In Nepal women hold up more than half the sky


- Achyut Raj Bhandari

Women may be treated unfairly by society in one of Nepal’s most conservative districts, but it is they who are at the forefront in linking roadless Humla to the rest of the country.

It is mostly women in yellow hard hats you see on the 76km stretch of the Mugu-Humla road that is presently under construction. Humla is the last district in Nepal not yet connected to the country’s road network, and the remote Himalayan district remains economically behind its neighbours.

After many years of delays, building of the road is speeding ahead. Construction of the 5.5m-wide road started in Gamgadi of Mugu district in January, and more than half of the 76km stretch is now motorable. At this pace, it will reach Deuli of Humla by the end of the year, ahead of the completion of the other road linking Humla, the Karnali Corridor (see adjoining article).

“Our idea is not just to build a road, but create jobs during its construction and uplift the economy of the areas it is serving when completed,” explains Sunil Tandukar, field manager of the Rural Access Programme (RAP) which is supported by the British aid group, DfID.

Some 52% of the workforce is made up of women. This is because RAP has a policy to empower women with employment, but also because many of the villages along the way have seen an outmigration of menfolk to the cities or to India for work.

Unlike the indiscriminate road-building spree elsewhere in Nepal, RAP’s other emphasis is to minimise the use of excavators and dozers so as to create more rural jobs. There are now more than 1,500 women workers on the road that is being built at a cost of Rs1.7 billion. Women of Rara Municipality and other villages along the way in Mugu have been earning up to Rs700 a day for the past six months.

“Me and my mother-in-law received Rs21,000 each in the first instalment,” says a beaming Jaula Baduwal, 42, of Baam village, who explains that she finishes household chores in the morning and devotes the rest of the day to road work. The money has come in handy to buy clothes, food and school stationery for her children.

The road-building work has also persuaded Ramkala Baduwal’s husband from migrating to work in India this year. Four members of her family work on the road, earning Rs80,000 since January. “Our men used to migrate to India for work due to poverty. But this year me and my husband are working and earning together. I am happy about that,” says Baduwal. “We women were confined to the kitchen, but this road has given us the chance to come out and earn an income.”

Read also: Life and livelihood in remote Nepal, Jocelyn Powelson

Local elders are overjoyed to see rapid progress on the road. “I had never even dreamed that a road would reach my home, but now it is actually happening. And the villagers got employment too,” says Krishna Bahadur Buda, 64, of Baam. He says he will celebrate the completion of the road by getting on the first bus out to visit Kathmandu.

RAP was started in 2000 with the Hile-Bhojpur road, but work stalled during the war. Resuming in 2006, it has provided employment to tens of thousands of farmers as it built roads in Bhojpur, Khotang, Sankhuwasabha and Terathum, and helped organise farmers into cooperatives. In 2011 the successful road-building model was extended to the remote mountain districts of western Nepal.

Gori Khadka, 63, is convinced the road will make the lives of next generations much easier. “When we are sick, we can be taken to hospital, and we can take our produce to market,” she says.

RAP has ensured that the road also provides long-term income to villagers by providing access to markets. Rara rural municipality has introduced the concept of ‘One Home, One Garden,’ helping villagers to set up apple orchards and vegetable plots.

Nandalal Baduwa, elected chair of Ward 14, cannot hide his delight when he says: “Our village has a new slogan, ‘Visit Baam and eat apples for free’.”

Read also: The Karnali, Ramesh Bhushal

Cars in the Karnali

- Prakash Singh in Bajura

Humla is the only district not yet linked to Nepal’s national road network, but not for long.

The Karnali Corridor and another road from Mugu district will soon bring the motor car to the Karnali. But even before the road, plastic trash and other detritus of consumerism has already arrived in this pristine yet neglected region.

Construction crews are hard at work blasting through solid rock faces along the gorge of the Karnali River, opening up a region that used to take weeks of hard trekking to reach.

The Nepal Army has been building the 145km Karnali Corridor stretch that connects Kalikot’s Khulalu with Salli Salla in Humla district. More than 70km of the road has already been opened to traffic even though it is still rough and unpaved.

Once a bridge is built over a river separating Bajura and Humla by October, the Corridor will have reached roadless Humla for the first time from the south. The district already has a road from Tibet in the north.

Meanwhile, a 24km section from Pilichaur of Bajura to Kawadi of Humla has been opened, bypassing the trail through the notorious Rangebhir, which used to be dangerous even for those on foot.

There is a great sense of excitement along the Karnali as locals await the completion of the Rs3-billion road. Previously to reach Humla, they had to walk for weeks, or travel to Bajura and Kalikot districts on flimsy buses along dangerous roads, or pay a hefty airfare.

Locals were also forced to pay much higher price for goods, and many have lost their lives unable to access medical facilities on time.

“For generations we struggled to bring basic needs, take our sick to hospital; those days are thankfully over — the door to development has opened,” says the jubilant chair of Himali Rural Municipality in Humla, Govinda Malla.

Jeeps and tractors have already started operating on the half-completed, 50km-section of the road from Bajura’s Martadi to Pilichaur. Tourism destinations in Karnali and the Far West, such as Khaptad, Ramaroshan, Badimalika and Rara will now be easily accessible, and hopefully boost the economy and create jobs.

Read also: Faith to reality, Ramesh Bhushal

However, the arrival of the road has already started to impact the landscape of the Karnali, which had so far been untouched by modernity.

New roadside markets have sprung up every 2-3km along the Corridor in Bajura where vehicles have started operating. Waste from these marketplaces, including plastic and liquor bottles, is being dumped on the riverbank, polluting the clear, green water of the Karnali.

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