The more you try to understand poverty in the Himalaya, the more confusing it gets. How does one gauge poorness? Is it material deprivation or is it a state of mind? In Nepal, it may be both.
Since “development” began in the Himalayan states in the early 1950s, the avowed goal of technocrats, politicians, consultants and foreign “donors” has been to improve living conditions in the Himalayan hinterland. Directly or indirectly, every programme and project has sought to pull the poor out of the abyss of economic deprivation. But many poor areas of the Himalaya have remained untouched, unacknowledged. The southern parts of Lalitpur District of Nepal, for example.
The aid-givers and aid-takers who have flown in and out of Kathmandu over the last four decades have all glanced down at the hills of Makwanpur and Lalitpur, just south of Kathmandu Valley’s rim. Most never realise that these rugged uplands, inhabited by the Chepangs and Tamangs, constitute one of the poorest regions of Nepal. But within a few minutes, the aircraft is dipping into the metropolitan airspace of the capital city, where the life is good and land values sky-high. The memory of landslides on barren hillsides quickly recedes.
THE MAN ON THE HILL
Kathe (Maila) Tamang, who is 84-years-old, knows his mind. “Garib bhaneko nai ma hun.” (“If you want to know poverty, look at me.”) He shares a small shack with his wife Kanchi Lamini, 72, on the far side of Bhardeo valley in southern Lalitpur. The couple keeps seven goats and some fowl. Three goats belong to them, the rest are being looked after on a share-cropper (adhiya) basis. Maila is now an invalid, so Kanchi tills the six ropanis (0.3 hectares) of dry pakho land with hired help. The maize crop lasts the couple through early autumn. Till the next harvest comes around, their diet is made up of grains bought or loaned from villagers. Kanchi is still able to collect firewood, and twice a day she treks downhill and over a ridge to fetch water.
“My father was poor and I am poor. That is how it is,” explains Maila. He used to sell wood and charcoal in nearby Lele until a decade ago. Bhardeo is his life and no amount of loneliness or destitution will make him move. “I used to eat a full plate, now I eat half. I may eat even less, but when I die, the entire village will come over to bury me. Why do I want to move?” This is why the couple refuses to move to Thankot, at the outskirts of Kathmandu, where a relative will take them in.
Bhardeo valley has 276 families, each with an average of seven members. Most do not have enough agricultural production or cash income to provide for full meals all year around. The backwardness of this and other areas of southern Lalitpur are defined by inaccessibility, poor resource base, little production, feudal politics, and population groups which have little clout in Kathmandu’s power centers. So close and yet, so far.
LET THEM CLIMB STEPS
Development programmes have made it to Bhardeo, but have led to negligible progress. For example, the Bagmati Watershed Project claims to be active here but it shies away from addressing the socio-economic, ethnic and grassroots political issues. There is little imagination at the project office, where the main preoccupation is with how to spend the five million ECUs (NRs212.5 million) allocated for 1986 through 1993.
No wonder, then, that the Project builds steps. Because of its urgent needs to “disburse” money, it constructed a three-kilometre long stairway criss-crossing its way up to the Gupteswar Mahadev temple. But Southern Lalitpur’s people, like all hill Nepalis, prefer winding trails to taxing steps. So they have left the stairway alone and have made a winding walkway alongside it. The Bagmati project has built a total of 30km of similar white elephant steps all over the region.
A stairway also leads up to a health post on a high ridgetop between the villages of Nallu and Chaugharay, presumably placed there to make access easy for six surrounding communities. But the climb up to the post is so strenuous that those who are really sick prefer to visit the local shaman at village level.
Southern Lalitpur might present an extreme case of poverty and neglect in close proximity to a power capital. However, economic deprivation exists in pockets or in swaths right across the Himalaya. Poverty stalks the ridgelines from the Kuchin, Shin and Chan hills of Burma and the Hengduan mountains of China through the former NEFA hills, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, the Uttar Pradesh hills and beyond all the way to Afghanistan. Its roots are in geopolitics, geographical isolation, the caste system, ingrained feudalism and various historical processes.
