Every morning, Ram Narayan Kahar (name changed) wakes up early to start working on his field which is a block away from his ancestral home. His family has been living and farming in Siddharthanagar Municipality, previously known as Bhairahawa, of Lumbini province, for at least six generations. Recently, when we had a chance to talk to him on a fine morning, Ram Narayan and his family members were busy preparing their fields for rice plantation. “Things are not the same for us anymore. We have not been able to produce as much rice lately,” Ram Narayan said in a low, concerned voice.
He further added, “It has been challenging to procure enough good-quality water to irrigate the land, and working outdoors has been challenging due to the rising air pollution in Bhairahawa.” He pointed to his wife and youngest son while informing us that many of his family members have lately been having respiratory problems. When asked about his family’s history of medical consultations, he said they were not in a position to bear the high medical costs.
His family members rather take a leave from work to recover from sickness, while also bearing the consequences of losing income by missing work. He summed up this family’s plight by reciting a popular Nepali movie song, Gaai ta badhyo dhungro ma mohi chaina mohi chaina, gariba ko chameli boldine kohi chaina. (“Even though we may have a cow tied the butter-pot, we don’t have butter; oh my dear, there is also no one to speak in favor of the poor like us.”)
Ram Narayan’s family is representative of the poor families across Nepal. As the country is headed towards economic development, the pressure on the environment has gone unseen. The question of who suffers the most from environmental degradation has been largely overlooked in policy considerations. Like Ram Narayan, a significant section of the marginalized populations of Nepal rely heavily on agriculture and other outdoor works for their economic sustenance.
Given that they face higher exposure to environmental hazards like ambient air pollution, these marginalized people often bear higher health and socioeconomic burdens of environmental degradation, such as physical sickness and loss of income and productivity. As they are typically not covered by benefits like paid sick leaves and health insurance, their opportunity costs of exposure to environmental pollution are much higher. Hence environmental degradation threatens the country’s homogenous development, which it does by instigating a vicious cycle of poverty, health and socioeconomic disparities and further marginalization—a veritable poverty trap for the socioeconomically vulnerable communities.
In terms of policy making, what can be done to address the growing environmental inequity in Nepal? The long-term objective should be to improve the quality of the environment—be it by improving the overall quality of the air or water resources—by strictly regulating polluting activities. A plethora of research has shown that improvement in the overall environment translates to significant health and socioeconomic improvements for the marginalized communities.
Immediately, policymakers should focus on designing policy actions that help bridge the environmental exposure gaps across socioeconomic subgroups. There could be specific programs targeting marginalized workers such as the provision of health insurance. Similarly, subsidizing and providing financing options for environmental protection measures—such as drinking water filters, cleaner cooking stoves, and face masks while working outdoors—and maintaining their robust supply chains can help.
Finally, environmental awareness programs are needed to increase public awareness and individual actions, especially among the more exposed marginalized groups. These recommendations are in the spirit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that highlight the importance of good health and well-being (SDG goal 3), reducing inequality (SDG goal 10), and creating sustainable cities and communities (SDG goal 11).
The author has a Phd in Economics from the University of New Mexico