The Myth of Beautiful Poverty

Published: Friday, January 9th, 2009.   Categories: ArchivesGlobal HealthInnovate

by Bibhav Acharya

 

Sanfebagar area as seen from the roof of the Clinic

 
Dr. Jhapat Thapa (Nyaya’s Medical Director) and I were summoned to Mangalsen, the district headquarters of Achham, to attend a district-wide meeting of NGOs and government bodies to tackle HIV. Mangalsen is a 7-hour hike from Sanfebagar and our trip started at the far left of the picture above and we traveled toward the right, across the river, up the mountain you see and 2 others that are not visible in this picture.

 
As we walked down the main street of Sanfebagar at the beginning of the trip, we watched a group of people digging to build a dirt path across the mountain at the far left of the picture above. Humidity was above 90% and temperature above 90 degree during the month that it took them to build the dirt path you see in the picture below.

 

Humidity was above 90% and temperature above 90 degree during the month that it took a group of people to build the dirt path you see

 
Almost all the arable flatlands in Achham, which has a population of 250,000, are what you see in the first picture above. Famines are common here and are made worse every year due to global rise in food prices and the sheer neglect that the Far-Western Region of Nepal suffers at the hands of national and international power centers. Beside the flatlands, people farm on terraces on mountain slopes. Terrace farming may look beautiful but has a very low crop yield so the people heavily rely on supplies from outside of Achham.

 

Terrace farming on the slopes of mountains may look beautiful but has a very low crop yield so the people heavily rely on supplies from outside of Achham

 
We walked by what used to be buildings owned by the Nepal Food Corporation (NFC). The Nepal Government owns and operates NFC with the stated goal of supplying food at heavily subsidized rates to famine-struck regions of Nepal. NFC in Sanfebagar (right above the settlement seen at the left side of the first picture above) has been non-functional for about a decade. During the Maoist war, it stopped supplying food and was used by the Nepali Armed Police as a military base instead. The Armed Police were driven out by the Maoists during a deadly attack in 2002 and the ruins that remain have never been renovated.

 

Remains of what was the Nepal Food Corporation in Sanfebagar

 

Through a window in Nepal Food Corporation in Sanfe

 

Foxholes and trenches dug during the War at the Nepal Food Corporation site

 
After we passed the ruins of NFC we prepared to cross the river (at the center of the first picture above). During the monsoon, which can last for about 5 months, the rivers become difficult or impossible to cross, often stranding people and vehicles carrying essential supplies including food. At the peaks of the food crises every year, tractors carrying supplies wait for weeks by the rivers as people in rest of Achham wait for food. When the water level drops, they quickly cross and wait at the next river. Since you have to cross 2 rivers without bridges and go through 3 mountains on an unpaved road, it can take weeks for emergency supplies to reach the district headquarters.

 

People waiting to cross the river on the road to Bayalpata and Mangalsen. This river can get up to 50 times this size during the peak of the monsoon season

 

A tractor carrying supplies to Mangalsen manages to cross the river when the water level is not very high

 
Luckily, the river was not very deep that day. We continued uphill toward the Bayalpata Hospital. The “hospital” is on the mountain at the right side of the first picture above and is yet another glaring testament of the denial of resources that Achham faces. It was built 30 years ago by the Nepali government but not a single doctor has ever seen patients here. There are no medications, the buildings are falling apart and 2 government employees with little or no health training are stationed there essentially as caretakers of the dilapidated buildings. Nyaya is currently working with the government and the local community to renovate and operate this hospital. We are also lobbying the government to quickly build a bridge and pave the road to connect this hospital to the rest of the country.

 

The rocky trail to the Bayalpata Hospital. You can either take this trail or the longer and unpaved road shown below

 

The road leading to Bayalpata Hospital and Mangalsen remains non-functional for half of the year except for occasional off-terrain vehicles

 

All structures of the Bayalpata Hospital are falling apart and Nyaya is currently working with the government and the local community to renovate and operate this hospital

 
We continued walking and after four hours, stopped for food at an establishment at the top of the second mountain we crossed that day. The husband and wife that run the business are in their 50s and appear to be in their 70s. They carry all of their supplies including water from the bottom of the mountain: a back-breaking 2-hour hike. A hearty meal of chickpeas or rice pudding costs Rs. 5 (7 cents). The water is free.

 
A photograph of the couple would have probably made a “great shot” (they wore colorful clothes and cracked smiles through wrinkles that are witnesses to their simple life of honest and hard work). We did not take their picture. There was nothing pleasing about this, nothing to romanticize. They know they are poor and don’t like the fact that they work harder than most people in Nepal (and the world) and still struggle to survive. Poverty was more visible than beauty.

 

The husband and wife that run this restaurant are among the few who have a regular source of income in Achham

 
As Dr. Thapa and I hiked up the rocky trails to Mangalsen, I told him that this was more difficult than the Everest Base Camp trail, considered one of the most challenging trails in the world. We talked about how things would be so much better if the roads were paved. Achammis have been told for years that it is going to be paved soon.

 
The only paved portion of the road in Achham ends near Nyaya’s clinic in Sanfebagar and it is the only road that connects Achham to the rest of Nepal and to India. During the monsoon, landslides are frequent and further disrupt transportation (and emergency assistance) by weeks at a time.

 

Passengers trying to push their Jeep out of a landslide on the only road that connects Achham to the rest of Nepal and to India

 

Landslide on the only road to several districts of Far-Western Nepal, inhabited by millions

 

Maoist ex-combatants assisting travelers and clearing the same landslide from above

 
Landslides and their consequences are usually portrayed as unfortunate events. The government and others who could have helped prevent them before they occur and could provide swift help after they happen are portrayed as weak witnesses to an overwhelming natural calamity. Suffering is presented as a default state and no one is forced to take responsibility for causing it. This has bolstered the now common notion that people usually suffer because they happen to live in a “resource-poor” region. This paradigm neatly hides the fact that the state of resource deprivation is a consequence of an active process of resource denial.

 
There is no denying that certain geographic conditions (like beautiful, tall mountains) make a region more likely to experience landslides. But a landslide is caused when resources are either channeled to other parts of the country or pocketed by corrupt middlemen while they should have helped in scientifically managing the landscape to minimize mudslides and planting trees and grass. When a landslide does occur, the government agency responsible for disaster management sends an old bulldozer that breaks down before it gets to work as in the case above, cutting off millions of people from the rest of the world.

 
The lack of roads or their proper maintenance, the state of Bayalpata Hospital, the Nepal Food Corporation and several other similar institutions, the lack of bridges over rivers that can cause starvation of hundreds of thousands of people, and a tired, elderly couple hardly making enough to take care of themselves even after working 15-hour days are all examples of active resource denial.

 
We left Mangalsen at 5 am the day after our meeting. We arrived at the clinic at noon. After witnessing a series of examples of resource denial in Achham, it was reassuring to be at the clinic. About 60 patients were waiting to be seen by Dr. Thapa and he quickly got to work while I could barely stand up.

 
After a long day at the clinic, we went back to the staff quarters and heard news about a new aid package that the Japanese Government was providing to Nepal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid had arrived in Kathmandu to build roads in Nepal. No reason for Achham to celebrate; it will remain beautiful. The money was going to be used to add two more lanes to a road to Surya Binayak in the Kathmandu area.

 

 

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