Developing The Karnali Region

Uttam Maharjan


The Karnali region is one of the remotest and most undeveloped regions of Nepal. The region is characterised by widespread poverty, unemployment, food scarcity and insecurity, malnutrition, starvation, inequality, isolation and underdevelopment. The region is also mired in gender inequality, human rights violations such as exploitation of children, especially girls, high child and maternal mortality, poor economic performance and such other adverse factors. The erstwhile Karnali zone had five districts: Dolpa, Humla, Jumla, Kalikot and Mugu. With the change in the administrative distribution of districts, the Karnali province now additionally includes five other districts: Dailekh, Jajarkot, Salyan, Surkhet and Western Rukum. Despite being large in area, the province has a low population density of 56 per square kilometre. The literacy rate in the province stands at 62.77 per cent. The human development index (HDI) is low at 0.469.
The Karnali region has tough topography. Hills and mountains stand as an impediment to initiating development works there. Besides topography, other factors responsible for underdevelopment, inter alia, are a weak business sector, atavistic agricultural practices, lack of modern technology, demography and, of course, political nonchalance.
Business is done on a small scale in the Karnali region. So it is difficult for Karnali business entrepreneurs to compete with big business entrepreneurs from the rest of the country. Producers in the region have not been able to increase their production satisfactorily. They cannot lay their hands on updated information about market conditions and acquaint themselves with sophisticated technology and production practices. The workforce is uneducated and unskilled. The region is therefore not able to earn enough internal revenue. Economic opportunities are few and far between. The economy of the region is unbalanced.
The 2011 Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) data pinpointed unemployment as the leading cause of underdevelopment in the Karnali region, reducing the annual growth rate by 1.3 per cent and giving rise to a low per capita income. As the business environment is not favourable, there are limited economic activities and opportunities. In the region, poverty is rampant, service delivery leaves much to be desired and access to education, housing and other requirements is confined to the rich. There is discrimination against the poor in all forms and manifestations. The poor tend to migrate to Kathmandu and other urban areas or abroad in search of jobs. Because of all these factors, the region is far behind other regions of the country in terms of infrastructure and human development.
Now, the State government is in place in the Karnali region. The government, as in other States, is mandated to make a budget and initiate development works in the region. Before this, the region had to look to the government of Nepal for assistance even to feed its people, let alone for development activities. Even now, the federal government assists the region. In fact, the region has been given short shrift for years, making the people reel under privations. The rulers and leaders of the country have not deemed it necessary to develop the region although they invariably talk about all-round development. It is said that they are unwilling to invest in the region due to its low population density and vast area. The point is that they should not think of development in terms of returns on investment only. It is not that no efforts have been made to develop the region. But it is but surprising to note that even decades of development efforts have not been able to transform the region. Where has the money earmarked for these purposes gone? Had decades of such investments in the region been utilised properly, there would have been a positive transformation in the region and the lot of the people would have vastly changed.
The Karnali region is poor in road connectivity. It is a no-brainer that road connectivity is the stepping stone to development. As transport costs are high due to poor transport connectivity, development works are also costly in the region. But the cost factor should not deter the State government from making investments in development projects.
Due to various problems relating to education, health, sanitation and transport, the Karnali region seems to be cut off from the rest of the country. Deforestation has also been seen as a big problem in the region. The deforestation indulged in by some people for their self-interests might lead to desertification, roiling the ecological balance.
It is imprudent on the part of the federal government and the State government to keep the Karnali region in development backwaters. To transform the region, it is imperative to invest heavily in infrastructure development. The successive budgets also talk about developing the region but nothing in terms of real development has taken place.
The government of the Karnali State has allocated a budget Rs. 34.35 billion for this fiscal year. It has prioritised infrastructure development like roads and air services, housing in the form of integrated model settlements, education, health, agriculture, tourism, sports and culture, among others. In the budget, it has been planned to set up various culture museums to preserve culture in the region. It has also been proposed to boost air services in partnership with the private sector. Likewise, the establishment of the Karnali Infrastructure Development Authority has also been proposed for development in the infrastructure sector. What is worth noting is that the 2019-2028 decade is being celebrated as an investment decade in the region so as to boost development in the infrastructure sector.
Now it is up to the State government to develop the Karnali region so as to bring it into the mainstream of national development. And the federal government should also give a lending hand to the State government in its initiative in embarking upon development works in the region. The federal government should take concrete measures to put an end to lopsided development in the country, as evidenced by the state of underdevelopment in the region, even by exercising positive discrimination. The people of the region are waiting to see development activities get off the ground. They should not be thrown into the Slough of Despond under any circumstances.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000. He can be reached at [email protected]) 

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