The levels of poverty differ from place to place. Himachal Pradesh is a boom state in Himalayan terms, while the Karnali region of west Nepal is at the bottom rung of economic well-being under any measuring rod. However, if being poor is a state of mind that reflects a psychological yearning for the basic consumerist trappings of “modern” society, then all of the Himalaya can be said to be under the grips of poverty.
75 MILLION POOR
The scale of poverty in the Himalaya is immense but has failed to make an impact on world consciousness for two reasons. One is the romanticism associated with the Himalaya. Western researchers, writers and other opinion-makers in search of “the poor” know only of the African Sahel, the Sudan and Ethiopia.
The other reason Himalayan poverty has been ignored is that its poor are scattered across seven countries. The Himalaya might be one geographical region, but statistics get muddled when there are too many frontiers. The result is that the human dimension gets marginalised.
South Asia has 29.7 per cent of the world’s population. However, 46.4 percent of the world’s poor (who number more than a billion) live in South Asia. According to statistics compiled by Pitambar Sharma, a Nepali demographer, the Himalayan region as a whole has between 150 to 175 million people. (The mountainous portion Nepal, for example, has about 85 million people.) If it is true that material poverty affects at least 50 per cent of the region’s population, then fully 75 million people of the Himalaya are “poor”.
“By the most conservative definition, between seven and eight million of Nepal’s population of 19 million live in absolute poverty,” says the August 1990 World Bank study on “Relieving Poverty in a Resource-Scarce Economy”, which defines absolute poverty as having incomes below the level required to support a minimum daily calorie intake (about U$100 per annum, per capita).
Nepal’s National Planning Commission, using its own indicators, puts 40 percent of all Nepalis below the poverty line. The Commission defines the line as the income required to supply minimum calories needed – estimated at NRs197 monthly per person for the Tarai and NRs210 per person in the hills.
THE DAL BHAT INDEX
It is easy to speak generally of “poverty”, but it is really a vast, diffuse and complex topic. There is disagreement among economists, geographers, psychologists and anthropologists on what constitutes poverty, even in purely developmental terms. While by now it is generally agreed that merely looking at the Gross National Product (GNP) figures is not enough, does one also look at the intangibles of “spiritual contentment”, in addition to available education and health care?
One of the major challenges of development theory over the past decades, indeed, has been finding the proper poverty-to-riches index. There are even a few who protest the very use of indicators and poverty levels. It is inappropriate, they say, to condemn the entire Himalayan population to textbook poverty when so little is known about what constitutes poverty.
Firstly, say these economists, there is the question of geographical relativity. One country’s poverty level is another’s unachievable target. Notions of rich and poor inherited through western education and socialisation cannot serve to define the status of villagers who may not know nor even hanker after the west. There is also historical relativity: if your village was always at a certain economic level, does it suddenly become poorer because roads, electricity and irrigation arrive at the next village?
One also has to consider that people have undergone “poverty conditioning” through their culture and religion. People, obviously, arc not poor by their own choice. They are what they are due to a process that has continued over centuries. Much of today’s poverty is still rooted in the “caste” hierarchy. Says one rural sociologist, “Certain groups have been branded as poor by the Hindu value system, and this is accepted by society. Even if a Kami, Damai or Sarki becomes affluent, in terms of social evaluation he will always be looked down upon as poor.” The definitive strictures of the Hindu ideology also breeds an acceptance of the status-quo by the very people that are downtrodden. The “lower castes” know their station in life, however unfair.
Dilli Ram Dahal, a demographer, is one who claims that the destitution of highland Nepalis is over-rated. Says Dahal, “If you measure poverty on the basis of whether the people get to cat dal bhat, or a full meal, twice a day or whether they have a roof over their heads, Nepalis are not that badly off.” If subsistence-living is not automatically linked to poverty, then there will be very few Nepalis who fit into the really poor category, says Dahal. “People become poor the moment Western value tools are used to look at them. That a man goes to the fields rather than to the toilet speaks less about poverty than about accepted values.”
