Nepal: No let-up for the rural poor

ACCHAM, 15 May 2007 (IRIN) - Basanti Sunar and her family have spent most of their lives migrating to work in India as labourers. Recently, however, they decided to stay in their remote Mastamandu village of Accham district in western Nepal, hoping that the end of the decade-long conflict between the state and Maoist rebels would bring development to her village.

But now they regret that.

"We thought the peace would relieve us of our poor situation, but we have become more impoverished," said 25-year old Sunar, who now works at a stone quarry for a daily wage of US$1.

"This new government has failed us as well. There is no hope left for poor families like us," said Sunar as she ground the stones while breastfeeding her 18-month old son and carrying her two-year old daughter on her back.

According to the government's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Nepal is one of the least developed countries with a per capita GDP of $311.

Nepal's poverty is marked by unequal distribution of land, huge gaps between urban rich and rural poor, poor education, weak health systems, poor infrastructure, high levels of unemployment, and severe malnutrition in many parts of the country, specialists say.

The Nepal Living Standards Survey of the World Bank and the CBS have concluded that 31 percent of the country's population live below the national poverty line.

Extreme poverty

In Accham's remote villages, peace has made no difference to poor villagers who continue to suffer extreme poverty with no regular source of income, unemployment, low food production and, above all, lack of support from the government.

According to aid workers, neglect of rural communities is rising.

"The government and national political parties are too focused on politics and fighting for power, while people continue to suffer from extreme poverty," said development worker Rupa Auji from Gangotri Rural Development Forum (GRDF), a local NGO helping local communities to generate income.

Only a handful of NGOs are working in remote areas but they are also under-funded and cannot reach many poverty-stricken families.

No food, education

"I can't even afford to feed my children. You can see how poor we are if my children can't even go to school," said 35-year old Shanti Bhul, who sold her only remaining property, a small plot of farmland, and now has to work at the local stone quarry despite poor health. Her underage children also have to help boost her family income.

"There is no freedom from poverty no matter who runs this country," said another poverty-stricken villager, Lalit Tamata, whose family became further impoverished when they returned to their country with the same hopes as many other migrant workers. Tamata said a lot of families had lost their land to the former Maoist rebels who are refusing to return it. "Our hope is that this government show some concern for its impoverished citizens," he said.

Slowdown in humanitarian work

Aid agencies are concerned that development is still not getting adequate attention from politicians. The country's political scene is dominated by eight national parties, including the Maoists.

"There has been a slowdown in humanitarian work. The decision-making process is very slow and the administration too political," Joerg Frieden, country representative of the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), told IRIN.

"There is a really important need to establish an effective government administration so that things can really be done in the next two years of political transition," Frieden added.