The tourist brochures about Nepal invariably look to the hills, and the rhetoric of the national identity is derived from the mountainous regions of the country. Nepal’s southern lowlands, the tarai, does not fit the image most people have of the country. Says a Himalayan anthropologist, ‘The Kingdom of Nepal is…art archetypal Hill and Mountain society.”
Many Nepalis themselves think of the tarai merely as a strip of sub-tropical flatlands bordering India, inhabited by the gracious Tharus. Until recently, the tarai for some was nothing more than a place to go hunting. Still others were aware only of its unbearably high summer temperatures.
These attitudes are part ignorance and part geo-centricity, rooted in the belief that the hills contain the soul of Nepal. But the tarai is neither small nor insignificant. It includes 20 of Nepal’s 75 districts, slightly under half the country’s total population of 18 million and 15 per cent of the total land.
The tarai people with their diverse background form an integral part of the national mosaic. The region has become the nation’s bread-basket, its industrial heartland, and a pressure valve for the over-populated hills. The tarai is being increasingly described as Nepal’s new economic frontier.
A RICH HERITAGE
While the hills are full of enchantment, the plains have a charm of their own. The beauty is there for all who care to stop and see: a misty sunrise at Chitwan’s National Park, disturbed only by the ripple of water and the distant chatter of langur monkeys, or a village in autumn surrounded by bright yellow fields of mustard, overshadowed by towering cumulus that reflect the setting sun. The holy Hindu soil of Janakpur, the Sakyamuni Buddha’s home ground of Lumbini, also are part of the tarai’s heritage.
Actually, the tarai is like a counter-foil to the Himalaya. Without its green flatlands, would the white massifs seem so impressive? Surprisingly, the tarai is never too far from the Himalaya. On a clear autumn morning, looking to the northern horizon from the border town of Birganj, the sun mesmerisingly cuts a 100-mile swath across the snow mountains from the Everest region in the east to Ganesh Himal, north-west of Kathmandu.
There is also beauty in the everyday lives of the tarai’s inhabitants, from the brilliantly woven wicker baskets of individual villages to the Picasso-esque figures daubed on the village wall marking happy occasions. Some religious ceremonies seem to bring the Vedic period back to life. In the forests, among the Tharus, one gets the feeling that this must have been how life was in the South Asia of old, before the Gangetic plain was entirely colonised. Like the Kathmandu Valley, the tarai is full of festivals, from the rollicking celebration of holi to the reenactment of episodes from the Ramayana in Janakpur during Biha Panchami and Rarrinawami.
Many visitors from the hills and from the Gangetic plains to the south are surprised by the agricultural luxuriance of the tarai and the resultant . diversity and richness of the diet available. The sweetshops at the market towns are piled high with delicacies which act like magnets to the pahadiya just descended from the hills. The regular fare, even in middle-class households, consists of basmati rice, ghee, puris and pickles. The diet is enhanced by an abundance of tropical fruit: mango, litchee, banana, papaya, jackfruit and breadfruit.
“MOUNTAIN-RURAL” TO “PLAINS-URBAN”
The opening up of the tarai to settlement is one of the most significant events in the history of the Nepali nation-state. Social scientist Frederick Gaige in his 1975 book Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal describes the tarai as a “population vacuum”, drawing in people first from the Gangetic plain and more recently from the hills.
During the past two decades, the tarai has accommodated the release of demographic, economic and environmental pressures in the Nepali hills. The process of migration has turned much of the tarai into a melting pot for Nepali cultures, a place where the plains population mixes with hill migrants and settlers from as far away as Burma. As a result, the tarai has become the most variedly populated region in the country. Says Gaige in the aforementioned book, which is one of the few to study the tarai in-depth, “Migration is…an essential factor in the economic and political integration of the hills and plains regions of Nepal, a prerequisite for the more complete cultural integration that is likely to take place in the more distant future.”
Anthropologist Melvyn C. Goldstein says that Nepal is being transformed from “a mountain-rural to plains-urban society”. Analysing the latest (1981) census data in a paper in the Mountain Research and Development journal, Goldstein and two co-writers say that there has been a substantial shift in the pattern of Nepal’s population distribution between 1971 and 1981. “If this shift continues over the next 20 years it will transform Nepal from a ‘classic’ mountain country into a predominantly flat, subtropical, and urban nation; and there is every reason to expect that these rates will increase.”
In 1954, only 35 per cent of Nepal’s total population lived in the tarai; 20 years later, the proportion had increased only three points to 38 per cent. Suddenly, in the 1970s, the census data shows, the proportion of tarai-dwellers shot up to 47 percent. At that growth rate, projections show that the tarai will comprise 51 percent of Nepal’s total population in 1991, 57 percent in 2001 and 62 per cent in 2011.
The decade of the 1970s saw the “Terai-ization” of Nepal, says Goldstein. This dramatic turn of events “represents a serious challenge for the government of Nepal…(the country) is racing headlong into an uncertain future at a breakneck speed.” The anthropologist says the country’s economic planners must readjust their goals and assumptions to take into account the “massive metamorphosis” that is occurring. “The heavy concentration of effort and resources in rural development in the hills and mountains may have to be re-evaluated in the face of. the changing distribution of population.”
