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Opinion | Think different, think small

Dinkar Nepal

Dinkar Nepal

Opinion | Think different, think small

What a small-scale farmer has is land handed down by ancestors, and there has been no policy to make farming in such terrains sustainable

I come from a farming family in the mid-hills of Nepal. My mother, approaching 60, wakes up before 5 am every day, and toils in the field or with the livestock till 9 pm. Since the time I have known her I have seen her work these long hours. But as far as I remember, she has never had enough money of her own earning. Our upbringing and education was rather supported by earnings from my father’s job in the Indian Army.

Why are millions of hardworking small-scale farmers, like my mother, so poor and helpless? Why has the system remained so unjust, inefficient and unrewarding? Why is her hard work outside the radar of government policies? What does it take to integrate her work into the national economy? These are the kind of questions that have vexed us Nepalis for decades. 

Under King Mahendra, the state system was designed to create expertise loyal to the monarchy in different fields. He initiated many scholarships and sponsored educational tenures for bright minds from across the country. This system created many state sponsored endeavors that became milestones in our path to progress.

The underlying unstipulated requirement of the feudal and autocratic Panchayat system however had problems. In general, an autocratic system, when compared to a democratic system, is inefficient, un-entrepreneurial and relies more on strong control from the top. Such systems have led to misleading results, great blunders, even famine and mass poverty—Mao’s China being the best (or worst) example of the same. The situation in Nepal wasn't as severe but false reporting, misrepresentations and misappropriations were the norm. As a result, the production system was not efficient and entrepreneurial. 

Post-1990, the role foreign agencies and the INGOs played was even worse. The ‘Bikase’ interventions, till date, are aimed at publicity and documentation rather than bringing in real efficiency and output-oriented productivity in the ecosystem. Shamefully, the development agencies have spent an average of over 80 percent of money on their own administration. The money claimed to have been spent for poor countries like Nepal hasn't reached the targeted people; and in recent years some INGOs have even been blamed for high levels of corruption. In short, the highly bureaucratic mammoth international organizations became the harbingers of the malpractices and inefficiencies that they were supposed to teach us to fight against.

With the promulgation of the new constitution, I had high hopes that the ‘radically decentralized’ state structure would bring in a lot of positive change at the grassroots. In 2017, with a turnout of over 70 percent, Nepal had elected local governments after almost two decades. Optimism had no limit as Nepal exceeded the economic growth target for the year. 

I was fully convinced that visionary local leadership would be the catalyst to allow Nepal to pick itself up, and I happily took the offer to work as an advisor in the municipality. Dilip Pratap Khand had built and successfully sold to voters the dream of Waling as a ‘Smart City’. But four years later, with less than half a year of his tenure left, Khand is struggling to show evidence of his government’s impact.

Khand’s plan to ‘develop the municipality as a cluster of really well administered productive villages supported by a strongly self-reliant town at the center’ has been limited to a well-documented handbook on Smart City indicators. 

My mother still toils extra hours without any support from the governments at three levels. The benefits from interventions of development agencies have not reached her directly or indirectly. Our traditional small scale farming in the mid-hills of Nepal is neglected by the government and not enthusiastically pursued by new generation farmers. Efforts at mechanization and modernization or other reforms in farming have been misguided; big-scale mono-crop specialized and corporatized farming practices are unsuitable to our terrain.

What a small-scale farmer has is the land handed down by ancestors, and no policy has been designed to make farming in such terrains sustainable. Lack of methodical experimentation, recording and evidence-guided innovation in agricultural practices of rural small-scale households have thus contributed to the unsustainability of the majority of farming families.

After serving as the advisor to my municipality for a year, I was left disillusioned at the lack of ingrained capacity of our system. Since then, I have decided to work as a farmer myself to bring in innovations in small-scale farming. That's the least I can do for my mother.