Nepal is not a country of villages anymore

New publication says the rural-urban divide is blurring as the two feed on each other

Photo: Abhushan Gautam Shakya

Nepal’s history of urbanisation is said to be 500 years old with the conglomeration of Kathmandu Valley, and even till recently, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala called Nepal a country filled with villages (गाउँनै गाउँले भरिएको देश).

But villages were never separate from cities. The two remain in a symbiotic relationship. And, sorry, but Nepal is not filled up with villages anymore.  

The proportion of Nepalis living in urban areas grew from 23% (2011) to 66% (2017) using criteria such as land use, population density, social services, and infrastructure. But that is only a half-truth. 

Income source diversification has taken place among village dwellers if not villages all across Asia and in Nepal. The nature and size of household and nature of social relations in villages have also changed rapidly. Access to media for national and global information, the nature of imagination, and the village dwellers’ hopes and fears have also changed. 

The rise of the urban culture has brought out the previously circumscribed sense of personal, political and economic possibilities and imagination. This applies to all rural dwellers, but in particular to Nepal’s women, Dalits and other identity-marginalised. It is a different matter that not all are in a position to realise what they imagine. 

At the heart of the rural-urban categorisation is the nature of social relations – whether they are durable, intense, narrow-yet-sharp, and shared within a kinship network and the neighborhood.  

With urban decay, there is an over-romanticisation of the rural in Nepal as being natural, pure, clean, or honest. There is surely a lightness of being while visiting villages and a tourist enjoys the destination not so much for the nature of the destination itself but because the visitor is able to briefly forget the city’s struggles.  

Read also: Cost of living in a big city, Ramesh Kumar

Sankathan launch
From Left: Rabin Giri with Chaitanya Mishra and Niraj Bhari during the launch. PHOTO: Nepal Literature Festival/Facebook

There are those who have permanently moved to rural areas or their ancestral villages, and tried to go native as journalists Kedar Sharma and Narayan Wagle have done and recount in a conversation in the Nepali language volume संकथन (Discourse) on Nepal’s rural world published by Niraj Bhari and edited by Rabin Giri. This reverse trend to overwhelming urban drift is unique enough to be remarked upon.   

The longstanding discourse of a self-sufficient and even subsistent village families is passé as the idea of Nepal being somehow unique in relation to the rest of the world.  

Rural and urban are not opposites but mutually connected, and one feeds on the other. For example globalisation and capitalism have entered the interior and caught the most valuable resource there: labour power by the scruff of the neck and yanked it out.

Migrants from villages of Nepal entered specialised and diverse occupations in cities in Nepal India, Malaysia, East Asia, West Asia, Europe, Australia and North America. Within a hierarchically globalised system, ‘sovereignty’ is often nominal. World-scale international flows and not merely internal structures and processes today shape the ship of state.     

A village is no longer what it was. It is still small, but it has changed as Sujata Tamang, Basanta Basnet, and Basanta Thapa observe in their contributions. The people who live there are also not the same. This historical hastening was slow to arrive in Nepal, but picked up by the 1980s. 

In addition, the rural has not been the opposite of the urban. One, fed on the other. The changing village comes up in many of the chapters in this book, among them that by Mohan Mainali and Nabin Poudel of the ‘lonely village’ which gave life to many stalwarts but which has been forsaken.  

The change that takes place in rural settings is often not something that people there prioritise, as Indu Tharu writes. In the larger scheme of things, all of us are the Raute described and photographed by Kishor Sharma for the volume. We are all unrecognised and feared in some way or other, and share their powerlessness and predicament.    

Rakesh Chaudhari writes that villages of Nepal now suffer the same blight as the cities. The city is supposed to be an artificial space that is somehow impure, dark, sly, immoral, etc. Cities certainly need improvement. And we aspire to live in a livable city in which a minimum of stable and relatively relaxed social relations can be built. 