The tarai is mostly sub-tropical lowland, no more than a few hundred feet above sea level, with soil that supports strands of Sissoo at the foot of the Siwaliks and Sal and Simal hardwoods further south. The tarai can also be said to include, at a slightly higher elevation, the wide valleys of the bhitri madhesh, or “inner tarai”. The region as a whole offers a habitat for wildlife that is probably the most lush in Asia. The sanctuaries such as Chitwan and Suklaphanta provide refuge to the world’s dwindling populations of the South Asian one-homed rhino, the Royal Bengal Tiger, the nilgai and other species. Today’s teeming sanctuaries stand testimony to a lost heritage, vast swaths of rich jungle that existed just decades ago, never to be restored.
After malaria was eradicated and roads were built, the tarai forests began to fall to massive logging operations. The timber was mostly exported to India as building material or to make railway sleepers. The clearings were immediately occupied by “sukumbasis”, or migrants, but in addition there were both government resettlement schemes and the unplanned destruction of forests by people eager to carve their own homestead on the forest floor.
The tarai forests have thus been decimated by uncontrolled timber felling for export and the continuing need for agricultural land. The famous “char kosay jhaadi”, miles upon miles of barely penetrable malarial jungle that protected Nepal from southern invaders, has all but disappeared. The tarai forest has been reduced to patches that can be spotted between agricultural clearings on both sides of the East- West Highway.
It is not clear that the levelled tarai lands — now fields — will be able to live up to the expectations of agricultural productivity that the nation seems to be placing on them. It seems a misconception that the tarai is endlessly fertile. To being with, much of the fertile sections, mostly in the eastern parts of Nepal, have already been colonised since long. Forests that still stand but arc about to go in the far-western tarai can at best provide marginal, environmentally unstable land. Even if clearings are fertile to begin it, soil scientists fear that productivity of the fields are going to drop sharply over a decade unless there is a huge investment in fertilisers.
One legacy of the worldwide attention paid to Himalayan deforestation and floods in the plains further down is that the ecology of the tarai has been ignored. Planners, social scientists and politicians, all have ignored the possibilities of soil degradation in the tarai, which is conceivably more critical to the country’s economy than soil loss in the hills. Because of indiscriminate building of canals over the last two decades and the loss of root crops, there are increasing flash floods in the tarai – in rivers such as the Kamala, Biring Khola and Tinau. Even a normal rainstorm is liable to bring flooding.
Says Sandra Burton, who surveyed lands for resettlement in far west Nepal, “The tarai is often thought as a fertile alluvial plain with infinite and homogenous potential for resettling landless farmers…(But) the tarai is actually a mosaic of different land types. In Kailali District, for example, she found that only nine per cent of the “land available for resettlement” (meaning forests) was “good rice land”, and 23 per cent was suited for “diversified cropping”. Thus, 68 per cent of the available area was not suitable because of low fertility, flooding hazards, or other drainage problems.
A MATTER OF DISCONTENT
It is not surprising that the tarai has close and long-standing ties with the bordering states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. After all, most of Nepal’s long and winding border with India lies in the tarai. The proximity, the relatively developed transportation and communication systems, and the free border crossing permitted to both Indians and Nepalis have been significant in nurturing these ties. As a result, there is considerable movement of people in search of employment and those engaged in trade from both sides of the border. This is not to speak of the cultural and linguistic affinities among the people of the region, ties that are maintained through constant interaction and matrimonial links, akin to ties that exist between the hill people of llam and Baitadi in the east and west of Nepal with communities across the border in India.
Educated tarai Nepalis point out that most Nepalis do not understand what Nepal is or who is a Nepali. They express frustration about perceptions reflected in the attitude of people in Kathmandu to labourers or street hawkers, many of whom actually come from the tarai and not from India. Tarai people sometimes find themselves in the vulnerable state of being seen as Indians in Nepal and as Nepalis in India, thereby facing double discrimination.
Many of the grievances are genuine. Some may be just inter-ethnic suspicion. Yet, the hill people use the term “madhesi” for the people of the tarai, and even though not originally a negative term, it has come. to carry a derogatory connotation. The discrimination felt by the tarai people is not unique. Nepal, with its numerous population groups, still suffers from ethnic and regional prejudices. These exist, for example, between the “parbatiya” and the Newars, hill and mountain groups, tarai and hills. Note, for example, the distinctively derogatory “bhotey”, a term used for the Nepalis from the northern-most area.
Many in the tarai feel that their region is under-represented in mainstream of Nepali life as defined by Kathmandu’s power centers. They cite their low numbers in the national legislature under the Panchayat and discrimination in government service. They have watched Nepal’s constitution-making process with wariness and remain concerned that distribution of seats in the forthcoming national Parliament will maintain the under-representation.
