Resolving food crisis Devolution before irrigation

Finance Ministry and National Planning Commission act as rubber stamps for donor proposals.

Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat recently made donors the scapegoat for Nepal’s worsening food problem by blaming their failure to invest in irrigation projects, “Food crisis can be averted” (THT, July 29). However, since there is much more to solving food crisis than just irrigation, the minister’s prescription was simplistic at best. In the first place, Nepal has received much aid for high value irrigation projects over the last several decades, but their working has been anything but optimal mainly due to mismanagement at the hands of corrupt politicians, colluding officials, contractors and indifferent donors. In contrast, the farmer-managed traditional and more recent irrigation systems deliver better due to their participatory and transparent management. It is worth noting that the concept of user groups itself, now widely used for local development, has been adapted from the centuries-old irrigation system, the Jachauri kulo of Tripurasundari Village Development Committee in Jumla district reported in 1971.

Since there are plenty of resources doled out in the name of local development including irrigation systems, the critical need is for better governance based on devolution of authority to the users, a condition tragically compromised by the donor-aided Local Self-Governance Act.

Acute paucity of arable land is another problem: only 18 per cent of the total land area of the country is available for cultivation due to mountainous terrain. The situation has been further aggravated by unabated population growth despite donor-driven “family planning” efforts. While the 1952-54 population of 8 million has trebled, the 1954 land availability (0.6 ha per capita) had shrunk to 0.15 ha in 1998.

Moreover, land is highly unevenly distributed, putting a large section of people to particular disadvantage in terms of food security. In 1990 the top 5 per cent of people controlled some 40 per cent of agricultural land while the bottom 60 per cent made do with 20 per cent. While the Dalits are either landless or marginal landholders, most Janajati groups too do not fare well in this respect, the two groups together accounting for more than half the country’s population. While our agricultural productivity could be considerably raised (e.g. corn 2.5 mt/ha in Nepal as against 7 mt/ha in Germany), more needs to be done to ensure the food security of the country’s poor majority.

During the last decade or so, there has been an explosion of sorts in the number of NGO-promoted or spontaneous local self-help groups in the communities that promote income generating activities based on saving and credit which have made significant difference in the lives of their poor members. Under these initiatives, the land-poor engage in a mix of agricultural and non-agricultural pursuits: livestock raising, trading, home industries, intensive farming, vegetable cultivation including community infrastructure like forests and irrigation. They bring people more earning and thus, promote food security. These experiences show that alleviation of poverty including food shortage can be addressed effectively only through customised solutions at the micro level.

The farmer-managed Small Farmer Cooperatives (SFCL) — an innovation made with GTZ support in early 1990s to replace the deteriorating small farmer groups under the Small Farmer Development Project (SFDP) of the 1970s and 1980s — constitute an extraordinary example on this front. A German-Nepali External Review in 2003 concluded that the co-ops were “probably one of the most successful, if not the most successful, poverty alleviation programme in the country” that had “dramatically changed the fortunes of many small farmers for the better.”

It recommended increasing their number to “400 SFCLs with 400,000 households in four years”. But the new official at GTZ did not follow this recommendation. Lately, even as the number of co-ops has stagnated at 228; the German official has since been elevated as a mission chief in a different country, thus adding insult to the injury caused to Nepal’s small farmers.

While donor callousness and lack of accountability have long been common knowledge in Nepal, more worrisome is the fact that our responsible agencies, the Finance Ministry and the National Planning Commission in particular, act as rubber stamps to legitimise diverse donor proposals. They have consistently failed to distill successful development experiences of our own for countrywide implementation.

Even as the SFCLs remain stifled, a heavily funded ($100 million) Poverty Alleviation Fund has been promoting so-called Community Organisations, which, devoid of necessary technical and organisational support, rate worse than the small farmer groups of the SFDP days. Thus, if Minister Mahat is seriously concerned about food security in the country, he has to do much more than just ask for irrigation money with the donors.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist