It is an irony that despite having more rural areas than urban areas, rural development is still a far cry in Nepal. Parliament is represented by people’s representatives from all over the country. But it would be deplorable to mention that the people’s representatives from rural and remote areas hardly care a hoot about their constituencies from where they are elected. In fact, such people’s representatives have an urban mindset; they want to live in Kathmandu or other cities. They do not want to go back to their constituencies till the next general elections.
It is the unvarnished truth that in a country like Nepal, overall national development cannot be notched up without rural development because the country is basically rural. However, with accelerating urbanization taking place for the last few years, the rural population is declining. As per the 2021 census, the rural population stands at 33.83 per cent vis-à-vis 66.17 per cent for the urban population. The urban and rural populations were 63.2 per cent and 36.8 per cent respectively during the 2011 census. The data shows a declining rural population and that more and more people are migrating to urban areas, leaving their areas neglected and in development backwaters.
For rural development, rural infrastructure is a must. Unfortunately, most of the country’s rural areas are devoid of such infrastructure. Rural infrastructure includes transport, healthcare, education, factories and the like. Most of the rural folks are engaged in subsistence farming or other marginal activities. So they are forced to eke out a living from hand to mouth. Even if there is surplus produce, they cannot take advantage of it for lack of markets or transport facilities. It is often in the news that various rural products – especially vegetables and fruit – rot away because they cannot be taken to the markets for lack of transport facilities. The government also seems to prioritise Indian products over indigenous ones. Vegetables and fruit can reach Kathmandu from India but they cannot from outside the Valley.
The government, and especially the people’s representatives concerned, should accentuate the development of rural infrastructure. In this regard, agriculture should be given a top priority. Development of agriculture would increase the income-generating capacity of rural folks, thus alleviating poverty. It would also contribute to ensuring the availability of food all year round, thus contributing to food security. Besides, it would help in export promotion and import substitution.
Healthcare is a chronic problem in rural areas. In hilly and other areas, even basic medicines are not available, much less health posts. In the district headquarters, there may be health posts or small hospitals but they are not adequate. The compulsion to airlift pregnant women to Kathmandu or other cities speaks volumes about the state of healthcare in rural areas. Likewise, even serious accident victims are often referred to Kathmandu or other cities. Needless to mention, even a minute is important for such victims. The government should formulate a policy of establishing at least one well-equipped hospital in each district.
Schools or colleges are few and far between in rural areas. After school life, many students migrate to Kathmandu or other cities to pursue higher studies. Even well-to-do families in rural areas send their wards to Kathmandu or other cities for school-level education. It may be mentioned that in hilly areas, settlements are widely scattered. Even if schools are opened, it is not possible for all the families to send their children to school. The children will have to walk a long distance. In such a case, residential education can be adopted. Under this model of education, children learn by staying at hostels. It would be less expensive for the families than sending their children to the district headquarters or cities.
Many rural areas lack a reliable network of roads. It is high time such a road network was developed in rural areas. The development of a dependable road network would lead to development of other sectors. Where constructing roads is not feasible as in difficult terrain, alternative modes of transport can be developed. Cable cars, podways or elevated railways are such alternatives. Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural economy. But the agriculture sector has remained stagnant. The government should embark upon programmes designed to develop agriculture and generate income for the people from marginalised communities. Poverty is chronic in rural areas. Such programmes would help alleviate poverty to a great extent. On the other hand, migration to cities or foreign countries can also be reduced.
Development of rural infrastructure is a must for rural transformation, which will go a long way in transforming a subsistence-based rural economy into a sustainable and productive economy with emphasis on markets. It would help yield equitable benefits for poor and marginalised people. In fact, rural infrastructure is needed where poverty is high and services from the state are limited. Development projects should, therefore, focus on poor and marginalised communities with a participatory approach. Weak infrastructure is the main factor behind poverty and inequality. In today’s world, rural folks are suffering a double whammy. On the one hand, they are poor and are finding it heavy going to manage two square meals a day, while on the other they are suffering the brunt of climate change and ecocide. They also have to bear the burden of natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and floods.
So the government should take the initiative in developing rural infrastructure. The adverse outcome of lack of rural infrastructure are already there. Rural folks prefer to live in cities where there are ample facilities. That is why migration from rural areas has been taking place at a rapid pace. And rural people are abandoning even their birthplaces. The development model adopted by the government is city-centric, resulting in lopsided development. Such a model should be abandoned and a balanced development model should be adopted. After all, the rural economy is at the heart of the national economy.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)