Looking deeper, therefore, it becomes clearer why those flying in from temperate climes see more poverty in the tropics. A Bangladeshi going about in a loin cloth says more about the climate of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta than about the country’s GNP. Just because the people of Manang in Nepal’s north live in a certain way and “do not take baths” does not mean that they cannot afford soap. In fact, they are among the richest rural communities in Nepal. “Much of our poverty is magnified when we look at Nepal through Western eyes,” says Dahal.
Another person who has been unhappy with traditional methods of accounting poverty is N.S. Jodha, an Indian agricultural economist presently based in Kathmandu with the agency ICIMOD. His research has shown that households which the conventional indicators showed to be poor were actually better off when a different set of “qualitative indicators” were used. Jodha’s new criteria to judge poverty levels included a reduced reliance on patronage of local landlords; reduced dependence on low paying job options, improved mobility and cash liquidity, shift in consumption patterns, and the acquisition of consumer durables.
It was a muddle-headed understanding of poverty issues that led His Majesty’s Government of Nepal in 1985 to set the goal that by the year 2000 the country would achieve a standard of living as per “basic needs according to Asian standard.” Government officials were caught unawares when asked if “Asian standard” referred to that of Bangladesh, Mongolia or Brunei Darussalam. And were “basic needs” defined according to Western or traditional South-Asian notions of living space, health care, education, nutrition and leisure activity? The very fact that 2000 under the Gregorian year was chosen as the target year (rather than the Vikram Sambat) showed that the government’s thinking was far-removed from Nepali reality and was more attuned to grand-standing for international consumption.
Stung by the incredulous response to the basic needs idea, the government turned to the National Planning Commission, which later did produce a definition of what it considered “basic needs” for a Nepali populace, but by then nobody was taking the idea very seriously. When you play political games with “poverty”, it is the poor amongst the public that lose. The leaders just move on to another slogan.
The basic needs mantra which was chanted by sycophants and bureaucrats alike for many years under Panchayat rule serves as a reminder of the cynical use Third World “leaders” make of the people’s misery. Poverty, for them, is easy to handle. It can be resolved by begging for foreign aid and then handing out doles. Witness the enormous pride in Nepali officialdom in September 1981 when King Birendra was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Least Developed Country Conference held, in Paris. How eloquent can one be in telling others about your poverty?
DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY
The British author Charlie Pye-Smith argues in a recent book that if wealth or the lack of it was defined in terms of availability of tap-water, electricity, drains, good clothing and medical facilities, then the Nepalis would be classified as poor. But material scarcity is not the decisive factor, he contends. Most Nepalis in the hills own houses, have some land and a few animals, he writes. “Their diet was drab but sufficient. I often met people in the countryside who said along the lines of “we’re poor, but we’re happy.”
But is Pye-Smith, like so many others before him, -merely romanticising? Those that professed happiness, were they happy because they did not know of a better life? Can Nepalis who know of creature-comforts really be so dull that they do not want some of these comforts for themselves? The question as to whether a hillman is or is not poor probably revolves around this very point. He is “happy and content” as long as the desire for better living does not arise. The moment it does, the person can be said to be “in poverty”, or “poor”, though his socio-economic status might not be changed.
The smile that the Westerner or the Kathmandu urbanite sees in the villager’s face might just be cultural conditioning, a mask that is not a proper gauge for presumptuous conclusions about happy lands, smiling people and serendipity.
Even if the smile is not just a mask, contend some social scientists, it can be wiped away very quickly. The king of Bhutan was widely quoted seeking not high Gross National Product figures for his subjects, but “Gross National Happiness”. But what if the very definition of “happiness” begins to get transformed and defined by external influences? Even if their objective socio-economic condition remains the same, for example, will the Bhutanese “GNH” per capita go down because the citizens are being exposed to outside influence?
An understanding of the limits of the GNP index on the one hand and the dangers of romanticising poverty on the other, led UNDP early in 1990 to come up with the “Human Development Index”. It provides a useful complement to the traditional methods of measuring poverty based on income and investment. HDI bases its judgement on capability for work, leisure, political freedom and cultural activities. It measures a population’s life expectancy, literacy and command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living.
