Periphery within the periphery in Nepal
As Nepal prepares for local elections in May, here in the far-western mountains, there is anticipation and hope about grassroots leaders who are more efficient and accountable. This is in stark contrast to Kathmandu, where apathy and cynicism about national politics is rife.
When Nepal had its first local elections in 20 years in 2017, the tiny settlement of Chaurpati had no electricity, no roads, and there was no doctor in the health post. Most men were migrant workers in India, and many of those who stayed behind would spend the days gambling and drinking.
“Our main focus in the past five years was to improve infrastructure that had been neglected for decades,” says Harka Bahadur Saud, the elected chair of Chaurpati Rural Municipality. “The pandemic delayed things, but everyone can see that things have changed for the better.”
This bucolic village clings to a mountain side surrounded by rhododendron forests in full bloom, a 360 degree panorama, and now boasts a brand new 15-bed hospital, motorable roads, an upgraded government school, and a football field sized pond to store monsoon rains and recharge ground water to replenish springs that have gone dry.
Saud went over to the Unified Socialist (CPN-US) party after it split from the UML, and is confident that his constituents have seen the progress and will reward him with another five-year term as Chair.
“There is so much still left to do, we need to asphalt the road, invest in cash crops and create jobs locally so people do not have to migrate anymore,” says Saud, who has leased terraces abandoned by migrating farmers for banana plantations.
Saud’s deputy is Maya Kunwar, and although she is from the Nepali Congress (NC), the two complement each other. The fact that the CPN-US and the NC are partners in the coalition government in Kathmandu helps.
While Saud focuses on physical upgrades of roads and buildings, Kunwar has concentrated on removing discrimination, exclusion and tackling social injustice. She is active in the village’s Judicial Committee that works to mediate local disputes so they do not escalate.
Kunwar is not one of those token women that parties selected as candidates to fulfil the female quota for deputy chair. Before standing for election in 2017, she was active in the cooperative movement, campaigned to end the practice of menstrual banishment called chhaupadi, reduce domestic violence, and rampant alcoholism.
“You do not see any drunks on the streets anymore because we have banned the sale of small plastic sachets of alcohol, and increased police patrols to control people who are making a nuisance,” she says.
Kunwar says her political career would not have been possible without a supportive husband and her in-laws. She would like to stand again, this time for the chair, but with elections only a little more than a month away, she has not got a ticket yet. A lot will depend on how parties in the governing coalition divide up candidates for municipal and ward constituencies.
Here in rural Nepal, the notion of centre and periphery is blurred. Seen from Kathmandu, Far-west Province is remote, but Achham district is distant even by the standards of this isolated region. And within Achham, the village of Chaurpati is in the back of beyond.
Blow-by-blow accounts of the internecine power struggles in faraway Kathmandu could not be more removed from everyday reality of these mountain settlements. Here, it does not matter which party a candidate for ward or municipal council belongs to — all that matters is whether they can deliver what matters.
And what matters most to voters here are livelihoods, jobs, safer roads, a market for produce. They need affordable and accessible healthcare so they do not have to borrow money to take sick family members to hospital.
Health is a primary concern of local people and candidates standing for elections know this. Even a minor injury can bankrupt a family because of lack of access to affordable health care.
“In politics we have to compete, but in providing service to the people we have to work together,” says Saud. “Politics at the local level is all about meeting expectations, we cannot let our people down.”
Kunwar nods in agreement, “It is not important who wins the election, if it is not me, it will be someone else. But whoever it is, the problem here will be the same.”
Sanfebagar Rural Municipality, a two hour drive down the mountains, is better off than Chaurpati. It has an airfield with daily flights to Dhangadi, and its market is thriving because of the construction of the 20MW Budiganga hydroelectric project upstream.
Sanfebagar is also where Bayalpata Hosptial is located. It provides free medical care to more than 100,000 patients every year from Achham and surrounding districts. Managed by the non-profit Nyaya Health Nepal (NHN), the hospital is a successful example of partnership with local governments which are now investing in affordable and accessible healthcare.
“Bayalpata Hospital is what health care in the rest of Nepal should be,” says the mayor of Sanfebagar Rural Municipality Kul Bahadur Kunwar, who helps support the hospital through his municipality budget.
The hospital has included surrounding rural municipalities like Chaurpati in its community health program, helping with equipment and medical staff at its new hospital, training community health volunteers to go house-to-house to provide free basic care.
Deputy Mayor of Sanfebagar Birmala Budthapa says being elected a people’s representative is not for the faint-hearted. “It has been five years, I am on call 24 hours, my phone is ringing constantly with people who need help. There is a lot of pressure to deliver.”
During the pandemic Budthapa herself had to take patients who could not afford transport to Bayalpata Hospital for treatment. She says, “Bayalpata has been god-send. It is a model for free, high-quality medical care that should be spread all over Nepal,”
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).