Eastern Nepal’s depopulating mountains

“We keep talking about rural development, but there is no one left to develop here.”

An abandoned house and farm in Dhankuta is in ruins after the owners left for the Tarai. Photo: GOPAL DAHAL

The farming household of Gopal and Rupa Pariyar is the only one still left in the sloping village of Chaubise Rural Municipality here in eastern Nepal.

After their children go off to school, the couple is alone all day at home. All their neighbours have moved out. They have to walk for an hour to bring water from the nearest spring.

Till 10 years ago, there used to be 20 households in this village. They all left one after another for the Tarai, where life is easier. Their terraced farms have turned into jungle, and the monkeys now regularly destroy crops.

“We are all alone now, and have to do everything ourselves, there is no one to ask for help when we need it,” says Gopal. “It used to be lively here, neighbours came together for festivals, and to help out with harvest.”

Up the mountain in Thulagaon like many others in Chaubise, only four of the 22 families that lived there are left. The mud brick homes are crumbling, the roofs of many of them have caved in, the front yards are covered in shrubs.

The rate of out migration is also accelerating: last year alone 561 residents from 185 households got migration certificates from the municipality. The real figure was probably more, many have not even bothered to get papers. 

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“No matter what we do to keep people here, they just want to leave, it is becoming a national problem,” says municipality deputy chair Tankamaya Pangmi Magar. 

She adds, “We keep talking about rural development, but there is no one left to develop here. It hurts to see them abandon their ancestral land like this.”

Dhankuta Bazar was the administrative centre of eastern Nepal since the Rana days. Even till recently there would be crowds of people at government offices here. Now, even the residents of the town have moved out. The shops are closed because no one is shopping. Traders have also moved down to the Tarai.

Sabitra Rai is the District Coordination Committee head. She says, “We have tried to think of strategies to stop this trend. But have not been able to stop people who seek an easier, more convenient, life in the plains.” 

Out migration is not just a problem in eastern Nepal, it is happening right across the mid-mountains, and the depopulation is seen in the 2021 census results that were released this week. 

Here in the east, outmigration in Tehrathum district is even more severe than in Dhankuta. Even in the Myanglung bazar area, fields are fallow, shops are closed because there are not enough customers. Land value has dropped, there is no one buying property.

Tehrathum district had a population of 113,111 in the 2001 census, it had dropped to 101,577 in 2011, and in the latest census it is only 89,125.

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Eastern Nepal’s depopulating mountains NT

According to the 2021 census results, 32 of Nepal’s 77 districts have witnessed a sharp decline in population — all of them in the mountains. Of these are all nine districts of Kosi Province, with Khotang, Bhojpur and Tehrathum showing the sharpest declines. 

Of the 75 municipalities in 14 districts in Kosi Province, only those in Morang, Sunsari and Jhapa have seen population increases. While outmigration is the main factor, birth rate and death rates have also declined. 

The 2015 Tehrathum District Profile noted that the push factors for outmigration was better health care, education, employment. Social scientist Suresh Dhakal says that although there is no one reason for people moving out, the main one is the search for a more convenient lifestyle. 

In eastern Nepal, this is not a new phenomenon. It started in the last century with the migration of people to Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan for better opportunities. Recruitment into the British Army and the pension office in Dharan meant that most military families bought land and settled there.

Gurkha remittances have allowed the families to buy property, and resulted in the sustained real estate boom in the Dharan-Itahari-Damak corridor in the Tarai. Most people living here are from Khotang, Bhojpur, Tehrathum and Taplejung in the mountains to the north.

This trend accelerated during the 1996-2006 Maoist conflict when villagers moved out to flee the violence. Many young men in the mountains are now not just moving down to the Tarai, but to Kathmandu and then for overseas employment. 

Bhojpur MP from the Maoist party, Sudan Kirati, who is now Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, had warned three years ago that the outmigration trend was accelerating for better education, health and water supply.