HDI’s promise as a better indicator seems to be borne out in the Himalaya, at least. Under its reading Bhutan becomes the 12th poorest economy rather than the third poorest under the strict GNP criteria (1987 figures). Nepal is up from eighth poorest under GNP to 17th poorest according to HDI.
POLITICS OF POVERTY
“It is a false notion to think that the Himalayan socio-economy is doomed and devastated,” says alternative economist Binayak Bhadra. According to him, there arc opportunities for incremental development all across the hills. However, the opportunity should be tackled not individually but at the community level. “In these hills of scarce resources, community effort is required for qualitative change.” Successful community effort, of course, presupposes that there is political space in a country, a district, a village, a neighbourhood. Which brings the argument full circle to the link between politics and economy and poverty. A representative, responsive government at the centre should ultimately help the Nepali hill farmers do better. (In much the same way, if the Lucknow seat of Uttar Pradesh power had more concern for hill people, there would be less poverty in Kumaon and Garhwal.)
In Nepal, poverty has been rooted in the caste structures, an abysmal resource base, high population density, contorted geography and exploitative governance. In their recent history, Nepalis suffered 104 years of Rana rule in which the entire productive potential of an impoverished people went to one large family. While even the colonised world to the south developed a semblance of “modem rule” with the growth of administrative services, transport, media and a political institutions, Nepal remained beyond the reach of progressive development. The Ranas ruled the country for themselves up to mid-Century. While the Panchayat years of the last thirty years did, despite itself, manage to build the institutional structures of modern governance, it was unable to give these structures meaning. This failure meant that the poor of Nepal remained poor.
One of the worst legacies of the Panchayat, perhaps, was that by its second decade it had started selling poverty to gain more and more foreign aid, which it then disbursed to keep itself in power. As one economist puts it, the dependency cycle reached right down to the village level and the poor began to adapt to subsidised living. Today, the villager waits for the handout to roof the local school-house just as the government in Kathmandu waits for someone to build Nepal a hydropower project.
The handout economy ultimately leaves the poor poorer while the commission-wallas and and city dwellers prosper. The Ranas, for all their faults, maintained their Nepal’s self-sufficiency. The Panchayat converted Nepal into a dependent state by patronising poverty and selling it to the best buyer. Since 1960, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies big and small have poured money and material into the country but have only managed to weaken the economic super-structure. Where is the total NRs16,585.2 million (U$552.8million) that came to Nepal as grant or soft loan from governments and agencies all over the world between 1970 and 1985? If foreign aid is to serve as a catalyst for development, the aid poured into Nepal has not served the purpose.
Even a cursory survey would show that the bulk of the beneficiaries of foreign aid to Nepal have been middlemen (and, sometimes, women) in high places, corrupt bureaucrats and extra-constitutional authorities, expatriate aid staff and consultants, and Kathmandu’s gentry. This has led some to suggest cynically that rather than run development projects, Nepal might have done well to divide up the total aid received since aid began into 18 million equal parts and distribute it among all Nepalis.
After decades of hindsight, it is clear that “development” as practiced in Nepal has not delivered on its promise of alleviating poverty. The regions which have prospered, such as the Khumbu and the Kali Gandaki valley, have done so due to the self-help spirit and business acumen of ethnic groups such as the Thakalis and the Sherpas rather than the success of any top-down development programme. However, it would be wrong to think that all Sherpas or Thakalis are doing well. Sherpas whose villages are off the trekking routes, for example in Tashigaon in Barun Valley, are not as well off as their Khumbu cousins.
It is not possible to relegate all members of an ethnic group or tribe as poor, as much depends upon the local geography, economy and culture. For example, many Gurungs and Tamangs of mid-hill Nepal have prospered due to recruitment into the Nepali Army and the Indian and British Gurkhas. However, those in the upper reaches of the Bun Gandaki remain very poor. To the west of the river, towards Gorkha, are Gurungs who live in poverty in villages like Laphrak, Bangsingh and Gumtak. To the east of the Bun Gandaki, and likewise without resources, are Tamangs from remote hamlets like Barang, Awi, Laba, Khading and Kimtang. Both Gurungs and Tamangs of the area descend by the hundreds to the roadheads to work as porters in the trekking trade. This is their only form of cash income.
