in villages along the Jiri road. Jobs in Kathmandu have become more attractive than hard spadework in the little rewarding hill terraces. People are increasingly reluctant to contribute their share to communal irrigation systems. Family ties are loosening. Local communities are under stress.
The road does reduce the price of some consumer items, but it also brings in new prestige goods which replace traditional handicrafts and food items. At the same time, large amounts of magnesite from a mine near Charikot are exported with no gain for the region. During the night, trucks can be observed transporting illegally felled timber.
The impact of roads is a matter of decades. For that reason, highway planners should no longer remain satisfied with postmortem analysis of social and political consequences of their handiwork, after the damage has been done. The worst possible scenario of future development may be a more accurate point of reference than optimistic expectations and visions of successful hill agriculture exporting fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Development planning must consider possible negative eventualities.
What could this mean in the Nepali context? Coherent alternatives to the concept of regional integration do not exist and there has been little independent research. As Chaitanya Mishra of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies says, everyone is enchanted with “feasibility and impact surveys”. Sponsored research is booming, but the priorities are being distorted as researchers succumb to development organizations.
Nevertheless, there are some tentative steps towards “another development”, challenging the topdown approach in Nepali infrastructure planning. Though completely ignored by scholars in Kathmandu, they show ways to a balanced development of hill agriculture. These include developing regional pockets instead of a national market based on a large expensive road network that results in uncontrollable social and economic consequences. Agricultural technology which emphasizes the effective use of locally available resources rather than on fossil fuels must be encouraged.
Such policies would not prevent the peasants’ future hardship, but might allow sustainable progress. The rapid development of a national market though roads and more roads is not likely to allow economic growth which benefits the most needy, without irretrievably destroying natural resources. As another expert said recently, policy must focus on increasing the standard of living at the grassroots level. It must only indirectly be concerned with economic growth at the aggregate national level.
Werner Thut is a Swiss researcher. This report was based on a study carried out for ICIMOD in Kathmandu.
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