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Destruction of crops by wildlife and springs going dry due to the climate crisis are also cited as other factors driving people out. Other factors are ethnic and caste discrimination, says journalist Khilanath BK who has himself moved from his home in Bhojpur to Dharan. He says, “Discrimination is more rife in the villages than in the cities.”

Then there is the poor condition of the roads, which are impassable in the monsoon and farmers cannot take their produce to market, the sick cannot go to hospital, and good teachers and doctors do not want to stick around in the villages.

Poorer farmers cannot cope with the wildlife, and the richer ones move away in search of better opportunities in the cities. “We only have the children and elderly left in the villages here,” says Arjun Mabuhang of Laliguras Municipality. “People are voting with their feet.”

Many see increased out-migration as a failure of the 2105 Constitution in guaranteeing balanced development through political devolution to local government through federalism. The political parties had made grandiose promises to “take Single Darbar to every village” but rural development took a back seat. 

“The world over, the reasons for migration are economic and social security,” explains economist Bigyanbabu Regmi. “Local governments are spending their budgets on non-productive sectors even after federalism, and the rural economy has not improved.” 

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Eastern Nepal’s depopulating mountains NT
Gopi Krishna Bhadari of Chaubise has seen his neighbours leave, but has invested in a goat farm. Photo courtesy: BHANDARI FAMILY

Lack of quality health care and education are other reasons families are moving away. Pregnant women with complications die waiting for an ambulance. 

Most people from the mountains of eastern Nepal land up in the Tarai districts, where the population growth rate of 1.9% in Sunsari, for example, is higher than even Kathmandu’s 1.4% per year. Population density in Kathmandu is highest (5,108 / sq km) but Sunsari (743 / sq km) is the district with the fifth highest population density in Nepal.

Sunsari district’s population of 63,487 in 2001 had swelled to 934,461 in 2021. Most of these people are concentrated in sun sari’s cities like Dharan, Itahari. It is the same story in the urban centres of Morang and Jhapa.

The latest figures from the National Statistics Division shows that more than a third of Nepalis are now living in a place away from where they were born. Nepal’s overall population growth is now down to 0.93% per year, but the mountain areas have near negative growth, while the Tarai has 1.56% growth.

Most of the undocumented settlers along river banks in the Tarai to crush stones, and in squatter areas of cities have moved down from the mountains. Some are flood and landslide victims who have been promised safer places to live.

Meanwhile, the government finds it more beneficial to declare even roadless rural areas municipalities without doing much to ensure services and facilities. It is such gerrymandering that has allowed the government to show that 66% of Nepalis live in ‘urban centres’.

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Infrastructure investment is also concentrated in connecting Tarai cities rather than upgrading connectivity in the mountains. Four mountain rural municipalities in Kosi Province still do not have roads.

Desperate to reverse the trend, some rural municipalities like Chhathar in Dhankuta have announced that they will gift a cow and Rs 100,000 to each family who returns. In Chaubise, the municipality is trying to convince families to stay by bringing water supply to them. Dhankuta is trying to spread vocational education classrooms in each municipality. 

Says Chhathar municipality chair Santabir Gurung: “It is possible to bring people back and hold those who are here. We just have to understand what is driving them out. We need help in education, health, and in job creation from the federal government.”

Indeed, there have been many who have refused to leave the clean air and better quality of life in mountain farms. 

Laliguras municipality chair Mabuhang says establishing quality hospitals and schools would reduce outmigration. He adds, “Now it is not a gap between rich and poor, it is between urban and rural. Even the rich are moving out of villages because of the lack of services. We need to incentivise people to stay put.”

Indeed, educated young men are moving away from farming, and attracting them back with cash crops, irrigation and agriculture extension would reverse the trend. 

The provincial government and elected rural leaders all seem to know what the problems are, and the solutions. It is in the implementation and prioritising resources that there seems to be a problem. 

Says Kosi Province Chief Minister Hikmat Karki: “We are worried about the outmigration trend from the mountains to the Tarai. We plan to coordinate with the federal government, and invest in rural education and health, infrastructure development.”

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Translated from a Centre for Investigative Journalism report in the March-April edition of Himal Khabar.

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