RICH STATES, POOR STATES
The World Bank’s World Development Report 1990 lists all the countries of the Himalayan region under its bottom-rung category of the low-income countries. No country from the other major mountain regions of the world, including the Andes, falls under this category.
The Report lists 121 countries in ascending order of destitution, using the following indicators: GNP per capita, GNP growth rate, average rate of inflation, life expectancy at birth and adult illiteracy. Bangladesh comes fifth in this listing (after Mozambique, Ethiopia, Chad and Tanzania), followed by Bhutan (9th), Nepal (11th), China (21st), India (22nd), Pakistan (23rd), Afghanistan (37th) and Myanmar (38th). (It is likely that the Himalayan regions of China, India and Pakistan, taken separately from their larger economies, would show scales of deprivation closer to those of Bhutan and Nepal.)
Bhutan is an economic anomaly: the indicators used in the World Bank report and by others show that it is one of the poorer countries of the world. Yet everyone agrees, at the same time, that the Druk Yul has everything going for it: as yet untrammeled forests, a profit-making hydropower resource, low population density and the lead time to make plans and allow for mistakes. Most development experts promise a “rich” future for the country, provided the societal problems that have just erupted can be surmounted.
Himachal Pradesh’s prosperity, in large part, is linked to the fact that it is India’s only major state that is all hills and little or no plains. As a result, the hills are not marginalised amidst the other concerns of state capitals such as Lucknow for the Uttar Pradesh hills, and Calcutta (till recently) for the Darjeeling tracts. (Sikkim is also an all-hill state, but it receives so much subsidy from the Union Government that its inherent economic performance and potential cannot be gauged.)
Another reason that Himachal does so well is that it is adjacent to the successful economies of its neighbours, Punjab and Haryana. Nepal, to its long-lasting disadvantage, borders the moribund regions of eastern Uttar Pradesh, and northern Bihar and West Bengal. Living the myth of economic sovereignty, Kathmandu’s planners have failed so far to consider the state economies across its southern frontier. If there is ever any genuine economic program in the Nepali hills, some economists believe, it is bound to be siphoned off by in-migration and by market forces unless development also takes place in the adjacent plains. As an example, even today, any commodity that is lower in price in the Nepali market, is promptly sucked across the open border into India. Poverty alleviation of the Nepal Himalaya, therefore, is unlikely to work unless there is poverty alleviation in the Ganga’s plains.
‘The lives of the socially deprived are…not only the lives of passive disadvantage – they are lives of struggle,” states David Seddon in his book Nepal — A State of Poverty. The poor, then, are not a faceless mass that suffers without pain. The material indigence, political marginalisation, social oppression and cultural discrimination, says Seddon, are matters that constantly intrude into the consciousness of the poor. There is acceptance of poverty, but also a constant awareness of that poverty.
The pain of poverty is real, and, in Nepal, it can only grow. Even the most representative and committed of governments can but try and retard the growth of the absolute poor in Nepal. The World Bank report on poverty alleviation states that “if Nepal’s population growth continues unabated, and the GDP growth is no better than the average achieved over the last 20 years, then the per capita incomes will stagnate around U$180 per annum.” This would increase the number of the poor to over 20 million by the year 2010. The cost of not getting Nepal’s public policy right with respect to curbing population growth, states the report, would be about 15 million additional absolute poor. Even under the best scenario of good economic performance and effective family planning programmes, there are likely to remain some 5 to 10 million additional absolutely poor Nepalis by 2010.
The problem with these figures, of course, is to humanise them. One could start by considering the eight million Nepalis that fall under the poverty line today — children, women, men, the aged, the infirm — individually. And then consider the additional 10 million individuals who might be the suffering poor within the next twenty years. And then take another step back and make a personal projection about the poor of the whole of the Himalaya, for which statistics are not provided…
Bhattarai reports for the Rising Nepal daily.