I really doubt if the notion of a village-within-a-city can be realised, as proposed by Abani Adhikari. On the other hand, cities like Kathmandu can indeed be improved with the idea of regenerating social relations. 

Kunda Dixit’s composition in संकथन tells us about both the need to reimagine cities as also about the unlikelihood of such re-imagination. Instead, he draws our attention to a powerful pull of historical reversal in which city dwellers, given the nearly overwhelming dynamics of pollution and climate-induced heat stress, willingly desert urban centres, and go back to live in the village. This is a warning we should all seriously think over and possibly act upon as citizens, authors, journalists, politicians, policymakers. 

In his essay in this collection by former prime minister and urban planner Baburam Bhattarai, PhD, posits that a ‘rural revolution’ is no longer necessary in Nepal. It depends on how we define ‘revolution’, but we should try to empower rural areas and the people there to become far more assertive vis-à-vis the cities, its inhabitants and governments seated there. 

Part of this, of course, has to do with the handover of the constitutionally mandated power to local governments, as pointed out by Parvati Sunuwar and Rabin Giri in his editorial in संकथन.  So, there is indeed, a need to revive the “गाउँ गाउँबाट उठ” chant. 

The rising up, however, must not be of the Maoist variety. It has to be built up by realising the potential political strength of the agricultural labourers, the peasantry as well as larger farmers. 

It is also needed because much of the popular struggles will be waged in the city or, as Hari Sharma reminds us, in the immediate periphery of the larger cities. The latter struggles will occupy much of national politics.   

Political basis of rural decline globally is the flow of natural resources, labour, and capital. On the other hand, we must also recognise that it is a historically change-prone routine. The Siwalik/Chure and the lower Mahabharat were key world sites of human habitation and progress for thousands of years. 

Despite the Maoist armed struggle and a new Constitution, the state has remained completely unresponsive to the agricultural and employment needs of rural peoples. Political representatives have neglected concerns of rural areas they were elected from. The puny state investment in agriculture could do with the feminisation of farming. Dalit, Madhesi and subsistence farmers fall between the cracks because of their feeble political voice. The village is therefore politically poor. 

And when the poor migrate to the cities, the Nepali word पलायन has come to have negative connotation. The nationalist over boil has also contributed to the discourse of the coffins that arrive everyday with bodies of migrant workers from the Gulf or Malaysia – even when we know that the death rate in that age cohort among similar demographic groups within Nepal may not be that different. 

Finally, this rural cultural feebleness has also found coinage in the discourse of ‘fatalism’ – especially among illiterate village dwellers. Between 25-30% of farms in Nepal are estimated to have been abandoned in the past two decades. This is a huge figure with huge consequences. 

It is outrageous that there is an absolute absence of political and policy initiatives to address this. There has to be a national framework to reverse this trend with ownership, taxation, rent-fixing interventions. 

It should also lead to the formation of mid-size and larger farms, competent government, private extension agents and researchers, a system of subsidies. A techno-economic framework for dis-fallowing and cropping must be undertaken. 

Seasonal high-value low-labour farms that grow trees, fruit, tea and coffee, herbs, vegetables and other ‘opportunistic’ crops can be grown on fallow terraces. Processing centers, integrated cropping and marketing systems can add values to what is grown.  

Denser, roadside settlements with transportation facilities and formation of market centers would prevent urban encroachment of farmlands. These centres should have quality public health and education system that are affordable and accessible.

Many of these initiatives have to be implemented by and through local governments with support from the other two tiers. This will also have the enormous benefit that political parties will be forced to grow from local grassroots upwards. Unaccountable leaders and parties will then risk withering away. 

We need a new discourse of governance that germinates at the grassroots. And not by means of old and rootless ideologies but through political and policy practice at the level of workers, producers, sellers, consumers.

Adapted from Chaitanya Mishra's address at the launch of the collection, संकथन on 23 December. Professor Mishra teaches Sociology to MPhil PhD students at Tribhuvan University. His research focuses on macrosociology, politics, social change, and social stratification     

sankathan details

  • Most read