Disgruntlement among the inhabitants of the tarai had been bottled up under the Panchayat system. “Feudal politics” kept the region normally quite and docile by “buying off” key leaders and politicians. With the advent of democracy, the simmering demands of the tarai people, like those of other communities and minorities who feel discrimination across Nepal, have come to the fore. One of the results has been the formation of the Sadbhavana Party headed by tarai politician Gajendra Narayan Singh, which claims to speak for the people of the tarai.
It is unclear how broad a base either the Sadbhavana Party or others who would represent the whole Nepal tarai have. Given the divisions of class, caste, ethnicity and geography which divide the tarai, just as they do the hills, an attempt to form a tarai-wide political forum might not succeed, or might succeed only in the event of extreme insensitivity to tarai concerns in the part of the new power centers in Kathmandu, A better strategy, say some political scientists, would be for tarai activists to establish strong links with political parties which claim to be national, such as the Nepali Congress, and the various wings of the communist movement. The strategy would be to force these “hill-dominated” political parties to live up to their rhetoric about equity, share of resources, economic development, and reprsenttional politics. If democracy continues to sprout roots in the Nepali soil, including the tarai’s fertile soil, it is certain that at least a good part of the regional discrimination that is said to exist will vanish. If the tarai has the votes, it will get its demands.
THE BREAD BASKET
By the early 1960s, the tarai had emerged as the mainstay of the economy and begun to attract the hard-pressed people of the hills, who were in search for land and a new life. According to estimates based on the Rastra Bank’s figures, in 1964/65, 59 percent of the Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP) came from the tarai. In the 1960s, the tarai’s contribution made up 50 percent of the country’s total agricultural produce. By the 1970s, the tarsi’s share of GDP had risen to 63 per cent.
Today, the tarai has a total of 1.4 million hectares, or 57 percent of Nepal’s total arable land. In 1985/86, about 1.6 million metric tonnes of foodgrain came from the tarai, making up 60 percent of the country’s total production, though only L2 percent metric tonnes were needed to feed the tarai population. A surplus of 34 percent was generated.
By contrast, in the same year, the food grain production of the 16 Himalayan districts was about 32 percent short of their requirements. Likewise, the remaining 39 districts in the hills had a 16 percent deficit. The surplus produce in the tarai made up for the deficit of Nepal’s 55 hill and Himalayan districts, with an additional 0.2 million metric tonnes to spare.
Also remarkable is the tarai’s contribution to industry. A total of 3,228 industries are located in the region, with investments totaling NRs3,143 million, and an output of NRs5,170 million, generating a total income of NRs2,226 million. The hill districts, apart from Kathmandu and Pokhara, are virtually without industry.
According to 1985/86 figures, the total revenue contributed by the tarai was NRs793 million (compared to NRs133 million in 1965/66). The duty collected from 15 districts of the tarai amounted to NRs555 million, and its tax revenue amounted to NRs8,667 million.
Despite its important role in the country’s development, say some economists, not enough attention has been paid to the tarai by policy makers and development agencies. There is a feeling among many in the tarai, including many who have migrated from the hills, that the country depends on the region but neglects many of its concerns.
Even though the tarai may be economically productive, the actual condition of many tarai Nepalis is not much better than that of the hill Nepalis. There is abundance in the tarai, for some, but scarcity for many others who are barely able to scratch out a living. Like the hill migrant, many plains people also travel to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and further afield in search of cash income. Indeed, many are landless, even bonded, labourers.
A 1986 study by Tribhuvan University sociologists showed that “the percentage of households heads reporting worsened life conditions is higher in the tarai than in the hills.,.a higher percentage of hill households heads are positive and optimistic about the future than tarai household heads.” Given that most economists forecast a heady economic future in the tarai, this despondence among tarsi households is puzzling, and perhaps indicative of the distance that exists between the Kathmandu-based planner and the tarai villager.
Another sociological study shows how even within the tarai there is plenty and scarcity in close proximity. The study, of a village named Bastipur, lists the caste/ethnic groups according to education, health, land holding, annual income and annual expenditure. The riches to poverty spectrum went from Brabman-Chhetri (average land holding: 3.7 hectares) to Tharus, Shaha, Yadav, Chamar, Mushashar, and ended with Muslims (average landholding: 0.19 ha.)
Clearly, the tarai’s contribution to the country’s well-being is immense. And the expectations of its vibrant society and economy are greater still. The tarsi may well turn out to be the new frontier, but there are crucial questions to answer. When will it reach its limit to absorb? Will the people who are currently living in the tarai also get to reap the advantages of the growing economy? Or will that economy buckle under a burden of growing too large too quickly? Can the fertility of the tarai’s soil be sustained? Do we keep clearing forests until the last tree outside the national parks and sanctuaries are felled? What are the limits to the tarai’s growth?
The perennial conflict between development and environment, the long-term need to conserve and the immediate need to make use of resources, too, has been brought into sharp focus in the tarai. How much more valuable forest cover can be converted into equally precious agricultural land to feed more people? There are no easy answers, but an understanding of the tarai, its people and its prospects, will help.