It has been more than three years since Prithvi Subba Gurung assumed the office of Chief Minister of Gandaki Province. In these three years, Gurung has worked intensively to develop the province’s agriculture and tourism sectors. The Rising Nepal’s Smita Adhikari talked with him about his work and the challenges he has faced. Excerpts:
What are the areas you have prioritised for the development of Gandaki Province?
Poverty alleviation, production promotion, expansion of road network, electrification, drinking water, improvement of hospitals, quality education, promotion of entrepreneurship and information technology, among others, are the major areas prioritised for Gandaki’s development. The poverty rate in Gandaki is 14 per cent. Our target is to bring it down to 7 per cent. We have introduced schemes to foster local involvement in employment, entrepreneurship and agriculture. Agricultural promotion through land consolidation and collective farming, entrepreneurship promotion through the establishment of industrial villages at the local level, market-oriented accessible education through universities and technical schools, road construction to connect all local levels, establishment of an IT park, upgrading of district hospitals, electricity, water and other basic facilities in every household and the mobilisation of locals for the conservation of lakes, biodiversity and the overall environment are the priority areas of the provincial government.
It has been three years since the provincial government was formed. What has it achieved in three years?
The citizens of the province are enthusiastic about our work in agriculture and tourism. Implementation of the model farm concept in agriculture and our strategy of involving the locals and the private sector in tourism have shown positive signs. We have started land consolidation programmes in almost every district of Gandaki. This is encouraging people towards collective farming and agro-entrepreneurship. In three years since the formation of the provincial government, we have become self-sufficient in meat, milk and ghee. More than 300 new homestays are currently operational in the province. They have provided markets to local agricultural products, employment to people, boosted community spirit and helped promote indigenous art and culture. Similarly, our lake conservation programme is also mobilising the public for development. People organised under various groups and have joined hands with the government for the development of their areas. Hospitals with at least 50 beds have been established or are being established in every district of the province. The existing district hospitals have also been improved. Under our maternal and child health programme, we have airlifted 40 women from remote areas and have taken them to hospitals. On the legislative front, we have made 47 laws including acts to form the provincial police force, provincial Public Service Commission, Gandaki University and the provincial academy of science and technology. Towards physical infrastructure, 10 bridges have been constructed in the last three years with an additional 144 under construction. We have blacktopped 150 kilometres of roads and have gravelled a further 300 kilometres. For the promotion of entrepreneurship, we have begun work on setting up two industrial estates. The Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the establishment of a regional hospital is being prepared. Our ‘One house, One tap’ campaign is moving forward smoothly. Roads are being constructed to connect all local levels with the provincial capital. In education, Gandaki University and a technical school have been established and brought into operation. These are our achievements so far. We have laid the groundwork for many more projects. We are confident we will achieve all our planned goals.
The government had set numerous targets at the time of its formation. But it has not been able to meet a few of them. Why?
Our main target was to bring the poverty rate down to 7 per cent. We are currently at 11 per cent. We had aimed to increase the province’s economic growth rate by 10 per cent, reduce the unemployment rate from 9 per cent to 4 per cent, increase the life expectancy from 71 to 77 years, increase Gandaki’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Rs. 450 billion, increase the net basic level education enrolment rate to 99 per cent, connect the administrative centres of all local levels with roads, fully electrify the province within two years, double the food production, establish industrial villages in 51 of the 85 local levels of the province, use digital technology to deliver public services and ensure good governance. With these plans, we had made a firm resolve to make Gandaki the best province in terms of development and prosperity during the formation of the government. However, now, while working, we feel that we might have been over-ambitious in setting our targets. We did not consider the problems and challenges that may arise while making our plans and commitments. As we began working, we realised that the foundations had to be laid first. We had finally finished the preliminary tasks and were moving towards the real work when the pandemic hit and stalled everything. Nevertheless, we have managed this crisis. We are not worried.
Tourism, biodiversity and environment are considered promising areas for Gandaki’s development. Shouldn't the government introduce special programmes in these sectors?
Our most important achievement in tourism is that we have demarcated the area of the Fewa Lake. Now we can implement programmes for its conservation. We have also started a drive to identify the lakes in our province and develop them as tourist destinations. The DPR for the integrated development of the eight lakes of Pokhara has been finalised. Various crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have hit tourism hard. The pandemic forced the scrapping of many programmes including our plan to bring in two million tourists to the province by 2022. The hotel business was starting to boom, plans had been formulated promote hospitality and enhance business management. But the outbreak caused the collapse of nearly half of our hotels. Many workers lost their jobs. Nevertheless, we have set up a life support fund which will help businesses get back on their feet. Meanwhile, 308 homestays are in operation in our province. We are going to publish their success stories. Similarly, work is underway to manage the existing trekking routes in the Annapurna Conservation Area and construct new ones.
With the government focusing on homestays, hoteliers of Pokhara complain that the big star hotels and resorts have been ignored. What do you have to say about that?
Tourism should not be limited to cities. We should now be promoting our indigenous hospitality in the global market. This will develop the entire sector and also help the big hotels flourish. Anyone who comes to a homestay in any district of the province will definitely visit Pokhara because it is a famous place. The tourists coming to Pokhara after visiting the villages will then support the hotels. Hotels and homestays are mutually supportive and we have a strategy to develop both.
There are concerns that infrastructure development is damaging the trekking routes. How do you view these concerns?
Infrastructures don’t damage routes. On the contrary, they will make the place more accessible. We have heard locals talk about an increase in the number of tourists after the building of roads. The dust may disturb people for a few months while the road is being constructed, the sounds may drown the chirping of birds but trekking routes will not be affected.
How have you implemented the model farm concept?
We have given special facilities to the farmers who have done a good job under the model farm programme. This has increased collective farming in the province. Lands that have been barren for years are being consolidated through different social organisations, private companies and cooperatives. We have received reports that production in such areas has increased by around 40 per cent.
How are you handling the pandemic in the province?
We spent Rs. 270 million this year to build quarantine, isolation, dedicated hospitals, infectious disease hospitals and other facilities to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. These structures will help overcome other crises in the future too. We also set up a Rs. 1 billion life support fund this year to help business and industries recover. We have already begun disbursing interest-free loans from this fund in collaboration with Nepal Rastra Bank. Of the 7,000 applications we received, we have disbursed loans to 4,000 people.